Tuesday, February 21, 2012


There was one other interesting moment in 1974, her second year in Sydney. She sang Antonia's mother in the Tales of Hoffmann that showcased Joan Sutherland's return. It was like 'who's that behind the portrait?'.

Another index of just what heights had been reached in two short years was that she gave an all Wagner recital in the Concert Hall as a farewell before heading back to London. And what's more nearly filled the place, with audience. She already had the voice to fill it, and there's not too many who can do that.

So the 'special relationship' with Australia had been established. She would return often and was due back this year to sing Turandot in Melbourne. I think I also read somewhere that she was thinking of moving back. Cooeee

The roles were the big ones - Abigaille, Lady Macbeth, Amelia (Masked Ball), Ariadne, Medee, Norma, Brunnhilde (concert with Edo de Waart and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra in the four years leading up to the Sydney Olympics), others, and she sang in the Olympic Arts Opening Gala Mahler 8 (which I remembered just a week ago).

Uppermost in my memories are the Lady Macbeth - a phenomenal aura about the whole performance - electrifying is no exaggeration - in a splendid 'old fashioned' production. She would start a note with her back to the audience and slowly turn and crank it up to full throttle. Cillario conducted. He knew his Verdi. It was back to the box office again to take my parents.

She sang the hell out of Abigaille dealing with some of the most difficult vocalism written as well as a (to put it mildy) challenging production from the then still young and made-to-outrage Barry Kosky. Good humour was another trademark.

Her Brunnhilde's were the best I've heard I think. (The SSO did one more concert just of Act 3 Walküre some time later.) They were womanly wise and they were sung with love. Her Walküre with Alessandra Marc remains unrivaled in this head.

As far as I know, Desdemona was not in her repertoire. But I've saved this till last; it speaks for itself. Un bacio, ancora un bacio. She kissed many lives.

Sunday, February 19, 2012


She was one of the few singers with whom I felt a relationship. She filled the stage or concert platform with a compelling presence and the most beautiful voice of seemingly unlimited reserves. She radiated warmth, sincerity, commitment, and a trust in herself. There wasn't ever arrogance or airs and graces or pretense, but an awareness of her gift and an honesty that came though in all she delivered. And for what she delivered to me, and to the world, I can only resort to the obvious - gratitude.

Her agent's biography and this 2008 London interview with Jim Pritchard give good insight into the woman, the singer, and the career. Obituaries in the Telegraph here and The Australian/The Times here. And another from The Sydney Morning Herald /Guardian Arts and Media where one could be forgiven for thinking they are quoting your humble blogger!

Having left her native South Africa and debuted in Wexford Ireland, she came to Australia guided by (Sir) Edward Downes (tossed in the deep end as she notes above) and sang in Prokofiev's War and Peace, the opera that opened the Sydney Opera House on September 28 1973.

I was at the third night of the run. I do remember Raymond Myers, a perfectly type cast Napolean and Eileen Hannan's lovely Natasha. I was young and in awe of it all. There was a buckling crack as the second scene ball room set got jammed dropping down from the flies while the guests danced on. It was a brilliant Tom Lingwood designed Sam Wanamaker extravaganza. But I can't say I remember Princess Marya Bolkonskya in scene three, the first time I saw and heard Elizabeth Connell.

In that opening season she next sang Venus. That I do remember. Vividly. The Venusberg was an introitus, two large wide labial folds (some said they were welcoming female thighs but I think they were being bashful) onto which female genitalia images were projected and which met at the centre top of the proscenium, from which apex Venus (the young mezzo Ms Connell) in a bright dazzling afro wig appeared suspended on a swing. If you aren't getting the picture, then check your anatomy. It was startling and provocative, and very effective. And now her voice was on the record -people were talking. I mostly remember the visuals and the naughty bits. And the (pilgrim's) chorus - coming up from underground, as if from nowhere, at the very back of the stage, hearing before seeing them with the most wonderful crescendo of sound as they appeared and came downstage on a stage utterly bare except for grass green carpet completely covering the floor.

Next year came another Lingwood triumph - the turning of the Concert Hall (the meant-to-be Opera Theatre hi-jacked by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra) into a stunning piece of Egypt for the first of several enormously successful fully staged operas in that venue (Salome, Tristan, Merry Widow, Otello, Lucia, Lucretzia Borgia - the last four for Our Joan). The whole affair was quite the talk of the town (should anyone open that link, there's an amusing letter from one Ruth Campbell of Greenwich about what appears to have been electricity shortages and the time given for blackout warnings). I'm just setting the mid-70s scene here. The sand coloured set dwarfed and blended into the hall such that the whole space became the theatre.

And Elizabeth Connell sang Amneris. Now I remember the voice, the voice that sang the Immenso ftha (Connell, arms outstretched, atop a giant stone slowly lowered over the lovers) was a force to be reckoned with. It looks like a recording exists.

Following the success of her Venus, she was cast in a role usually given to older dramatic sopranos: Kostelnika in Jenufa. I don't know if it was pivotal for her, but it was for me. It was the Australian premier, and with an incredible cast (Lone Koppel Winther, Ron Stevens, Robert Gard, Rosina Raisbeck, Copley designed, Downes conducted) it is still regarded as one the company's finest achievements.

Everyone was caught off-guard, and the response was huge and fast. Word of mouth ticket sales took off for a performance of such power as not to be seen again by me till the overwhelming Peter Grimes of just a few years ago. I was delayed at work and missed act 1, only to arrive to meet dropped jaws and warnings to be prepared. I wasn't. I would be stunned, by the work, by the team, and most of all by Elizabeth Connell. It was a penetrating portrayal of enormous emotional depth and incredible vocalism. It was in fact the last night and her last opera performance before she would return to the UK at the end of her two year contract. By now Elizabeth had a following, both inside the company and out. As she took her final bows, foot stamping rumbling through the theatre, from the upper loges either side of the stage great floods of shredded white paper snowed down.

Afterwards at supper at the Bennelong (restaurant) the gossipy waiter whispered with a nod of the head that Ms Connell was celebrating her birthday at that table over there. A bottle of champagne was ordered and sent, all our heads turned to watch its reception, which was 'the star' asking its origin, the waiter's head now nodding toward us, whence up she stood, bottle in hand and mouthed a hearty thank you with that unmistakeable Elizabeth Connell smile, genuine and warm. By now Happy Birthday (dear Elizabeth) had started, with the whole restaurant joining in a grand acclamation of recognition, acknowledgment and thanks.

Jenufa is about judgement (fear and guilt driven of course) and forgiveness. What isn't? Here's a hint:

I need to stop here.

More later.


This is terribly terribly sad news. She died in her London home on the 18th February.

Her last song - When I have sung my songs to you I'll sing no more".

Only a few days ago I mentioned on David Nice's blog that she was the "only one still singing" from that legendary War and Peace which opened the Sydney Opera House. Now she's gone.

In the breaking news from her agent, Helmut Fischer wrote (0n Opera List) :

"This morning soprano Elizabeth Connell passed away in her London home after a battle with lung cancer.

She was truly the most wonderful human being, full of kindness, generosity, warmth and humour. The radiance of her personality always sparkled through her pure and crystalline voice as well, which is why even at 65, after 40 years of singing the most demanding dramatic soprano (and before that mezzo) roles she sounded about 40 years younger than her physical age.

Her last operatic performance was in February 2011 at the Prague State Opera as Turandot and her last concert was on 8 October at the Bad Urach Festival in Germany, at which she proved - despite her cancer - her versatility and flexibility and the flawlessness of her singing.

[ ]
Those who knew Liza and who were touched by her humanity and her art are left behind devastated and desperate - yet grateful for the invaluable gift that she has given to our lives.
[ ]

In sadness and loving memory
Helmut "

And it was in her very last public appearance in Hastings (a fund raiser for a friend; her philanthropy was under the radar of most) on 27 November 2011 that she sang, knowingly, "When I have sung my songs to you, I'll sing no more". A more profoundly moving farewell I can't imagine.

Thursday, February 16, 2012


OK, so maybe it wasn't Roger Waters. Maybe it was one of the roadies, and there must be a lot of them because this was a big big international road show. A Tuesday-must-be-Sydney show.

The venue is functional cold. I hadn't been back since it was called the Superdome, built for the olympic gymnastics, and where Edo de Waart conducted a pretty interesting Mahler 8 for the opening of the Olympic Arts Festival. It was all completely wrong - this vast barn, without an organ which was relayed in from the Town Hall and adjusted for timing delays and errors, and orchestra, soloists and choir faced with the vastness of the void in front of them. I remember Elizabeth Connell and Alexandra Marc (now she could get a resonance going) and the stunning ethereal Shu-Cheen Yu (forest bird in Adelaide) up high (and I mean high) at Heavens gate. The story goes that the choirs and orchestra were augmented till the performance numbers were 1,000 to match the legend. Anyway, something happened. You know those weird occassions when something happens? A threshold is crossed and whatever was conspiring against a performance working actually ultimately contributes when another unseen factor appears - the mystery of transcendence. It was the best Mahler 8 I've heard, one which generated its own specialness and breathed air and feeling and truth into the work.

Which brings me back to The Wall in the clinical arena configured for 12, 500, each paying pretty big bucks. The crowd was generally dull. Even the usher (we were at the end of an aisle) said it was a quiet well-behaved audience. Boring boring. And there was that cringing "hello Sydney" squark from the man with the microphone, just to reassure us the team knew where they were. (What band was it - the Who? - who said it wasn't that they didn't remember Sydney, they didn't remember Australia!).

So it began. The music and lyrics are great. It's a great album - 70's (post-) psychedelic trip into loss, deprivation and separation. A fatherless son. Wars. The emphasis has shifted and the shift was really because of the brilliant use of video projection. Five huge brackets with three projectors on each created a vast visual kaleidoscope to ram home the messages, and the messages were antifascist and antiwar. Nothing wrong with that. But it was sledgehammering in its impact, and sometimes more is less. I was dazzled, but not ever moved. Interestingly, Roger Waters had personalised the victims, each brick in the wall identified by name and face. Special attention, in fact their own segment, was given to the London tube innocent shot by police (Charles de Mendes) and the Wikileaks video of the shooting of the reporters in Bagdad (collateral murder). The teacher (we don't need no ed-u-cache-shon) and the mother were giant paper maché puppets.

It was that personal pain, that heartbreak, that despair that made the original so potent. The more generic and clever and brilliant the show became, the less I was moved. It became about the form and the content was the loser. Never mind. It was good to see what the best mega shows do these days, and how they do it. It looked good, and sounded good. The songs and lyrics were all there. But it was also good to realise that you can't go back. The era has gone, and like consenting adults, visiting it is best done in the privacy of your own home.

These few shots are from the closing scenes, a self-propelled flying pig (still thinking about that), the fascist logo (crossed hammers) and the goose-stepping hammers, to give you a feel for how it all looked.

It could have ended, just stopped with 'think about that' you warmongers. It might (just) have worked. But no. In a patronising sycophantic twist at the end, the audience was invited to join in singing - Waltzing Matilda! Are you kidding me? I know it's about survival and resistance to cruel oppressive authority, I know I'd happily have it as our national anthem (mainly because no one else has a clue what it's about), I know I've cried singing it at the football (and we beat the Allblacks), but this is OUR song. We sing it when we want, and its not by invitation. It's from within.

So we left, down the old Olympic boulevard, past the stadium still lit blue as the whole city had been for those two weeks in 2000, and tossed it around.

What about the air raids where they dropped symbols, like bombs, the Christian cross, the hammer and sickle, the stars of David, the crescent moon, the .. I asked J, the teenage son of a work colleague. "What did you think they were J"? "Dogma" he said softly. At last I felt some emotion.

Monday, February 13, 2012


The great icon gleamed at the end of the point. It was a warm summer's Friday night and bipolar was the order. The opera bar (foreground) was bopping away while inside the sails the Sydney Symphony Orchestra with its chief conductor was beginning this years season with odes at the opposite ends of the spectrum - Strauss's ode to sorrow: Metamorphosen, and Beethoven totally cosmic Ode to Joy: the Ninth.

The house was full, the feeling relaxed rather than anticipatory. It all felt a bit routine. Devoid of the usual broadcasting clutter (to which I have no objection) the concert platform looked rather handsome as did the 23 string players who smartly filed into place. It was an impressive entrance, and quite good theatre compared to the usual comings and goings and warm-ups.

Metamorphosen we don't get to hear to often, more's the pity - but just when to slot it in? It is a deeply serious sad work, and whenever I hear it I feel the mood escapes me probably because it's a mood I try to avoid. And it's straight in the deep end - sorrow, sorrow, sorrow. Again, I stayed one orbit remote from the emotion of the piece. There just wasn't the gravitas to draw me in. And that smooth silkiness of Strauss strings wasn't making it to my ears. The acoustics seemed particularly poor, and the whole effect was somehow a bit soupy. I know that all sounds terribly ungrateful. It's not. I enjoyed hearing it. But I still can't decide when, or where for that matter, is best.

Now the big Beethoven was another matter all together, curate's egg notwithstanding. It was fast and feisty. The first movement took off quick smart, no time for a hint of primorium for Mr Ashkenazy, and away they ran. It was good clean playing and exhilarating enough to elicit a slow to start but swelling round of applause, which extended into bravos! After one movement. Gosh.

The second movement was equally vigorous and presto presto hey presto. But it's the unbelievable beautiful lyrical third movement I love. And I sorry to say I was disappointed. For me the tempo was too fast, robbing it of that languid time doesn't matter now quality, we have to look back and we do, look back not in sorrow, not in regret, but in awareness of imperfection, and in the moment of acceptance look forward, to the realisation that healing is possible, that brotherhood is real, that good will triumph, to joy.

Without that contrast, that baseplate, the final movement, quite thrilling as it was, with the soloists - Lorina Gore, Sally-Ann Russell, James Eggelstone (he's a handsome one, presence and voice, Pinkerton later this year) and the German Michael Nagy making a huge impact on debut - backed by the stunning as usual Sydney Philharmonia Choirs, was the lesser not of itself but in the lack of true providence.

As we left, the city was still wooping it up, the harbour sparkling, the big ship still berthed.

This may not be the best quality you might hear, but for me Furtwängler gets the third movement right. Here is the opening adagio molto e cantabile from the legendary 1951 performance for the reopening of the Bayreuth Opera House. The complexity of the emotions considering the occasion and the nature of the work are reasonably self-evident.

The complete performance if you take the time.

Or, for the time poor, the complete third movement (19 minutes slow) later that year from Salzburg, with the Vienna Phil, now including the brilliant fanfares heralding the final acclamation of brotherhood to come.

Thursday, February 9, 2012


Just grabbed a late breakfast with K (percussionist of old) down at the local cafe. And at the next table ...

Next week we'll be going back a few decades, and why not, updated and arena sized I know. The crowd may be as interesting as the show. The Wall is still one of the greatest rock albums, if not the, ever. On vinyl, still played, still has an impact.

"The loss of a father is the central prop on which [The Wall] stands. As the years go by, children lose their fathers again and again, for nothing. You see it now with all these fathers, good men and true, who lost their lives and limbs in Iraq for no reason at all. I've done Bring The Boys Back Home in my encore on recent tours. It feels more relevant and poignant to be singing that song now than it did in 1979."

Monday, February 6, 2012


After long stretches of grey skies and rain, the weekend let Sydney do what it does best - the water.

More than 200 million years ago, when Pangea was the single unified planetary supercontinent and the first dinosaurs were appearing, the Sydney 'basin' was the mouth of a massive Antarctic river, flowing east to west and emptying into what is now the vast Australian inland, the inland sea that isn't there. Gondwanaland was yet to split off to become the great southern continent, and Australia had still to rift from Antarctica and move north. The sands of the river would be refined and filtered to become sandstone - the gorgeous golden stone which would build the new settlement. And the city would spread out along the ridges and crests of the vast network of waterways, of which Sydney harbour is only one, that are fair reminder of what could be seen through squinted eyes and hindsight as some vast delta.

To the north is the Hawkesbury River curling around the western and upper rim of the outer city and emptying into the Pacific Ocean with a splendid complex of ridges, waterways, inlets and little beaches. Just short of its final ocean journey is one of Sydney's great pleasure spots - Broken Bay.

The scalloped beaches above are the northern beaches of Sydney's 'peninsula', and the terminal crescent is the especially beautiful and glamorous Palm Beach. We are now about an hours drive north of the city. Behind the Palm Beach headland, that is inland, is West Head, and looking closely you will see a little curve of yellow - Great Mackerel Beach, or Mackerel as it is better known.

And it was to Mackerel we went on a glorious sunny Saturday for a special birthday lunch. There is no vehicular access, only ferry or water-taxi access from Palm Beach. There are no vehicles there. Residents move goods from the ferry to home in wheelbarrows. It is idyllic.

(above photos from linked sites)

Again I forgot the camera, so thank you mr-i-phone. On the beach looking north to the wharf

... out to the Palm Beach headland and the Pacific beyond ...

... and south where a family was swimming

... with a bucket of crabs at waters edge

Some houses sit on the beach front, some hug the cliffs like tree-houses peering out to sea past the intervening headlands, and others follow a sandy path winding back along the grassy gully into which a creek filled from spilling waterfalls flows.

We lunched in a cliff house surrounded by dense native bush, a cool breeze, the sound of waves lapping with the occasional crash of a large one breaking the rhythm, and a reminder that we are here as their guests - a small goanna (almost pet sized compared to this fellow) and sliding slowly across the stone steps as we came down for the afternoon walk, a lazy diamond python, interested but unfazed by it all.

The survivors, names withheld to protect the guilty. And keep stum.