Category Archives: Performers

No country for older women

“The strategy behind the casting of younger women will take some explaining.”

IN February, Foxtel and Fremantle Media Australia announced the casting of an eagerly anticipated television adaptation of Picnic at Hanging Rock, Joan Lindsay’s 1967 Australian novel about a group of schoolgirls and their governess who go missing at a local rock formation on Valentine’s Day, 1900.

This fictional story was hauntingly filmed in 1975 by director Peter Weir, a production often credited with putting Australian movies back onto international screens after a decades-long hiatus.

CASTING COUP? Natalie Dormer, cast as Mrs Appleyard in the remake of Picnic at Hanging Rock.

I stumbled on the casting announcement late and immediately sought reactions in the media about one quirk in the production that is currently filming: there are no older actresses in the series.

But nobody seems to have commented that the producers are taking considerable licence with Joan Lindsay’s characters.

Cast as the widowed, expatriate English headmistress of the young ladies’ college that is central to the story, Natalie Dormer plays Mrs Appleyard, described by Lindsay as sporting a: “…high-piled greying pompadour”.

AGE APPROPRIATE Rachel Roberts as Mrs Appleyard in Peter Weir’s 1975 film Picnic at Hanging Rock.

The character was portrayed by British actor Rachel Roberts in Weir’s film, suitably coiffed and in her late forties at the time, whereas Dormer checks in at just 35.

Slightly more surreal is the casting of Australian actor Anna McGahan as mathematics mistress Greta McGraw, since McGahan is just 28, playing a character penned as having “coarse greying hair”.

Hair colour and texture would not specifically denote middle age had Lindsay not stated the teacher’s years at the time of the fateful picnic at 45. English-born Australian actor Vivean Gray took on the role for Peter Weir in her 50th year.

Australian actor Sibylla Budd has been cast in a role that was cut from the 1975 production, that of Miss Valange, mistress of art and literature.

Screen shot 2015-10-27 at 3.22.34 PM
WHAT DO YOU KNOW? Helen Morse as Mlle de Poitiers and Vivean Gray as Miss McGraw in Peter Weir’s 1975 film Picnic at Hanging Rock.

At approximately forty years of age, Budd seems to be the matriarch of Appleyard College in Foxtel’s new vision of female hierarchy on Australia’s Colonial frontier.

Does age matter when it comes to schoolteachers in the final gasp of the Victorian era? Well, for this literary diehard, it certainly does, at least in the case of Miss McGraw.

Joan Lindsay put barely a stroke wrong in constructing her mystery, and specifically identifying McGraw’s age, leaving those of the other teachers as euphemistically middle-aged, or slightly older than the senior college students, was without doubt a deliberate plot point.

When editors took apart the original manuscript ahead of publication, lopping off the final chapter that explains the mystery, a crucial scene involving Miss McGraw was kept from readers. By identifying her age, and why she might have been more obsessed by the calculation of time than the other mistresses, Lindsay placed a clue that has rarely been noticed in half a century of analysis.

Even if the younger-than-written casting is designed to accommodate back-stories in the six 60-minute episodes, it is already working against the grain of the novel.

According to Foxtel’s head of drama Penny Win, the new adaptation: “… will take viewers on a new and in-depth journey into this incredibly iconic Australian story”.

LADY LINDSAY Author Joan Lindsay (1896-1984).

Where the staff of Appleyard College are concerned, it’s apparent that vision is considerably younger than Peter Weir’s, and Joan Lindsay’s.

The original story also offers the opportunity for that rarest of beasts – the screenplay with multiple female roles, including a higher-than-usual number of women over the age of forty. For that reason alone the strategy behind the casting of younger women will take some explaining.

Imagining the impact of Hanging Rock passing across impossibly youthful faces – instead of those whose dignity has been achieved through the attainment of years – already disappoints this viewer.

The television series, due for release later in 2017, has not been without controversy. After an evocative protest, an Australian female director was hired in December 2016 to address a perceived imbalance in the recruitment of local screen talent of both genders.

To date, there’s been no commentary on what might well turn out to be ageism in the casting.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved. Main image: ‘At the Hanging Rock’ by William Ford (1875), in the collection of the National Gallery of Victoria.

Let Tamar Iveri have her opera straight

IVERI HOMOPHOBIC Georgian soprano Tamar Iveri.
IVERI HOMOPHOBIC Georgian soprano Tamar Iveri.

A Writer (sort of) defends a diva.

AMID the flurry over Georgian opera singer Tamar Iveri and the comments she made in the social media about a protest march in Georgia on International Day Against Homophobia (IDAHO) in May, 2013, there was an assumption the soprano was just one homophobic voice in an accepting international opera industry, an aberration who must be silenced.

In an open letter to her country’s president, the singer compared gay people to “fecal masses”, a description picked-up by the social media ahead of Ivari’s scheduled performances for Opera Australia last year.

“Homophobia needs to be exposed, and that’s best done in the limelight where it has maximum impact.”

While I believe it was hypocritical of her to court Western dollars for her performances while condemning Western values which have attained mainstream followings, like LGBTQI equality, I’d like to place Iveri’s conservatism in context, particularly in the Australian performing arts scene.

Australian showbiz has long had an unspoken ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy about its same-sex attracted performing artists. From our televisions screens to our stages, generations of us have grown up with gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender entertainers and personalities, it’s just that we never knew them that way.

Almost forty years since Australia’s decriminalisation of homosexuality started in South Australia, you’d be forgiven for thinking the only ‘queer’ in prime-time, mainstream Aussie showbiz was Peter Allen, followed swiftly by Carlotta, Todd McKenney and opera singer Deborah Cheetham.

Statistics and common sense tell us that the numbers are much higher than that. Kindness and respect tells me that it would be simply unfair to extrapolate the rumours about which of our stars were (and are) simply ‘not the marrying kind’.

Does it really matter? Well, perhaps it does, when we are baying for blood over the homophobia expressed by a diva from the other side of the world, and the performing arts industry she has been a guest of puts on a very straight front.

NO PROBLEM Iran’s President Ahmadinajad speaking at Columbia University in 2007.
NO PROBLEM Iran’s President Ahmadinajad speaking at Columbia University in 2007.

The Tamar Iveri homophobia story reminds me of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s reception at Columbia University in 2007, when he guilelessly professed that they do not have the gay ‘phenomenon’ in Iran.

A ripple of snorts, which became a wave of laughter, washed across the audience and left Ahmadinejad blinking.

After expressing their deeply-held convictions about the level of homosexuality in their countries (Iveri cites a statistic with no evidence: “3 in 50″ are “born gay”, and the rest are “following the trend”), both commentators had their foundations rocked.

I see this as consciousness being raised, and I can only applaud it, because homophobia needs to be exposed, and that’s best done in the limelight where it has maximum impact and ongoing ramifications. So what is going on in 21st century opera for gays?

“Fabio is now the benchmark for the male opera star, not Pavarotti.”

When I typed “out gay opera singer” into a search engine I was met with extremes. The first news stories covered out gay opera singer, American counter-tenor David Daniels, who spoke with pride about his sexuality; and Swedish tenor Rickard Soderberg, who survived a random (possibly homophobic) attack.

At “33 Opera Hunks Who Need To Serenade You Right Now”, the parade of muscle men (one of whom, England’s Ed Lyon, identifies as #teamgay) reminded me of beefcakes gracing the romantic fiction section of bookstores.

Fabio is now the benchmark for the male opera star, not Pavarotti. Gone are the days when divas built like Brunhilde could pull off the role of starving slave girl.

Despite the sexy new out gay veritas in the opera industry, like closeted movie stars, gay opera performers might feel that being out while suspending disbelief as a straight hero or heroine is a bridge too far.

Meanwhile, amongst the ranks of design and directing staff in particular, same-sex attracted opera makers have maintained a public silence about homophobia. The secrets of the most ill-mannered and worst-behaved divas have always been kindly kept behind the scenes, the stuff of myth.

Pauline Pantsdown is one of only a few voices of protest from Australia’s showbiz industry about the Iveri issue. Opera Australia issued a statement announcing Tamar Iveri’s explanation of the circumstances behind her comments. Less than a week later, they released her from her contract.

While I applaud their decision, when I think about all the marriages of convenience and closeting in Opera Australia’s not too distant past, the company’s decision to part ways with her at this late stage, over homophobia expressed more than twelve months ago, contains a level of hypocrisy.

That they fêted her so long, and seemingly so unaware, smacks of blindness.

I would have liked to see Iveri perform in our country, just to see if the fuss caused any kind of protest. Surely at least one of the same-sex attracted opera staff might have sprung something on her, like not turning-up for her quick change, or not combing her wigs. A conductor could have downed a baton for Iveri’s big numbers, or one of the stage crew left her waiting.

Had she stayed, she couldn’t possibly have gotten through her Australian seasons without a hint of doubt about the ranks of same-sex attracted men and women working alongside her in the Australian opera industry, and a large percentage of the paying audience.

It’s laughable to inhabit the opera industry and commentate negatively on homosexuality. Take the gay out of opera and what are we left with? One homophobic diva who thought all those designers, costumiers, wigmakers, make-up artists and hairdressers were just a little light on their feet?

The work of composers Tchaikovsky, Britten and Schubert may one day land on Iveri’s music stand. Will she refuse to place their notes and lyrics in her mouth and have them flowing across her vocal chords because these men, being same-sex attracted, were akin to fecal matter? Or will she swallow that gay shit and project it to the back row?

Hopefully, the whole incident will have a lasting positive impact on same-sex attracted performing artists in this country. If so, it’s about time.

This article first appeared on No Fibs.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved. 

This article appears in Michael’s eBook Creating Waves: Critical takes on culture and politics.

Melba’s garden, at last

Caption caption.
DAFFODIL DAME Nellie Melba (1861-1931), world tourer and resident at Coombe Cottage, Lilydale, Victoria.

A Writer hunts for daffodils at a diva’s estate.

I’M following my nose to Nellie Melba’s garden, a journey I have waited twenty-five years to take, now that Coombe, the Melba Estate – once known simply as Coombe Cottage – is open to the public.

“Like daffodils, this story is pushing its way to the surface in its own time.”

Much has been made of what stood behind the tantalisingly thick, high cypress hedge that has enwrapped the property ever since it was purchased by Melba in 1909 and transformed from a dairy farm into a spreading garden by Victoria’s great garden designer William Guilfoyle.

The need for a significant boundary has become obvious over time, since it now shields the house and garden from two highways that meet at one corner of the sizeable estate, situated outside the township of Lilydale to Melbourne’s north-east.

VALLEY VIEW The magnificent outlook from Melba's garden.
VALLEY VIEW The magnificent outlook from Melba’s garden.

From the car park, visitors enter Melba’s world through this green barrier, and throughout the twice-daily garden tours, it’s impossible to escape the concept of seclusion created by the woman who was, in her time, the world’s most famous.

For her entire life, Melba was inspired to deep patriotism by the distant blue hills glimpsed from the Coldstream region at the city’s edge, and despite its height the hedge offsets a panorama which much rank amongst the finest rural views from an Australian garden.

Although I have come in search of something I know I will not see that day.

By late summer, most signs of daffodils have withered and dried into something akin to straw, but in late 1911 or early 1912, 20,000 hybridised ‘G.S. Titheradge’ daffodil bulbs were given to Melba for her burgeoning new garden by a NSW daffodil farmer with a love of opera.

At a private estate – Coorah – some 900 kilometres to the north in the Blue Mountains town of Wentworth Falls, Melba gave an impromptu private performance and was offered this unconventional floral gift in return.

“I realise how much has changed in the grounds of Coombe Cottage over its first century.”

As the local legend goes, what caught the soprano’s eye were the thousands of golden Narcissus blooms growing across the hillside to the north of the house belonging to Robert and Marie Pitt, among the guarantors of Melba’s grand opera tour of Sydney and Melbourne that spring and summer.

It’s not just the Coombe Estate wine tasting I’ve just enjoyed that’s left me feeling a little heady – I have been tracing the veracity of that legend ever since I was told it in 1989, and my dream of standing in the place where Pitt’s bulbs may once have bloomed has finally manifested.

In 1993 I told the story to Melba’s grand-daughter Pamela, Lady Vestey, Coombe Cottage’s resident from the 1970s until her death in 2011. Her reply was polite but assertive – as far as she knew, there were no such daffodils in her garden, and she suggested the whole thing was probably nothing more than a myth.

She was right – it sounded far-fetched, but by the time the Royal Horticultural Society library in London yielded a primary source for the despatch of 20,000 bulbs from Wentworth Falls to Lilydale prior to 1914, this burgeoning journalist didn’t feel up to contradicting her.

But it is Lady Vestey I am thinking of as I pass through the garden’s heavy iron gates, with their ornate ‘M’ initial, when I realise how much has changed in the grounds of Coombe Cottage over its first century, and what a challenge ownership of such an iconic property must have been.

Guilfoyle’s major plantings are still intact, but some of the design elements that linked the house and garden – such as the wisteria-covered rooftop pergola – are long gone.

Tour guide Di Logg outlines what has been gleaned in the process of opening the estate, the establishment of a restaurant and a winemaking operation, and explains that there are renovation plans in the pipeline.

“We are hoping one day to reinstate it,” she says of the rooftop garden, from which the views of the valley must have been even better than they are from ground level.

Despite the open manner in which the garden is now being shared with visitors, its secrets seem subsumed by the understandable focus on the preservation of the house and its contents as opposed to the paradise that lay around it.

Of Melba’s bedroom, positioned to take in the expansive mountain view, Di says: “Pamela left it as though her grannie, as she used to call her, had just walked out the door, her Hermès riding boots still in the wardrobe.”

SACRED OAK The spreading tree which has stood on the estate for a reported 180 years.
SACRED OAK The spreading tree which has stood on the estate for a reported 180 years.

But the garden was not left to its own devices. Di relates the story of one of the property’s icons – the 180-year-old oak which predated Melba’s purchase – which Lady Vestey apparently always said must stand even if it ends up knocking over the house.

Other structural garden elements – Victoria’s first swimming pool, iron gateways and ornamental focal points – are all still there and form the backbone of the generous garden tour.

The rest is in the process of being recovered from contemporary paintings (by the likes of Hans Heysen and Arthur Streeton) under the guidance of estate manager Dan Johnson and a combination of family and local memories, including a rose garden and the restored vegetable growing operation which complements the supply of fresh produce to the restaurant.

Hearing Di’s account of the clay soil around Coombe Cottage sets off my ‘daffodil radar’.

Robert Pitt transformed his scrubby hillside of sandy soils with manure and organic matter in the 1890s at Wentworth Falls. He also regularly ‘lifted’ his bulbs – the process of unearthing them after the flowers and leaves had died back and resting them in well-ventilated conditions until replanting in the autumn.

FLORAL FAVOURITE The daffodil has become one of the world's best loved cut flowers (Narcissus pseudonarcissus and Narcissus poeticus, gouache on vellum, in: Gottorfer Codex c.1659).
FLORAL FAVOURITE The daffodil has become one of the world’s best-loved cut flowers (Narcissus pseudonarcissus and Narcissus poeticus, gouache on vellum, in: Gottorfer Codex c.1659).

These farming techniques saw his Narcissus bulbs endure in abundance until long after his death in 1935, until they were eventually moved in the mid 1980s.

I ask gardener and writer Mary Moody about her knowledge of bulbs and clay.

“Bulbs – of all sorts – dislike clay soil because during the dormant period, if there are long rainy periods, the bulbs can easily rot,” she says.

“The reason for lifting bulbs is to thin them out when they self propagate. The bulbs overcrowd and flowering is reduced. This is unlikely to happen in clay soil because the bulbs will be struggling just to hold their own.

“That said, daffs are very tough and if there has been organic matter in the soil they will survive somehow.”

STATELY STATUARY Melba’s garden is punctuated by several iconic focal points.

Coombe Cottage garden tours end with a delicious afternoon or morning tea in the Melba Estate’s well patronised restaurant, and before I leave I promise to send Di a link to the story of Melba’s 20,000-bulb gift. She in turn commits to sending it on to Dan.

By the time I get home, Dan has recalled what a major part the Narcissus played at the funeral of Lady Vestey during peak daffodil season in September, 2011.

“We filled the small church and house here at Coombe with hundreds of bunches of daffodils, Lady Vestey’s favourite flower,” he said.

Like daffodils, this story is pushing its way to the surface in its own time.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.