Sunday, November 22, 2009


Lisa Gasteen at home with Ziggy (yes, Ziggy); picture: Lyndon Mechielsen via the Australian

You may have missed it tucked away on page something-or-other in the Australian. It is the first time I've heard anything recent about Lisa Gasteen's career and it is hinting at, if not pointing to, the end of it. Pretty worrying, pretty sad, but she's being pretty sensible about it, as well you'd imagine if she's as grounded as her reputation has it.

She is 52, and admits; ""I have not practised for a long time now.."

"There is a plus side to it," she says. "I am having a very ordinary life and there is a lot to be said for that. I see my husband every day and I see my children every day, and I have never had that.

"Now that the dust has settled, it is not all bad."

There's a lot to be said but my heart really is a bit heavy. Later.


An early 7.30 appointment took me into Hunter Street near Pitt first thing last Thursday. I rarely go to town in the day, and then usually it is a rushed visit, but this was a pleasant, unhurried time where I felt casually disconnected from the arriving workers. I felt like a tourist. The early morning light of what was to be a hot day was even more Sydney flattering, if that's possible. The streets were spotless; it took some restraint to not pick up a solitary ugly cigarette butt alone on the footpath.

With business finished quickly, I headed up to the hill to Macquarie Street, planning to go through the Gardens across to the pool. It was heart-stoppingly beautiful, everything falling into place, the time, the light, the warmth, the familiarity, the pride. I love the topography, the way everything runs to the harbour, the water, the light, your heart.

From the high point entry to the gardens, my favorite gate, the Morshead Fountain Gate, the cove is in front of you, dropping away before rising again to the ridge of Mrs Macquarie's Road. I just stopped and looked and it didn't matter how long, I could have looked longer. I really felt like a tourist. And I did have a little camera in my dilly bag and tourist does as tourist whatever.

Moreshead Fountain

I'm not sure when I last saw it working but with the morning light behind beading the slightly arching drops it stopped me in my tracks. Lieutenant-General Sir Leslie Morshead, 'Ming the Merciless', was knighted for his defence of Tobruk in World War II and the fountain was erected in 1966 in his memory and the men who served with him.

There weren't many people around, only one tourist tourist under those bat trees, head bent back dangerously, the bats at their morning toilet. What did especially catch my eye, I must have seen it before but can't recall, was the handsome old(ish - they can live to 1500 years; maybe it is just a baby or middle-aged) Boab Tree (Adansonia gregorii).

If Utzon had seen only a cockatoo in flight there would have been inspiration enough.

There was a man under a broad tree, his head wrapped up somehow, with a large bag and an umbrella of sorts. He looked like a man who knew where he wanted to be. He looked Turkish.

"That's a good spot"
"Yes" he beamed.
"It's going to be hot. Will you stay long?"
'Till 2 o'clock"
"And then?" I presumed.
"I'm going home to do some things", smiling eyes and mouth.

K was waiting at the pool. Luckily, he knows I like to talk to water, and trees, and strangers.

Monday, November 16, 2009


You may have noticed (as you were meant to) that great Australian symbol, the Grass Tree, in the scorching heat outside the Adelaide Festival Theatre. They used to be called Bl-ck B-ys.

Well, you don't necessarily have to rush to Adelaide, the desert, the Stirling ranges, or your local national park. While these are rightly famous (anyone who can live for 600 years, that's two Emilys for starters, and flower best after a nasty bushfire deserves all the fame it gets), another member of the Xanthorrhoeaceae (greek: yellow-flow) family is the less flashy and shorter lived member Lomandra longifolia, skirting a freeway near you.

Don't undestimate them. I love them especially as they grow wild here, and use them in mass plantings for driveways, in clumps and near windows, bedroom windows where the evening air is heavy and honeyed from the creamy early summer flowers clustered on sharp spiky stems in a cruel combination of unapproachable sweetness.

Lomandra longifolia

But also growing wild here, impossibly wild in a world of their own, beyond intervention and cultivation, is the real thing. They are all around, close by and scattered through the bush, the whorl of blue-green leaves deceptively plain most of the time until one spring, one in goodness knows how many years, a flower spike appears.

Week by week it grows, a phallus emerging from a leaf skirt, and when fully thrust high above the understorey, held on a rigid scape, the flowers emerge, thousands of them, pearly white, open and fertile.

2 months later

In an ascending spectacle, each tiny flower appears till the whole spike is a starry array of invitation.

Nature obliges of course, who could resist.

After fruiting, the pods burst releasing several small black seeds to the earth and the cycle continues.

We are fools to time.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009


There was great excitement here today. You may not notice at first without that slightly scary rustle that stops you in your tracks and turns your head.

Take a closer look...

Goanna. This tree was quite close to the house and happily he was still there after the camera dash. The last time I only managed a fast moving tail tip. Not entirely unexpectedly, it was the about the same time of year.

They are arresting in more ways than one and probably the most astounding thing is they just look so ancient, so prehistoric, so big, so incredibly handsome and dare I say, so Australian.

I moved in closer which sent him (or maybe her, not for checking) clambering up the tree, the claws as effective as they looked dangerous.

(Follow that tail down, all the way. It is about twice a long as the rest of it.)

Goannas are reptiles, giant lizards, monitor (as in warning) lizards, arriving in Australia somewhere around the middle of the Miocene period, about 13 million years ago. They are carniverous (live or carrion) predators but also prized by aborigines as food and medicine.

Here are some (segmented) close ups of this one, a Lace monitor, (Varanus varius). It's worth noticing the loose saggy skin of the neck which is puffed up when needed in defence, the beautiful markings, those claws, and the length of that widely striped tail - follow it down.

For all the drama, not everyone was quite so fixated. Sometimes, it is just the little things that matter, and this, this little bit of mutual hypnosis, was what was going on at my feet:

Monday, November 9, 2009


Today, November 9, is the 167th anniversary of the premier of Wagner's "Der Fliegende Hollander" (1842) and the curtain came down 2 days ago on the State Opera of South Australia's new production, and a quite nice one too. The curtain that is.

Just kidding. Any Wagner is good Wagner here (and this was more than just any Wagner) where we are starved of him, and scrimp and save and trawl the world in endless search, like Flying Dutchpeople, trapped in attachment seeking redemption. Why, at lunch before the opening, L was heard to declaim she hadn't heard a Ring Cycle since August. Forks dropped. And this the very continent where the last sighting of the cursed ship was, in 1880, by our (well, some of our) monarch's grandfather, the then Prince George of Wales, and sailing between Melbourne and Sydney no less.

"At 4 a.m. the Flying Dutchman crossed our bows. A strange red light as of a phantom ship all aglow, in the midst of which light the masts, spars, and sails of a brig 200 yards distant stood out in strong relief as she came up on the port bow, where also the officer of the watch from the bridge clearly saw her, as did the quarterdeck midshipman, who was sent forward at once to the forecastle; but on arriving there was no vestige nor any sign whatever of any material ship was to be seen either near or right away to the horizon, the night being clear and the sea calm. Thirteen persons altogether saw her...At 10.45 a.m. the ordinary seaman who had this morning reported the Flying Dutchman fell from the foretopmast crosstrees on to the topgallant forecastle and was smashed to atoms."

Continuing a now established tradition of staging excellent Wagner, the South Australians had prepared a Flying Dutchman (production photos inside the link) for lean times, relying on minimalist staging and special lighting effects, sourcing costumes from Opera Australia, but holding onto the highest musical standards with their own wonderful orchestra and chorus, to be led by Geoffrey Braithwaite, supporting a fine line up of Wagnerians with local Chris Drummond directing his first opera.

Conductor: Nicholas Braithwaite
Director: Chris Drummond
Designs (Set, Lighting): Geoff Cobham
Chorusmaster: Timothy Sexton
Dutchman: John Wegner
Senta: Margaret Medlyn
Erik: Stuart Skelton
Daland: Daniel Sumegi
Mary: Katharine Tier
Steersman: Angus Wood

I had forgotten what a joy the Adelaide Festival Theatre is, with comfortable seating, spacious legroom, fantastic sightlines, big take-all-the-musicians-the-master-wanted pit, and a succesful, if slightly strange, acoustic enhanced by the Lares acoustic technology which doesn't alter the sound leaving the performance space but rather augments the reverb with microphones and speakers around the auditorium. The sound is clear yet full and warm, perhaps questionably louder than one would expect although directionality seemed less distinct , and also this time, as we were slightly off centre, K (he of the electronic ears) wondered if he could actually detect an artificiality. But, no doubt, the shrieks of the opening storm were a welcome reminder that we were in a good theatre with a good orchestra.

The set was a simple moderate incline with virtually no furniture, except a steel skeletal bow for Daland's ship, a rather sloppy ropey rigging affair for the Dutchman's boat, and a wooden stool for the odd bottom and for Senta to stand on once for a bit of a sing and nearly fall off. See what happens when girls can't say no. Light and dark, night and day, pain and release, entrapment and redemption, were all up to the lighting. Well they weren't really, they were up to the music, and just as well, because for all its special effects, lasers, lights, stars, shadows and twirly bits (the women wove twirly bits) it seemed to me all a bit of a muddle, and I suspect that was because the music was doing its job and the lighting wasn't really that well married to it. One was inspired, one was not. Dutchman is seen as Wagner's first work where he let the inspiration come through, where his consciousness is submissive to intuition, where, to use Schopenhauer's terminology (and he was yet to be exposed the Schopenhauer's philosophy) the phenomenal (material space and time) gave way to the noumenal (the true reality of timeless undifferentiated unity). Yes, rather hard to light, and especially rather hard to direct, as anyone who has tried doing just that with the increasingly philosophically complex Wagnerian output which commenced with Dutchman and ended with Parsifal. It's enough to make a director risk a Dutchman's curse.

I'm afraid I couldn't put my finger on a concept. It all seemed a matter on getting everyone on and off stage, move around a lot and mostly avoid getting too close to anyone else. I wondered when the Dutchman, just after his angry entry, breathed out onto his close held open palm if he was seeing how cold it was, or if he was breathing at all, or if maybe he had halitosis. I think they all had halitosis. The only time there was any real contact (save for our Erik, more later) was when Senta, after her penultimate declaration of 'fidelity for eternity' was run upon by the Wanderer and delivered a deep passionate and quite prolonged, fully frenched kiss. It was fairly carnal for what was to be the launch of some serious spiritual redemption, but nevermind.

It was, in the end, something which could easily be done in the Sydney Opera House Concert Hall. And I'd like to know why it isn't. Mr Collette was there and I hope he's having the same thoughts. Big orchestra, conductors who know (Simone come and have a drink with Lyndon, and Mrs Danvers has gone), ample simple stage, lights. singers, thank you very much, that's all we need.

The orchestra played well for Mr Braithwaite, who held it all together if not with anything revelatory, then with precision.

John Wegner always manages to outsing his size, and after a wobbly start (something he shared with Daniel Sumegi's Daland), this was no exception. Dark, angry, frustrated, determined, jilted, he did it all, German as good as, and received the first 'aria' applause I've ever heard in Wagner, as a few overexcited members couldn't keep their hands apart after a booming Day of Judgement Day of Doom.

Margaret Medlyn's Senta was more of a struggle, hampered by a very nervous start, one of those mouth-open-nothing-coming-out scary few moments, but she settled in, and apart from one worrying pitch derailing, she made it through the killer role. Her voice has neither the colour nor cut that a great redeeming Senta needs, a voice to break curses and court death and extinction for love.

Daland was in good hands with big Daniel Dumegi and Erik in the very capable hands of Peter Grimes. No, sorry, that's Stuart Skelton. Revisiting the theatre of his wonderful Siegmund, Stuart Skelton sang a beautiful warm yet passionate Erik, pouring out that voice we know so well and blow me down if Senta doesn't take the little man.

Rounding it off were the fine sweet voiced Steersman of Angus Wood and the very impressive Mary by Katherine Tier, known to those who know but not to me, with a choice rich textured mezzo of considerable size. The chorus excelled themselves as usual and we were treated to some athletic extras of the look-at-me-I'm-dancing kind.

John Wegner (Dutchman), Stuart Skelton (Erik), Angus Wood (Steersman)

Katherine Tier (Mary), Daniel Sumegi (Daland), Margaret Medlyn (Senta), John Wegner (Dutchman), Stuart Skelton (Erik), Angus Wood (Steersman)

Saturday, November 7, 2009


On the edge of the desert, so it seems, Adelaide always feels to me to be not quite sure why it is here. So do a lot of the residents, if alcohol is any indication.

But there's much under the surface, including a great orchestra and a developing tradition for good Wagner. And lots of waiting empty laneways

a fine bookshop

and a new Flying Dutchman a few hours from now.

And what is it about women and shoes. During lunch my friend A spotted, three tables away, a woman with green shoes. I must know where she bought them she declared and whisked herself over (probably Paris, she thought out loud) ..... Noosa! Who would have guessed.

Outside the restaurant, A and L compare... yes,



Here's three decades worth, starting with a recent find, a beautifully clean record from 1960 with a young Sutherland flooding the Royal Albert Hall with the kind of silver magic that, if you ever wondered what the fuss was about, will leave you in little doubt. I would love to know who's conducting.

1960 BBC Proms Royal Albert Hall (Sargent, see comment below)

The fabulous middle years. 1972 The Met, New York (Bonynge)

Back on home turf, 1981 Sydney Opera House Concert Hall (Cillario)

Another clip, the sound less clean but the perspective more real with some impression of how big the voice was, and the stage movements as unmistakeable as the voice. The Concert Hall, where she sang Lucia, Desdemona, Lucrezia Borgia, and Anna Glawari (all staged) as well as recitals, was the only venue in Sydney able to do her justice.