A late Sunday afternoon visit to Bunnings to acquire a necessity now in short supply, incandescent small bayonet light globes, ended with listening in the car to a replay of young Australian pianist Jayson Gilliam’s recent Brisbane concert (two encores, including Liszt’s Paraphrase on Verdi’s Rigoletto). This was followed by a rare broadcast of Richard Meale’s opera Voss – librettist David Malouf.
Why is it that Australian operas get such short shrift after their initial season. Voss is a classic example and whatever happened to Mer de Glace, Meale’s second opera again with librettist David Malouf.
Still, I remember the opening night of Mer de Glace, October 1991, and talking afterwards with Richard Meale, hearing his own critique and knowing some reworking was required.
Still with me all these years later is the music and imagery of Mary Shelley giving birth to Frankenstein and his monster not just metaphysically but physical in its portrayal. You can hear it on YouTube and it deserves a rerun just as The Eighth Wonder has been given a new season. This was sensibly edited with 45 minutes cut from the original and presented outdoors on the Mayan inspired monumental stairs of the opera house with the audience using headphones and the orchestra elsewhere in a studio – it works.
But we also need to hear and see Lindy, the Moya Henderson opera based on the story of Lindy Chamberlain and baby Azaria. On the opening night, I sat with Lindy’s former husband Michael, and his second wife. The opera is sympathetic to Lindy and audiences were packed to the gunnels and appreciative.
I have to mention a personal prejudice. I first met the composer Moya Henderson when she was in the throes of composition, struggling financially to give the full time concentration to completing her operatic work. I admit I believed in her and her commitment and determined to find her financial support. I approached two men whom I knew and knew to be generous in their support for things that were important – namely Frank Lowy and Richard Pratt. I asked them to support Moya financially for three years so she could finish her work. They agreed and the work proceeded – workshopped for Opera Australia by Richard Gill – with artistic clashes in the process, but the work was presented first in Sydney and then in Melbourne to packed houses.
Michael Chamberlain, as you can anticipate, was understandably on edge but remained for the entire performance, after which we walked together to the after party (which I convinced him to attend) and introduced him to the singers who had portrayed him and Lindy, and others. Think of it, years after the turmoil and accusations, the marriage breakup, her imprisonment, this was a night when their lives were presented with passion and understanding. Let’s see it again!
Whilst on the subject of opera, young Australian singers need experience and opportunities to perform. This is provided by organisations like Opera Foundation for Young Australians, chaired by a remarkable young woman Anna Cleary, and of which I am Board Member.
A poignant moment is a letter of thanks from the inaugural winner of the Foundation’s new Deutsche Opera Berlin Award to enable the winner Sam Roberts-Smith to travel to Berlin and perform with Deutsche Opera.
Ben Roberts-Smith is widely known as a fine soldier, awarded a V.C. for valour in Afghanistan, and now Sam Roberts-Smith is well on his way to making his mark in opera – and yes, they are brothers. Sam Roberts-Smith simply wrote to the Board expressing his thanks for the belief placed in him and his determination to make it a great success.
This award was announced at the Foundation’s recent finals concert for the Lady Mary Fairfax New York award (worth $43,000). One of those finalists was tenor Michael Petruccelli, who performed in The Eighth Wonder and whose proud mother and father sat next to me at the opening night performance. Some say the appeal of opera is its irrationality – that what is too silly to say can be sung – but for me it is an experience of wonderment, drama, colour, costumes, orchestras, voices of dramatic intensity, spectacular virtuosity and challenging new works.
Opera is an art form which continues to evolve, using technology and delving into its inheritor, musical theatre. How fantastic that My Fair Lady, directed by Julie Andrews, has topped all attendance records for musical theatre. This is a joint venture between Opera Australia and the hugely successful John Frost. It’s a knockout.
Many myths exist as to how Australians respond to the arts versus sport, so here are some statistics to dwell upon. In 2014 there were more tickets for attendances at live arts performances (18,536,343) than tickets to attend all football codes and big bash cricket combined (13,744,663).
Surprised? Don’t be. There will be many cross-over attendees like myself who love the arts but also love a good game of rugby league. The point is Australians are far more attuned to artistic endeavours than they are given credit for.
Just for fun, three musical musings: Sir Joseph Banks refused to join Captain James Cook on his second voyage because he could not have two horn players to play at dinner;
Don Giovanni premiered in Prague in the Estate Theatre in 1787, whilst Governor Phillip was sailing to Botany Bay bringing the first settlers;
Richard Adler, co-composer and lyricist of the Broadway hit The Pyjama Game produced the famous birthday celebration for John F. Kennedy where Marilyn Monroe sang ‘Happy Birthday, Mr President’, and he was commissioned by President Reagan to compose a symphonic work, The Wilderness Suite, which premiered in 1983, a recording of which the composer gave me.
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