April 2010

Read and learn

If you want to know how to write good, tight, attention-grabbing prose – regardless of your genre – study the opening chapter of Wyatt, the latest book by Garry Disher. This is masterful. It is economic, rich in the use of words yet sparse and sparing, full of information drip-fed to the reader without them being bludgeoned, crammed with action and brilliant in its succinct description of places and people. Read, read, read – and learn.

Not so blissful

The empty seats after interval and the lukewarm response at the end said it all: the opening night of Bliss was an underwhelming success. Australia’s newest opera, with music by local boy Brett Dean, didn’t exactly slay them in the aisles. Based on the novel by another Oz wunderkind, Peter Carey, the opera is a marvel of staging, a showpiece for the orchestra and a collection of bravura performances by individuals and chorus alike. But the totality fails to enthuse or enthrall. Two and a half hours of atonal music played at full pitch and volume eventually grates rather than grabs. The singing likewise seems to be forever at screaming pitch, with little light and shade; even in the rare tender moments.
The biggest failing, however, is that it is hard to find much empathy with, or sympathy for, the main protagonists. Even Harry Joy, who seeks redemption after a near death experience, fails to win our hearts. He’s just another opportunist ad man who seeks an easy way out by falling in love with a hooker. And his wife, son, daughter and business associates are simply a bunch of unlikeable sleazebags. The family name is the only joyful thing. Peter Coleman-Wright is superb in the lead role and there are stand-out performances by Merlyn Quaife, Barry Ryan, Kanen Breen and Lorina Gore.
The set deserves to take a bow: the three sides of the stage are an array of hundreds of light globes continually changing colour, pattern and wording to immense effect.
An interesting night and all praise to all those involved in bringing this huge creative undertaking to fruition. Go, see and be proud of the talent it showcases. But don’t expect to remember a single note.

Loser Lindy

Steve Price, the enfant terrible of shock-jock radio and program director of the new Melbourne radio station MTR, was right on the money when he told the Sunday Age: “Listen to 774 and I think you would agree their worst presenter is Lindy Burns.”
Well said, Steve, and it’s about time 774 admitted the fact and dumped her. She mangles words, repeats herself (and her so-called “news”) and sounds more like a “jolly hockey sticks” schoolgirl than a serious radio presenter.
One daily wonders what is the role of the “Bureau of Mediarology” (Lindy’s pronunciation) and why things are getting “bedder” when they should surely be better.

Bad language

According to Age property writer Marc Pallisco, Central Equity will


20 hectares it has acquired.
Why doesn’t he just say it’s going to hold on to it for the time being?

Spell unchecker

Anyone who thinks Spellcheck is the answer to their spelling deficiencies should note the disaster that has hit Penguin Books. According to the Age, Penguin is pulping and reprinting 7000 copies of its Pasta Bible cookbook at a cost of $20,000.
The reason: a recipe called for the addition of “freshly ground black people”, instead of pepper. A wrong word, but one which Spellcheck would obviously accept, has apparently upset a band of small-minded readers.
The mistake is almost laughable, but it shows what can happen when too much reliance is put on a technological device rather than the good old human eye.
Eye dew weight two sea wear oar watt thee next disaster will bee.

A frothy fizzer

Who planted the explosive device in the loungeroom of political consultant Busby McTavish’s home? That is the intriguing and possibly exciting premise upon which the MTC‘s latest offering, The Grenade, is based. Little more than two hours later we are none the wiser … and really don’t care. In between we have been treated by playwright Tony McNamara to a frequent but haphazard sprinkling of witty one-liners and aphorisms that seem more designed to show off Garry McDonald‘s impeccable comic timing than to further such plot lines as may exist in a story that has as many unconnected threads as a mad woman’s knitting. McDonald is surrounded by the zaniest collection of characters gathered on the local stage for many a long while. They froth, fume and fornicate in a frenzy of wordplay delivered with excellent timing and pace on a revolving set that opens many windows into the McTavish home and its inhabitants. The show is notable for the excellent performances of several young newcomers to the MTC stage; Belinda Bromilow, Gig Clarke, Jolyon James and Eloise Mignon are never outshone by stalwarts Mitchell Butel and Genevieve Picot. It’s a nonsense night with lots of laughs but little meaning. Maybe it is significant that the hand grenade that provides such an dramatic opening never even did so much as fizz.

Go with the flow

Writers fall into two broad categories: plotters and non-plotters. There are those who map out every twist and turn before they write the first word, Post-it notes littering their working space. Others (and I am one) simply start writing and go with the flow. Characters appear and move on. Suddenly a door opens and a new character is standing there. Or someone says something you had not expected.
It was therefore interesting to have Michael Robotham reveal in an Age interview by Jason Steger that he, too, doesn’t plot in advance. “If I knew what was going to happen right through from chapter to chapter it would be like a normal job,” said this hugely successful crime fiction writer. “I wouldn’t be excited about going to work every day.”
He added: “Things happen when I write that excite me, things surprise me, things shock me and things frighten me. And if they do me, they must the reader as well.”
It doesn’t always work out. He began his latest book, Bleed For Me, twice and discarded 30,000 words of what were very different novels. According to Steger, Robotham calls this “headlight” writing in which you see just as far ahead as a car’s headlights on a dark night allow you to. And he admitted “the danger is you drive straight off a cliff and there’s no going back”.

Tosca triumphant

Wow! An opera with zing, excitement, pizzazz and all those other qualities that have so often been missing from Opera Australia’s begrudging offerings to Melbourne audiences. Suffice to say the Tosca that opened in the State Theatre last night under the Opera Australia banner is an Opera North production from the UK.
Like other productions from this company, Puccini’s masterpiece has been taken out of the time and place with which most of us are familiar.
Gone are all the ornate and plush settings, vaulted rooms, massive drapes and castle battlements. The entire piece takes place in a grotty cellar within the church where Cavaradossi and Tosca hold their fateful assignations. Posters for the shameful Berlosconi’s political party line the walls.The evil Scarpia (and there is none more wicked than the version provided here by John Wegner) is a seedy cop with two even seeder, and equally sinister, sidekicks looking like latter-day Colombos. The sacristan posts up the lottery numbers for the congregation to check their tickets. A gaoler comes eqipped with electrical leads for applying torture.
It is billed as a cross between Beckett and Tarantino, with maybe a touch of Scorsese and it is a modernisation that never disappoints. The singing is excellent. Who could not be thrilled by Nicole Youl‘s strong and vibrant voice. or by the lyrical and equally powerful arias of Rosario La Spina – a singer still youthful with his best years still to come?
It’s a real thriller on all counts – a great opening to a promising season.

First person warning

There were some wise and cautionary words from crime fiction writer Michael Robotham in the Review section of the Australian on Saturday in Graeme Blundell‘s review of his latest book.
Robotham, who uses the first person in Bleed For Me, says it is so difficult to manage the plotting – “You can’t have anything not in the concsciousness of your central character”. But when it works, “The present tense adds immediacy as the reader takes every breath with the character, discovering things as he does”.

ACO enlivens

The only thing predictable about the Australian Chamber Orchestra is that they will be unpredictable. Their concerts are rarely less than lively, engaging and stimulating. Oh that one could say the same about the boring old MSO.
This time around (April 11 and 12) the concert began with Richard Tognetti shambling on to the stage and addressing the audience in his usual self-effacing manner to provide a halting but informative explanation of what we were about to hear – and why a basically Bach program was being interspersed with pieces by Shostakovich, Part, Schoenberg and the modern British composer Diana Burrell. The afternoon was greatly enhanced by this link between audience and players. And what followed all made immense sense and provided great pleasure, due both to the ever lively playing of the orchestra and whole-hearted singing of Sara MacIlver, Fiona Campbell, Andrew Staples and Matthew Brook. Such rapport within the band, with the singers and, finally, with us, the audience. Yet another wonderful concert. The ACO so rarely disappoints.