Wednesday, September 29, 2010


By Saturday (18 September) we were halfway through the Ring, in nights if not in hours, and needed a break from this

(view from our hotel window, centre photo and distance you can see some 'old Shanghai')
(clicking should enlarge the pics)

so we took a taxi (taxis are cheap) to Suzhou, about one and a half freeway-hours drive away, in the delta region of the Yangtze River, where it has earned the compelling nickname of the 'Venice of the East'. If we thought we'd be escaping the hustle and bustle, we were wrong. The traffic was heavy, though never standstill, the freeway was an ever lane-changing dash, and Suzhou was hot and crowded, with tourists, Chinese ones. Not many Caucasians to be seen at all.

Leaving Shanghai, here's some old grand housing at an intersection. The photo is taken at the end of a traffic light cycle; you rarely see streets looking empty like this. Note the shade umbrella for the policeman and the absence of signs. Sydney would manage at least four signs per post, and then some.

The freeways are beautifully planted, even inner city cross-overs are lined with boxes of flowering roses and other treats. A bit of old and new here, crossing this bridge, with a wide bicycle lane too.

This is the Expo mascot, gone organic.

Suzhou is worth a lot more than the few hours we could give it and get back to the hotel in time for the compulsory nap in the hot afternoon. (K was having some mild chest problems so the air-conditioner was off and the room was flung open onto the heat and humidity, and noise, and delirious drifts in and out of sleep with dreams of a Brünnhilde approaching with a wide open mouth glistening pink and moist...). So we settled on one of the UNECSO world heritage listed gardens, the Humble Administrator's Garden, and the other reason we'd come, the I. M. Pei Suzhou Museum. They are side by side, down a market stall street, alongside this canal. It was very hot and sensible Chinese had umbrellas.

"Dating from the 11th-19th century, the gardens [of Shuzou] reflect the profound metaphysical importance of natural beauty in Chinese culture in their meticulous design."

He's brought an umbrella.

The I. M Pei Shuzou Museum, completed in 2006 by the Chinese American architect Ieoh Ming Pei was a refuge from the heat and the crowds. Unlike the gardens, there were very few people there, and now the balance had shifted toward non-Chinese. It is small, with an exquisite collection, the display rooms wonderful dark thoughtful spaces reached by white connecting corridors of delicate natural lighting.

As beautiful as it was looking at the collection, like these screen watercolours,

inside-looking-out was equally seductive, and provided for.

Sunday, September 26, 2010


No sooner had we returned, replete, as has already been noted, with lietmotifs, from the meaning-of-it-all conference, than on the first night out we were up against it again.

On Friday, Mark Wigglesworth and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra gave a beautifully lucid reading of the Shostakovich 15, full of the heightened awareness of a life coming to its end (never mind the strange programme note question of how did he know he was going to die), a morbidly premorbid reflection on mortality against the ever ticking clock. There are moments of lighter reverie in the descent into apparent nothingness, but the most optimistic for me was hearing again the Walküre 'annunciation of death' motif, pregnant with warning but still mysteriously alluring, with an other-worldly warmth and hint of peace, and one of the more magic moments in the whole Ring. If I hear that I'll be off I reckon.

The Robert Carsen /Cologne Walküre in Shanghai, for all its strengths, and there were many, had sacrificed magic and mystery on the altar on concept, locking the story in time and place, and that I don't mind, but leaving no room for, or denying, the essence of, for want of a better expression, the miracle, the transcendent - and that I do mind. Take that extraordinary annunciation of death for example. It was left to Brunnhilde to make a flat-footed amble onto the stage, plonk a sliver framed photograph on the burnt out jeep where Sieglinde and Siegmund slept/dreamt, before taking up an admonitory position upstage, sword in hand. Hardly compelling stuff. Catherine Foster's Brunnhilde was secure, big in voice and body (one of those awkward situations where the more careless might blurt out an embarrassment along the lines of 'when are you due?'), a not particularly distinctive tone, but pleasant and warm and young womanly, no sharp edges here. She was hampered most by what can only be assumed to be little guidance about the stage. We are spoiled here by the likes of Neil Armfield and his productions where every movement has a purpose and if there is no meaning to it, it isn't done. I assume Carsen was a long way from being hands on with cast number whatever.

But, that's the enough of the bitching. And Catherine Foster was about, in a few nights, to pin us to our seats. And she could juggle apples (big bowls of apples in Fricka's House) and Hoyotoho at the same time. Walküre did have one absolutely stunning moment. Actually, a whole scene, and one rarely the highlight in this second night (of the four) of many inspired musical and dramatic highlights - Act 2 Scene 1, Fricka vs Wotan, in residence.

There had been something uncomfortable developing in Greer Grimsley's Wotan, his rather monochromatic baritone with a nasal sounding edge which tended to rob it of authority, inappropriately wooden and two-eyed in a military uniform which neither suited him nor the roots of his power and position (to date, wisdom and negotiated contracts), but the Israeli born Germany based mezzo Dalia Schaechter was about to set their new fortress Valhalla on fire. (Did I just say that?). Her Rhinegold Fricka had been suitably uncertain, worried, a marital balancing act of ambition against risk and loss, her palace still unclaimed. But by the time they had taken occupancy, she strode the enormous floors of her castle, a woman in possession of all she surveyed. It was a tremedous performance, her exacting words, etched with acid, cresendoing with increasing force of argument and personality, completely dominating the stage, and Wotan, and me. I was a mess by the time of "Do I have Wotan's oath on it?". (Subtitles were in Chinese and very old English.) This was more an order than a question and Grimsley's "Take my oath!" was spat out in revulsion and submission. It was right here that this Ring turned, with those three words.

While Astrid Weber and Lance Ryan were fine as the young twins (and Lance Ryan's cries of Walse Walse, downstage at the footlights, were of such endless breath and amplitude, as to be hair curling, for those so blessed), the 'best bits' of Walküre didn't reach great heights. The morality monologue, heros dead in the snow, father-daughter, the summoning of Loge, were all to leave me pretty underwhelmed, but nonetheless I was content, with some new insight, and a new peak. It was already all worthwhile.

(Dalia Schaechter, Fricka; Valkyries)

(Astrid Weber, Sieglinde; Dalia Schaechter, Fricka; Kurt Rydl, Hunding; Valkyries)

(Catherine Foster, Brunnhilde; Greer Grimsley, Wotan)

The white stage is snow. The audience, on appearances mostly Chinese, was wildly enthusiastic if less disciplined than the usual Wagner devotees, with huge ovations all round, and once actually interrupted the performance with applause. That's a first, and now I can't even remember exactly when/where it happened.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010


There's an old saying in some circles, or let's say rings, that if you learn one thing at a conference, then it has all been worthwhile. To which I would add - especially if you picked a conference somewhere you really want to go, and that excludes Toukley I'm afraid (yes, I've been to a conference in Toukley), but Shanghai is IN.

Now the thing with Wagner's Ring (and how many people persist in asking why) is that it is a really good conference, correction, really really good, as in as complete on it's subject matter as it gets, with the greatest music ever written to back it up, or drive it along, or give lectures in its own right, on the same subject every time, just delivered differently, with different perspectives, by different people, with different experiences, different cultural backgrounds, but always the same subject, abstract or concept, the one the master took a quarter of a century to commit to paper - the mystery of EXISTENCE.

And the thing about learning about existence is that it becomes addictive. The more you know, the less you know, and so on and so on. And it takes time, a lot of time, a lifetime of time, if not more. Each time something more is added to the tapestry till the Ring Experience is a collective, a melange, a tapestry, thought maybe complete till you see the next one. So there they are, Ring Addicts, hooked, always searching for the right Ring Cycle, the one that gets it right, when it all comes together, when all is revealed, when it is perfect, for them that is.

Three names go with this Ring we just saw - Cologne, Carsen and Shanghai, plus the obvious understood fourth, Wagner. Robert Carsen staged this Ring, designed by Patrick Kinmoth, for Cologne Opera, 2003, and after several revivals and trips from home (Venice) and many casts, it is now in Shanghai.

Performance details:

(with gallery)

(with Stig Andersen first run, Alfons Eberz second)

(with video link, well worth watching to get the feel of the production)

I'm seriously behind on work, so will build up on my notes bit by bit. To start, Carsen's Rhinegold planet is black, trashed, rubbished, ignored, abused, post climate change, or nuclear winter landscape, it doesn't matter, it is a Cormac McCarthy existence where we find the Rhinedaughters and Alberich. Two special moments here:

The Alberich of Oliver Zwarg, a wonderfully moving performance sung not so much with vitriol and hate as with anguish and desperateness, and the final curse, kneeling at Wotan's feet, the Ring now held above him beyond his reach, came as a crying out in despair, his only escape gone. I was there, I was Alberich, I understood him for the first time. You do what you think you have to do.

And the march to Valhalla. The stage all black, the gods dressed in black, livery in black delivering black candelabra as the rear wall rose to never ending blackness, emphasised even more by the whiteness of the blizzard into which the fools disappeared.


Arriving at night was a fantasy, swallowed by the giant terminal complex and disgorged into the brilliant city, across a literal rainbow bridge, the air heavy and textured in the lingering summer heat and humidity. Dense (but nothing like Toky0), sophisticated, priapic, impatient, persistent, confident, and aiming for 30% green space with visible success - an exploding modernism, the crucible of the past just recognisable.

The Shanghai Grand Theatre (Jean-Marie Charpentier 1998) sits in the Peoples Park, close by the Shanghai Art Museum.

It is impressively free standing, dominated by the concave-up roof complex, like a birdbath, for very big birds. Foyer spaces are spacious if short on bar facilities, the catering for the Ring (crammed into four days with a maximum of 30 minute intervals between Acts) organised by a nearby hotel. The main theatre of 1800 seats feels imtimate, with a good pit and a fabulously big stage, an enormous space with a lovely balance to the dimensions. We weren't ever exposed to the full height of the proscenium, so high was it. You could glimpse the vast wings, and the depth, used to great effect in the march into Valhalla, or rather, the nuclear winter blizzard, but more of that later, was mightily impressive. We need one in our little Valhalla down here. A decent stage I mean, not a nuclear winter.

I'll post on the Ring shortly, but in a serious quelle scandale moment, Our Man in Shanghai reports via woodbird that Stig Andersen, the Siegfried Siegfried, has been relieved of his duties for the second run. What can you say? - it is the killer role, so to speak. The Siegfried was by far the least successful of the tetralogy, dragged down by glacial tempi from Markus Stenz, (along with a leaden Walkure love duet), not helped by Siegfried looking like Mime's grandfather (only half his fault), some pretty lumpy stage directions with some attention to the text but little to the music, and sung at full belt with little subtlety. By the time we got to The Awakening, everyone, including Stig by the sound of the voice, was glad it was over. But he got through it, and while that's not necessarily always good enough, it was just that in this instance.

I had heard him sing both Siegmund and Siegfried in Gotterdammerung in Budapest two years ago, and he acquitted himself well enough. He does carry the title of 'Kammersanger' of the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen and I find it all unfortunate. He was booed, which was alarming to those not used to such boorish behaviour, such that I wondered out loud if this was some strange Chinese accolade. Apparently not.

I was about to say that Shanghai was totally fantastic although we didn't fly through the air with Vangelis in our ears, but in fact we did, no Vangelis though. We took the Maglev (MAGnetic LEVitation) train from the city out to the airport, a 50 minute taxi ride reduced to 8 minutes, peak speed 431 kmph. For A$10!

Want to do it? Here you go:

Tuesday, September 14, 2010


The titles said Los Angeles - they had to. But now there's Shanghai, and today it's the one place anyone who's been there says looks like the future. Shanghai.

Cologne Opera, under the German Expo umbrella, is there for two runs of the Ring. That means the whole company, lock, stock and horned helmets.

We're on our way, and if there's no news till we're back, blame it on the net filters, tomorrowland.

Sunday, September 12, 2010


The Grevilleas are really bursting open now. What's amazing is how infinitely asymmetrical they are.

Above are some of those I've planted from the many available cultivars. . But there is a local indigenous Grevillea here, Grevillea arenaria. It's not particularly inspiring and easily passed by on the track as just another spreading rambling almost drab shrub. There's a few way way down the bush track. I always stop and say hello. And on close inspection its flowers are just as interesting, and considerably more subtle, than the more showy ones.

Here's Fafner again, keeping watch, and that's the (rather plain) Grevillea arenaria on the right, as you see it.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010


(Waratah, telopea speciosissima, in bud, early this morning in the garden)

Yesterday at four o'clock, from high up on the tip of Point Piper, we were staring across a silvery blue haze to Manly. It's one of those rare magic spots where you can see the harbour as as basin, and the dimpled water reflected the gently lowering sun into a million tiny rays of light.

A small crowd of family and friends stayed mostly indoors, talking, telling stories, remembering, catching up, all those things you do at a wake, or remembrance, or a celebration as it's called these days. I don't know why they were so stuck inside, unless that was where the food, drink, and most comfortable chairs were. They didn't all live with views like this, surely not. There was a northern terrace, and a parterre with lavender in full bloom beyond. Overhead on a high pergola a Wisteria was just showing early signs of colour, and even higher above it was a huge Jaceranda in early bud. Imagine in a month I thought, or a stinking hot Sydney January day, under the dappled light with a gentle northerly breeze off the water wafting up the slope. Maybe it was just too beautiful outside, too beautifully sad.

Anyway, I arrived with little B under my arm to a small gasp from the room. It was quite an entrance, down a semicircular stone staircase, past a human sized marble antiquity necessitating a nod, to a room full of upturned faces to see who had rung the bell. It's Bearsy! Most wore black, or variations from sombre greys to black, and there were even men with black ties. It seemed strange for someone who if they leant anyway at all inclined to the Budda. But then S knew about these things, and they wore what she wore, literally for some; she had her own label. K wore black; he always does.

There were no speeches, no tears, no regrets, but only happiness for a life pursued to the end with enormous style and an intrinsic elegance which defied even the ravages of chemotherapy.

What was special was the genuine regard everyone held for the other. But our common link had just left us and while we swore to keep in touch, swapped contact details again and again, I wonder. She had a power, even a command, and drew people together from the most unlikely sources, family, new friends, old friends, from business, from neighbourhood, from doggy walks in the parks, and now here was her human collection, except now she was gone.

I think adoption papers have been signed for B, K saw to that, but hand over is not til the end of the week, so we have him still, 'Mummy's best boy'.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010


Omens or not, two unusual things just happened.

Yesterday, there was a black snake on the road from the house to the little stone bridge which slightly arches over a run-off into the dam. That in itself isn't strange, near a dam loaded with frogs, but it was early in the day, and early in the season. Admittedly the weather changed suddenly, from a cold weekend to an sharp reminder of the summer weather patterns with nor-norwesters drawing warm air down ahead of a southerly change. Even if there's little palpable air movement. when I hear the trains in the night (and I had the night before), sometimes so close they could be clackety-clacketing across the lawn, I know the draft is from the north and the day will be mild.

And then today after the walk, sitting at this desk, I wiped my forehead with that subcortical awareness of something, only to find a tick on my hand. A tick! There's no ticks here. They told me that at the local produce store when we moved here years ago. I'd gone to ask about dogs and tick wash. 'Where are you from then?', they said, 'no ticks here mate''. They were right, until today. I know ticks. I grew up on the upper North Shore and this was a tick, on its way across my brow to somewhere softer and more penetrable, like my ear.

What resonated uncomfortably was that these were the two, and only two, threats that S was worried about when little B came down here for respite care. 'He can't stay through summer', she worried, 'not with snakes and ticks'. Well, sadly, yet happily, she worries no more. Her brother, lets say he's B's uncle, rang within minutes of me giving the tick the thumb nail squash. He lives in France, and had hurried out after it became clear to most, if neither patient nor physicians, that the end was rushing up to meet her. There were some arrangements to be checked, and then came the news that we need not worry about B (I wasn't, till the snake and the tick appeared at least), as Ma, an eccentric and unpredictable but kindly friend in the city, would happily be B's new mother, when everyone imagined she'd decline.

I had probably picked up the tick on my head when I was out with the camera. It is Wattle Day, and nominally the first day of Spring, as imprecise as that northern hemisphere label can be. And I'd found what I'd been looking for. She loved many things, but I could take her nothing nicer than flowers from home. And funnily, she loved Grevilleas, but not till she'd seen them some years ago in cultivation, in the rambling garden of a friend, a man in his prime very sick with that virus, to whom she had gone to visit, and comfort, in Queensland.

C (we went to Antarctica together) said, when I called to tell her, and we talked about the last few weeks, and she again spoke of her brother's final struggle, 'you know', she said, 'death is the one thing that takes a lifetime of getting ready for'. C can be alarmingly direct, and right.

These are some of the flowers.
(click to enlarge)

Acacia longifolia var. longifolia (Sydney Golden Wattle); Hovea longifolia; Eriostemon myoporoides (Native Daphne); Lambertia formosa (Native Honey Flower, Mountain Devil); Astartea Winter Pink; Grevillea longifolia; Eriostemon australasius (Pink Wax Flower); Grevillea Scarlet Sprite.