Skool’s out!

December 11, 2019

I blush now to admit that I went to a private school for my secondary education.

A vital part of that so far as I was concerned was the extra weeks of school holidays which private schools had compared to state schools – usually a week at the beginning and end of the long summer holidays and a week in each of the mid-year vacations.  Even at Easter, you got an extra day on the Thursday before.  This gave a clearer run at the Easter Show if that was your thing.

I’m not sure what I ever thought justified this privilege.  Was it a reward for enduring boater, short hair and Saturday sport?  – I cannot have thought this, especially since I managed to evade Saturday sport after just one term of first form (Year 7 these days).  Was it for the sake of the boarders?  They were an ever-diminishing band.  (I’ve always suspected that equal wages for women is what really struck the death blow for boarding schools at this time.) 

Perhaps it is a reward to the teachers for the extra-curricular burden they shoulder.

If I were a parent, I’d be more likely to conclude that the private-school holidays are a bit of a wheeze – rather like the way that the price of peanut butter goes up by making the jar smaller.   Not only do you have to pay the private school more than a state school, but they take the kids off your hands for less time to boot.  They do it because they can.

Just now, at the beginning of December, the city swarms with be-uniformed school children from those more “prestigious” schools which have hired the Sydney Town Hall for their annual speech day.  This makes sense for a school which can afford it. It would be extravagant for a school to build an assembly hall able to fit all the students AND their doting parents.

For a while, the Opera House also took speech days and school concerts. I’m pretty sure the SOH has retreated from that business these days, so the pressure on the Town Hall must be pretty intense – a bit like time slots at the crematorium.

I guess each school does roughly the same thing in the time allowed it.  There will be some musical items.  Prizes will probably be presented (this can drag on a bit).  Some prominent figure will give an address and the principal will probably also present a report.  The big organ will be played and at the end we will all be free!

Or so it seemed then.





The big finish

November 29, 2019

sso tix

That’s the title of an ABC 4 Corners program about someone who seems to be increasingly unremembered by the Sydney Symphony powers that now be. Otherwise you could take it as a reference to the end of the orchestra’s 2019 season and David Robertson’s chief conductorship.

It’s also a reference to the  2  more times I have  left at the Opera House Concert Hall before it shuts down for two years’ worth of improvement.

I listened tonight to the live broadcast of John Adams’  Harmonielehre (the second half of the American Harmonies program and Robertson’s farewell): it’s fascinating to be able to follow the score online.

The kaleidoscopically-shifting patterns in the first and last  movements cry out for some substantial enhancement, if on HIP (Historically Informed Performance) grounds alone.  Oh well, you can’t have everything.

I guess the unusual 5pm time is to allow for some kind of post-concert party for which my invitation seems to have got lost in the post.

I’m  looking forward to the Mahler (almost pre-Mahler in many ways)  next week, even though I’m not so crazy on this tendency to serve up big but not actually very long works as the entire program.  And continuing the theme from the title, there is a bit of a link between the unremembered one and Ms Young.

Door 13 is the best door – rear stalls, keyboard side. There must be something I should do as I leave next Saturday – kiss the lintel? – to signify my hope of a return in due course.



The man in the iron mask

November 19, 2019

A man has been found guilty  and imprisoned in Canberra in secrecy so complete that the prison administrator (if you can believe this) did not even know what he was in gaol for.  He has now been released after what could have been about a year inside or maybe more (it’s a secret, you see).  Likely as not he is still on parole. His identity and details of his crime still cannot be published.   See [2019] ACTSC 311.

I find this pretty disturbing. The judgment mentions  that orders were made about the conditions of the man’s imprisonment with the man’s consent and it seems likely to me that he pleaded guilty to whatever the offence or offences were.  But is his consent (if given: someone claiming to be him on twitter says not) the end of the matter?  What about open justice? What agency is being protected from embarrassment by these secretive acts done in our name?

Postscript: more here.

Opera Notes

November 8, 2019

1. Viaggio

I went to Il viaggio a Reims again.

My friend Ub also came.  She had a lot on and told me she would be leaving at interval because of an early start the next morning. I was shocked.

I toyed with asking Ub if, supposing  she really was going to leave after the first half (I urged her not to),  I could arrange for a frugal friend to take her place.  It is just as well I didn’t because at interval, enthused, she announced her intention to stay.  At the end, exhilarated,  she declared: “I feel like I’ve just been at a coronation!”  She also said she would always follow my advice in the future, but she was only joking about that.

I still can’t say I found Viaggio as funny as many of the audience seemed to – especially so far as much of the laughter seemed to be in response to the characters from the surrealist pictures. To me, laughing at an extra in a costume is a bit like clapping the scenery.  But apart from the odd moment where I felt embarrassed by others’ mirth, I did really enjoy it.

Just a note about standards: notwithstanding a “courageous” High D on the first night (better if a little more cautious on the second), Shanul Sharma is a rising star.  I still cannot imagine he is on the same level as Juan Francisco Gatell, who took the same role in this production at the Netherlands Opera (and who so impressed me as Don Ottavio recently in Rome).  That’s no skin off SS’s nose – it’s Europe vs the Antipodes.

2 The Marriage of Figaro.

To a revival of the David MacVicar production from 2015.  The conductor and many of the cast also returned.

I used to think this my favourite opera. On the strength of this performance I am no longer sure.

I have thought about this since and I think it really comes down to: too fast (other than Barbarina’s little aria and the passage in Act II which I complained about in 2015) and too slapstick.  The set for the last act does not help – acres of open space and recitative owing to the excision of the generally-excised arias.

I missed Taryn Fiebig, who has been a bit of an institution for OA as Susanna.  Justine Nguyen wrote in Limelight  of Stacey Alleume as Susanna that “A magnetic stage presence, the soprano gave a dramatically nuanced portrayal of a character that’s often played as just perky or sassy” but to me perky and sassy are pretty much the first words that come to mind about SA’s performance, though I wouldn’t say just so.

With the slapstick (Paulo Bordogna’s characterization notably broader) everyone was in such a hurry to have a good time that there was an premature outburst of applause in Susanna’s “Deh vieni, non-tardar” (corresponding to 4:52 here) – why wait, indeed?  I know that can just mean a few ignorant people but mostly this sort of thing doesn’t come from nowhere.

To me there should be an almost Shakespearian Rom-Com (but more than those two hence the invocation of the bard) emotional turning in a sixpence in this opera.   I didn’t feel it – for me the Com drove out the Rom and the extra Bardish bit – maybe you could call it heart.

3.  Lyndon Terracini

has had his term as artistic director of Opera Australia extended again, to the end of 2023.  Celebratory interviews have been given.   This interview with him published in 1998 in The Australian set the tone for Terracini’s public outings long ago: talking himself up by talking others down. I can only guess that the movers and shakers on the OA board don’t notice it because that’s the way movers and shakers are.  (This went nowhere, obviously.)

Terracini told Limelight Magazine  “I’ll always argue that pieces like West Side Story are much better pieces than something like L’Elisir d’amore.”    There is something pathological about his combativeness, even if by “always argue” in this case he means advance a proposition rather than pick a fight.   Terracini has also said that in future all new OA productions will be “digital,” which is dispiriting.


Niqab and standing for the judge

November 5, 2019

Back in February 2017  I published a post about a 2016 trial in which Judge Balla of the District Court refused to allow one of the plaintiffs, Ms  Elzahed,  to give evidence with her face covered by a niqab.  In the face of the ruling about how she could give evidence, Ms Elzahed did not give evidence with the inevitable result that the plaintiffs’ case failed.

Judge Balla was also reported to have  made some remarks about Ms Elzahed’s failure to stand for the judge. This is a customary courtesy but a failure to observe it is also now potentially an offence under s 200A of the District Court Act.

Since then there has been a string of further decisions relating to this and to Ms Elzahed’s subsequent prosecution and conviction for her failure to show Judge Balla due respect by refusing to stand when the judge entered or left the court.

I have updated my original post with short details of the published decisions, but given that it is unlikely that anyone will be looking at such an ancient post, I’m also making it a freestanding post.  These are the subsequent related decisions.

Moutia Elzahed & Ors v Commonwealth of Australia and State of New South Wales [2017] NSWDC 160 (30 June 2017)

Judge Balla made a gross sum costs order against the plaintiffs of $158,706.18.

R v Elzahed (No 1) [2018] NSWLC 21 (20 February 2018)

On the second day of the trial of the charges brought against Ms Elzahed, Magistrate Huntsman dismissed a challenge to whether the prosecution had been validly brought. (This related to whether the prosecution had been validly authorised.)

R v Moutiaa Elzahed (No 2) [2018] NSWLC 13 (4 May 2018)

Magistrate Huntsman dismissed a constitutional challenge to the validity of s 200A and convicted Ms Elzahed of 9 offences under section 200A of the District Court Act.  On 11 July 2018 Ms Elzahed was sentenced to 75 hours of community service.

Elzahed v State of New South Wales [2018] NSWCA 103 (18 May 2018)

The Court of Appeal dismissed an appeal against Judge Balla’s decision not to permit Ms Elzahed to give evidence wearing the niqab.

Elzahed v Kaban [2019] NSWSC 670 (7 June 2019)

Justice Harrison dismissed Ms Elzahed’s appeal against conviction of the s 200A offences. He stood over the appeal against sentence for further consideration.

Elzahed v Kaban [2019] NSWSC 1466

29 October 2019 – Justice Harrison granted leave to Ms Elzahed to appeal against the sentence and dismissed the appeal.

Half in love

November 2, 2019

I guess it’s the time of year.

With easeful death, in case anyone is wondering about the title. Actually my feelings  are more ambivalent than that: it’s not that I’m indifferent but at present it is more others’ deaths than my own which preoccupy me and I’m not really in either an aestheticizing or religifying mood about it.

Children and party-goers have been on the streets in Halloween costumes.  Is this a third, anthropological way?   I get the impression that nobody can quite decide whether any close weekend will do – which shows that the roots of the festival are still fairly shallow here.

I’m passing on a performance of the Duruflè Requiem by the choir of St James King Street as part of a service this Saturday for All Souls.  If it were just the music, I’d be attracted, but I’m getting a bit over the religion.  Anyway, friends have taken pity on my home-alone status and invited me to dinner.  How often does that happen these days?

But I did go last Friday night to hear the SSO, conducted by Donald Runnicles, perform the Faure Requiem (the advertised headline) and (in the first half, and more importantly, to me) Strauss’s Death and Transfiguration and Four Last Songs.

My neighbour for these to my left seemed a bit wound up.  Having coughed quite liberally to clear her throat after taking her seat, she glared at me quite wildly when I essayed a much more modest (and mouth-closed) precatory throat clear.  Maybe her glare was equally a warning shot, just to make sure.

She had arrived at the last movement and betrayed her age by the difficulty she had in sitting down.  I’d say she was well into her eighties.  After the last (death referencing with the twittering piccolos) song, she sat still.  The two women to my right who had clapped between each song were impatient: “We have to get to the toilet.”   My neighbour was still slumped in her chair, eyes shut.    The man to her left and I exchanged glances.

It occurred to me that she might have timed things: “Wie sind wir wandermuede – ist dies etwa der Tod?” but I dismissed this as melodramatic, as indeed it was.

Neither my neighbour to my left nor the “bathroom”-intent women to my right returned after interval.

Then we had the Faure.  There were some great low organ notes.  Runnicles took a massive but mild approach.  That’s sort of making a virtue of necessity with a big choir and orchestra.  I think I prefer the smaller-forces more direct version, but that did not stop me enjoying it.

This post has been gestating for a while now.

On the actual night of Halloween I escaped any trick-or-treatery by hiding out for a night at The Marriage of Figaro. Afterwards Circular Quay was  abuzz with revellers disembarking from ferries.

For some there would be an extra trick because Sydney Trains was running trackwork on the Bankstown line.  We were advised over the PA to take a train to Central via St James and Museum  and change there to the Eastern Suburbs line before taking a railway replacement bus at Sydenham.  This did not strike me as the best advice since it is much easier to change to the Eastern Suburbs line at Town Hall.

In the wake of my recent European jaunt I have wised up to the possibilities of the smart phone and avoided the train replacement bus nightmare by taking a train to Petersham and then catching a 445 to Canterbury. OK,  I guess this really means that I just took my own replacement bus at my own minor additional expense.   Once I would never have dared something like that because public transport in Sydney was (and still is) so infrequent that you would have to be a bit crazy to add the extra speculative element of a change of mode – especially if you thought you might rely on a bus running to timetable.  Buses still don’t run to timetable much but it can be less of a stab in the dark now that more real-time information is available – at least when the system works.

Meanwhile, the seasons are moving on.  Jacarandas are just passing their Sydney peak.

On Wednesday I heard my first Christmas carols – some a capella numbers sung by a flash crowd of women on Martin Place Station.  It turned out they were a group drawn from the Endeavour Harmony Chorus who had just been performing at the NSW Primary Principals’ Association Conference at the Sofitel Wentworth Hotel.  On the train they filled about half of the downstairs half of a carriage.  A man prevailed upon them to give a further impromptu performance of “I am woman” which he filmed on his phone from the steps at the end.

Room at the Inn

October 25, 2019


Last night to the first night of Opera Australia’s production of Il Viaggio a Reims.

This is a party-piece put together by Rossini for the celebrations associated with the coronation of Charles X in 1825. It was very much an occasional work and not revived in Rossini’s lifetime. It was probably probably never intended to have a lasting existence because of its extravagant requirements for an enormous cast of stars. Rossini did recycle quite a lot of the music in his opera Le Comte Ory. Il Viaggio was reconstituted/reconstructed in the 1970s from various fugitive sources and first performed in 1984. I suspect the modern recording industry has something to do with its revival.

The opera’s plot is the flimsiest of pretexts: a disparate group of travellers from all over Europe bound for the coronation at Reims is stuck at an inn. They have a bit of drama between each other and once it becomes clear that they are never going to make it to Reims in time because no stage horses are to be had they put on a kind of concert before their planned return to Paris for the remainder of the celebrations. This concert forms the bulk of the the last act, where various characters sing numbers representative of their respective nations.

From this comes the one extract which often features in operatic trivia quizzes. The English milord, Lord Sidney, declares that he is no musician and only knows one song, which he then proceeds to sing, namely “God Save the King.” (This is a variant of the other joke about non-musical Britons, who know only two tunes – one being GSTK and the other not.)

Is it just because of its early imprinting on me that this seemed particularly stirring, or does the cultural prestige of the English at the time also have something to do with it? Obviously, that is not a question I am able to answer.

Inspired by the painting above, this production discarded even that flimsy pretext for a flimsier one involving an art gallery. For me this didn’t really work because it was hard to work out who was who – if anyone was really anyone. It didn’t help that sometimes the surtitles were faithful to the libretto and other times they were tailored to the amended scenario.

This didn’t matter to the first-night crowd who shrieked with laughter at everything. I didn’t personally find it so funny, but the singing was great as was much of the orchestral music. Things were best when the scenario reverted more closely to the original scenario with the concert in the final act. This merged with the art gallery theme by a tableau vivant based on the painting which was what the production had been aiming at all along.

As a bit of an in-joke, on a par with Kanen Breen wearing a dress, Teddy Tahu-Rhodes took off his shirt again. This cannot go on forever.

Cunning old Rossini really has something up his sleeve with the final aria of the (originally) poetess to harp accompaniment after so much more busy musical material for most of the opera. (Her first appearance – in fact a non-appearance as she sang offstage, also accompanied by harp, was rather robbed of such impact because of the adjusted scenario.) For us now there is also a kind of dramatic irony given the pious hopes expressed of Charles X’s reign – which in fact turned out to be such a fizzer.

I just made it by the skin of my teeth having only noticed at about 6.10pm that the performance started at 7 pm rather than the customary 7.30. Foolishly but in a panic I drove in and was only able to secure a spot at the deepest point of the SOH double helix carpark. In hindsight I could probably have made it in 10 minutes from Circular Quay if the train I could have caught ran on time. There was also a Schools Spectacular in the Concert Hall starting at the same time which, even worse, finished at the same time. It took more than 40 minutes to escape afterwards.

I’m going again on Saturday (which was in part the source of my confusion for the start time as Saturday is at the usual 7.30) and am looking forward to it.

The short run of only 5 performances is a great box-office success for Opera Australia as it appears to be close to booked-out.


Briefly noted

October 20, 2019

A quick round up of live performances on my recent European jaunt not so far noted on this blog:

  1. 15/09/2019 – Götterdämmerung Berlin Staatsoper

Barenboim conducting the last night of a ring cycle. It was only by chance that I discovered that tickets for single performances were being sold and I snapped one up. This was a revival of a production first mounted at La Scala.

There is something funny about arriving at a Ring Cycle part way through – it is like coming late to a party – I’m sure the impact was greater for those who’d been coming to the whole thing. Andreas Schager was the best Siegfried I have ever heard in the flesh.  He is a heldentenor who retains an Italianate quality.  There was only the slightest sign of tiring (where it always comes) in the narration immediately before Siegfried’s death.   From time to time I spotted my neighbour secretly recording some of the more famous passages on his mobile phone. Waltraud Meier was luxury casting as Second Norn and Waltraute.

I was towards the back of the stalls (Parkett) in the middle. In the horseshoe theatre there was an odd effect when singers at the back corner of the stage singing in towards the middle bounced off the walls so that a couple of times I was startled by their seemingly singing to me from a spot in the wall a little in front of me to my right.

  1. 16/09/2019 – Die Blechtrommel – Berliner Ensemble

This was a one-man show, performed by Nico Holonics, who first performed it in Frankfurt a few years ago and who has followed the BE director Oliver Rees from Frankfurt to Berlin. It is basically a play of the film (Volker Schlondorf: The Tin Drum) insofar as it selects the same highlights. There were surtitles. My friend Lars didn’t think much of it from a literary point of view. I would have rather seen an actual “ensemble” piece, but it was nevertheless a tour de force and a delight to see the BE’s surprisingly ornate theatre.

  1. 20/09/2019 – Organ recital – Altenburg Schlosskirche

(Someone else’s picture here.)

This was given by the organist of the Dresden Frauenkirche as part of a tour westwards along the A4. Altenburg was his first stop and he was finishing up the next day at Weimar and Eisenach. The organ is a Silbermann organ once played by JSB, though between his time and ours the organ was modified according to romantic tastes before being taken back to something more like its original.

Altenburg is one of those places (there are many in Germany) which used to be more important than it now is. The castle is perched up above the town in a “13 Clocks” kind of way.

4.    25/09/2019 – Art happening – Munich Musikhochschule


A small group of us tailed along behind a trumpeter and a trombonist who played a complicated musical code designed to indicate the dimensions of underground tunnels surrounding the Musikhochschule and the Art Library – dating from when they were the Nazi Party headquarters in Munich.

5.    04/10/2019 – Grand Union Orchestra at Bethnal Green


A Jazz/world-music gig in an East London church with a cut-down version of this group. What I really liked is that they didn’t have a drum kit, and so although there was an electric keyboard and bass guitar, no-one else had to be amplified and the music was therefore not too loud.

6.   05/10/2019 – Werther – ROH Covent Garden

I took D, my sister and her other half to this. Although my sister is a musician and has lived in London for about 35 years this was the first time she had been to Covent Garden. An elegant traditional production. Juan-Diego Florez in the title role was terrific – even if his voice is a bit light for the role.

When I arrived I broke up a conversation between two older men to my right and a handsome chap to my left. At the end the older chaps seemed eager to renew the acquaintance with the man to my left.

In between, when I commented on the Catholic gloss which Massenet and his librettists insert on the suicide aspect, my right-hand neighbour, from Palm Springs, informed me that he was an ex-priest who had now totally turned away from religion.

The Covent Garden audience was conspicuously full of travellers from elsewhere. One man had a Peruvian flag draped over his shoulders and afterwards I saw him waiting at the stage door – doubtless hoping to see Juan-Diego.

7.     07/10/2019 Aggripina     ROH

Directed by Barry Kosky who these days is very much in demand.

Extinction protests were causing chaos in west London. My (North-American-accented) neighbour told me she had had to get her chauffeur to drop her off to take the tube from Park Lane.

Had I not paid an extraordinary amount for my ticket, I would probably have skipped this performance on account of my severe cold. I received a (justified) glare from said neighbour at the end of the first half when a terrible rumble erupted in my throat (my mouth, at least, was still shut) in Iiestyn Davies’ beautiful (but quiet) closing number. I would have had my scarf to mute this  but it had slipped down the back of my seat when I stood to let in a latecomer.

Joyce di Donato was a sassy Aggripina. In the pit was the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment.

I had most anticipated Götterdämmerung but it turned out for me that the highlight of all of these was Werther. It is such a beautiful work and the fourth performance of it I have been to this year. I regret that it is likely to be at least a decade before I will have a chance (if I am spared so long)to see it again in Sydney.

Comme d’habitude

October 19, 2019

I have been back now for just over a week, nursing and trying to shake off a virulent cold.  Maybe today (just or almost) I am free of it.

I’m home alone: D is in China with his family.

Things seem very quiet after 4 weeks of travelling together and staying mostly with friends.  What paradise, after the perennial laundry anxiety/obsession of travel, to be back with my own washing machine and Sydney’s wonderful clothes-drying weather.  What a treat to be in my own bed!

Not such paradise, as I went at about 6.30pm  to catch the train at Sydenham for an SSO concert, to see 8 uniformed policemen, one detective cheerfully trying on his glove, and a police sniffer dog.  I hope I cast a sufficiently withering glance at them, though I guess they are impervious to the surely quite widespread hatred their activities inspire.

Or am I wrong?  Do Australians like being subjected to random drug checks and running the gauntlet of their scrutiny at railway stations and other public places?  Are there really smug Australians who enjoy seeing hapless young people and demi-mondaines humiliated in public?

Sylvan nocturnal bike rides (in a Park; on an away-from-roads bike path) always invoke for me a kind of standing fantasy of riding to some French-resistance plane drop.  Police with dogs at public places likewise evoke Occupation and Third Reich associations.

I cast about in vain for some further remark I might make, but my train was coming.  I didn’t even pause for long enough to take a picture of the unsavoury sight.  It’s easier to keep your head down.  That’s how these things work.




October 1, 2019


Last night (or afternoon really, it was a Sunday at 4.30 pm) to the Rome Opera for the above work.

As the action began, Don G and Donna Anna were post-coitally clothing themselves.  There was no suggestion that Donna A was anything but a willing participant in what had just transpired.

Things started to go badly when the Commendatore entered, a pyjama-ed figure with a walker.  He was duly dispatched with a broken-off bough from the tree (see picture below).  And then Don Ottavio entered, walking with a crutch.

OMG, I thought.  What chance does Donna A stand against the Don – her father with a walker and her boyfriend on crutches?  Are the virtuous always so impotent?

It turns out I was allowing too much to art and had not paid sufficient attention to the announcement made just before the overture. Juan Francisco Gatell, the singer playing Don Ottavio, had suffered an injury but would still be performing.  Indeed, I encountered him at the front of the theatre after the show wielding not one but two (elbow or Canadian) crutches.

But in a way my misconception was apt, because this was a production for the Trump (or possibly Berlusconi, Boris J or any number of others) age.

At the denouement  the grave lay open and God’s hand from the Sistine Chapel (we were in Rome after all, though it still smacked of Monty-Python animations) descended as a reproof ready to press Don G into it.  Don G laughingly broke the hand off at the forefinger and walked away.  When the others emerged for their final moralising Don G returned to the stage and perched in the tree.

(These are the bows.)


There were some other good touches.  When Elvira, Anna and Ottavio donned masks, they did so by exchanging bits of each other’s costume.  No-one could have been deceived, even less given that Don O (shirtless, wearing Donna Elvira’s nun’s costume) still sported a crutch and a cast on his shin.

A bit more mysteriously to me, Don G and Leporello wore undifferentiable shiny grey suits – so what was the point of their exchanging them (which they dutifully did)?  Are all men really the same?

The first act ended with a kind of drunken orgy which elicited boos and whistles from the audience.  My neightbours (from San Francisco but they also go to the Met) did not return which was good for me as in the first half I was a bit hedged in by a pillar.

I don’t think I have heard La ci darem da mano done slower.  There were also some sedately paced sections in the last act as the (relatively) small ensemble wandered over the vast stage.  I wondered whether Mozart should really be done in such a large house.

But back to those boos and whistles – and there were a few more of both at the end.

Surely Graham Vick (the director) is not the first to realise that sociopaths often get away with it?

Back again also to Juan Francisco Gatell, who was really terrific in a role which in its big moments can be incredibly taxing and which often in my experience ends up coming across as a bit of a wimp.  JFG was up to the taxing bits and made credible assertions of his intention to bring Don G to justice.  It was not his fault that the director had other plans.