Tuesday, September 29, 2009


Like most everyone else, we took ourselves off to see STC's A Streetcar Named Desire. If you missed it, there is still the galah final night now on sale, wallets willing.

We went, in truth, to see Cate and I wonder how many others were there just to see Cate. Our row was heavy with UBS (presenting sponsor) people - sporting outsized UBS labels, sitting in the middle, last in and clambering over the rest of us without acknowledgement. The man next to me looked at his watch 4 times during the first half.

Walking along Hickson Road afterwards, I looked at K: "So?'. "Tennesse Willaims is a genius" he said. That about sums it up. The critics mostly gushed and the bloggers mostly called the director to account. Epistemysics called it I think. Whatever else you could find to say, it was fascinating theatre. My lingering feeling is one of apprehension - it will, I fear, be up for some sharp criticism when it tours to Washington and Brooklyn. Despite so many problems - the set (mainly for what it wasn't), the costume design (Tess what were you thinking), the endless arkwardness of it all, the dreadful accents, the monotony of the pacing, still there was Cate. She has that ability to hypnotise, fabulous or otherwise. There was little Williams ("to express my world and my experience of it") except for the dialogue, which thankfully carried the night. I am now reading Tennessee Williams Memoirs.

Last Friday we made it to the Sydney Symphony Orchestra's 'Romantic Liasons', renamed from the original Nom de Nuit 'Labour of Love'. Why comes to mind - have these names at all, let alone change them. Thomas Zehetmair was making his first appearance conducting the orchestra with his wife Ruth Killius on viola for the Bartok Viola Concerto (Op. Post.).

They opened with Schubert's Overture to 'Alfonso und Estrella'. Not much to say there, not having heard it before (although under rehearsed did come into the interval conversation), except the opening brass immediately said 'listen to me, I'm different'. Ah yes, the sound was quite different. We sit front circle and the sound was more immediate, sharper, better defined, maybe louder. It didn't take long to notice the acoustician had been at work. The acoustic doughnuts sat higher, I think, and were no longer doughnuts but now filled in with clear perspex. And the rear walls of the side boxes were draped in black felt. Clearer, cleaner, and perhaps colder, and colder is not something this hall needs, but on balance quite an improvement, if more testing of orchestral balance and dynamics. C and G sit front stalls where the sound is almost entirely direct and they noticed little difference.

The Bartok, another first timer, was, as C rightly called it, a blinder. Ruth Killius was wonderful, to watch and to hear. The viola sound was right there and this is a stunning work from the dying Bartok. The Adagio religioso, the second movement (the 3 movements played in continuum), was most memorable, with haunting drifts of consciousness from deep thoughtful reverie touching some otherworldly place to distracting incessant superficialties of the lesser kind. The Allegro vivace was vivace indeed, spiced with paprika and dance. Seek this out if Bartok is your thing, for the unfinished work of a dying man.

Brahm's 3 was less successful. I was struck by how hard everyone looked to be working, not happy hard but hard hard. The new acoustics may not have helped the feeling that the sections were not hearing each other and dynamic balance suffered. It seemed awkward and lifeless especially after the Bartok. Labour might have been the right name after all.


September always ends up too busy, a vacuous claim I admit. Something, perhaps mere indolence, nags at me that the busy I'd really like to embrace is busy at not being busy and the constancy of this thought has been unsettling me for some time. My defense lately is that Plato said the mind should be occupied for no more than 4 hours a day with work, and I'm not sure he even said that, but nonetheless it does add weight to my argument that it is not mere self indulgence but self betterment I want - make that need.

R has cancer (cancer cancer) and he is recovering in hospital after chemotherapy and radiotherapy. Perhaps it is now R had cancer, but that will take months if not years to find out. And S has cancer (cancer cancer) and she, after being declared unsuitable for more surgery and even for more radiotherapy, has just been referred to a (relatively) new-in-town oncologist. He wants the secondary diagnosis reviewed and another biopsy taken. She has hope after having been told, literally, to go home and put her affairs in order. She is seeing a buddhist once-was-monk for group meditation and private counsel.

Mortality is no longer a distant inevitability but an immediate challenge. While it is quality of remaining life, retirement, work stress, personal stress, immune systems and all things allopathic, and homeopathic, that are overt, it is death that one takes to bed at night and wakes to. K says no one dies because no one is alive. Metaphysically he is right of course, but wrong too. Call it what you like, but death is what it is to R and S.

What is remarkable about my friends is the comfort, and I say that advisedly, that a sense of immediacy brings them. They are no longer too busy.

Monday, September 14, 2009

ON BRITTEN, notes from a symposium

Sparkling..."to shine or glisten with little gleams of light".

Farm Cove was sparkling. It was early afternoon in the Royal Botanic Gardens and the Spring had been lifted to some zenith by the out of season warm air from the north west. It was as close to a perfect day as you could ask for, although (as when I had once proposed such a thought to my dearest of Aunts who understood clearly there was no such thing as perfection, at least in this here and now and countered after a thoughtful pause that 'it had come a little unexpectedly') it was a little unexpected, and more.

We sat under the Wisteria and drank water. It was a very good start to a very good afternoon.

The notice about A Benjamin Britten Symposium (Sunday 13 September) had come from Opera Australia - an opportunity to explore the works of Benjamin Britten with the focus on OA's new production of Peter Grimes and featuring the Conservatorium's opera students presenting excerpts from Albert Herring, their major presentation for the year.

The Music Workshop was virtually full and after a brief welcome from Imre Polle (Chair in Conducting) and likewise by Adrian Collette AM (OA Chief Executive), Associate Professor Michael Halliwell, (Vocal/Opera Unit at the Sydney Conservatorium), who seemed to be the driving force behind all this, took the chair.

The first section was a general look at Britten and chaired by Michael Halliwell with the panel made up of:

Stuart Skelton
(Peter Grimes)
Neil Armfield (Director of the new Peter Grimes)
Mark Wigglesworth (conducting the new Grimes, replacing the late Richard Hickox)
Stephen Mould (Snr lecturer at the Con and conductor of the Con's Albert Herring)
Tom Healy (directing Albert Herring)

and these notes are to the best of my memory, the content not mine, and hopefully not too distorted or lost in translation.

1. Britten as the premier post war (opera) composer?

Menotti could arguably be considered the only serious rival. MH noted that in a 3 year period there had been 72 performances of Britten operas in the world.

NA expanded on the extent of Britten's work pointing out he has been working with Houston Grand Opera on 4 Britten operas (Turn of The Screw, Billy Budd, MSND, and now [the same as OA] Peter Grimes - for 2010). He felt the clue lay in Britten writing works of great theatricality with an incredible sense of drama and a superb creation of character through music, emphasising that with Britten, there is nothing unnecessary.

MW concurred, saying Britten had the courage to be simple and, without the interludes, Peter Grimes would in fact take about the same time as it would if it were a straight play.

MH commented that despite being considered rather old fashioned by the 70s and 80s, now Britten was virtually the sole survivor.

2. Peter Pears voice as a benchmark, considering Britten wrote with/for him?

SS said his experience was with 2 roles - Turn of the Screw, some time ago, and Peter Grimes, currently in his repertoire.

He felt people mainly looked back to Vickers, who cast a long shadow indeed. The Pears voice he said was quite idiosyncratic, rather English, very flexible and sitting high, but with a limited tonal palette. Vickers, on the other hand, was a big man, a visceral and powerful man, with a voice to match. But, it was essentially erroneous to look to or compare anyone to anyone else. Any singer must sing with his own voice, never copy, there is no 'new so-and-so', ever, there is only one of anyone. His voice is closer to Vickers than Pears.

3. Are there (NA) special challenges in directing Britten?

MH, asking the question, commented that Britten wrote genuinely psychological works comparable to Chekhov.

Britten looks after his directors very well said NA. A director's job is NOT to get in the way of the music, to let the orchestra tell the story and expose the pyschology at work. It is important not to confuse the metaphors.

4. (to MW) Are Britten's own recordings definitive?

No was the reply. The essence of greatness is in the hugeness of the options. At any time, it is the collaboration of the singers, the conductor, and the director which delivers the 'take of the day'. Listening to Britten conduct is listening to Britten then, with the resource he had then. The greater the composition the more liberated the perfomers are.

SS expanded using the Bruno Walter interpretations of Mahler as an example. Listening to Walter, who was 'there', and then listening to Solti or Bernstein, is to hear the differences but not to hear any loss.

NA noted that when you listen to Britten, the composition itself suggests he was completely adaptable to the resources he was working with, for example the children's music in MSND is instinctive to what children can and will do.

5. Is Britten's future secured?

SS exclaimed - 100%. He noted that at the ENO premier in 1945, Grimes outsold Butterfly in its first week.

NA highlighted that Britten wanted his operas sung in the vernacular of the audience.

There followed a delightful medley from Albert Herring by the Con students, fresh, young, very alive to themselves and the work. Albert Herring is playing on September 19 | 22 | 24 | 26, and tickets are available, the link is above.

The second session after afternoon tea was specific to Peter Grimes, chaired by Adrian Collette, the panel now reduced to Skelton, Wigglesworth and Armfield.

Pondering Peter Grimes
(l to r) Stuart Skelton, Mark Wigglesworth, Neil Armfield, Adrian Collette AM

1. The Music

MW talked about the interludes, particularly I and IV (the Passacaglia) noting they are all musical psychological statements.

Interlude I (Dawn on the Beach) starts with a lonely bird circling, a metaphor for anyone alone, with the waves as time, timelessness, that nothing ever changes, and then the appearance of clouds of portent. The Passacaglia, a fixed baseline with a set of free ideas on top, highlights that nothing ever changes despite superficialities.

NA talked of his (Homebush) highschool music class when the teacher played the first interlude and 35 boys were stunned into silence. His own thoughts of 'oh, it is about the sea' were slighted when one of the youngest in the class said 'it feels like you are looking over Hiroshima'. NA noted that Peter Grimes was written at the end of WW2, and in it Britten (a conscientious objector) explores the mystery of pain, anger and rage. In Crabbe's poem The Borough, Grimes was a less ambiguous character, older, a parent, but still possessed of anger. Dr. Crabbe is actually written into Britten's Grimes, a silent observer, the father of the work, watching his child, watching his child go wrong. Peter Carroll is playing Crabbe!

SS explains that right from the beginning, we, and Peter, know what is going to happen. It is as if he almost asks (of Crabbe), can we end it differently this time, just once (wanderer getting teary already).

The discussion continues on anger and fear, the great storm, erosion of safety and Peter like a prophet: "Now the great Bear and Pleiades...Who can decpiher...Who can.."

2. Preparing the role

AC asks SS about how he prepares a role. SS talks about a role that is anything but a stand and sing, a technically difficult role, from pianos to great gutteral howls. He first plays the score, all of it, he must know what everyone is thinking, and after learning the role and making his plans, he goes to rehearsal and leaves his plans at the door. He sings it like it is the last time he will do it, going to the edge, to the boundary, a boundary which will be different each night. (buy more tickets).

When asked how hard it is to start again after just having sung it to great acclaim, SS agrees you do tend to think why are we changing this, but soon the new journey begins, to tell the story the best way that this new team can.

3. The production

NA spoke about his team: Ralph Myers set design - his first opera but a long history with NA; Damien Cooper lighting - Exit the King, MSND in Houston; Tess Scofield costumes - a great feeling for texture and character.

Opera is a dream he said. He talked of evolving out of Belvoir, without the facility of wings or flies, how he looks for a single metaphor for the whole work, one open and strong and beautiful enough to let the music be, not underline it. The place of story telling can be anywhere. The imagination leaves the space. Seek transformation. There will be no plastic fish here - this was their pact. The directors job is to reveal the music to the people so we listen with our eyes and our ears. He told us some details of the set but perhaps that should stay in the room. (buy more tickets).

There was unanimous excitement about the reheasal process and the loss for the audience that it doesn't share in it.

4. Widening the discussion

MW said he conducts this work as it is written, without artifice. He worked with Hickox 14 years ago on Grimes.

SS notes Grimes an elemental character, literally and figuratively, and with NA they explore the complexity of the man, bringing in Ellen and her complicity is his downfall, the opportunities Grimes has to change course, how close he comes but never gets there, his choices. This was explored further from the floor, discussing their relationship, her involvement in the getting of a new apprentice, her failure to understand his complexity, the fear of love, the propulsion to self-destruction.

The role of the chorus was raised, both its own character and its role as a Greek chorus. And the last and inevitable question was on the issue of Grimes sexuality. Both SS and NA responded strongly that there is nothing to even hint that Grimes is anything except an outsider, an outsider for lots of reasons, but sexuality is not one of them. NA noted Grimes was initally more sexually ambiguous but Britten worked hard to pull back from that position and SS felt that the sexual inferences placed on the character are hindsight coloured by the relationship of Britten and Pears.

SS sang. (buy more tickets).

The gardens looked quite different as we retraced our steps. The sun was lower, the light still played off the bay but the glint off the water, something Sydneysiders know well, had softened. There was a greyness replacing the silver. Birds still winged above, people were clumped in pairs, groups, families, and some were alone. Young men with bare chests and darker skin kicked a soccer ball. It was not too big a stretch to see people by the sea, people with secrets, superficially at their business of leisure and pleasure, and work, yet none who weren't possessed of universal fears.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

OA 2010

Next Season at Opera Australia, that's in Sydney, Sydney and Melbourne, despite the national title, has been hailed as "Opera's flagship setting sail on a bold new course". That may be the case, and I hope it is, but I'm not convinced the evidence is in next year's programming per se. It is the structural changes at the top of the organisation to which it refers: Switkowski is in, Danziger is out, Tony Legge (ex Director of Opera at the Royal Academy of Music and ex Head of Music at English National Opera) is in, and Lyndon Terracini is in.

And no Richard Hickox. The venom that preceded and even followed his death stills makes me unsettled. The debate may have been worthwhile but the ill will it uncovered was as unexpected as it was shocking I think. In the shake up which followed, the Company went to great lengths to be up front about its restructuring and suggested 3 models for Artistic/Musical administration. As Bryce Hallett points out, model 1 (Full-time resident Artistic Director and part-time visiting conductor of elevated status) looks like the outcome.

I thought it telling that there is no sign next year of the British conductors who took over Hickox's workload (Sir Richard Armstrong and Mark Wigglesworth). Mark Wigglesworth will be here conducting (Shostakovich, Rachmaninoff, Rossini) with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra in 2010. I don't know what conductors talk about at the conductors club, but you wonder what they say about the hazards of working in the colonies.

I suspect we the audience, the Company, the country, have a lot for which to thank Tony Legge. (He gets to conduct a few performances of Figaro in Melbourne late in the Season.) For bold new course or not, the ship, trapped in its beautiful but inadequate sails, is at least sailing on.

The Season has been well detailed by she who well details.

It looks at first glance like very safe programming with lots of standard rep and long long runs of them. There are six new productions (is A Little Night Music a new production?) - that's nearly half the season. Sail on indeed. And a world premiere with (started under Simone Young) Bliss.

What catches my eye:

1. The debut of Andrew Litton conducting Der Rosenkavalier with Cheryl Barker. If only it was at the Capitol (which I kept thinking all through the recent Fidelio).

2. The debut of the very accomplished Frederic Chaslin with Manon.

3. The return on Luhrmann's A Midsummer's Night Dream. I'll be interested to see how it holds up. It always looked cramped too.

4. Girl of the Golden West with no Minnie yet but Wegner and Dennis O'Neill. Whatever is happening with Lisa Gasteen, it is a tragedy.

5. The new Sonnambula with Emma Matthews and Bonynge.

6. And Cheryl's new Tosca.

7. And of course Bliss.

But that said, I've put my brochure aside rather than rush to the phone, like I did last year with the SSO Season for 2009, but did exactly the opposite (rushed to the phone) this year.

In an attempt to show how you fund six new productions, here's the numbers game, all pretty self-evident:

Tosca ...........................31 .....................Sydney 21 Melbourne 10
Figaro ..........................29 .....................Sydney 22 Melbourne 9
Pirates of Penzance .......25 ......................Sydney (some twice a day)
Traviata .......................19 ......................Sydney
Sonnambula .................16 ......................Sydney 9 Melbourne 7
MSND ..........................16 ......................Sydney 10 Melbourne 6
Rigoletto ......................15 ......................Sydney
Little Night Music .........11 ......................Sydney
Bliss ..............................10 ....................Sydney 6 Melbourne 4
Manon ...........................8 .....................Sydney
Der R .............................8 .....................Sydney
Girl Golden West .............8 .....................Sydney
Fledermaus ....................7 ......................Melbourne

Sydney 162
Melbourne 43

Wednesday, September 2, 2009


Hands up who has ever seen a Whipbird. I thought so.

The Australian Eastern whipbird (Psophodes olivaceous) [note again the reference to colour] is a member of an ancient group of bird species found nowhere else. Its call is as distinctly Australian and as well recognised as perhaps the Kookaburra, but unlike the Kooka, is rarely seen - very often heard, hardly ever seen. He is not only shy, but as you will see, extremely well camouflaged, mostly sedentary, and spends most of its hyperactive life rooting through the leaf litter with strong legs and flinging beak on the search for insects.

The distinctive loud whistle which ends in a sharp crescendo whip crack everyone knows. The higher pitched sweeter tyooooo-tyoooo which usually, but not always, follows is the female's reply. There is some thinking that the reverse may be the case, it is the female cracking the whip and the poor put-upon male answering 'yes dear, quite so', or even that the male may answer himself (I know how he feels).

What catches your eye when you are lucky enough to see one, as I did today, is the loveliness of the olive on grey, the white as white cheeks that bleed down either side of the neck onto the chest, sharp little brown eyes, a super-alertness, and a more than cocky attitude. This bird means business. To top it all off, there is just that: a top knot.

I'm not sure what triggered the head feathers up look, perhaps it was sensing my presence even though I was taking the shots from inside the house, but when they went up, he became almost all but a cartoon.