josh rosner

Posts Tagged ‘Opera’

SOME THOUGHTS ON … PARIS

In Europe, Fine Dining on June 17, 2013 at 12:22 pm

I first visited Paris in the summer of 1992. I was twenty-one years old and thought I was a poet. I wore a silly red beret, an over-sized coat and I spent much of my time trawling through second-hand bookstores, drinking copious quantities of coffee and sitting on the banks of the Seine writing poetry. I saw a few sights, of course, but I wasn’t there to be a tourist. I wanted to blend in. I naively thought my French was so good that nobody noticed I was a foreigner.

I’d spent two years trying to write a novel while living in London. It was a complete failure. Perhaps if I hadn’t spent every night at my local pub drinking myself into oblivion until last drinks were called, I may have managed some serious work. I was young. I chose to drink and party, assuming there would always be time to write.

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Traveling to Paris, I abandoned my novel-writing aspirations and turned to poetry. I desired La Boheme. I lived out of a cockroach-infested apartment in which the bed, the bathroom and the kitchen comprised the one very tiny room. But I loved it. There was a small wooden desk under the window with views of a brick wall. I thought it was heaven. “Being able to live alone,” wrote Albert Camus, “in a cheap room for a year in Paris teaches a man more than a hundred literary salons and forty years’ experience of ‘Parisian life’.” Every day, my beret a permanent fixture, I wrote arguably the worst poetry ever written in cafes (pretending I was Hemingway) and while strolling along the Seine (pretending I was Rambaud). Creatively, it was a failure. But a tiny piece of Paris stayed with me, even though I was not to visit again for two decades. Paris really is, as Hemingway put it, a moveable feast, in a way so many other sprawling metropolises are not. In truth, Paris was not what I had come to expect from the many French films I had seen. It was not the Paris of my dreams. You never get another first time, but I was happy with my Paris.

Twenty years later, my novel no further advanced and my poetry still appalling, I returned to Paris. It had changed. Or I had changed. Either way, despite my excitement to return, it was like a completely different city. It was as if I had visited the pre-Houssmann Paris only to return many years later after it had been knocked down and rebuilt. Nothing was familiar, least of all Parisians themselves. They were ruder; at least, even ruder than their global reputation. The places I had once loved – Notre Dame, Moulin Rouge, the Eiffel Tower, the sound of the Metro, students – were no longer charming. The city was dirty, smelly, expensive, and it seemed as if every Parisian walked about with a Galloises hanging from their lips, whisps of disgusting carcinogenic smoke lingering in the air for unsuspecting tourists to inhale. The footpaths were littered with dog shit. Poverty seemed to have made a surge in Paris with homeless people congregating outside major attractions and department stores. Gypsies, with small children in tow, begged or attempted to scam, from tourists. They carried little signs, written in various languages, asking for money. Or, as happened to me, a gypsy pretended to pick up a ring right in front of me, telling me she was returning my ring then asking for a reward. It was a cheap imitation, of course, and her coat was full of them. Instead of offering a few Euros I took the ring, pocketed it, and walked off, telling her in French, “You lose. Too bad.” Paris has lost its fun. It no longer had a soul.

I still did the rounds of the tourist sights and enjoyed myself. I ate in some of the cafes I had frequented twenty years earlier as an act of nostalgia. I wandered aimlessly around Montmartre with little regard for direction or purpose. I thought to myself that I’d had my time. Paris of the early 1990s had been my Paris. I was young. I didn’t have a care in the world. I was poor. Returning twenty years later I stayed in a suite in a luxury hotel. I could afford to eat expensive meals in some of Paris’s oldest and most exquisite restaurants. Most people would be pleased with the transition from poverty to comparative wealth, no longer having to live in a cheap hotel with barely enough money for a baguette each day. I was grateful, don’t misunderstand me, but the Paris I fell in love with no longer existed. It was twenty years older. Its politics had changed. Its place in Europe had changed.

In 2012 I returned again. Perhaps because I felt comfortable and safe, perhaps because I was capable of navigating the Metro network from memory, or perhaps because I was more visiting with no agenda, I was able to once again fall in love with Paris. I ate in some fine dining establishments, but I also stumbled across backstreet cafes off the tourist trail. I had fun. Parisians still smoked to excess, but I ignored them, passing it off as one of the city’s quirks. I visited old haunts and found new favourites. I realised I could never have too much of Paris.

In the days after leaving Paris this last time a thought came to me: I don’t need trinkets or kitschy ephemera to remind me that I love Paris. All I need to do is slow down and take the time to remember the joy that Paris brought me all those years ago.

It was, of course, me who had changed. Not Paris. Once I realised that I was free to embrace and enjoy a city that had once been the love of my life, even if for no longer than a European summer.

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DAME KIRI TE KANAWA IN RECITAL – A REVIEW

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.

AUSTRALIANS: JUST TOO POLITE?

In Australian Culture and Society on February 9, 2011 at 5:40 am

There was recently an article in the Sydney Morning Herald titled ‘Booing John Malkovich‘, about his less-than-well-received performance in the Sydney Festival production of The Giacomo Variations. You can read the article here. It suggests that it is difficult and rare to evoke an emotional response to a performance from a Sydney audience. “Masters of the sitting ovation”, is one quote.

As a regular opera-goer – I attend three or four Opera Australia products each year, as well as Opera Queensland, WA Opera and I always try to see a production when traveling overseas – I can certainly attest to Australian audiences’ reticence to display an emotional response to a shared experience, whether it was enjoyed or loathed. I thought Opera Australia’s production of Tosca in 2010 was ridiculous, farcical and a waste of my money (compounded by the fact I fly to Sydney and stay overnight each time I see an opera) and I had no reservations speaking my mind to fellow patrons and booing at the end. Opera Australia’s La Traviata, by comparison – which I saw on the same day as Tosca – was one of the best opera productions I have ever seen. I did not stand as the curtain fell (I felt Opera Australia didn’t deserve it, even if the performance did) but I did clap enthusiastically. Last year I saw a Bell Shakespeare production of King Lear in Canberra (the tickets were a birthday present) and one of the actors actually, blatantly read his lines of a small queue card he did little to conceal. It ruined the production for me and soured me to Bell. I sent an email to Bell’s production office expressing my disappointment. I received no acknowledgement or response.

The opera, like most theatre experiences, does lend itself to the quiet tut-tut from audience members who perceive a clap was offered at the wrong time, or it went on to long, or a ‘bravo’ was yelled just a little too loud in that “I’m an aficionado” style. I have never – ever – seen one audience member verbally abuse another, although I have often heard “shhhh” come from somewhere around me.

Although this article is specifically about the seemingly conservative nature of Australian theater audiences (or is just a Sydney thing?), I think it speaks more broadly to who we are as Australians. I know some readers will find my next comment contentious or deliberately provocative, but, nonetheless, it is my honest assessment. On rare occasions, Australians have been moved to take to the streets in protest. Cronulla comes to mind (for all the wrong reasons) as well as the protests against war in Iraq (which I joined). But it is incredibly rare for Australians, en-masse and spontaneously, to take to the streets in protest to government policy. We could take a lesson from the French here. They don’t just march in an organised parade holding banners on high. When their government wrongs them (and lets face it, throughout history successive French governments have wronged its citizens) they speak in a language that is heard and understood. With violence. I am always amazed that no Australian prime minister has been assassinated. It isn’t because they were well protected. They aren’t. It’s because as Australians we allow our government to say “bend over”, and then we do. We take it, barely emitting a whimper. “Thank you, Sir. May I have another?”

Australia is a mature country, on the verge of independence from Britain. It is time we learned to stick up for ourselves. To stand up and take action, rather than being walked all over by those we vote for.