From the library

January 22, 2022

I love libraries. Librarians festoon my family tree on the distaff side.*

I used to be able to borrow books (and other items) from the Sydney University Library with an $80-a-year alumnus borrowing card. In 2020, not long after I had paid them $80 for the ensuing year, the university shut down its campuses. No refund was ever offered. Libraries have re-opened to staff and students with swipe-card access, but not to others.

Any excuse, I feel, to be a bit mean – or too much trouble to be generous. A bit like the great retrenchment of public toilets which accompanied the AIDS crisis. In that case, sex-on-premises venues filled the breach to a certain extent. Driven from my university library, I’ve had to rediscover municipal libraries. Yes, there’s a possible double entendre there though I expect times have moved on in that department.

Fortunately, there has been some countervailing progress enabled by technology and the internet. There is thing called the Australian Libraries Gateway; you can search for books and other items on the National Library-maintained Trove. This shows what libraries have held any item you might be after. I say “have held” because Trove seems to pick up items once held but since either lost or “de-accessioned.” Librarians love chucking books out almost as much as swimming pool staff like announcing that the pool is about to close.

I belong to Randwick, City of Sydney and the Inner West libraries, and one or other of these will often hold what I am after. But you needn’t confine yourself to libraries you belong to. Your local library will obtain items for you on inter-library loan. Amazingly (to me) you can even borrow books this way from the State Library of NSW, which is not a lending library if you go there. The fee for this at the Inner West Library is generally $2.50.

Though not if you wanted to borrow something on interlibrary loan from a university library. These charge interlibrary loan fees of an altogether different magnitude. It is hard not to despair about our universities with their bloatedly overpaid upper management and an eye for little beyond the dollar. Even their own students, already on the hook for not-insubstantial fees, are not immune to further money-grabbing for things which once might have been thought of as part of the “university experience.” In 2020 the hire fee for the Sydney University Symphony Orchestra (primarily a student orchestra though maybe now with some former students as well) to use the Great Hall was reportedly $6,490 a day.

But I digress.

There is a lot more that you can now get out of your local library through its online portal, including online resources which can be accessed through the State Library. Some of this is the corollary of the death of the book.

If it’s a book you are after, especially a new one, you need to plan and be a bit patient. I reserved a copy of Emily McGuire’s recent novel, Love Objects at the author talk I attended last June. That came through this week. (A reservation made at Randwick came through a lot quicker – maybe it’s more of an Inner West kind of book.)

These are my currently reserved items at Inner West Library.

Available reservations 22 i 22

None of this comes close to filling the gap left by loss of access to music materials at both Fisher Library and, especially, the Conservatorium Library, or for anything at all recent and “academic.”

*On reflection, that’s not quite right. Librarians are on both sides of my family tree. What I meant to purvey by that picturesque phrase is that they were/are all women. To be precise, they are: (1) my maternal grandfather’s cousin Mx (the only one of that generation); then (2) my mother, her sister (strictly, they were teacher-librarians), my father’s cousin, my father’s brother’s wife, and my stepmother. It was a small world in WA and the last two trained under Mx. Except for her, it’s probably a mid-twentieth century thing – as far as I am aware there are no librarians in my own or subsequent generations.

Where to piss, to and from?

January 18, 2022

In the wake of the recent Sydney Festival awkwardness re sponsorship from the Government of Israel, Benjamin Law is in a tricky situation.

Hard to stay friends with everyone.

The road less travelled

January 11, 2022

This post is much longer than I first intended.

Last weekend, D and I went to Canberra. We returned on Sunday afternoon.

When we drive back we like to take a detour at Collector onto the Breadalbane Road, marked in red on the map above. By way of further context, the M31 is the Hume Highway. Goulburn is just off the map to the east. The M23 is the Federal Highway to Canberra.

Collector is a bypassed small town which was once a services stopover and I suppose even earlier a coaching stop on the road to the Limestone Plains. It has recently had a bit of a revival as a satellite/dormitory town to and Sunday-drive destination from Canberra, three-quarters of an hour away.

Originally a highway-side services sign indicated that there was fuel available at Collector. A few years back the service station closed and the bowser icon was painted out.  The neighbouring motel probably did not last as long. There is still the Bushranger Hotel.  Next to the hotel is the obelisk-like Nelson Memorial.  This is not a memorial to Horatio, Lord Nelson, but to Constable Samuel Nelson, shot outside the hotel in 1865 by members of Ben Hall’s gang.  Obviously, it wasn’t called the Bushranger Hotel at the time.  That came afterwards.  It seems just a bit disrespectful to Constable Nelson.

Breadalbane (pronounced BreadALbane) is smaller town on the Sydney-Melbourne railway, now bypassed by the Hume Highway, about twenty minutes west of Goulburn. Its petrol station and railway station are long closed as is the former Railway Hotel. There is still a primary school. Breadalbane might aspire one day to be a dormitory town to Goulburn.

Coming from Canberra on the Federal Highway, we took the second Collector exit. Breadalbane Road is the first right after that.

A few hundred metres after the turn-off there is a roadside stall offering eggs for sale. The eggs, packed in re-purposed shop-sourced cartons, are kept inside a styrofoam box with an ice brick to keep them cool. You can pay electronically but otherwise you leave your $5 a dozen in one of those blue round Danish shortbread tins. We picked up a dozen.

Then the road heads north out of town. Traffic, if encountered at all, is mostly local. The surface is variable and greatly patched. Right now there is a lot of water around. (Lake George was fuller than it has been for many years.) The road had more potholes than ever. All the more reason to slow down a bit. After the ferocious race on the dual carriageway around Lake George, it feels very peaceful. The scenery is pleasant.

Winters there can be chilly and the frost is kind to a number of roadside apple trees. We have had good hauls from these on previous trips. Opposite an apple tree with apples too small and unripe yet to pick we spotted a tree laden with small golden fruit. D tried one and announced they were sweet. They were stone fruit. D suggested they could be apricots – but the skin was smooth, not furry. I’ve since identified them as Mirabelle plums.

D got to work filling a cloth shopping bag. I took a few snaps with my mobile phone. This is part of one of them, cropped to leave most of D out of the picture.

The bag full enough, we drove on.

The road rises to a ridge with a pleasing prospect back towards the depression in which Lake George sits. That’s the wiggle on the map roughly in line with “Wollogorang”. D expressed surprise that the modest collection of farm buildings on the ridge had not been transformed by some “Grand Design.”

Breadalbane Road isn’t important enough to rate its own junction with the Hume Highway. You pass under the dual carriageway. To the left just after is the imaginatively named “Wet Lagoon” – normally with just a little visible water but always filled with rushes. It’s a wildlife refuge and a bit of a birding spot. We lingered for a few minutes. Across the lagoon from the road is a vista of wind farms on the ridge towards Yass. D and I relish this. It is all the sweeter for the recollection that wind farms at Lake George so enraged Joe Hockey that, with any luck, he has now gone to the United States for good.

The road then surmounts another ridge before descending to Breadalbane. On the corner where the road reaches the former Hume Highway there is a tiny church, St Silas, built as a war memorial just after WWI. It has a matching brick semi-gothic toilet. The door was once jammed open but may now have gone missing. Toilet and the church are no longer used and the site is primarily a graveyard.

The extension of the road to Parkesbourne shown on the map above is news to me. At this point we turn right and head back through Breadalbane to rejoin the Hume Highway and continue to Goulburn and Sydney.

A few hours later, we were home. I sat down to compose this post. I thought I had the perfect title.

But where was my phone? I searched the house. I used D’s phone to call it, which will normally provoke a chirpy machine version of the Minuet in G major from Bach’s Anna Magdalene Notebook. Not a chirrup. As D frequently has cause to rebuke me, my phone is often on silent. I searched every nook and crevice of the car. Had I left the phone behind in Canberra? No, I had taken pictures of the plum tree and the nearby apple trees. Maybe I left the phone on the roof of the car whilst waiting for D to finish.

I broke the news to D, who asked: did I really want to go back and look for it? The screen is already cracked. Time for a new one. I’d just transferred across a backlog of photos to my computer so not much to lose in that department. But what about the phone numbers? I can search my phone usage online for numbers I have called, but not for people who have only called me. And there were also some stored SMS messages I didn’t want to lose.

Of the two of us, I am the more frequent forgetter/loser. In 2011, we backtracked from Bamberg to Mitterteich before heading on to our next destination at Rothenburg ob der Tauber in search of a camera which I had left on an outside table at a McDonald’s on a long day driving from Prague to Munich via Karlovy Vary. That time it was D who was determined to go back for the sake of a holiday’s worth of pictures, and the quest was successful. (We had rung earlier but it was only when we got there that they owned up to having it.) A few years later steps retraced to the Royal National Park (including a 3 km walk) failed to locate the same camera.

We were on Monday to see my friend P, back from Germany to visit family. Final arrangements were yet to be confirmed, and she was using a temporary local number. Fortunately, I had called her on it and was able to recover the number from my online call history and let her know that she would have to call D unless the phone was found. P laughed. Our drive to Munich in 2011 was to see her so she knew the history.

D, who was not feeling well, nobly offered to come with me. But just to keep me company, not to drive. Don’t even think about it! he warned. D has night vision problems and hates night driving. I profess to abjure country roads at night. Principles crumbled before necessity. It’s all relative.

After some strong coffees and even stronger words from D, we set out at about 9.30.

I tried to divert D from the deserved reproaches en route whilst encouraging him to keep me awake by quizzing him about his family history. I learnt a lot. In the fog behind Mittagong the high beam was more of a hindrance than a help. The fog turned to a dense and fine rain. After Marulan the heavens opened and we had to pull over for a while. We were not the only ones who did so.

It was almost midnight when we stopped at Goulburn by the big Merino for fuel and service-station coffee which only medicinal purposes could justify drinking. We pressed on to Breadalbane and turned left, for the first time ever driving from north to south on the no longer less-travelled road.

Thankfully, the rain had abated. It felt very dark.

Maybe the phone had fallen out of the car or my pocket when we paused at Wet Lagoon. The spot was easy to find. D still had a signal. Frogs croaked and water birds called. No Minuet.

We set off again. At D’s insistence, I slowed to a crawl, the headlights on high beam as we scoured the road and its edges for any possible glint.

We met two foxes on the way.

It was harder to find the plum tree in the dark. I thought I identified a distinctive culvert near the tree but I wasn’t sure. It looked different in the dark. We drove a bit further and then turned round. Coming back in the original direction, the tree was recognisable. The culvert was the right culvert after all. I stopped the car a bit further on from where we had pulled over in the afternoon. It would be too terrible, I remarked, if having come so far we crushed the phone ourselves.

All along I harboured a fear which it seemed wisest to keep to myself: it would be even more terrible if we returned empty handed and the phone later turned up to be somewhere at home after all.

I walked back towards the tree. D still had reception.

And then, a gleam in the undergrowth next to the tree. No Minuet – the phone was on silent, but no matter. They say the minuet wasn’t even written by Bach.

D rang again to provoke my phone to light as a re-enactment. He has sent me a picture by SMS but technical difficulties have prevented its inclusion here.

Miraculously, I felt less tired driving back. It could have been the caffeine still doing its work but more likely the relief.

There are few private vehicles on the highway at this hour. I did my best as an aid to concentration and a shield against potential wildlife to trail at a sedate pace one or other monstrous brightly-lit truck. Only rarely, on a steep hill which reduced these behemoths to a speed too slow to bear, did we overtake one. I did not feel that they bore a grudge when they inevitably passed us on the the next downhill or flat.

D relapsed into silence. Just before the now-unsignposted (I reckon because of this) turn-off to the Belanglo State Forest D said he was feeling nauseous. Then he asked me to pull over. I didn’t quite appreciate the urgency of the request. There was a second incident just a few blocks from home. This time I stopped in time. We walked in the front door just before 3.30 am.

No Junk Mail, Thank You!

January 8, 2022

A letterbox somewhere in Canterbury, or maybe Summer Hill. I suppose I could work out and provide the address to anyone who really wants to know.

Dave doesn’t have time to deal with junk mail.

An opera-lover writes again

December 31, 2021

First a little background. When I learnt piano as a boy, I did a piano exam each year. This was common and indeed such exams still occur.

Historically, it’s very much a British empire kind of thing, rather on the model of the University of London as an examining body. A number of these bodies are based in London, and there has long been a local outfit, the AMEB (Australian Music Examination Board) which was originally a kind of condominium of the various state conservatoriums and music faculties.

Looking back, it was a funny little world. But with these exams you knew where you stood. I remember looking up in awe at T, the elder sister of a friend of my elder sister, probably aged about eleven or twelve. She was doing fourth grade. Only recently my sister told be that T hated piano lessons and exams and gave them up as soon as she could.

The justifications for exams are many, and not uncontroversial. Some are that this way learners can have a goal to meet, which includes getting a group of pieces up to a reasonable and simultaneous level of finish. They get to play for someone other than their teacher – which is an indirect check on the teacher. The syllabus provides guidance on pieces in a graded sequence and there is a kind of canon-formation project involved. Parents often seem to like exam results as a validation of what they have been paying for.

After a number of grades the whole edifice culminates in a series of diplomas.

In truth, these days, with the proliferation if not over-proliferation and prolongation of tertiary level music study, these diplomas are pretty well meaningless save as badges of honour for talented high school students (or even younger wunderkinder). When standards were lower and playing the piano still had a vestigial life as a (feminine) accomplishment, they probably served as some kind of a distinction/accreditation for suburban and rural piano teachers, though the AMEB always disclaimed that the exams were a test of any teaching ability. (Later it introduced some teaching diplomas but maybe these have fallen away.)

My friend ST, opera- and music-lover, has sent me extracts from the AMEB 1980 and 1985 piano syllabuses for eighth grade and the associate diploma. Below are my rather blurry pictures of the 1980 pages with his annotations, in red.

ST , persisting with or returning to the piano as a kind of unfinished business after he left school and into his twenties, did his 8th grade exam at this time and also tackled pieces for the Associate diploma. I think the latter eventually proved a bridge too far. He explains his annotations as follows:

Crossed items are composers dropped. Some other reductions, & the very few composer additions are marginally noted,

Particularly irksome were are the dropping of whole sets (exclamation marks) like the “Sarcasms” (all five) & the opus 111 Fantasies (all three).

In summary, 15 8th g. composers & 24 Assoc composers dropped with respectively 4 additions & 5 additions. Why so? (Debussy & Ravel go from list C to list D).

Why indeed? I myself played a Prokofiev Sarcasm for my AMusA exam in 1976, so I feel a little wrench – slighted, even, by its banishment from the list.

ST adds:

These changes, notated herewith, made me angry in the early to mid 80s. That emotion was never resolved but by sharing it now, that resolution is thereby achieved.

All good, then.

Journalism/content creation on “our ABC”

December 28, 2021

The Stephen Spielberg “remake” of West Side Story opened in Australian cinemas on Boxing Day.

On the same day, ABC “Music & Pop Culture Reporter Mawunyo Gbogbo” published Your guide to West Side Story: The history, background and controversy.

As the title forewarns, the hook for Gbogbo’s piece is that (cf the film version of Cats) the new film has had a less than stellar run at the US box office. Easiest to quote Gbogbo’s article here, in case it gets taken down or amended:

It did badly at the US box office, could that be repeated here?

When West Side Story opened in the United States, the box office results in its opening weekend were disappointing.

The movie cost Disney and 20th Century Studios $US100 million ($140 million) to make.

It only made $US10.5 million on its debut, and therefore stands to lose millions.

This may have been because people have been reluctant to get back to movie theatres because of the pandemic.

It may also, in some part, be because of controversy.

Ah yes, controversy. A bit of a weasel word, really.

It turns out that allegations have been levelled against Ansel Elgort, who plays Tony. The allegations were made and denied online in now-deleted posts on both sides. But they have an afterlife in comments in a youtube post of an interview between Elgort and Drew Barrymore to which we are helpfully directed.

Viewers of the segment, however, haven’t held back in discussing the allegations in the comments section.

The ABC has reached out to Disney for a response on the allegations, but is yet to hear back.

Talk about a kiss of death. Is this where critical discourse and journalism have got to these days?

Gbogbo was seemingly undeterred from assuming the role of guide by not having seen either the (1957) stage musical or the (1961) film. She does offer a cursory review: worth watching though drags a bit at the beginning; laden with stereotypes; not so sure it’s aged well [probably hard to be sure if you haven’t seen any earlier versions]; Elgort well cast; other standout Anita. No mention of Bernstein, Sondheim, the songs, the dancing, or why the show might ever have been thought worthy of a remake.

I have “reached out” to Gbogbo about her piece but am yet to hear back.

Able was I

December 26, 2021

I picked this up on Christmas Eve. It was the cheapest available.

Our pudding was from Aldi (albeit, just a bit pathetically, their aspirational “curated” range). Why splash out on any of that Napoleon stuff just to make brandy butter/hard sauce and fuel the ritual flambé?

Not that (as you can infer from the level in the bottle) some of it did not also get drunk. My standards are low.

Maybe I’m the last person to notice this, but the piss-take brand name also took my fancy.

Coming soon to a venue near you

December 14, 2021

This is a kind of double sequel post.

The above picture is from my 2017 post about an unexpected reunion between two of my late father’s paternal cousins. All six cousins (including my father and his brother) are pictured above circa 1932-33.

Yesterday I received a call from Jx, daughter of R (the girl at the front in the photo) to let me know that R died on Saturday.  She also told me that she had just discovered that the other girl in that photo, M, died a few months ago.  They were 93 and 94 respectively. R’s brother, the last surviving of the boys in the photo (the second from the far end), died three years ago aged 92.

I last spoke to R in August and to M (both living in Perth) in July.  Last week I was unable to get though to M when I tried her direct number at the aged care facility – an ominous sign. R’s birthday is in December and I had thought I might follow that up with her when I called her. M never married or had children and her “nok” at the aged care facility were probably her brother’s step-children. I guess they weren’t greatly focussed on M’s blood relatives. Jx said that R had not been told anything.

In a post last December I wrote about two journeys – the proposed trip by YYX, partner of my sister, YY, from London to Lancashire in the then-proposed Christmas “window” to see his parents and D’s longed-for trip to Shanghai to see his mother.

In the end the Christmas “window” was cancelled.

D’s trip never happened.  His mother died mid-October, aged 91.  For hours every day for more than a year leading up to that, D was at her bedside via Wechat facetime-equivalent.  As her condition deteriorated this became more and more fraught and hung heavily over our lockdown life. 

D was eventually able to get permission to leave Australia (just before this restriction was lifted) but a visa to enter China only came through on the day of or the day after his mother’s death. He participated in the funeral via a phone held up by one of his nieces. 

There is one obsequy to come on the winter solstice. For that D would have had to have flown out by the last week of November in order to serve the requisite quarantine/isolation. In the end it was too hard and prohibitively expensive even if he could get one of the very limited tickets.

In mid-November, YYX’s father, J, went into hospital for a major heart operation.  YYX drove up to Lancashire to take J into the hospital and then drive his mother (who no longer drives) every day to visit him.  

Last Friday night YY called.  J had been discharged a couple of days before after 3 weeks in hospital, but over his first day home he deteriorated rapidly.  YYX called an ambulance at 2.30 am which didn’t arrive until about 6 am.  J was taken first to the hospital where the ambulance came from, and then to the more distant hospital where he had previously been.  Along the way, he had a number of heart attacks and was eventually in an induced coma with multiple organ failure.  It was unlikely he would regain brain function. 

When YY rang me (actually she’d spoken to D the night before when I had been out), YYX, his mother and brother were on their way to the hospital. The medical people had prepared them to take the decision to turn the life support off.  As YY was speaking to me, there was a call on her other phone.  “I’d better take that,” said YY.  Next morning I saw an email, sent just after.  That was YYX.  There had been no need to take any decision. J had just died, all by himself.  It was his 81st birthday.

There’s a lot of it about.

Platée

December 13, 2021
KB as P, from Pinchgut twitter

On Wednesday last week with D to Angel Place for Pinchgut’s production of Rameau’s Platée.

Were I flusher with funds or Pinchgut able/willing to offer cheaper tickets I would have gone more than once.  At the last minute Pinchgut released cheapish tickets for a filming session on Tuesday but by then I was already committed to Midsummer Night’s Dream at NIDA with the Con.  And then they released cheap seats for the last night – but that’s when I was going anyway.  The main loss to me was that the exuberant score whizzed past me without the opportunity of familiarity to savour more particularly its many delights.  Oh well, them’s the breaks.

It’s twenty years since I went to Pinchgut’s first production – not strictly an opera but a staged performance of Handel’s oratorio Semele.  It has become customary almost every year since for loyal Pinchgut followers to announce that “this is Pinchgut’s best yet.”  In line with that tradition, Pinchgut itself allowed themselves on facebook the following:

“Did you hear? Platée is being hailed as Pinchgut’s best opera yet!”

If they had in mind Peter McCallum’s review in the SMH, what he actually wrote was:

“Theatrically, Armfield’s unflagging production is, for me, the best in Pinchgut’s 20-year history.”

That’s a slightly different claim. 

For me, the notable thing about this production is how covid-inflicted autarky, throwing the company back on its Australian resources, may have yielded some opportunities (who knows if Neil Armfield would otherwise have been available?  or Cathy di Zhang, driven back here from Europe in 2020?) and has confirmed the company’s strengths (especially the orchestra, the availability and return of Cantillation, and a special nod to David Greco, practically brought up by Pinchgut as he himself acknowledges).

And, of course, Kanen Breen in the title role.  The (wafer-thin) plot entails a cruel trick played on Platée, a marsh-swamp naiad led to believe that Jupiter will marry her, when the whole point is that Juno will realise that Platée is so ugly that Jupiter could not possibly be intending to do so.  As Peter McC also wrote:

“the evening belongs to Kanen Breen as the swamp queen Platée, for whose vocal and burlesque talents the role could well have been written 276 years ago. … Breen’s Platée is a towering performance, not just for the high-heeled, thigh-length pink boots from which he dispenses this cavalcade of queenly kitsch, but for his indefatigable vocal and physical litheness, stamina and wit. Right at the end, just as one imagines la commedia e finita, Breen introduces a disturbing new tone, throwing body, soul and voice into a remarkable epilogue of scorned intensity.”

I can definitely endorse that.  But there is more.  Passed over by PMcC in this account, the heart of the opera was as Platée entertained dreams of impending connubial bliss.  That hinged on directorial touches by Armfield, but also on Breen’s characterisation of Platée’s vulnerable delusion.  Not really self-delusion because all were conspiring against her.  This was deeply poignant.

D and I are fans of KB. We treasure the memory of a post-performance encounter some time in the noughties when KB energetically cycled by bound for Elizabeth Bay or wherever as we ambled at a more leisurely pace up Macquarie Street to our then Phillip-Street-south favourite parking spot. 

Awards schmawards. Surely this must snare Kanen a fourth Helpmann award.

Finally, what a treat to see an actual musette! I missed it on its first outing last year for the Charpentier Messe de Minuit. This is an instrument you learn of as a pianist because of various keyboard pastiches (starting with JSB in the Anna Magdalena Notebook and an English suite). You are told that it is like a bagpipe, which it is, but sweeter and quieter.

Let’s go to an opera

December 13, 2021

Last Tues to the NIDA Playhouse for a performance of Britten’s Midsummer Night’s Dream.

This was a joint production between the Conservatorium and NIDA.  Performers (onstage and orchestra) were from the Con; NIDA provided the venue and everything else.

In my opera-going life, Opera Australia has had two excellent productions of MSND.  First, the Moshinsky production first seen in 1978 with James Bowman as Oberon soaring in from the wings on a trapeze, and then the Baz Luhrmann “British India” production with the orchestra on a bandstand and the fairies creeping out from beneath it.  I see I was a bit underwhelmed on its last return in 2010, but that did not diminish my love of the work.

Opera is a difficult art.  With a student production you have to adjust your expectations and there will often be some necessary compromises.

The biggest compromise in this production was that instead of a chorus of children for the fairies (Britten wrote for boy trebles but it could well now be done with a “co-ed” group so long as there is an upper age/vocal maturity cutoff for the girls) this time we had five adult women as Mustardseed, Peaseblossom, Cobweb and Moth (as per the book) and a fifth, “Ariel” (on loan I suppose).  They seem to have been re-thought as dryads and glided around the stage in a stately tree-like way.

Practically speaking the reasons for this are obvious.  The Con opera and vocal tertiary program is in the business of providing parts for its (adult) students.  But it did have musical and dramatic consequences. 

Musically, an axis of comparison to the ethereal, other-worldly world of the chorus of fairies was weakened.  (There was also a cut of the “tongs and bones” number where the children play recorders and percussion while Bottom demonstrates his reasonable good ear in music.)  With five adult produced voices taking the chorus vocal lines it was also very difficult to make out the words for most of the songs.  I also felt the tempo of the final chorus, maybe tempered to the different nature of the ensemble because of the fairy rethink, was too fast with a big loss of lilt.

Dramatically, there was also a mismatch: it was difficult to make sense of Titania’s directions to her fairies to “skip away.” Bottom summons the named fairies to various errands and tasks to which they each in turn respond “Ready!”  (There is a running gag with Moth constantly being cut off.) You could imagine them waiting attentively and springing forth as bidden, but here they glided in at their own pace, more “When I’m ready.”  When Titania sends the fairies away, they sing “One of us stand sentinel” but nobody did.

Basically the whole scherzando aspect of the fairies was lost.

The other compromise of a sort is that the NIDA theatre is fundamentally unsuited to classical music because it is CARPETED.  This is hard on the singers and was especially hard on the counter-tenor singing Oberon. 

I didn’t mind other compromises such as the substitution of an electric keyboard for the harpsichord and celeste – there probably wasn’t room in the pit for them.  Sometimes the “harpsichord” was a bit implausibly loud but not overwhelmingly so.

Maddeningly, on Tuesday, after a delay of about 20 minutes (“unforeseen circumstances” we were told – putting me in mind of “accidental circumstances”), we were subjected to a school-concertish speech from Neal Peres da Costa before the beginning of the performance.  He even duplicated the welcome to country and acknowledgement which we had already received over the PA.  I said to my neighbour “Will there be a quiz on this?”  I wish I’d had the nerve to call out more loudly “Is this going to be in the exam?”

The upshot of all of this is that although I was glad to have gone, I didn’t come away with the glow that I might have expected to take away from the first live performance I had been able to see since June.

All the same, when on Thursday my friend U offered me a spare and free ticket for the final performance on Saturday afternoon, I accepted.

A friend I ran into on Saturday expressed some incredulity that I would want to go twice. I am glad I did, though I doubt if I would have paid to go a second time.  I enjoyed it more second time around.  I expect the performance had improved over the run, but mainly I had adjusted my expectations.  In the second half I also found a spot (in one of the boxes on the side) which gave Oberon more of an acoustical fighting chance.  And, small mercy, we were not subjected to a speech at the start.

It looks as though the Con (they like to call themselves SCM) and NIDA are planning on continuing this collaboration.  There are a lot of pluses for this theatrically.  The carpet will continue to be a very big negative.  I would prefer that NIDA in future conformed to operatic conventions in limiting admissions of latecomers to appropriate breaks in the performance.

In a program note by Kate Gaul and Stephen Mould (stage and musical director respectively) referring to musical treatments of MSND, Purcell’s Fairy Queen did not rate a mention even though Britten was described as “the first great composer for the opera stage [in England] since the age of Purcell (roughly contemporaneous with Shakespeare).”  OK:  1659-1695 (Purcell) and 1564-1616 (Shakespeare).  You could equally say Purcell is roughly contemporaneous with Mozart (1756-1792).

All of this seems a bit negative.  Actually, and especially in the very trying circumstances of this year, it was a terrific achievement to have mounted this production, whatever its imperfections.  There were some promising performances by the singers (the better ones were those with better diction) and the orchestra competently realised what must be a tricky score.