Monday, 29 September 2014

Why so many Great Aussie Singers?

Last Tuesday Tony Locantro and I did a joint talk to the Recorded Vocal Art Society in London entitled ‘More Australian Singers on Record’.

‘More’ because this was Tony’s second go with them – he had previously done the premier division Aussie singers (Nellie Melba, Frances Alda, Florence Austral, Peter Dawson, Joan Hammond, Joan Sutherland and so on).

This time around we featured a new range of singers, many of them just as good as the first lot, but who had been substantially forgotten (including the first recording of a female singer in Britain, Syria Lamonte in 1898, the popular radio baritone Clem Williams, and two discs which may well be unique: one of Australia’s most successful composers, Alfred Hill, singing his own most famous song, ‘Waiata Poi’, and the great baritone, Harold Williams, in a rousing Cobb and Co song, ‘Old John Bax’).

As is usual on such occasions, I was asked why it is that Australia has produced such an amazing and continuous line-up of terrific vocalists. And, as usual, I responded, ‘Well, I don’t really know.’

Is it because there was not so much to do by way of entertainment before the advent of television, so that people had to make their own? Although the population was quite small, Australia had the highest per capita ownership of pianos in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Is that a relevant factor? Did singing become compellingly fashionable as a social asset? Was vocal skill seen as a way of escaping from poverty? Is the climate in some way relevant?

Did the extraordinary success of Nellie Melba provide a major sustaining role-model? Or was it perhaps connected with the vowel sounds produced by Australians and the resulting embouchure? That was the theory of the great teacher of so many successful young Australian singers in Paris, Mathilde Marchesi. Maybe all of these were factors in the rise of outstanding singers over a century and more.

When our set of four CDs, ‘From Melba to Sutherland’, is published in a few months’ time, you’ll be able to answer that question for yourselves!

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Othello/Otello ‒ black or white?

What a problem Verdi left to us in casting his Otello.

It’s not such a problem nowadays with the original Shakespeare. As early as 1959 I saw the amazing Paul Robeson on the stage at Stratford (Sam Wanamaker his savage Iago, Mary Ure a delectable Desdemona). And later (in 1989) Willard White at the Young Vic (Iago Ian McKellen, Desdemona Imogen Stubbs).

If only Verdi hadn’t conceived his Moor as a tenor, both of those great black bass-baritones might have been just the ticket. But he didn’t. He demands not just any old tenor, but a genuine dramatic one, with a powerful ringing top and a baritonal timbre. What’s more, one who can act. These creatures are hard to find.

And all that is still not enough. In our enlightened times, it’s no longer satisfying to have a white man blacked up, often conjuring up stereotypical black gestures and accents. Shades of the ghastly Laurence Olivier performance.

When I saw the exciting Graham Vick production of the Verdi with his Birmingham Opera Company a few years ago, Vick cast the West Indian Ronald Samm in the role. Samm was good, perhaps very good. But not great.

So what was David Alden to do in his new production for ENO at the Coliseum?

He has at his disposal perhaps the finest dramatic tenor of this generation, the Australian Stuart Skelton, who has the ideal vocal equipment and acts powerfully, but is oh so white. Alden has left Skelton au naturel, no blacking up. And the result is an unforgettable evening in the opera theatre.

And yet. And yet, there’s still something missing in this wonderful evening, and that is the shocking fact that the Moor is black, not white a former slave, an outsider and misfit in Venetian society.

Saturday, 20 September 2014

Hills of home

We’ve not heard much from expatriate Scots in recent weeks. So many feel such a strong affiliation, roots ‒ and Robert Louis Stevenson, living in Samoa in 1893, expressed it all so powerfully.

Blows the wind to-day, and the sun and the rain are flying,
Blows the wind on the moors to-day and now,
Where about the graves of the martyrs the whaups are crying,
My heart remembers how!

Grey recumbent tombs of the dead in desert places,
Standing-stones on the vacant wine-red moor,
Hills of sheep, and the howes of the silent vanished races,
And winds, austere and pure.

Be it granted me to behold you again in dying,
Hills of home! and to hear again the call;
Hear about the graves of the martyrs the peewees crying,
And hear no more at all.

I posted these verses, ‘To SR Crockett’, about the ‘Grey Galloway land’ last year, but now seems a good time to re-visit them.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Conversing in the car

I took my now-retired English teacher from school at Uppingham, Gordon Braddy, on a day trip to the Barber Institute of Fine Arts at Birmingham University.
We saw so many fine works there Botticelli, Veronese, van Dyck, Rubens, Poussin, Dahl (above*), Murillo, Gainsborough, Turner, Rossetti, Pissarro, Manet, Degas, Monet, van Gogh, Rodin, Gauguin, Derain, Magritte, Hodgkin… His first time there.

The journey was some two hours by car in each direction (including me losing my way in both directions, somewhere around Spaghetti Junction). We talked intimately and continuously.

At one point, Gordon remarked how good such journeys are in promoting rich conversation… ‘much better than trains.’

I suppose the fact that driver and passenger sit so close to one another, but necessarily without eye contact, has a lot to do with that.  

*Johan Christian Dahl (1785-1857, Norwegian), ‘Mother and Child by the Sea’

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Conversation not Presentation

In a current article in Forbes*, my colleague George Bradt enjoins us to give up on presentations and have conversations instead.
My own epiphany on this subject came on a trip to Hamburg. I had been expecting a one-to-one meeting to discuss innovation with the Unilever marketing director there. Instead I was confronted by a phalanx of marketing, innovation and R&D people.
‘Well, Roger, we are greatly looking forward to your presentation,’ said Herr Marketing Director.

Presentation? What presentation? I didn’t have one.
‘Sorry,’ I responded. ‘But I think it would be much more useful if we were to have a conversation.’
There was much puzzlement around the room. What kind of presentation was a conversation?
It took a while to get going, but in the end it was richer and more thought-provoking than any presentation, tapping into all their shared knowledge and insight and enthusiasm. And mine too.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Scotland the Brave?

It’s never been easy, making a living in Scotland. In recent decades, there has been the oil to hold up the economy and before that there were all those UK-based public service jobs (including the army) that provided consistent employment.

Of course, many of the Scots being fine entrepreneurs, historically it was England and the British Empire that provided many with a platform to exploit their talents (including my own ancestors).

Presumably the oil won’t last for ever, so, unhitched from England and Wales – with a YES vote looking more and more likely – their best chance would seem to be in the EU, assuming that the EU keeps them on.

Scotland the Brave? My old boss, Bill Weithas, always used to equate bravery with high risk.

It’s their choice. Roll on September 18.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Searching for the Great Australian Opera

Americans seek perpetually for the Great American Novel. Perhaps the equivalent Down Under is the search for the Great Australian Opera.

The first to have been composed and produced in that place was Isaac Nathan’s Don John of Austria, premiรจred in Sydney in 1846, and recently revived by Alexander Briger. Briger is the nephew of conductor Sir Charles Mackerras, both of them descendants of Nathan.  

I’ve recently been listening to Richard Meale’s Voss, which strikes me as a strong contender as GAO.

But currently, I’m bowled over by the so-far unstaged Sappho of Peggy Glanville-Hicks, who not only wrote the music, but also created the libretto from a play by Lawrence Durrell. It was commissioned by San Francisco Opera in the early 1960s, but was never performed by them. Two years ago it was recorded professionally in Lisbon the brainchild of young Australian conductor, Jennifer Condon (above), who assembled a fine group of singers with the Gulbenkian Orchestra.

Time for a full production, Opera Australia?

Thursday, 4 September 2014

Strolling through the National Gallery in Canberra

In Canberra, a city with so much fine architecture from the 20th century, we had the opportunity to spend time in the National Gallery of Australia. It’s a collection and building that I’ve known and revisited over three decades.

While the collection itself has much of great interest – there are over 150,000 works in it – the building is (and always has been) problematical.

It was designed by Australian architect Colin Madigan in the 1960s, with advice from the previous director of the Guggenheim in New York, JJ Sweeney. And that’s where the deepest problems seem to start. Madigan followed the Guggenheim’s core concept, creating a spiral. But while this is immediately self-evident in New York, it’s scarcely discernible in Canberra, seeming to be more a jumble of interconnected spaces.

This wouldn’t matter quite so much if there was adequate signage around the building. But there isn’t. So one walks from one space to another, scarcely aware that the works are from any particular context, or location, or style, or time.

Added to that, there is very limited information on view about the works themselves – title, date and artist, yes but today’s visitors to art museums expect and deserve so much more.

 It all feels so unloved. And unlovable.  

What’s more, it’s still difficult to find the main entrance, the way in. This has always been a problem area, one which preoccupied previous directors, and was tackled, unsuccessfully, by the current incumbent, who is shortly to retire.

There’s so much for his successor to tackle, but I’m not at all clear how all these issues might be resolved short of starting over again.

Monday, 1 September 2014

Changi surprises

Visiting for the first time the museum and chapel dedicated to the prisoner-of-war camp at Changi in Singapore, the first surprising thing we learned was that 90% of the visitors come from Australia.

Changi has always had a special resonance for Aussies, some 16,000 of them being incarcerated there after the fall of Singapore to the Japanese in 1942. The camp had a particular reputation for the brutality of its regime.

A second surprise was to discover that Australians were by no means the largest contingent there. There were twice as many British prisoners. But most numerous of all were the Indians, members of the Indian Army based in Singapore, fighting with the British.

I wondered why the Indians are scarcely mentioned in the excellent museum displays. This gradually became clearer. At that time, many Indians were concerned primarily to evict the British from India, so when the Japanese offered them an alternative to the hardships of POW life, many decided to join up with the emerging Indian National Army in support of the Japanese war effort.

The most significant contributions of the INA were in fighting against the British at the Battles of Imphal and Kohima (in North-East India) and through Burma.

Later that day, we came across a memorial to the INA in the Esplanade Gardens.