Sunday, July 29, 2012

Of dragons and fears

There is no evidence that dragons ever existed.  But that has not stopped mythology dreaming up quite detailed images of such beasts. And perhaps the most fascinating aspect of this is that dragons appear in cultural traditions that do not seem to have had much to do with each other until recent times. There are dragons in Chinese culture as well as in the European. These two dragons also have close relatives in places like Japan and Korea.
According to Wikipedia, Chinese dragons date back as far as the 16th century BC. Likewise, the European Dragon is thought to have roots back to the ancient Greeks and and before then to the roots of Indo-European culture. But that does not explain how the same mythical beast appears in different cultures independently of each other.
At least one theory is that the Dragon is the creation of deep and universal, primal human fears. The revulsion that most people feel at the sight of the dragon’s reptilian fellow, the snake, seems to support this idea. The European unicorn, for example, does not seem to have an equivalent in other cultures, possibly because it is not an animal that arises from our fears. 
Perhaps the other most interesting feature of the dragons, is that this clearly impossible animal retain such fascination for more people. The word dragon still has opened and resounding association thousands of years after we stopped needing to be fearful of large reptiles.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Art that moves ...

Yesterday I saw Berlinde De Bruyckere's exhibition at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA) in Melbourne. Titled We are all Flesh, the show is exceptionally moving and even subtly disconcerting. It left a much stronger impression on me than many more overtly and intentionally "disturbing" shows.

I left the show thinking that the art that gets past our intellectual sensors, emotional barriers and filters is often the art which resists the temptation to do just that. In a post-modern world in which to say that art attempts to shake our complacencies is a trite and cliched truism and in which work that goes out of its way to do do seems to be everywhere, this show was a welcome reminder that art that works primarily in its own terms is still often the best art.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Looking for a new Dutchman

At the Bayreuth Festival, Richard Wagner's operatic temple, a desperate search has begun to find a tenor who can sing the lead in the new production of the Flying Dutchman. The curtain goes up on 25 July and the original leading man has just walked out. Why?
The Russian tenor who was meant to sing the role and has been rehearsing for weeks, Evgeny Nikitin, has Nazi symbols - including a swastika - tattooed on his torso. "I was not aware of the level of irritation and offence these signs and symbols would cause in Bayreuth, particularly at the festival", he said to an Austrian newspaper. Nikitin added that he had the tattoos done in his youth when he sang with a heavy metal band. He was born in 1973, a long time after the fall of the Third Reich, but cultural and political memory is, quite rightly, long and showing no signs of fading.

The Bayreuth Festival is still run by Wagner's descendants and it had a particularly "brown" history during the Nazi era when Hitler, a great admirer of Wagner's music, was a regular guest. 
Clean-skin tenors looking for work should call the Festival quickly

Image: George Grie, Flying Dutchman, (2006)

Of openings then and now

Melbourne's Hamer Hall - the city's premier concert venue - has undergone a major refit, renovation and redesign to many of its public spaces. Its (re)-opening season is about to begin, almost exactly thirty years after the hall was opened as the Melbourne Concert Hall. Comparing the highlights of the 1982 opening season and those of the 2012 re-opening throws an interesting light on programming tastes then and now.

The first ever concert in the hall - one for the workers who built it and their families - featured singers Karen Knowles and Suzanne Steele, dancer Jackie Love (click on her name to see a video), the pianist Roger Woodward and the Melbourne Showband. The compere on the night was Jimmy Hannan. The foyer of the hall was also home to an exhibition celebrating the life of Dame Nellie Melba, one of Australia's most famous singers.

According to The Age newspaper the later official opening concert saw "streamers bur(y) the orchestra and a robot serve the guests nuts and bolts." But not everyone was happy. The music critic of the same paper (Kenneth Hince) wrote of the "outrageous fortune" suffered by the orchestral strings and asked "can we cure the sound and turn a major social asset into a decent concert hall?" Concerns about the hall's acoustics have long been a concern but the word is that the new fit out has finally fixed the problems.

In 1983 the London Symphony Orchestra made a visit with their conductor Claudio Abbado, in 2012 it is the turn of the Czech Philharmonic. In 1982 the first performance on the hall's concert organ was another of the highlights. As part of the 2012 renovation the organ was removed.

Features of the 2012 celebrations include performances by Phillip Glass, Shine pianist David Helfgott and concert performances by the Cape Town Opera. Rufus Wainwright is also on the bill along with Macy Gray and Nitin Sawhney.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Muzak misses

There are many features of life today that reinforce how powerless the individual is in the face of "marketing". But few are as annoying as the mindless omnipresence of Muzak. Why are we still being treated to nondescript wallpaper music? Why have most cafe and restaurant owners still not developed and appreciable musical taste or even common sense?

No, I am not saying my musical taste is the best and anyone who doesn't agree is a peasant. The people who think Muzak boosts sales need to realise that you can't play the same music day in, day out. What works on a Friday night in a club is not going to work early on the next morning. Saturday night fever needs different musical wallpaper from that required for a Sunday brunch.

Muzak seems to be here to stay. But is it to much to ask that it gets a bit more sophisticated?

Friday, July 20, 2012

The future of opera

Opera is a complex beast. It is an expensive artform. Many opera productions employ hundreds of artists and creatives. As a result most opera companies are heavily subsidised by public sources. This makes them easy targets for envious competitors who covet the apparently generous public investments in an artform that all too often seems inaccessible to the general public.

The companies themselves also slide all too easily into a vicious circle as they program the usual old favourites in the hope that this will fill auditoriums. The result can be safe, stale and predictable repertoire in dull and conservative productions. Yet there are many opera productions around that show how powerful the medium can be if adventurous and lesser known works are entrusted to intelligent and insightful stage directors.

Next year will see the first ever production of Wagner's complete Ring Cycle in Melbourne. But the cheapest ticket is $1000 for all four operas and it is only possible to book for all four. That is a pity. This is clearly not an option for anyone wanting to dip their toe into Wagner's landmark tetraology. This is opera that only confirms the old prejudices and does nothing for the artform's future.

Image: Giorgio Caoduro