josh rosner


In Australian Culture and Society on April 24, 2012 at 11:14 pm

Last Saturday night we saw Dame Kiri Te Kanawa in recital at the Llewellyn Hall in Canberra. Last year we saw her perform at the Opera House in Sydney and as opera lovers and fans of her CD of Maori songs, we decided at the last-minute to grab tickets.

Dame Kiri Te Kanawa

Before I continue with what will be a review of the evening, the audience and the venue, I should disclaim that all comments to follow are undoubtedly influenced by the four months I recently spent living in Berlin where I had the good fortune to regularly attend concerts by the Berlin Philharmonic; performances of the Staatsoper and Deutsche Oper, as well as plays in various theatres. For better or worse, I am viewing the Australian cultural landscape through the prism of my European experiences. It’s also worth mentioning that, when in Australia, we attend – money permitting – three or four Opera Australia productions in Sydney or Melbourne, as well as at least one opera produced by another company – such as Queensland Opera or Opera Victoria.

The search via Ticketek’s website for suitable (read as, not in the very last row) tickets left us with few options. The only seats available were in the balcony, so we opted for front row, off to the right-of-centre. The tickets cost just over $200 and although I am not normally a fan of balcony seats, preferring something closer in the stalls, we took what was available.

Only once before have I been to a performance at the ANU’s Llewellyn Hall – to hear the Australian Chamber Orchestra. That was a few years ago, and either the acoustics are better from the stalls, or I didn’t notice how bad it was. Sitting in the front row of the balcony, the sound was atrocious. It was dull, not successfully projected around the hall. Dame Kiri chose at first to speak to the audience without the assistance of a microphone. The elderly couple seated to my left, probably well into their seventies, asked me at the intermission if I was ab

le to hear clearly. Obviously my hearing has not yet degenerated to that of someone well into their eight decade, but nonetheless their point was well made. Not only was it difficult to hear Dame Kiri speaking from the stage, but it was just as difficult to clearly hear her singing – also executed without the assistance of a microphone. There were a number of reasons for this difficulty.

Firstly, the Llewellyn Hall is not just an ugly, concrete monstrosity externally. The concert hall itself is small, poorly designed and industrial-in-ambience with a feel of half-heartedarchitecture to it. There is beautiful wood paneling in the concert hall itself, but it gives way to bare, exposed concrete. The railings along the leading edge of the balcony – which obscure the view of the stage – look like they were plucked right off a motorway. The acoustics are poor. Poor isn’t strong enough. They are appalling.

ANU's Llewellyn Hal

Second, a woman three seats away to my left came to the theatre with tubes stuck up her nose and a backpack-sized machine which pumped – I presume – oxygen into her lungs. Loudly. Very loudly. So loudly that sometimes the only thing I could hear was the constant hum of the pump and the two-second-intervals of air being shot into her lungs. One could argue until the end of time about that woman’s decision-making. She is probably extremely ill and probably needs the machine to stay alive. But be that as it may, one (ill) person’s enjoyment of the Arts was obviously at the expense of many people around her. I don’t want to say she doesn’t have the right to be there – obviously she does – but in deciding to attend an evening of opera recital she must also have been aware that her loud machine was going to disturb, if not annoy, people around her.

Third, at sixty-eight, Te Kanawa’s voice clearly isn’t what it used to be. At the peak of her career, she was arguably one of the three greatest sopranos ever to have sung opera – the other two being Dame Joan Sutherland (a coloratura soprano)  and Maria Callas. Te Kanawa looked amazing; radiant even, in her full-length aqua dress, and given her small concert tour of Australia and New Zealand was raising money for her foundation – the Kiri Te Kanawa Foundation – which financially supports emerging New Zealand opera singers, I can forgive the lack of perfection in her voice which one might otherwise expect, if not demand. But I would also argue that this should be her last tour and in future she should severely restrict her public performances, if only to maintain integrity in her ‘brand’.

When taken together, these three converging situations served to make an expensive night at the theatre far less enjoyable than it should have been. In future I’m likely to avoid Llewellyn Hall completely.

What intrigued me even more than the series of events which intervened to make the night unenjoyable is that nobody complained about it. The old couple next to me vented their frustration to me, but that seemed to be as far as they were prepared to go. Not one person called out asking Dame Kiri to use the microphone because they couldn’t clearly hear her sing or speak.

At one point Dame Kiri’s voice cracked while singing. She was unable to sustain a note and her voice faltered. It was easily missed – perhaps many in the audience failed to even discern it – and quickly covered up, but nonetheless it occurred. Nobody boo’d Dame Kiri. In fact, the opposite resulted. The audience applauded with gusto once the aria was concluded.

Last Saturday night’s performance offered many opportunities to publicly, vocally complain – from the venue to the artist. None took the opportunity.

Last year I was given tickets to Bell Shakespeare’s King Lear at the Canberra Theatre for my birthday. On the night one of the regular actors was, I believe, ill and a replacement was hastily found, flown down from Brisbane. Unfortunately the replacement had clearly not learned all his lines, because periodically he pulled out a small piece of paper and read from it. I was appalled – disgusted, even – and if the tickets hadn’t been  a gift (and I was attending the performance with the person who gave them to me) I’d have walked out. Instead, I stayed, fuming and mumbling to myself under my breath.

There are many other examples of disappointing nights at the theatre or opera that were worthy of complaint but I – and the rest of the audience – remained silent. I’ve written previously about the propensity of Australian audiences to politely applaud rather than boo a performance the is boo-worthy. You can read it here. I’m not going to elaborate, except to say that European audiences, in my opinion, are less inhibited to boo, just as they are more generous and passionate in their recognition of an outstanding performance. I wish Australian audiences could emulate the Europeans more.

Berlin Philharmonie

A final note about the Berlin Philharmonie, one of the truly amazing concert halls in the world. The amazing and beautiful architect of the concert hall is impossible to miss on Potsdamer Platz. It’s also impossible to take one’s eyes off it, particularly at night when it’s yellow walls shimmer in the soft light. Once seated inside the main chamber, the true skill of the design quickly becomes apparent. It’s designer, Hans Scharoun, used a new approach to acoustics design called ‘vineyard terracing’. It also uses what was, at the time, considered a radical concept: ‘music in the round’. Scharoun said in an interview that “people always gather in circles when listening to music informally”, so he built in that idea when designing the concert hall. It is, without a doubt, one of the most acoustically precise environments I have ever has the pleasure to be in.

Berlin Philharmonie - Main Concert Hall

Perhaps it isn’t a fair comparison to make, but when an evening at the opera in Australia costs more than $300 for two premium tickets, and the acoustics are average at best, one can’t help pine for Europe’s great concert halls, where an evening out might cost a third of the price, with perfect acoustics.


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