Category Archives: Performers

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. 

Carbon Cate’s direct action on the cultural cringe

HEDDING OVERSEAS Hugo Weaving and Cate Blanchett in STC's Hedda Gabler.
HEDDING OVERSEAS Hugo Weaving and Cate Blanchett in STC’s Hedda Gabler.

WITH a second Academy Award under her belt, Australian-born actress Cate Blanchett joined an international cultural elite, and it was fascinating to watch the response of the Australian media to her accolade.

This was particularly true of News Corporation, which dubbed her ‘Carbon Cate’ when she joined a 2011 advertising campaign encouraging Australians to understand the benefits of the Labor government’s Carbon Tax.

But by the day of the Oscar ceremony, The Daily Telegraph had reverted to calling Blanchett “Our Cate”.

Within minutes of her award, tall poppy syndrome had kicked-in, and News Corp’s was questioning Blanchett’s contributions to the Australian film industry over the past decade.

The day after her historic win, which marked the first time an Australian actor won two Oscars, they buried Carbon Cate in the entertainment news, which is probably where they believe she belongs.

“It seems the cultural cringe is still alive and well in Australia.”

In case we need a reminder, ‘cultural cringe’ is the tendency of a colony to question the relevance of its artists against its ‘motherland’. It’s a kind of inferiority complex, if you like.

But this anti-intellectual process doesn’t only apply to the Arts.

When Barnaby Joyce leapt onto the ‘Carbon Cate’ bandwagon, he was taking a dig at someone he accused of being out of touch with economic realities.

He also had an agenda, which was not just anti-Cate, it was anti-science, and he probably knew very well that coining an alliterative derogatory term for his target would be highly effective.

So, it’s time for a reminder on the facts about Blanchett’s commitment to Australian industries and solutions to climate change.

Cate Blanchett is a local, who has lived with her family in the Sydney suburb of Hunters Hill for almost a decade.

In 2013 she ended a six-year stint as to co-artistic director of the Sydney Theatre Company (STC), work she admits put a dent in the time she could commit to an international film career, yet led to a golden era in Australian theatre exports.

Yes, that’s correct: Australian theatre, exported.

Despite the level of Australian Government funding for National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) and Australian Film, Television and Radio School (AFTRS) students, the local film, television and theatre industries they graduate into would not stand comparison with the reach and profitability of any other similarly funded Australian industry.

Australian theatre particularly does not even register against our worst-faring industries, such as agriculture and manufacturing. A decade ago, NIDA graduate and Australian actor Jeremy Sims quite rightly described our theatre industry as a “cottage industry”.

Before Cate Blanchett played the title role in Hedda Gabler for STC in 2004, Australian international theatre tours were few and far between. But in 2006, STC took the production to New York, where it played at the Brooklyn Academy of Music to a limited but sold-out season. It was not quite a Broadway experience for the company, but the touring cast and key creative crew were Australian.

The experiment was repeated and expanded with STC productions of A Streetcar Named Desire and Uncle Vanya touring to NYC and Washington; and Gross und Klein, which toured to France, Germany and the United Kingdom.

Like all good international trade, the experiment was a two-way street, including collaborations with America’s Artists Repertory Theatre, and international artist imports, including Philip Seymour Hoffman, William Hurt, and Isabelle Huppert, to work alongside local creatives.

With Blanchett’s star power attached, local and international sponsorship was attracted to match government funding.

Consequently hundreds of Australian theatre practitioners were employed in a viable industry which did more than break even, it made money.

And Blanchett was smart and generous enough to include Sydney Theatre Company in her Oscar acceptance speech this year, in front of one of the world’s largest live audiences.

It was a form of product placement which every fledging industry needs, and there was absolutely no inferiority about Blanchett’s description of STC as, “one of the great theatre companies in the world.”

AUSTRALIAN MAID Isabelle Huppert and Cate Blanchett in STC's The Maids.
AUSTRALIAN MAID Isabelle Huppert and Cate Blanchett in STC’s The Maids.

When STC’s production of The Maids, starring Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert, opened at New York’s Lincoln Center last August, the experiment moved from its start at the fringe of one of the largest theatre industries in the world, right to its heart.

Created in Sydney, and sold to the world, Australian theatre has never experienced such exposure, and it’s already had an effect on other Australian theatre companies, with the Melbourne Theatre Company (MTC) matching STC’s international touring record with something of a coup.

Instead of touring in an American or European classic, the way STC has done, MTC showcased an original Australian play – David Williamson’s Rupert – a bio about News Corp boss Rupert Murdoch.

CREATING A STIR Cate Blanchett in the controversial 2011 Carbon Tax ad campaign.
CREATING A STIR Cate Blanchett in the controversial 2011 Carbon Tax ad campaign.

Which brings us neatly back to Carbon Cate’s record of direct action on climate change.

In 2010, Blanchett and Andrew Upton, her co-artistic director and husband, oversaw the conversion of STC’s power supply to solar.

By the time they flicked the symbolic switch, which would light the company stages with energy from the sun, Blanchett’s appearance in the “Say ‘Yes’ to the Carbon Tax” commercial was still months away.

Her appearance in the commercial has undoubtedly been blown out of proportion over time. Michael Caton (who could easily have been dubbed ‘Carbon Caton’ but missed out on any ire from the Coalition) took the main role.

Blanchett was the last of the actors to appear, and her only line was simply: “And finally, doing something about climate change.”

In the light of STC’s conversion to solar, at the time one of this country’s largest solar capture operations, and the steps she and Upton had taken to ‘green’ their own home, Blanchett had earned the right to claim to have done something about climate change.

PLUCK COVER copyThe irony is, her actions were as close to the Coalition’s ‘direct action’ as it gets, which only proves that many in Australia are not ready for an artist to show the way, even one at the top of her game internationally, with her feet, and her creative heart, firmly planted in home soil.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

This article appears in Michael’s eBook Pluck: Exploits of the single-minded