Sunday, October 24, 2010


The last few days have mostly revolved around analgesed reverie, mostly on warm afternoons (at least before today's cool misty drizzle set in), and mostly in bed. The verandah doors open wide and the gully slips away just beyond the giant gum, rooted deep below in the rainforest floor and whose upper branches, themselves alone the size of any other nearby trees, reach confidently above the cliff.

The orphan is here to stay. He sleeps on his trampoline bed on one side, and the old dog on the floor on the other. The pup is now a three year old and the bonds are strong. She lies with me, tucked into my knees or stretched out alongside, always pressing close whatever the arrangement. Respirations are rhythmic and shared, interrupted only by the sporadic twitching and yelps of deep dog sleep.

Iris Murdoch, with whom I have started a belated relationship, is also in the room. If not in hand, The Green Knight is on the bed on the other side to the dog, my place marked with a small horse, a clever folding cardboard magnet, which S bought at the Acropolis Museum just before she came back to Sydney, and died. Bellamy, gay and desperately seeking, has just written again to Father Damien, to whom he is abnormally attached, begging, if not admittance to the monastery, then such physical pain as to shatter his mind and allow God to enter.

Outside there is absolutely no breath of air. It is warm and still, nothing moving, not even a leaf, except for the slow assemblage of soft puffy white clouds and they are working on another time meter altogether such that difference is only noticed after a long period of not looking at all.

With the completely unpredictable downbeat of an unseen conductor, a mighty chorus of cicadas starts and without hint of any variation in dynamics or fatigue lasts till the sky shades two fingers of pink above the horizon and the arch of blue above picks up a darkening indigo tinge. They sing for hours. Timbals, that's what they're called, the ribbed membranes these insects vibrate in endless unison. They are courting, each individual frequency searching a mate, but the total harmonic effect is one of omnidirectional radar jamming. They know where each is, predators can isolate none. You'll never find one by listening, and they climb high, higher, highest. Seven years for seven days is the legend.

I spent days in the branches of the big Liquidamber (an easy climb) in our childhood yard in the thrill of it all, green grocers, yellow mondays, piss whackers, and the occasional prized black prince. Childhood comforts - the sound of cicadas, scrambled eggs, pyjamas warmed by the fire, and dogs.

And today Polly and friend flew in from the mist, for a check, and a swing.


A State Memorial Service for Dame Joan is to held in the Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House, on Tuesday November 9, 10.30 am.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010


Out of my mind? To death?

No - although either would have been better. Stones in the kidney!

I think it probably started in Shanghai. It was hot, humid, and quite frankly I was scared of drinking the water. The hotel had four bottles of water in the room at any time, and if that wasn't the clue, what was? I didn't take them out in the day, and did go walking. The hottest day walk was when it took a few hours to get to the Shanghai Museum. Stopping at a stall in a park I picked a bottle of what looked like water. But no, it was syrupy and lemonade-like. I couldn't drink it. I headed into the Museum Cafe, but by then perhaps it was too late. And then there's air flights, although I tend to over-drink and drive everyone nuts getting up and down.

Remember chemistry classes and making crystals? There has to be a nidus, and I think mine was made in China (tempted to say cheap and nasty, but won't). It seems a predominantly male problem. The payback by the other sex. It's the closest you'll come to knowing what childbirth is like they say. Well I didn't want to know, thank you very much.

Anyway, it's twins. I've got two. Treatment has started but far from finished. I know my way around these circles and have been lucky enough to be in control of who does what to whom.

Should the ramblings get too wild, blame it on substances.

Monday, October 18, 2010


Some details of the funeral have emerged. From someone who was there:

"Her funeral was held in a 17th century church filled with gorgeous floral tributes and friends came from all over the world to attend the lovely service. Her son Adam and his son Vanya both gave superb eulogies along with others. Many of Joan's religious recordings were played including "Let the Bright Seraphim" and "Oh Divine Redeemer." At her grave site each of us mourners was given a red rose and a scoop full of earth to accompany her casket as it was lowered into the ground."

Out of the darkness into the light.

Sunday, October 17, 2010


The BBC have been having some trouble with their Joan tributes. It's all bit of a giggle, but worth watching for more than the muddle. I was struck by the emotion of Pavarotti's face, as he holds her tightly, visibly moved by the occassion, Joan's final stage appearance, guesting in Fledermaus at Covent Garden.

If they were looking for a good tribute, there's none better than that Kennedy Centre Honours night, presented by Marilyn Horne. Americans are so good at this sort of thing. She includes the story of that New York debut.

The Rosalinde clip that the BBC finally showed as they tied themselves in knots is quite interesting in itself. It is from 1982 in Sydney. Now if you don't know, Sydney has a significant Hungarian community, and as generalisations go, they love music, love opera, and love good seats. Joan laughed at herself telling the story of the complaints about her diction and someone once saying for all intents and purposes it could have been Hungarian, when it was!

Well, this is it. She is 56, singing the Czardas in Hungarian, but not before a fabulous "Zsank you darlink" (0:10) to the front stalls.


My thoughts are still preoccupied with the death of Dame Joan. Here are a few of my favorite photos.

* Amina, La Sonnambula, La Scala 1961

# Margeurite de Valois (on horseback), Les Huguenots, La Scala 1962

* Elvira, I Puritani, London 1964 with Gabriel Bacquier

# Norma, Vancouver 1963. Her first Norma and an ecstatic audience (it's worth clicking to enlarge just to see the man in the front row)

# Lucia, Lucia, Lucia, Sydney Concert Hall, January 1980 (I took Mum and Dad)

* Alcina, Sydney, 1983 with Margreta Elkins and some beefy boys.

# Beatrice, Beatrice di Tenda, La Scala 1961

I had planned to follow each picture with a recording from the time, if not the actual photographed performance. While everything is special at the moment, there's one more special than the others to me. It is the exquisitely beautiful, impossibly difficult, achingly sad cry from Beatrice just after her entrance - "Yet am I the only one, alas,"

Beatrice di Tenda was her Feb 21, 1961 New York debut (along with Marilyn Horne), the opera resurrected for her by the American Opera Society in concert at the New York Town Hall. As we know, the two would go on to form a close friendship and formidable working relationship - the 'Druid Duo'. Marilyn Horne is said to have been restless that night, unable to sleep, and finally rang Switzerland at 4 am New York time. Richard told her Joan had just died.

One the day before this New York debut (Lucia at the Met would come later the same year, Sonnambula at Carnegie Hall at the same time), Sutherland received the news that her mother had died, all the more shocking as she had been in good health. Encouraged by her aunt to stay and sing, she did. She sang. The emotion in her voice is only to be heard. Two more performances had to be scheduled at the larger Carnegie Hall to meet the overwhelming demand.

This is the later studio recording. The live 1961 pirate is widely available.

Harold Schoenberg in the New York Time 22 February 1961 wrote: It is a beautifully colored voice, one that ascends effortlessly to the E in alt and most likely beyond. Where most sopranos have trouble with B flats and Cs, Miss Sutherland is at her most secure above the staff. And withal she preserves the color, warmth and style. In concerted numbers her voice soars above the ensemble without ever becoming hard or jagged. She is a supreme technician... She phrases like an artist, and she never tries to take centre stage in the ensemble numbers. She has numerous ways of changing the color of her voice, in accordance with the dramatic and stylistic needs of the moment, and she does not hesitate to do somewhat altering the coloratura she follows precedent.

I don't think she'd like us to finish that way. She often said she loved to leave the daffy mad roles ending in death and revel in humour and joy, in the sheer delight of singing. Enter Joan, all but held aloft by the gentlemen, little feet skipping down the stairs (just) in the most breathtaking entrance, a flash of relief across her face that she made it, then sweeping her way through this, this small pinched hint of what she sounded like in the Concert Hall, in a gorgeous camp very Sydney production:

* Joan Sutherland A Tribue, Moffat Oxenbould
# La Stupenda, Brian Adams

Wednesday, October 13, 2010


This has just come to light. It is early 1974 in New York, a few months before she would come to Sydney for her first appearance in the new Opera House in the four great soprano roles of Hoffman. This tape of her Olympia has surfaced. It should give you some idea of what I was talking about.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010


(Alcina Venice 1960. Source: La Stupenda, Brian Adams)

Dame Joan Sutherland OM, AC, DBE
Dame Joan
Joan Sutherland
Our Joan
Joyce Wunderlungs
La Stupenda
The Stupendous One
The Stunning One
Joan Sutherland Bonynge

It's always a shock, even when you know it's coming. She died yesterday at her Switzerland home aged 83. I cried a bit this morning, reading and listening, sad for the family, for everyone she ever touched. She's gone. The music world is marveling at what it has lost. There's some wonderful obituaries and memories, a few of which are The Sydney Morning Herald; The Guardian; The Joan Sutherland Society; The Independent; Melba Records; Opera Britannia and yes, from Opera Chic. Jesscia Duchen links to an early interview, over 5 parts on youtube. It's worth listening just to hear her describe how performance is transporting and otherwordly.

She's been part of my life since 1959, since the Covent Garden Lucia, when the news of the phenomenon swept through the world and into our little suburban house in Sydney. The news kept coming year after year, making headlines with exotic tales of storming the Opera Houses of Milan, Venice, Paris and then North America and finally New York. My parents bought records, The Art of The Prima Donna the first and most prized, as it is today. My big sister took me to Rowe Street Records to buy me a birthday present. I'd decided on Carmen, and she insisted despite my embarrassment on asking if they had Joan singing it. I knew Joan sang really high notes and Carmen didn't. We got Jane Rhodes. My next record I bought all on my own, an Ace of Spades Tales of Hoffman, not knowing that many years later this would be how I would meet her in the flesh. She toured Australia in 1965, after I had just started University. I still remember the discussion around the dining table about whether to go, and the cost of the tickets. We didn't. I suppose it was money, a mistake to this day I try to never make again.

I sat in the third row of the circle for that Tales of Hoffman. It was now 1974. I was graduated, independent, well advanced on a higher degree, working in a big important institution, but so so young. I sat there trembling like a child, knowing that there she was, hidden inside that gorgeous glass cage centre stage, waiting forever till Olympia emerged. I can see her still. If I tell you the whole thing was stunning, imprinted, then I'm understating it. Raymond Myers played her to death, the transparent piano lighting up green, and she sang, and sang, and she died.

No she didn't. She went and sang Esclarmonde in San Francisco two months later. She sang this!

In the concert hall especially she was indeed 'The Stunning One', the first Lucia was hysterical, there was hysteria; Lucrezia Borgia, The Merry Widow, Otello. The pity of it was that Norma was in the little black box next door, never mind, she broke me up, as she predicted, with Margreta Elkins.

You know the voice. I can't describe it, not really. Yehudi Menuhin can. "Dear Miss Sutherland. You transported me last night. I have never heard such beautiful singing - your voice would be the dream of any string player, as in addition to the most wonderful articulation each note seemed to carry a warm weight as it were, as if your bow arm was drawing the sound out of the vocal chords in a way which makes me feel both inspired and discouraged at the same time."

(Source: Joan Sutherland A Tribute, Moffatt Oxenbould)

But I've felt it. I sat in the back row of the stalls for the Sutherland Pavarotti Gala. The one note of any note I've ever heard, ever, that has physically shaken me was the last note of her Lo son l'umine ancella which expanded with a perfectly centered tone, this mighty resonance amplifying through the hall, surrounding me (I was the only one there) in a sonic experience still unequalled. Listen below and you'll hear none of what I'm talking about, none of those incredible harmonics, the crescendo, the amplitude, the immersion, from her but directionless at the same time (come down here and I'll play you the DVD on K's sound system and that'll make your eyes water), but listen and you will hear her stamp her foot as she steps forward and leans into the launch. And launch she did, nothing like it, and yes, I have been to Cape Kennedy.

One of my favorites, and if I put them all in this post would never load properly, is seeing her looking pretty relaxed and singing the hell out of Meyerbeer, or rather, having 'a bash' at it.

I met her once, briefly, at the end of a charity night in Sydney, years after her retirement. She and other 'women of renown' (Nancy Bird-Walton, and others, and I can proudly say one of my sisters) modelled clothes, walking the catwalk, at a fundraiser for cancer in children research. Can you imagine? Joan walked the walk to Norma. Of course, knives and forks dropped, mouth dropped open, and in seconds the guests were on their feet clapping and cheering. She stood alone after her stint, and was, as everyone who has had any contact with her knows, unassuming and generous. We had a brief correspondence over the matter of the sale of her family's Queen Street house, and as always, her words on paper were as infused with common sense and graciousness as if she were sitting next to you on the couch.

Thank you Joan, thank you. I often think about living in other times, other places, in other guises. But I'd choose for no other, not least because of you. And one other.

Thank you.

Sunday, October 10, 2010


"I'm looking forward to the drive to Canberra. It's been a while since we've done that trip" announced K unexpectedly during the week.

The wedding was yesterday and we drove down in the early afternoon. As always there is something magnetic about Lake George, drawing the eyes to it, and keeping them searching, peering across it, that strange perspective where you imagine you can just see the extent of it but deep down know that you can't. Perhaps it has something to do with the suddenness and vastness of the flat valley and that there's rarely any water to be seen in it, ever. And then you swing up over the hills, leaving it behind feeling you haven't really seen it at all.

A large number of wind turbines stand on its southeastern edge, poised ready to march forward spinning their giant blades across the lush green carpet stretching out in front of them. Only one looked to be turning, slowly, slowly. Later in the evening I would be seated next to a nephew (-in-law). He is about to have installed a large number of these generators on his property, fully funded apparently by a Chinese consortium. 'They're taking us over' he would declare during dinner, while happily pocketing $8,000 pa per unit, with assured CPI. Just for having them there.

I'm not mad on weddings. But this whole affair was quite touching not the least of it being that K and I had been invited, despite the connection being somewhat remote. The bride was my great niece, the daughter of a niece, the daughter of my eldest (and closest in kind) sister. She, the bride, is particularly beautiful, petite, jet black hair (mothers side) and bondi-blue eyes (fathers side) so deeply set in her perfectly shaped face that when you engage with them they seem to have a light of their own from another place altogether. Her beau I'd first met when he drove his then girlfriend down from Armidale for her great grandmother's (my mother) funeral. He came to the family dinner the night before, came to the funeral, and came home with us all afterwards. He was neither intrusive nor awkward outsider. He was there, with her, but also with us.

And now we, the odd couple, were at their wedding. The bridegroom, the handsome young man from Armidale, gave the last speech. He opened by declaring he wasn't nervous (unlike previous speakers) and that in fact he hadn't been nervous all day. He felt peaceful. He was, he said slowly and calmly, at peace with his decision and his choice. The room was hushed, fairy lights through the white gauze canopy high above.

After a brief history of the courtship, and due thanks to his and her parents, he then, without a hint of self consciousness, described his feelings. You are, he told his bride, the reflected light from a just risen sun off the early morning frost, lighting the leaves of my tree, but casting no shadows. (He is a first light golfer.) I am ready, he declared, my bag packed, with light, with water, to take you on our journey.....into the sunshine and into the darkness, we go together. Not a dry eye at our table, as he poetically took her unto himself, still in his late twenties.

We drove back home late in the night, uplifted, very happy that we had been considered and moreover sensible enough to have gone.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010


(Emma Pearson, Sophie; Manfred Hemm, Baron Ochs; Catherine Carby, Octavian; Cheryl Barker, Princess Marie Therese of Werdenberg)

Something's wrong. There's some magic at the Sydney Opera House, in the Opera Theatre, where a quite beautiful production of Der Rosenkavalier is having an eight performance run (two down, six to go) and the place is half empty. Explain yourselves. I was blessed to be guided there by somone-who-knows, or I could have been caught napping as well. So, explain yourselves people of Sydney and people of Opera Australia. Is it that hard, or that long? Didn't Patrcik Veitch (past GM of The Australian Opera) chastise with 'housewives in Vienna vacuum to Der Rosenkavalier!' ?

What audiences are missing, and what the company isn't telling anyone, anywhere, anytime, is that this cast in this production is ravishing. It's late and I'm red-eyed but you need to know now, and I'll tell you now, if they wont: it's ravishing.

I think this role fits Cheryl Barker just perfectly. Not since her Emily - EM, now MT. She's a woman of the world and a woman of lineage, one eye on the past, and one eye on the future, and both eyes on the present. She's ravishing of voice with a presence of utmost simplicity with the most complex of emotions distilled in the slightest turn of the body and angle of head or glance of an eye.

Catharine Carby's Octavian was faultless. Emma Pearson's Sophie was sublime. Baron Ochs was in the very experienced hands of Austrian born Manfred Hemm. The band played on and on, waved about by Mr Andrew Litton (of Bergen fame) and after a ricketty start, by Act 3 had reached a Straussian high of such frissson it seemed they had doubled in size.

There were two rose presentations. The first was the one which brought me to tears. Marie Therese places the silver rose in a red leather box, held by her little helper, here the most gorgeous Asian boy, exquisitely dressed. And as she gently with two hands, bending over him, slips the rose into its case, the future into its place, every ounce of her being reveals the rest of the story. At that moment she is handing Octavian on. Oh Cheryl.

Friday, October 1, 2010


Siegfried was the evening of our half day trip to Shouzou and Gotterdammerung the day after. Remember this was a four day Cycle, which is nice if you want the compression and intensity, but can be rather overwhelming and other-things-exclusive. And it must be difficult, if not imprudent, for the big sings. In Shanghai, only Siegfried was split cast, with Stig Andersen singing in Siegfried (replaced at short notice by Alfons Ebertz in the second run), and Lance Ryan (with a day off after his Siegmund) taking on Siegfried in Gotterdammerung. I had been to another four day Ring in Budapest, but there the biggies (Wotan, Brunnhilde, Siegfried) were all alternately cast.

Going in the other direction is Manchester, splitting operas into two nights, next year with Walküre (with Stig Andersen by the way), as they've already done with their Gramophone Opera of the Year Gotterdämmerung with that experienced vocal actor Peter Coleman-Wright. I fail to see what that's all about - revenue?

Perhaps our day trip was a mistake, but Siegfried dragged. It really shouldn't. Siegfried deals with some of the most mythical magical aspects of the whole cycle - clues to the heroic and links to truth that are too easily overridden in an attempt at coup de theatre stage wizzardry (the dragon) or ignored when it becomes too hard or just unfathomable (the woodbird). And with music of incredible descriptive beauty.

Stig Andersen took a blustery approach dramatically and musically and facing off against the well sung though very young, and nice looking, and particularly nice sounding, Mime of Martin Koch, it became a struggle in suspension of disbelief which beat at least me. Age and physique isn't the issue, but rather the approach. By far the most satisfying Siegfried I've experienced was the rather large and lumpy Ben Heppner who so vocally infused the character with innocence and wonder (rather than attempting physical youthfulness), with tenderness and beauty (especially in his encounter with the woodbird, as Sieglinde in white dove coloured dress appears in the forest in a moment of revelation I still get emotional about when remembering), that whatever else you were looking at, you heard young and saw young.

As usual, there were great moments. Jutta Böhnert sang an (off stage) Forest Bird of brilliance and joy with not the slightest hint of strain or discomfort, and thankfully more than enough to discount the silly dead parrot routine on stage. The other was Ante Jerkunica's brooding doomed masculine, and dare I say sexy, Fafner.

(Ante Jerkunica, Fafner with Jutta Böhnert, Forest Bird)

Gotterdämmerung was the most specifically placed, 1950's east of the wall, in an extension of the militarism already seen in Walküre. Here Kurt Rydl's wide vibrato was more a plus, adding another dimension to the size and malice of his Hagen. Oliver Zwarg was back ghosting the stage, at once a creepy and beautifully sung haunting Alberich. Samuel Youn was a commandingly certain, and certainly dark, Gunter and Astrid Weber an especially pretty Gurtrune.

With slow tempi from Marcus Stenz, there was little sense of acceleration to the raison d'être for the whole 15 hours - Siegfried's death. And because of big scene changes, some interludes (Siegfried funeral march) were played in front of the bronzed fire/safety curtain, which only tended to draw attention to the lack of orchestral weight (admittedly we were close and losing a lot of body from the strings most likely) and just broke whatever momentum there was even more.

More significantly, with the 'curtain' down behind her, Catherine Forster's Brünnhilde ended up not much short of a recital, as she went for it alone for the great immolation scene. And this she did magnificently. The voice was huge (a sound board right behind) and she was glorious, pouring forth fearlessly, attacking it with apparent ease and confidence, a light-golden smooth edged warm voice perfectly centered, and left to her own devices (standing still and singing was her best tactic) and with considered suppport from the pit (Stenz's support for the singers has been exemplary and generous the whole Ring), she brought the whole Cycle to a hair raising end. She had, as they say in the classics, sung the shit out of it.

(Catherine Forster, Brünnhilde enjoying her well deserved ovation)

The final scene, as the curtain lifted, was of an already burning and smoldering Valhalla, retreating into the distance, as rain started to fall, leaving an open vacant golden cubed space with soft clouds above. The house went nuts.

The Russian gentleman next to K thought it was all a 'bit modern, but fun'. That's not a bad summary. It was certainly fun, and the kind of experience I absolutely love. The great Ring Cycle, from a German house and a Canadian producer, staged lock stock and no helmets in a fantastic oriental city. We slipped into the night for the fourth and last time.