Last Wednesday, twice to the Opera House.
In the morning to the State Memorial Service for Jørn Utzon.
I don’t usually do this kind of thing, but I was spurred to go by Wanderer and, I confess, I was curious to see a little bit of history.
Despite my best intentions, I was late. I was at work until late the previous night chasing down missing cheques on my on-line bank statements and trying to work out which solicitors had paid me and which had not. Compared to most small businesses, my finances are quite simple, and I confess that I am a shoe-box book-keeper, if that. I would prefer to expend my efforts in obtaining justice, such as it is, for my ultimate clients, but if you do not keep your eye on the ball you can find altruism is readily imposed on you. I know that, but it is still sobering to realise that, possibly just owing to a misunderstanding which I wasn’t quick enough to correct, a client who I reckon as scrupulous may nevertheless have since gone bankrupt without first paying me (or putting his solicitor in funds to pay me) about $1800. Ouch! The day has yet come when I have sued a solicitor, though there are a few I itch to bring to a reckoning. In 7 years at the bar, I estimate I have about $40,000 bad debts, though I still harbour hopes for a bit over half (by value) of them, or a proportion of those. (The acute amongst you will note that one year’s worth of those are now presumably statute-barred.)
Before I left home I had to hang out the washing, and there were other things to be attended to before I was free to leave my workplace.
These are practicalities, or my excuses.
As a result, by the time I arrived (hastened by a taxi ride down Macquarie Street) Kim Williams was already speaking. He spoke eloquently about Utzon and with a predictable emphasis on the still-unfinished project of the renovation of the Opera House and, in particular, its interiors. Ursula Yovich, accompanied by Max Lambert, then sang “Over the Raindbow.”
David McAllister, artistic director of the Australian Ballet, gave a relatively short speech, mostly about the magic of the opera house as an aspiration-inspiring icon. He was tactful about the need for “catchers” in the wings. Then Neil Finn sang “Don’t Dream It’s Over.” I guess that would have meant more to you than me if you were already familiar with the song.
John Bell read David Malouf’s piece, published that day in the SMH. This was followed by a speech by Peter Garrett. From the moment he launched into the ritual incantations (Your Excellency, the Administrator, Marie Bashir, Premier, Chairman, Executive Director, distinguished guests…blah blah blah) Garrett must have known he was going to fall flat. No-one else I heard did that, and in any event, representing the PM (absent on his G20 jaunt but also recently having let it be known that the Commonwealth wasn’t interested in fulfilling the Utzon dream and renovation/reconstruction of the SOH interiors) Garrett was, as ever, a bit of a lame duck.
Cate Blanchett read a bit of Shakespeare (why not by heart?).
Nathan Rees, who spoke next, did much better than Garrett. Sure, his delivery lacks the Bob-Carr broadcast voice and manner, but the material was well-turned. The basic thesis was that, if the Opera House is “the people’s house” (actually a questionable premiss) it can’t be because lots of them go there, because they don’t. It must be because of the love it inspires and its symbolic (he probably trotted out “iconic” again) importance, although he was keen to emphasise the many opportunities people have to not just walk around but come inside. All of this was consonant with the State government’s recent announcement that it was prepared to back the Utzon dream (as defined above) to the tune of about $450 mill, provided someone else (ie, the Cwth) came up with the balance of $550M (estimate). Of course, given the NSW Govt’s propensity to unannounce and then unannounce large projects, all of that must be taken with a grain of salt, but at least it put Rees in good odour with the audience.
In fact, I suspect that it was less than a coincidence that the NSW Govt made this announcement shortly before the service [? service? I’m struggling to find the right word: memorial alone doesn’t ring true], and of course the occasion itself, whatever personal respect the opera house management might have for Utzon, was clearly directed towards the SOH’s promotion of its own mythos and canvassing of support for the Utzon dream.
Rees was followed by a woman whose mother had worked for Ove Arup in London before later emigrating to Australia. I found that a bit corny, but others seemed to think it was a good touch. It did mean that we heard indirectly from “the workers” – the propaganda advantages of that, in the circumstances, are obvious.
The SSO and Paul Lewis played the Largo from Beethoven’s piano concerto No 1 (the background wheezing of the organ windbox which remained on after the processional in anticipation of the recessional) didn’t help here. Richard Johnson, the architect who liaised with Utzon on the recent project, then spoke. (Worryingly, I think he also designed the now-abandoned Sydney Law School, though not all of the defects of that building are necessarily his fault.) Things were getting more personal.
Then two of Utzon’s children, Jan and Lin, responded. To me there is something oddly courtly about Scandinavian accents. There was a kind of gender division in their speeches. Jan, one of the sons, told a few anecdotes, mostly amusing. Lin started with a daily prayer her parents said to each other (in Danish) and finished with a poem (in English). It was true that, as the SMH later reported, there was “not a dry eye in the house.” On the big screen above the stage, Richard Evans, the SOH CEO, who said he was “moved,” could be seen blinking away tears.
We wound up with the “Easter Hymn” from Cavalleria Rusticana sung by the AO chorus and Nicole Youll with a bit (and at the end a lot) too much amplification . Pity about that.
On the way out I was interested to see that the video footage of the opera house sails which we were treated to from time to time on the big screen seems to have been live footage from one of those cameras on a big cantilever, just to the east of the Opera Theatre shell.
I didn’t know Utzon at all, so I can’t say it was a matter of personal grief, but in the end there is always something personal about the idea of death. As you get older, it gets more so. In his account of the memorial, Wanderer refers as minimally as one might think possible to one reason why. And of course there was the idea of the Opera House: I cast ruminescent glances back as I mounted the Tarpeian Way on my way back to “chambers.”
There was no wake, so I had a bit of undischarged thoughfulness which I took out on our receptionist. I mentioned the money question for the renovation/completion. “It’s a hard question,” she said “What with the hospitals and the schools.” Ah, the age-old clash between the numinous and the practical: as Christ reportedly said (and that doesn’t mean, despite the slight tendence that way in the service, that I am drawing any comparisons between him and JO) “the poor are ever with us.”
In the evening I returned to see, for the last (for any foreseeable time) performance of Lady Macbeth of Mstensk.
I took T, son of my old friend P. He is in year 8 now and taller than I am. It is hard to believe that only about 2 years ago (well maybe it is coming up to 3 by now), when I took him to see Hansel and Gretel he still had to have his hand held when we crossed the road. His mother provided the funds for a student rush ticket, and I was shocked to discover that this is now $55, plus a $5 “transaction fee” imposed by the Opera House on each box office transaction. That is too much, and with a (my guess) 75% house at best, criminal.
I also took my friend Mq for her 60th birthday. (That was my treat.) She is keener on theatre than opera, and so I thought this would be just the ticket. As I did on the last occasion, she missed the exact moment when Katerina pushes the other woman into the water and follows her in to their death. I think that means there is something a bit wrong with the direction at that point, though this may partly have been because we were in row C. I remain unconvinced by the mournful babushkas, though I now see (prompted by Mq) that they were meant to be professional mourners. They were still unnecessarily distracting from John Wegner’s deathbed scene.
Kanen Breen got a round of applause for his drunken discovery of the corpse in Act III, from which the title of this post comes.
As chance would have it, we were sitting next to two other old friends, E and Sz, so it was really quite a cosy night. To my left, though, was a man with a shocking cold. It was awful! There were coughs and splutters and a much reused handkerchief. He was really too sick to be there. I know this is a difficult situation for an opera lover, but I refuse to believe that the symptoms and the infectious risk could not at least have been held in temporary check with the right symptomatic treatment. Fortunately, Sz’s legs are so long that he moved to the end of the row for the second half and I was able to move away (pretty pointedly, I know, but c’est la vie) to relative safety.
Mq had driven in to the SOH carpark. As it was raining, T and I took a short lift with her to where I had parked the car. One of the three exits from the carpark is now reserved for “platinum parkers and subscribers.” It’s not much help to them until the last minute, because the queue of cars blocks access to it. All it means is that everyone ends up waiting about one-and-a-half times longer to get out than they otherwise would have. By the time we got out, the rain had passed (don’t worry: I had brought the washing in when I went home for my nap), and it would definitely have been quicker for us to walk. Still, it gave us the chance for a post-opera post-mortem.