Sunday, January 22, 2017


Mary, Mother of God, Queen of Heaven - Hail Mary Holy Mary - was in 1950 pronounced ex cathedra by the Vatican (Pius XII) to have been assumed into Heaven, body perfectly intact. For her, decomposition was too imperfect, too sinful, too earthly a fate.

"By the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and by our own authority, we pronounce, declare, and define it to be a divinely revealed dogma: that the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory." 

1950 I'm here to declare wasn't that long ago, in fact within my lifetime. Yuri Gagarin was only eleven years behind, but he, without the cloud bearing angels, he was trapped by science (and sin) into a couple of orbits before plunging back into the land of the fallen while Mary made it through.

Little wonder science is still the bane of the religious fundamentalists.

Moreover, and within my lifetime, small wide-eyed Catholic children were taught we too would be united with our bodies, since perfected, when we reached Heaven - conditions apply of course: you had to make it. One way, a highly recommend way, was through Mary. She wasn't scary, wasn't too busy, and had that motherly understanding of what naughty children were like. Ask her for stuff, she'd have a word in His ear, and Heaven and a perfect body was on the cards. My problem was I didn't like my body then, and even less now. It was plainly rubbish.

It was this Mary, the Assumed Mary of Titian, together with the Tintorello Mary at the foot of the cross in the comfort of John the Beloved (Disciple), that preoccupied the Irish writer Colin Tóibín and finally saw him write The Testament of Mary in play, book, and novella form. And unsurprisingly, attract the ire of fundamentalists.

Unlike Titian's vertically accented loveliness, Tintoretto's crucifixion is wide screen and teaming with humanity. Mary and John the Beloved are isolated in a clutch at the foot of the cross from where the tortured slowly dying Son, Tóibín would soon remind us, would look down to say to them: "Mother, this is your son. Son, this is your mother".

John the Beloved is a wonderfully evocative title. I was in love with it when I made my First Communion, just after Pius XII made his declaration on Mary, and it still touches me somewhere deeply. Yes, my name is John, and beloved is absolutely what I want. Love, where are you.

It was after our First Communion, when in satin creamy white suits we sat down to break the fast, a nun came from behind and leaning over me, all black except for a soft unknown face, gave me a picture, mounted ready to stand by a bed, which it did. It was Jesus at the Last Supper with his arm around John. Kitch would just about cover it. It made me feel so special, and want to be a John like that, with Jesus's arm around me. I still do. I kept it for years, and years, and sometimes still hope it might turn up somewhere in a box in an attic, my special me in Jesus's arms.

And so it is with Specialness. And it is the Specialness of Mary that Tóibín unravels in his 80 minute monologue of the layered memories of a mother.

The marvellous STC team (and lots of good reading) behind this production is here.

From a marbled grotto stacked with candles (1 euro each please), it is the wholly impressive Alison Whyte who strips off the imposed specialness (stunning moments indeed), and takes on giving us the mother and her thoughts, from his conception, childhood, restless early years, picking up with misfits, tackling the establishment, to the climactic final declaration of his Godhead, and the certain execution the establishment will inflict.

It's a great role and she relished it. All woman, all mother, all human, all flesh. Imperfect flesh. There were a few word slips (early in the run) and an awkward moment when a young couple for no apparent reason other than boredom took it upon themselves to make a noisy exit from near the front of the house. Oh no. Some bigoted ranting wold have been preferable. Mary became Alison Whyte again, and with a whimsical smile and a gentle forgiving 'sorry', waited them out.

The closing  moments are where Tobin take us away from the dictates. When Mary and John flee in fear, finally settling at Ephesus (where too Tóibín sought inspiration) where this Mary would collect herself and deliver her truth in her words. Words which revealed a mother reflecting on the accretions of time and emotions, repressed and exposed, frail and strong, forgiving and not. Her final judgment on the worth of His life resonates still, days later, inside my head.

This was woman who suffered.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017


"Cardano was magnificent and eccentric mind - a prolific inventor and flawed father, solitary, aggressive, peculiar. A man who would listen to a guardian angel, swear by science, and dream of defeating time. He wrote the first texts on the mathematics of gambling, was a world-renowned surgeon, invented algebra, and was a pioneer of sign language."

It is Gerolamo Cardano (1501 - 1576) ~ a renaissance Renaissance man, philosopher, inventor and physician surgeon, and member of the Royal College to boot ~ who Sydney Chamber Opera, in association with Ensemble Offspring, brings to light with their marvellous first work of the year. I thought it a stunning piece of theatre. Like (say) Mayakovsky, Russia's everyman's poet and revolutionary, they find these great figures of great import to bring into our focus. I love it.

Wiki details on Cardano here.

SCO seem to be adopting an increasingly minimalist approach to their presentations, at least in these new works. Owen Wingrave by contrast was traditionally staged, for a tele-opera anyway. The Rape of Lucretia later in the year will be interesting, to say the least.  While not yet at the extremes of Noh theatre, that's the direction, and a good one too. The orchestra is (increasingly) visible on stage, sets non-existent, the action played out in the bare walled space, and props spare. The biggest prop for Biographica was a wheeled-on iron poster bed, archbishop therein. This puts tremendous pressure on the director - the incredibly effective Janice Muller from Malthouse - and the performers, deprived of gimmicky, illusions, and material emotional-triggering tricks. Except for lighting, simply but well designed by Matt Cox.

Music and Concept was/were in the hands of Mary Finsterer and Tom Wright owns the libretto. The amazing Jack Symonds was Mr Music. I found it all intoxicating - a relentless almost ecclesiastical beat of seductive textures, minimalist strings repeating themselves over portentous rumblings of tympani and percussion, inevitably dragging him/us toward the day of death, from whence it all began. It was a serious case of not-happy-Gerry, and then you're dead.

Enligthenment was a century or so away, and Cardano's world was that of Divine Order, the stars the supposed manifestation of His Brilliance. Little did they know what chaos is out there, disguised behind the mask of zillions of light years as dazzling rhythms and harmony. (By the way, for a marvellous read looking into the ring with Reason vs Faith having a round or two, try James Gaines if you haven't already.)

Anyway, little consolation to be found anywhere for Gerolamo, though he did sort out the Archbishop's near death from uncleanliness. As the programme notes point out, the search for knowledge helped little in the gaining of wisdom, as each of the twelve scenes presented underline. Like 'pictures in a gallery' we assemble some concept of this distracted mind, and perhaps a better concept of time, decisions plucked from some great data base onto which we continually stumble in a pseudo-linear framework.

Mr McCallum plays good tribute to each player hereSignificantly, Mitchell Butel's Cardano was delineated by being solely for spoken word which put tremendous pressure on the voice (not subtitled) to deliver the kind of emotional impact the vocal (subtitled) scoring could. Or rather, the other way around - it highlighted why we sing.

                                         (call - Jack Symonds centre, acknowledging the orchestra)

Packed house and much acclamation and enthusiasm.

So off we went, happy little vegemites into the hot summer's night only just descending. I wore shorts!

                                                          (and I wasn't the only one)

Saturday, December 24, 2016


It's Christmas Eve. After a pretty frantic day, the city increasingly looks evacuated and has slipped into a gentle urban torpor. Beyond the immediate stillness there's storms around and the sounds of distant thunder.

We've just swung some old fashioned coloured carnival style lights through the frangipani out the front.

Here's a few happy snaps from the last few weeks There's the lunch and a spin around the harbour a colleague kindly puts on every year; a St Andrew's Cross spider at the back gate; an evening mist in the country softening my new gardens; bees busy at the flower spike of a Xanthorrhoea; and the dogs are helping open the mail.

Thursday, December 8, 2016


                                                                 (the good ship lady nelson)

What a strange thing -- the great living exponents of Tristan and Isolde (Stuart Skelton and Nina Stemme) hot from the Met stage popping up in Tassie for a one night stand with the best bits of Wagner's great meditation on Sex Love and Death. What's to think about?

Let's see - well, I'm a bit of a Skelton groupie (that would be the Skelton who got crook, like real crook, and couldn't debut his Tristan in Sydney); Nina Stemme's Brünnhilde remains a very compelling memory; there's friends to catch up with; the flight is 90 mins and on points; there's heaps of other local Wagner Nutters going down; and speaking of sex and death and stuff, there's MONA. So we were off - dogs in the kennels, lightly packed, breakfast in Sydney, and now fish and chips for lunch by the Lady Nelson in Hobart under that wonderful deep south sky. Chatting (one does chat) to our same table neighbours it turns out there's a chorus (yo ho steersmen), and he's a baritone, and she's a sculptor, and they live (separately) way down the river, and commute to Hobart by boat, where moorings are cheaper than Sydney parking, and for a minute or two I'm wildly envious.

It was quite a buzzy night - locals and out-of- towers, the small and acoustically very forward Federation Hall whose entrance is from the lobby of a large and unattractive hotel (and that's being kind - Hobart is scarred with a couple of completely gross late 20C monsters, oh that they had been more thoughtful), the very fine Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra with a very fine cor anglaisist, the maestro chief conductor from Slovenia Marko Letonja who arranged the abridgement, and of course the glamour stars plus Monika Bohinec's (yep, Slovenian) Brangäne. And the Steersmen, and my new best friend, heard but not seen from offstage.

No. It's not the way it's meant to be heard. It's meant to go forever, and then some. Till death do we part, drained of breath and life, them and us, I'm dead already. While the journey was lost, the story held up well enough with surtitles filling in some gaps across the very good job that Mr Letonja had done in stitching it all together. Moi would have preferred a little less Act 1 and a little more Act 3, but with Ms Bohinec having flown really quite a long way (and back again the very next day to Vienna for Aunty rehearsals in Grimes) then the luxury of her luxurious pulsing messo was compensation enough.

So what we got was really a brilliant night of full-on full-throttle in your face in your bathroom singing from these great vocalists, the need to save or hold off or do much else other than sing the hell out of it left in New York.

                                                           (letonja, bohenic, skelton, stemme)

I don't mean to suggest it was unsubtle. I mean to mean the clarity was amazing, the voices bright and clean, and right 'there' and yes, it had all the nuance, the colours, the shading these great singers are capable of wedded to (what was very apparent) complete familiarity with each other and the work. Stuart Skelton was sounding especially golden, with beautiful finessing of his quite moments (the 'O sink herneider was just gorgeous), and a ringing halo around his highs. And Ms Stemme was so completely capable that it was frankly gobsmacking to be so close and watch and hear her pour it out.

The night went long.

Come Sunday and came Sex and Death part II - MONA for the afternoon after a BBQ in the suburbs under the mountain where friends have settled into a new life, next to a house still empty since the German man next door died years ago and where a kangaroo now lives in the long grass of the unkept backyard. No kidding. P (of the amazing collection and vast knowledge department) drove us up and steered us around, our very own guide, and he knows a thing. He's there at least weekly.

                                       (the james turrell installation designed for sunset and sunrise)

The temporary exhibition is On The Origin Of Art, and worthy of much more than our couple of hours, escorted notwithstanding, with each of the four guest curators, 'bio-cultural science-philosophers, with a room of their own. Some very non-representative snaps, a few hurried memories:

Tuesday, December 6, 2016


Spurred on by rave notices (Limelight and Harry) and the forecast of a perfect Friday night, I snapped up some good seats at shortish notice and off we went - idling into town on a perfect (and I mean perfect) balmy Sydney evening to see 'Sydney Opera House - The Opera - The Eighth Wonder' (cast and production details) which used to be, and forever should be, known simply as 'The Eighth Wonder.'

The set-up was brilliant. It is a grand space and surely one of the great public spaces of the world with those monumental Aztec inspired stairs (on which the opera would play out) with the great arcs of the roof like some hypnotic pinnacles entrancing you in. The seating was as good as it gets; the food outlets many and varied and well sorted with tables and chairs and bibs and bobs - we ate with holidaying Dutch; the bathroom facilities immaculately clean and lit and mirrored and carpeted, and the vibe friendly and infused with great expectation for if nothing else, to sit there, just sit there, as the day slipped away and the night brought its own magic would have more than sufficed.

(sea gulls)

There is a great story here and it begins mid last Century. It is a story that I said to the English woman directly in front as we stood at the end, both teary eyed, that is in many respects the story of my life, in that it spans my existence to a very real extent and a story I followed closely in the city I love most dearly. And more importantly it is a story of democracy, and of its imperfections, of its weaknesses, of its great failures, and wherein lie its great strengths: answerable to the people, to the process, to the egos, to the deceits, to the half truths. Mussolini might have got it right. 

And the story is a great and living lesson in the difference in attitude to the Arts between our two major political parties. It didn't set out to give it; it didn't overplay it; but the story is the story and the Libs and Nats are bastards when it comes to much anything other than shortsightedness and profit.

But you know, one is left to wonder that actually and finally we still got more than we deserved - something approaching sacred - and the two names to remember are John Joseph Cahill (I share both of those given names in my three) and Jorn Utzon. 

And what was so moving about the opera is simply that -- it told the story. Each character was finely fleshed out, each circumstance brilliantly defined, each period beautifully evoked, each conflict chillingly enacted, and each triumph gloriously celebrated, and all underpinned with a musical composition that was, how to say, friendly contemporary, never intrusive and always ready to accent and build up emotional reflexes. 

                                                             (utzon in the danish forest)

Now I've left the biggest gushy rave till last. The sound system. The orchestra was in the Playhouse (I believe), the singers close miked, and all was run from the huge control tower with conductor video et al at the rear up against the great sandstone wall.

The mix was brilliant, and in a move of genius, the sound was sent wi-fi to individual head phones connected to round-your-neck receivers which were given out and tested by ever friendly (and always enough of them) young techies. While there were subtitles, and yes I did read them on and off, it wouldn't have mattered that much if there weren't. The clarity was excellent, every word and note coming cleanly and  with timbre intact. If this technology is to be used for the Handa Opera on the Harbour, then that will solve one of the major problems with that set up once and for all.

Well done OA. The whole experience was completely satisfying. 

Tuesday, November 29, 2016


Coming back, we took the Hay-Goolgowi-Griffith sealed road route. The road was still listed as flood affected, but open to single lane traffic, and unlike the trip down, we now had time up our sleeve to deal with any delays.

It's uncertain what to expect as you approach. But we were about to cross Mirrool Creek.

(midwestern h'way mirrool creek and insect on screen)

Mirrool Creek is no piddly creek. It's a significant 264 Km watercourse, a river in fact, arising near Temora and wending its way to the Lachlan, and outside Griffith it flows into the Barren Box Swamp, which we had unknowingly skirted leaving Griffith on the way down (see first link above).

No, it doesn't look much. It is only when you get closer do you appreciate just how much water there is, and the relentlessness of it. It might just look like some water either side of the road, but it is moving, and moving very steadily.

What surprised me most was the stench. Rotting organic matter - vegetable and animal no doubt. And then we were through.


From Hay we crossed the legendary Hay Plain as green as you'll ever see it, through Balranald, met the Murray River at Mildura, and followed it on and off to Renmark, before heading south to Adelaide. It's a book, not a blog post.

                                                                 (murrumbidgee at hay)

(murrumbidgee at hay)

(storm building up over the hay plain, green as you've never seen it)

(oranges outside mildura - yes, you can't take them into sth aust)

(river gums at renmark)

(fred williams murray river adelaide festival centre)

And finally, a magnificent gum on the Torrens, roadside directly outside the Adelaide Oval. It wouldn't last a week in Sydney.