Sian Prior

Writer, Broadcaster, Singer, MC & Teacher

Blog

October 10

Melbourne Festival Fare and Forthcoming Gigs

As the 2008 Melbourne Festival draws to a close, it’s worth mentioning some highlights – and some lowlights.

Turkish ney-player (a long wooden flute-like instrument) Kudsi Erguner performed at the BMW Edge with an ensemble of virtuoso musicians in a concert called Sufi Invocations. The highlight for me was hearing the two male vocalists (or ‘nightingales’, as Erguner described them) whose voices, both individually and in unison, made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. It reminded me of being in Istanbul and hearing the Moslem prayer-calls echoing over the city, with those distorted, elongated vowels and ornamented scales dipping up and down between the extreme top and the very bottom of their vocal range. Soothing and exquisite.

Oddly enough, it also reminded in moments of Liza Lim’s opera The Navigator, which played to bemused audiences in the Playhouse of The Arts centre. She, too, employed virtuoso singers, operatically trained in this instance, but required to distort their vowels in extraordinary ways to deliver Patricia Sykes’ text. Frankly, i didn’t think Barrie Kosky’s dildo-ridden direction worked, but it wasn’t entirely his fault. The text lacked drama and a coherent narrative, and i suspect this musical work should have been presented as a concert performance rather than a staged theatrical production. I am a huge fan of the Elision Ensemble, and of Liza Lim’s ground-breaking compositions, but i found it hard to enjoy this show.

STO Union’s two-person work ‘7 Important Things’ was a nostalgic and vaguely therapeutic narration of one man’s life story. Aided and abetted by Canadian director Nadia Ross, George Acheson re-lives his experiences growing up a baby-boomer in an era of failed utopianism. Ross is playful with the form – there’s everything from TV-style chat show moments to mask-work and silent disco-dancing in this show – but it felt, in the end, rather slight.

Speaking of Canadians, Book of Longing, a new work by American composer Phillip Glass based on the poetry of Leonard Cohen, was a moving and loving homage to the Canadian songwriter and artist. Four excellent musical theatre-style vocalists delivered the songs with clear-as-a-bell diction, allowing us to relish the craft of Cohen’s sad, sexy, witty poetry. Can’t wait for Cohen’s Australian tour (late Jan, early Feb 2009 – supported by Paul Kelly!)

Wendy Houston’s Desert Island Dances put the ‘playful’ back into ‘post-modern’ with a funny, low-key and self-refllexive one-woman dance work about… about… oh, everything, really. There was a chalk board on which the English performer traced an imaginary graph of her audience’s emotional response to the show, a giant wooden box with wheels in which she rolled around the small stage, and lots of talking. I loved this performance, and i’d love to see anything else she does, quite frankly.

And what a treat to see Melbourne playwright and director Jenny Kemp’s latest work, Kitten, which premiered at the Malthouse Theatre. Three women play the one character, ‘Kitten’, who is having some kind of frightening manic episode, following the drowning death of her lover. Natasha Herbert and Margaret Mills, both longtime collaborators with Kemp, were simply astonishing in the way they captured the breath-taking charisma of someone in that state. A more accessible play, in some ways, than many of Kemp’s previous works, Kitten left me in tears, and yet also elated. Definitely a Festival highlight.

Forthcoming SP gigs – I’ll be performing with Paul Kelly in Perth for his A – Z gigs at The Quarry (November 4 – 7). I’ll be singing and playing clarinet, and Dan Kelly will be playing along on guitar as well.

October 3

Heavenly Handel, Fringe Festival and Bogan Pride

I went to my first Melbourne Symphony concert in a while last night, and I was very happy to see an almost full house at the Hamer Hall. Must have something to do with the enduring popularity of Handel’s ‘Water Music’ which made up the second half of the bill. The first half featured the astonishing Australian counter-tenor David Hansen peforming three Handel arias with the physical confidence of an Olympic athlete. The Baroque ornamentation he applied to these operatic numbers was the equivalent of a gold-medal-winning pentathlon performance, and the crowd roared with approval as he took his bows. The orchestra sounded incredibly youthful under the bouncing baton of Canadian conductor Bernard Labadie. They’re performing the Handel program twice more this week and it will be broadcast at a later date on ABC Classic FM.

Meanwhile the Melbourne Fringe Festival has begun, and last night saw the launch of ‘Jacky Jacky in the Box’, a performance art installation presented by Ilbijerri Theatre. Five indigenous performers, all called ‘Jacky’, sit inside three glass museum cabinets in the Atrium of Federation Square. Curious passers-by can read their family histories displayed on printed signs in front of the boxes, and learn about the complex and often tragic circumstances that led to each ‘Jacky’ being denied their indigenous cultural heritage. It’s cheeky, it’s confronting, and it makes a very clear point about the way in which Aboriginal Australians have been treated as less than human for most of the past two centuries.

And at the Supper Room of the North Melbourne Town Hall i saw a work-in-progress called ‘The Lonely Instrument’, an alternately chilling and hilarious re-telling of Angela Carter’s radio play ‘Vampirella’, all mixed up with characters and recipes straight out of the Country Women’s Association Cookery Book. There’s a shadow-puppetry play, an afternoon tea ritual with lamingtons and shortbread, and the scariest cake competition judges you’ll ever meet. Keep an eye out for the finished product, due for completion in 2009. For more information, email: lonelyinstrument@gmail.com

And don’t forget to tune into SBS Television at 9 pm on Monday nights for the next six weeks to see the new Australian comedy series ‘Bogan Pride‘, featuring the marvellous Caroline Lee playing a lesbian leader of a young Christian girls friendly society.

September 22

From Theatre to Film; from Film to Theatre

What a year for Australian film. I saw ‘Blessed’ this week, the film version of a Melbourne Workers Theatre production called ‘Who’s Afraid of the Working Class’ which i vividly remember seeing at the Trades Hall in Carlton about a decade ago. Director Ana Kokkinos and writer Andrew Bovell have done a remarkable job of sewing together four different short plays into one complex, layered and deeply affecting screenplay. And as with the original theatre production, the film invites us to look more closely – and more sympathetically – at the lives of people who have very little control over those lives. Single mothers struggling with loneliness and dependency, guilt and anger, fear and poverty, and with their own children – simultaneously bewildered and resourceful, defenceless and resilient, full of hate and full of love. These are three dimensional characters performed – in the main – by actors with an astonishing array of emotional tools at their disposal. And like those other stand-out Australian films of 2009 – ‘Samson and Delilah’, ‘Mary and Max’ and ‘Balibo’ – this film makes us feel the vulnerability of youth as keenly as we felt our own vulnerability when we were young – perhaps even more so. Take a hankie, in fact take a bag full of hankies, but take yourself to the cinema to see ‘Blessed’.

And speaking of children in peril, at the Malthouse Theatre last week I saw ‘One Night The Moon‘, a theatre adaptation of a musical film made for ABC TV about nine years ago. Directed by Wesley Enoch, the musical play tells the story of a young girl who wanders away from her parent’s farmhouse in search of the man in the moon and, as a result of racial prejudice, is lost forever. Based on the true story of indigenous ‘blacktracker’ Tracker Riley who was prevented from searching for a lost child by the child’s racist grandfather, the theatre adaptation swerves wildly between the sublime and the prosaic. The opening moments of the show are the best ten minutes i’ve spent in a Melbourne theatre for at least a year, thanks to some superbly imaginative multimedia design, and the members of the musical ensemble who perform on stage throughout the show are wonderfully multi-talented. At times, though, the dialogue and the lyrics descend into a kind of kitchen-sink drama that drags the whole thing down. I would still recommend you see this production, because most of the songs are great and Mark Seymour (who plays the white farmer) gives a powerful performance as a man mentally and physically locked up by his own fear and ignorance. But once again, if Tiny Tots in Trouble Tend To Tug aT your hearT-sTrings, don’t forget the hankies.

On October 1st I’ll be hosting the Ian Potter Foundation Music Commissions awards night at the Melbourne Recital Centre. Two new Fellowships will be awarded to Australian composers, and there’ll be a special recital from musicians Michael Kieran-Harvey, Merlyn Quaife and Vanessa Tomlinson of works by previous award-winners.

On Saturday October 17th i’ll be a guest speaker on a panel addressing ideas about ‘memory’ for the Meanjin journal. The discussion is part of the World Matters Festival 2009, being held at Edendale Community Farm, Gastons Lane, Eltham. Bookings: (03) 9439 8700

September 13

Tropical Talents and Marvellous Mentors

Just back from the Northern Territory where i caught several gigs on the last weekend of the Darwin
Festival
. Being able to boogie in the humid night air at the Darwin Botanic Gardens sure beats scurrying around chilly, wet Melbourne in October to attend the Melbourne Festival. (How about moving it to March, gals?)

One of the highlights was a concert called ‘Drums and Lions’, a collaboration between Maltese-Australian guitarist/percussionist Nicky Bomba and Ethiopian musician Dereb Desalegn. Bomba explained that it all started as a quest to find the roots of reggae in Ethiopia (he never did), but it ended with a firm musical friendship which had the crowd jigging and sweating and calling out for more at the Star Shell. Desalegn sings in his native Amharic language and plays a traditional one-stringed instrument called the masenko, but this is no world-musicky folk outfit. They rock!
They’ve recorded an album via Transmitter Records, also called ‘Drums and Lions’, and i highly recommend it as a cure for the post-winter blues.

The other gig to rave about was a double bill with charismatic East Timorese singer/songwriter Ego Lemos (lead singer of Cinco do Oriente) and Yolngu singer/songwriter Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu. Gurrumul’s self-titled solo album has been garnering music industry nominations and winning awards left, right and centre (keep an eye out for him at the Aria awards in October, if he doesn’t take home a major prize i’ll eat my sombrero). The sell-out crowd had the religious fervour of a bunch of Elvis fans, so passionate were they about this blind musician and his songs in language. He’s a former member of Yothu Yindi, a current member of the Saltwater Band, and he’s going to be the next big indigenous musical star in this country (or i’ll eat another sombrero).

Gurrumul will be performing with the Black Armband at the forthcoming Melbourne Festival, and also doing a couple of solo gigs – book now or you’ll be sorry. (And keep an eye out for my profile of Gurrumul in a forthcoming edition of The Age ‘EG’.) Ego Lemos is rumoured to be performing in Melbourne on September 25th – more info anon.

Last week i hosted another business forum for the City of Stonnington, this time on the topic of mentoring. The three guest speakers (David Southwick, Fay Jamieson and Shane Hills) spoke persuasively about how asking for help – and/or offering it – can make the difference between a successful small business and a failure. Click to hear a podcast of our conversation.

July 22

Talking to Steve Bracks, and Good Old Art

On August 15th I’ll be chairing a Business Breakfast to raise funds for the refurbishment of the Yarraville Community Centre, a beautiful National Trust-registered building which houses a wide range of community organisations servicing the west. Guest speakers will include former Victorian Premier Steve Bracks, and the aim is to raise a million dollars in corporate sponsorship to match the funding promised by state and local governments.

Couple of recent highlights in the Melbourne arts scene:

The Coronation of Poppea – the Victorian Opera production of this 17th century opera features some of the most beautiful singing i’ve heard on stage in this town for a very long time. Counter-tenor David Hansen (Nerone), mezzo-soprano Sally Wilson (La Fortuna, Ottavia) and bass Paul Hughes (Seneca) are the stand-outs in a strong cast, and though the direction occasionally strays into the gratuitously bawdy, this new version of Monteverdi’s and Sacrati’s opera is definitely worth seeing. On at the South Melbourne Town Hall (perfect acoustics) until July 26th.

Art Deco: 1910 to 1939 – the National Gallery of Victoria’s latest blockbuster has been attracting huge crowds, which is great, and also a shame, because it can be hard to get a close look at all the beautiful objets, artworks, frocks and film footage which make up this enormous exhibition of Art Deco Stuff. But it’s worth getting up early for, and making sure you have a few hours to spend inside the only-just-adequately-lit exhibition spaces in the St Kilda Rd building. You’ll want to take it all home. On until October 5th.

And keep an eye out for the Travel lift-out in The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald on Saturday July 26th – an article i wrote recently about cutting edge arts in New York will be published at last!

July 8

Marketing Forum, and latest ABC broadcast

On Thursday July 17th I’ll be hosting a business forum for the City of Stonnington on marketing. The regular ‘Roosters and Feather Dusters’ forums aim to give local business people fresh and useful information – and a chance to socialise and network. There’ll be a panel of three expert guest speakers, the event starts at 6:30 pm at the Malvern Town Hall, and drinks and nibbles are provided – contact the City of Stonnington for more details.

And i recently spoke with a fascinating and deeply wacky American artist on Radio National’s Lingua Franca program on Saturday May 17th. I interviewed Nina Katchadourian in her Brooklyn home when i was in New York in April. She’s done a project called Accent Elimination where she employed a voice coach to try to teach her parents (a Swedish-speaking Finnish literary translator and an Armenian- Turkish-Lebanese social science professor) how to speak with a so-called ‘pure American accent’, at the same time as she tried to learn how to speak with their inimitable ‘foreign’ accents. I’m not pulling your leg. (If you missed the live broadcast, you can always podcast it)

May 17

World Environment Day forum

On Thursday June 5th i hosted a World Environment Day public forum at the St Kilda Town Hall for the City of Port Phillip. The four guest speakers were looking at practical solutions to the threat of climate change:

• Hon John Thwaites (Professorial Fellow Monash University Sustainability Institute) on the social impacts of climate change

• Suzie Brown (Environmental Consultant) on changing behaviour and adapting our homes

• Ric Brazzale (Director, Carbon Market Economics) on what governments can do

• Brendan Condon (Managing Director, Australian EcoSystems) on the potential for community action

May 13

Singing, Tootling and Talking

If you’re heading down to the Mornington Peninsula on Sunday June 15th, and fancy some singing and tootling, you might like to consider coming along to my next recital. It’s a program of art songs and clarinet pieces by French composers, including Faure, Hahn, Poulenc, Roussell, Bozza, and a stray Dane with a French-sounding name (Jens Bjerre). I’ll be accompanied by pianist Katherine Gillon and the concert begins at 2:30 at the Rosebud Uniting Church, Murray Anderson Rd, Rosebud. Tickets are $10 at the door, and you’ll get afternoon tea for that, too.

And i’ll be talking to a fascinating and deeply wacky American artist on Radio National’s Lingua Franca program this weekend (Saturday May 17th, 3:45 pm). I interviewed Nina Katchadourian in her Brooklyn home when i was in New York last month. She’s done a project called Accent Elimination where she employed a voice coach to try to teach her parents (a Swedish-speaking Finnish literary translator and an Armenian- Turkish-Lebanese social science professor) how to speak with a so-called ‘pure American accent’, at the same time as she tried to learn how to speak with their inimitable ‘foreign’ accents. I’m not pulling your leg. (If you miss the live broadcast, you can always podcast it)

If you’re interested in sustainability and small business, you might like to check out the podcast of a forum i chaired last week for the City of Stonnington – ‘Green is the New Black‘. Guests included Rob Gell (weatherman and environmental crusader), Katie Patrick (founder of the Green Pages) and Amanda Nutall (from the NetBalance Foundation).

If you are looking for a good film to see, i can happily recommend ‘The Edge of Heaven’. Set in Germany and Turkey, it is an intricately-woven tale about a Turkish man and his German-born son, the prostitue they befriend and betray, and her daughter, an idealistic young political activist. In fact, i suspect this is The Perfect Film. I’m still digesting it, three days later. One of the many outstanding actors in ‘The Edge of Heaven’ is Hannah Schygulla, who i remember from in a number of politically confronting German films in the 1980’s, so it was quite a nostalgia trip, seeing her beautiful but aged face staring out at me from the big screen. We saw it at The Classic but i’m sure it’s on elsewhere.

On the other hand, unless you relish the idea of spending an evening in a bleak famillial dystopia, avoid ‘Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead’. Not even Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s marvellous acting (nor director Sidney Lumet’s excellent track record – ‘Broadcast News’!) could console me when I was trapped in the second row, watching this depressing film about semi-accidental matricide. Oi veh…

May 2

About As Good As It Gets

So often i go to an opera and come away feeling underwhelmed. There’s usually something about the production that’s just not quite good enough to allow me to relax and fully enjoy it. But this week i saw something so good, i almost forgot i was at the opera. OA’s production of Richard Strauss’ ‘Arabella‘ is an unmitigated pleasure from start to finish. You have to love Strauss – that late Romantic lushness, that passion for soaring female voices entwined in rapidly modulating harmonies – and i do. So it was only a question of whether the voices would be full and warm enough to carry it off, and whether the acting would be convincing enough to allow the alternating comedy and the tragedy to drag you from laughter to tears in the space of a few bars They were.

A quick synopsis – Arabella’s father is a compulsive gambler, the family’s finances are dwindling rapidly, and he needs to ‘sell’ his beautiful daughter off to the highest bidder in order to avoid destitution. Arabella’s little sister Zdenka has been cross-dressing all her life, because the family can’t afford the cost of bringing two daughters out into Viennese society. Zdenkas fancies Arabella’s suitor Matteo, but is trying to be a good girl and sell her sister to him by writing him love-letters supposedly by Arabella. Enter the tall dark handsome WEALTHY stranger Mandryka. There’s a Viennese ball, there’s a case of mistaken idenity, there’s some late night hanky-panky, and it’s all resolved by the sensuous quaffing of a large glass of water. There’s a dash of proto-feminism in amongst the romantic folly – i reckon Zdenka rather enjoys wearing those trousers – and the cast was about as strong as it gets for an OA production – Cheryl Barker, Peter Coleman-Wright, Kanen Breen, Emma Matthews, Milijana Nikolic, Richard Roberts, and a wonderfully comic Conal Coad. It’s on until May 9th – see it if you can.

The week before i saw OA’s production of ‘Carmen‘ – some underwhelming performances (like i said…) but the set was great (i almost believed there was a bull-ring behind that big red wall) and fortunately Pamela Helen Stephen was a sexy Carmen with a huge expressive voice. Hard to believe such a powerful sound could come from such a diminutive woman, but she carried the night.

At The Toff In Town in Swanston St, local lyric soprano Vanessa West presented the latest incarnation of her one-woman show ‘Puccini’s Women‘ last Sunday afternoon. Just who were the damsels who inspired Tosca, Mimi, Musetta, and all those other memorable but mostly doomed operatic heroines of Signor Puccini? See this show on Sunday 4th May and you’ll find out.

And for sheer entertainment, there’s the MTC’s production of ‘The 39 Steps‘, a sweet theatrical piss-take of the conventions of Alfred Hitchcock’s films. Four actors play over 100 characters (there’s a lot of hat-swapping) and Marcus Graham seems to relish his role as the devilishly handsome but hapless romantic lead who is led astray by a femme fatale. Just not sure whether our tax-payer dollars should be sponsoring something as light and entertaining as this. Whatever happened to the commercial theatre sector?

April 17

Nothing but a Dream

Is it true? Was i really at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theatre watching Paul Simon (tiny, aged, grandfatherly) strumming his guitar and singing songs from his musical ‘The Capeman’, accompanied by the Spanish Harlem Orchestra? Must be, i’ve got the obligatory photo of Me Walking Across The Brooklyn Bridge to prove it (see Photographs, in Portfolio section of website).

Sigh.

New York has floated off into the dimming past, and it’s back into the cultural fray in Mel-Born.

Whence i arrived just in time to catch a Comedy Festival show on the very last day of the festival. Frank Woodley (formerly of Lano and Woodley) had concocted a winning piece of physical theatre (with some ventriloquism and guitar-strumming thrown in for good measure) called ‘Possessed’ which was on at the daintily-dusty Comedy Theatre. Would you believe it was about a social introvert and model ship-maker who becomes possessed by an Irish slip of a girl from the 19th century who is seeking a mysterious object, wit’out which her accursed soul will never rest in peace, to be sure, to be sure. The ship-spotter falls in love with her, which leads to some interesting experiments in theatrical onanism, and a lot of falling down the stairs. Very funny, a little bit moving, and if not ground-breaking, a t’oroughly enjoyable afft’rnoon’s entertainment (to be sure, etc.)

Opera Australia is in town, and i saw ‘Carmen’ this week. The most important ingtedient was there – a charismatic, sexy mezzo-soprano in the role of Carmen – Pamela Helen Stephen – truly a slip of a girl, but with a voice that could stop a train. You could believe that sane men would throw away perfectly good careers in the military just for a chance to polish her dusty boots. The tenor (Rosario La Spina) was less believable, in part because his bulk makes it hard for him to move with any fluidity on stage. And the voice seemed tired at the beginning of the performance, but warmed up in the third and fourth acts. I loved the set – ACCA-style rust-red walls behind which i actually believed there might be a Spanish bullring. The orchestra sounded strong and sweet, and though (or perhaps because?) the stage direction was intensely busy, it was always interesting.
‘Un Ballo in Maschero’ next week, followed by ‘Arabella’ – watch this space.