Tonight on the way to the opera, as we bowled down the Westlink with the ANZAC bridge and the city skyline before us, D was talking to me about life.

“I don’t know,” he said, “is it only me or is life just boring? Maybe it’s different for people who have exciting careers, but I just feel, what’s the point to life?”

I remarked to him that most people don’t have exciting lives; that people who have children, well that is what they achieve in their lives (though surely that only defers the question); that otherwise we just keep living because it’s the thing you do.

“That’s why people kill themselves,” said D.

I disagreed. I said that most people who kill themselves kill themselves because they are depressed about something specific.

D’s life philosophizing then became, or so I thought, rather wilder, as he then expressed the view that everyone killed themselves – from the way they ate, or exercised or didn’t or whatever. I expostulated that that couldn’t be true because some people are in fact killed by other people. D wouldn’t allow even this exception, since those who are killed have brought themselves to the point where they were in contact with whoever who killed them. This struck me as at odds with D’s customarily more passive view of fate, but by now we had reached the lights of King Street and George St. The rise of King Street to Elizabeth Street before me offered its own stresses and diversions and I was contemplating where we should park once they were overcome.

We were running late, and ended up at terrible expense ($32) in the bowels of the Opera House parking lot. In the lift I ran into SS, with whom I did Music I in 1978 and whom I probably last saw about 5 years ago and before that 12 years ago (O my God: do I look as old as she does now? Probably, and then some.) but there wasn’t time to talk. With seemingly few minutes to spare, we dashed off to the Opera Theatre.

And then there was a slight delay. My heart sank as the unwelcome announcement was made: in tonight’s performance of The Macropoulos Secret, the role of Emilia Marty would be sung from the side of the stage (the tell-tale chair and music stand were already there) by Anke Höppner. Miss Cheryl Barker had lost her voice, but would “walk through” (ie mime) the part. We were told that this situation had arisen just this afternoon, and the hope or opinion was offered that this should not destroy our evening. You have to have a nerve to make a speech like that: no explanation was given as to why there was no understudy who could cover the role vocally and dramatically.

Anke Höppner did a good job in the circumstances, though there were lines which she belted out which Cheryl mimed at a different dynamic, and occasionally her accented English was a little odd, but the situation definitely put a damper on the evening and the dramatic effect.

The opera is quite short: two hours and 20 minutes including two 20-minute intervals.

At the second interval, a woman asked me “Are you enjoying the opera?”

I said, “Yes.”

She said, “I’m not.” We were near the cloak room for the concert hall. To be more precise, I was on my way back from the Gents and she from the Ladies, and now I could see her husband hovering nearby. Clearly she was getting ready to go home.

She said, “I hate it. It’s just like a play with music.”

I said “Well, that’s just the parlando style. I know, it seems extravagant. But it’s only short. Only another 20-25 minutes. If it’s only a play with music, you might as well stay to see how the play ends.” I could have said that the music opens up a bit in the last act, as you would expect, but we’d only just met.

She did stay. In a way she was right about the play with music bit: if you’ve come to the opera thinking Verdi and tunes, you could well be disappointed by The Macropoulos Secret, which is made up of little phrases and entirely dramatic music to a greater extent than any of the other Janacek operas I know. It is fairly spare with the long lyrical lines. (This another reason why the dramatic obstacle of the Anke/Cheryl situation was such a blow – in a different kind of opera it would be easier to overcome.)

It is in the last act that we learn the secret of the title as translated by Opera Australia. Emilia Marty, the circa-1922 opera singer, is in fact Elina Macropoulos, born 1585, daughter of the physician to the Emperor Rudolf and obliged to take an elixir of eternal (or at least very long) life as a guinea pig for him when aged only 16. Since then, she has assumed a number of other identities – you can’t live 300 years without changing your name – always with the initials “E M.” At such length, life is meaningless and lonely. She cannot harbour the hopes of change for the better that people with more natural life-spans perhaps naively can. She has become a kind of cross between Wagner’s Dutchman and Wedekind/Berg’s Lulu. She does not really even care for her children (she has had so many over the years). A little inconsistently, there was one man whom she loved and to whom she had entrusted her father’s recipe for the potion. It was to retrieve this that she first entered the action of the opera, but now she relinquishes it. Will anyone take it from her?

Accompanying these revelations in the last act were other more dramatic developments and (as I have said already) a heightening of the musical register. I hope my interval interlocutrix thought it worth staying for.

But wasn’t it prescient of D to be thinking of the very thing that the opera, at least in a way, turned out to be about?

We rushed to the carpark to avoid the terrible exit traffic jam. We were out in a jiffy and home by 10.15.

10 Responses to “E M”

  1. Victor Says:

    The artists must find it disconcerting to perform as ventriloquist and mime.

  2. Sarah Says:

    This is an advantage of my so-called besottedness: with 6 tickets booked, I’m covered for (albeit still distressed by) just such a catastrophe as this.

  3. Ken Says:

    An incidental correction: most people who kill themselves are mentally ill – usually suffering depression.
    The suicide rate in Australia and many other countries has been going down steadily for ten year, almost certainly as a result of better treatment of depression with SSRIs and CBT.
    Insightful comments on the opera – I’m sorry we missed it.

  4. marcellous Says:

    Ken, I did think about putting the depression point more elaborately. I think what you say is more of a refinement than a correction, at least of what I meant to say, which was about suicides’ ostensible reasons rather than objective causes of suicide.

    I’ve certainly contemplated suicide sometimes. I expect plenty of people do so without necessarily getting even close to committing the deed. At least while my father is still alive I’ve never considered my life is entirely my own to dispose of, given all the trouble my parents went to to raise me.

  5. Ken Says:

    M, yes, it was a refinement rather than a correction.
    It is a subject I feel strongly about and have written on before.
    So I rarely miss a chance to react, especially to make the point that what we are doing is working so we need to do more of it.

    Have you booked for D&J yet? (That’s a change of subject, by the way.)

  6. marcellous Says:

    Ken, re D&J, (another subject on which I expect you feel strongly, though of course in a different way) – yes, I am going twice – to a cheap (relatively speaking) seat on the first night and with D in better seats (though not as much better as would have been the case if I had been more organised) on the Monday.

    For other readers (if any) David & Jonathan is this year’s offering from the Pinchgut Opera.

  7. wanderer Says:

    So what’s to be said about three score and ten, current variations included, as the status quo?

    Seventy years, plus whatever now, somehow strikes a thoughtful balance, Thanatos and Eros crossing consistently on the graph, while still achieving reasonable tribal and individual stability and progress, in this existence at least, as we know it.

  8. Ken Says:

    M: good choice of nights. The opening night always has a special buzz and at the last performance everyone lets go – nothing held back.
    It is usually the basis for the recording. ABC Classics records all performances plus the general, chooses one and patches as necessary.

    Rehearsals start next Monday week and we will be blogging them again.
    Gossip, photos and stuff.

    Unless you wish to preserve your anonymity, please come and say hi – Liz, anna and I will be at or around the desk in the lobby before the start.

  9. Mrs Doubtfire « Stumbling on melons Says:

    […] Last week, at the end of the act, I nudged D and asked him if he had noticed that one of the women bore a strange resemblance to Mrs Doubtfire, Dustin Hoffman’s cross-dressing nanny disguise in Tootsie. The young woman to my left but one (who was herself there with a very girly young man with long blond hair which he spent much of the opera flicking off his face) laughed at this: she knew which one I meant. D didn’t get it. […]

  10. Beethoven, and Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra in Sydney 5 « Stumbling on melons Says:

    […] last time I heard Anke she was also standing in – for Cheryl Barker in The Macropoulous Secret. It’s a bit surprising and even insulting in a […]

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