Here and there – A Tale of Two Mountebanks


Sir Lewis Namier, the distinguished English historian, specialised in eighteenth century English history.  But he was born in Eastern Europe and he had a lifelong interest in European history.

In 1947, Namier published an essay called The First Mountebank Dictator.  It was about a nephew of Napoleon called Louis-Napoleon who, as Napoleon III, ruled France for a period in the nineteenth century.  The regime is called the Second Empire.  This was one of the many regimes that France went through in the century of agony that followed the fall of the Bastille.

Louis-Napoleon has not had a good press.  Many parts of this essay remind me of a contemporary figure who is not a dictator, but who is certainly a mountebank.  There are differences, but we can see the similarities. You have probably already guessed who I have in mind, but to remove any doubt, here is the OED definition of a mountebank:

An itinerant quack who from a platform appealed to his audience by means of stories, tricks, juggling and the like, often with the assistance of a professional clown.  An impudent charlatan.

Curiously, poor sad Gerry Henderson took exception to the word ‘charlatan’ being employed to the mountebank you and I now have in mind.  Appropriately, I see that Coleridge referred to ‘the Mountebanks and Zanies of Patriotism’ – a fair description of the rump of one of our political parties, or what’s left of it.

Here then are extracts from Sir Lewis Namier’s description of a mountebank.

The modern dictatorship arises amid the ruins of an inherited social and political structure, in the desolation of shattered loyalties – it is the desperate shift of communities broken from their moorings.  Disappointed, disillusioned men, uprooted and unbalanced, driven by half-conscious fears and gusts of passions, frantically seek a new rallying point and new attachments.  Their dreams and cravings projected into the void gather round some figure.  It is the monolatry of the political desert.  The more pathological the situation, the less important is the intrinsic worth of the idol.  His feet may be of clay and his face may be a blank: it is the frenzy of the worshippers which imparts to him meaning and power.

Why, of course!  We see it at once.  It’s just that we don’t have the command of either history or language to paint such a gorgeous portrait.  But don’t worry – there is plenty more to come.

Such morbid cults have by now acquired a tradition and ideology, and have evolved their own routine and political vocabulary.  With Napoleon I [Bonaparte] things were serious and real – the problems of his time and his mastery of them; he raised no bogies and whipped up no passions; he aimed at restoring sanity and consolidating the positive results of the Revolution; and if, in superposing the Empire on the Republic and in creating Realm of the West, he invoked the memories of Caesar and Charlemagne, the appeal was decorative rather than imitative.  There would have been no occasion for his dictatorship had not the living heritage of French history been obliterated by revolution; but his system has left its own unhealthy legend, a jackal-ghost which prowls in the wake of the ‘Red sceptre.’

Well, of value for us here is the catalogue of what Bonaparte wasn’t although it’s as well to recall that he left Europe with five million dead, and he left France a smoking, spent ruin.  We go on.

Napoleon III and Boulanger were to be the plagiarists, shadowy and counterfeit, of Napoleon I; and Mussolini and Hitler were to be unconscious reproducers of the methods of Napoleon III.  For these are inherent in plebiscitarian Caesarism, or so-called ‘Caesarian democracy’, with its direct appeal to the masses: demagogical slogans; disregard of legality in spite of a professed guardianship of law and order; contempt of political parties and the parliamentary system, of the educated classes and their values; blandishments and vague, contradictory promises for all and sundry; militarism, blatant displays and shady corruption.  Panem et circenses [bread and circuses] once more – and at the end of the road, disaster.

There seventy years ago you have a word for word portrait – word for word: read them again – of our current mountebank.  Note especially the contempt for the educated classes and look at the vague contradictory promises and the shady corruption.  And remember that two the most fascist regimes that the world has known – ancient Sparta and Nazi Germany – were also among the most corrupt.

…the taciturn, shadowy impassive figure of Napoleon III has puzzled the century which has gone by, as the shrieking, convulsed, hysterical figure of Hitler will puzzle the one to come.  ‘A sphinx without a riddle’ was Bismarck’s summing up of Napoleon III ‘from afar something, near at hand nothing.’ ‘Louis-Napoleon is essentially a copyist.  He can originate nothing; his opinions, his theories, his maxims, even his plots, are all borrowed and from the most dangerous of models….[Bonaparte]….  ‘His range of ideas is narrow, and there is always one which preoccupies him…..and shuts out the others….He learns little from his own meditations, for he does not balance opposite arguments; he learns nothing from conversation, for he never listens’….‘as he is ignorant uninventive and idle, you will see him flounder from one failure to another’….[his] ‘writings were not read by the soldier or by the prolétaire…  and the principle of his regime was to rest on the army and the people, and to ignore the existence of the educated classes.’

This brings us closer to the personalities of out two mountebanks.  Each was or is anything but educated but deeply troubled by those who were or are.  All that is missing – so far – from Louis-Napoleon is a massive ego masking a chasm of insecurity.  Princess Mathilde, a cousin, wanted ‘to break his head, to find out what there is in it.’  His writing was described as ‘turgid, contradictory, and baffling, both naïve and cunning’ – in other words, bullshit.  He wanted to forego parliament and the plutocracy and go with his ‘unformulated doctrine of direct contract between sovereign and masses.’  Then Namier describes the critical mistake of educated people.

They thought that because he was intellectually their inferior, they would be able to run him or get rid of him; the German conservatives – Junkers, industrialists, generals, Nationalists – thought the same about Hitler.  [And the Italians thought the same about Mussolini.]  ‘The elect of six millions executes  and does not betray the will of the people.

The pulling down and rebuilding of capitals is again a recurrent feature in the history of despots and dictators, from Nero to Mussolini and Hitler.  Self-expression, self-glorification and self-commemoration are one motive…..The careers of Napoleon III and Hitler have shown how far even a bare minimum of ideas and resources, when backed by a nation’s reminiscences or passions, can carry a man in the political desert of direct democracy’; and the books written about Napoleon III show how loath posterity is to accept the stark truth about such a man.

The phrase ‘political desert’ is good.

There was in him a streak of vulgarity.  He was sensual, dissolute, undiscriminating in his love affairs: his escapades were a form of escapism, a release…He talked high and vague idealism, uncorrelated to his actions.  He had a fixed, superstitious, childish belief in his name and star.  Risen to power, this immature weak man became a public danger.

There, near the end of the essay, we get the perfect marriage of our two mountebanks.  At their best, they’re nothing but bullshit-artists.

English was probably about the sixth language learned by Namier, but when he referred to ‘a streak of vulgarity’, he was using the word ‘vulgar’ which is based on a Latin word for the ‘common people’ or herd.  That is the perfect word for our other mountebank.

We might take as our text the opening lines of the book of Ecclesiastes.  There is nothing new under the sun.  It is risky to speculate about what Shakespeare thought of the herd, but his Roman plays and an early English historical play suggest that he had a most righteous fear of the mob. He examines an aspect of what we call ‘populism’ in Coriolanus.  This haughty patrician is the anti-populist – he refuses to bow to the plebeians.  He holds them in contempt and says so.  Plutarch said of the historical character that he ‘lacked the gravity and affability that is gotten with judgment and learning…and was wilfully given to self-opinion and obstinate mind.’  The fine English critic Tony Tanner said of Shakespeare’s character that ‘he is a prime example of what Renaissance thinkers regarded as the ill-educated prince, a man from the governing classes who is, by nature, temperament, and upbringing, unfitted and unfit to rule.’

That brings us back to our two mountebanks – again, word for word.  But Coriolanus was a tragic figure; our two mountebanks are merely preposterous.

Let me finish with a zinging one-liner from Sir Lewis:

The view that it was not a regime but a racket is not altogether unfounded.

Not with our mountebank, Mate.  There’s no doubt that there’s a racket going on there.

Passing Bull 113 – Bleating from the banks

New taxes on banks, both federal and state, have caused outrage. My paper, the AFR, got itself into a right tizz, and went into a leaden, clichéd overdrive.

First Canberra held up the banks because the politicians couldn’t control their spending, and the banks were both profitable and unpopular. Now that the Feds have broken into the banks’ vaults, other levels of government are joining in the looting of private stakeholders’ money. What we are witnessing is nothing less than the debauchery of the political system.

In yesterday’s budget, South Australian Treasurer Tom Koutsantonis announced that his state was going to follow Scott Morrison’s lead and whack the big four banks plus Macquarie with a 0.015 per cent tax on the South Australian share of their liabilities. Whereas Morrison said the banks could afford to ‘‘pony up’’ because ‘‘no one likes you anyway’’ and it was just a ‘‘fair additional contribution’’, Mr Koutsantonis said ’’we know they are making super profits’’ and that ‘‘even if every other state follows, they’d still be under-taxed’’. Sound familiar? Oh, and it will raise $370 million for the mendicant state whose disastrous renewable energy policy means they can barely keep the lights on, just as Morrison’s version is expected to raise $6.2 billion federally.

As we editorialised after the May budget, this is the Willie Sutton school of budget management: robbing the banks because that’s where the money is. Strapped governments simply reach around for cash wherever it can be found. Morrison’s Liberal Party, ostensibly the party of fiscal discipline, thought this was a great idea. Why shouldn’t the states follow suit? Yet this is serious, and may be the thin end of the wedge if other cash-strapped states choose to follow South Australia’s lead.

Dear, dear, dear – looting!  ‘Of private stakeholders’ money’ – in a public company?  Should we be looking for reds under the bed?

Then they published what lawyers call a plea from Ian Narev of the CBA (in which I hold shares).

The providers of the capital that fuels our economy are international pension funds, just like the Australian super funds looking after our retirement savings. These funds place high importance on strong banks. But they also place high importance on strong, predictable government policy. Providers of capital hate surprises. Surprises undermine their confidence to invest. They wonder where surprises will end. And in a world where they have abundant choices for investment, surprises ultimately lead them to take their capital – the capital we need to build businesses and create jobs – elsewhere.

Unpredictability of government policy has a clear label: sovereign risk. Ask global investors about their view of Australia, and most will point to significantly elevated levels of sovereign risk.

It is in this context that we should view the South Australian government’s unprincipled and reckless tax grab as it walked through the gate the federal government left open. Despite the fact that almost every Australian has an economic stake in the banks, and that banks directly and indirectly create jobs and wage growth, the Federal and South Australian Governments revel in saying how easy it will be to gain support even for populist policies that have no basis in sound economics.

They may be right. But they miss the big point. Under their watch, sovereign risk in Australia is rising exponentially. That won’t show up in short term opinion polls. It will show up over the longer term in reduced investment and higher costs of capital. And the community may take a different view when, in time, the consequences of these ill-considered policies become obvious, and can’t be explained away by slogans.

What that means, I think, is that Mr Narev fears that he may now have to pay more for his money.  Poor fellow – quel domage!  The business of banking is simple.  You take money in through the left window at X% and let it out through the right window at X+Y% and you pocket the difference.  Mr Narev is here worrying about the left widow – X may grow a bit.  But what got the silly buggers into trouble was the right window – they found that in their greed they could not get their money back.  You should watch The Big Short at the cinema and listen to the audience sigh and groan at the galahs that nearly sent us down.

The banks may have a ground of objection in economics.  I wouldn’t know – but I do know that I am suspicious about economists.  Where were these gurus when we needed them in the lead up to the GFC?  Why could some whizz kids working in a U S garage see what was coming when no practising economist could?  I’m even more suspicious when an appeal is made to the knowledge of business insiders.  ‘Trust me, I’m a banker’ does not wash – to the certain knowledge of ‘I the banker.’

What about the politics then?  A home run against the banks.  How many people are in favour of cutting taxes paid by large profitable companies and reducing support for the young, the sick, the unemployed, and the aged? (Disclaimer – I may qualify under three of those headings.)

The federal government was crude – as is its wont – in saying that they could be cavalier with the banks because banks are unloved.  But we do have a kind of democracy, and that is a form of government that should reflect the thinking and feelings of the people at large.  It’s just tripe to dismiss that fact of life as ‘populism.’  If the people as a whole are angry with the banks – and they are – then it is natural that the government reflects this anger in their laws.  That’s just what we have here.

For my part, I see no substance in the Commonwealth’s criticism of the state of South Australia. The people of that state have a government of a different political colour to that of the Commonwealth.  For reasons I understand, people there are angry with both the Commonwealth and the banks, and that anger too will be reflected in their laws.

Of course there is a risk that these taxes will expand.  That’s a risk with any tax and with just about any law.  Income tax started as an emergency wartime measure to stop Napoleon.  The government just got hooked on it, just as our governments got hooked on gambling revenues.

The banks were on the nose before the GFC.  Someone like Mr Narev gets paid about one hundred times what Peggy Sue the bank teller gets.  One of his main functions – one of his ‘drivers’ – is to sack as many Peggy Sues as he can and to  leave me dangling on the line to the bowels of Bengal.

In their defence of their obscene pay levels, the banks refer to market forces.  But their embrace of these forces dissolves into the ether when those forces don’t suit them.  When market forces threatened the very existence of the banks, they came running to Daddy and Mummy for their dummy.  They want me to stand behind them, whether I like it or not.  They need us to guarantee them.  So much for market forces, and those reactionaries who fulminate against government funded bodies like the ABC.  At least the ABC acknowledges that it’s there to serve us – and don’t even think of asking which people trust more, Aunty or the banks.

With our help, the banks rode out the GFC.  That crisis had been brought on by criminal greed and profit-driven ineptitude.  We picked up the tab.  The bankers trousered their bonuses.  Almost no one went to jail.  But people kept losing their jobs.  Those left in work saw their wages stall, while their bosses were rolling in it.  The banks sat pretty on our backs.

And they didn’t bother to support the government or even decently liaise with it.  Instead they gave it the bird by appointing someone from the other team to lead their defence.

The banks behave with this lordly insouciance in an industry that doesn’t just need what politicians call a ‘social licence’ – they must have a legal licence to open their doors, just as I need a licence to drive a car.  Well, they have got used to being callous with their staff, and rude to me – but can’t they see the sense of getting on with their government, or, if you prefer, their sovereign?

And in cataloguing some of the reasons why people don’t like or trust banks, I have not mentioned that the top pay levels are often set by criteria that encourage bank officers to cut corners with the law and decency.  The word for that is ‘corrupt’.

What about sovereign risk?  This is a protean term.  I would think that people dealing with a bank may have to account for the chance that the government behind it may default on its debts or other obligations or that it might legislate against the banks.  The greatest risk, as it looks to me, is that the government might repudiate its guarantee of the banks or fail to honour it.  It’s not in Mr Narev’s interest to mention that risk in this context.

My little super fund holds a significant part of its shares in banks.  I did that on advice from a mate who is a broker.  He said that the conduct of the banks that made them jerks to their staff or me may make them more profitable and enable them to maintain their flow of dividends.  He also advised that I look for markets that are tightly controlled and looked after by governments. (I can’t recall if he used the word ‘cosseted’.)

These new taxes may lead to a reduction in my dividends.  I doubt that – I certainly don’t fear my being ‘looted’.  But it will all be worthwhile if this little démarche leads to an improvement in the banks’ manners.  I am sick of their arrogance, posturing, and bleating.  Frankly, I’m even sicker of looking at people making twenty times what I made at my top with little of the learning and none of the risk.

Poet of the month: Homer, Iliad, Book 1.

The Greeks in shouts their joint assent declare, 

The priest to reverence, and release the fair. 

Not so Atrides; he, with kingly pride, 

Repulsed the sacred sire, and thus replied:

‘Hence on thy life, and fly these hostile plains, 

Nor ask, presumptuous, what the king detains 

Hence, with thy laurel crown, and golden rod, 

Nor trust too far those ensigns of thy god. 

Mine is thy daughter, priest, and shall remain; 

And prayers, and tears, and bribes, shall plead in vain; 

Till time shall rifle every youthful grace, 

And age dismiss her from my cold embrace, 

In daily labours of the loom employ’d, 

Or doom’d to deck the bed she once enjoy’d 

Hence then; to Argos shall the maid retire, 

Far from her native soil and weeping sire.’

Here and there – Three Naughty boys

Three ministers of the Commonwealth Crown criticised members of the Victorian Court of Appeal while they were hearing an appeal on sentence in a case of terrorism. The ministers said that the judges were too lenient. Even by the degraded standards of Australian politics, their language was disgraceful. They used phrases like ‘divorced from reality’ and ‘ideological experiments.’ The content, tone, and timing of the remarks suggested that this was a concerted political attack. In case you are in doubt as to the crude party politics involved, one comment was:
Labor’s continued appointment of hard-left activist judges has come back to bite Victorians.
Yes, it was as bad as that. The ministers sent their messages to an organ of the press that is known to be sympathetic to their cause. The Australian is loaded with Liberal rejects and Labor rats. That paper splashed the attack over its front page. The headline left no doubt that this was the paper that was the chosen vehicle of the attack: ‘Victorian judiciary ‘light on terrorism.’ ’
These events raised issues about the common law offence of contempt of court (which should be renamed as ‘interfering with the due administration of justice’). One form of contempt may be put this way. If someone publishes material that is either intended to interfere with pending proceedings or that has a tendency to interfere with pending proceedings, that person may be found guilty of contempt of court. Plainly there could be an issue about both the intent and tendency in the conduct of the ministers.
Another issue of contempt arose. The interference with the course of justice may occur in the context of a particular proceeding – this is called the sub judice rule – or by an attack on the system generally. The old name for this kind of contempt, which is rarely seen now, was ‘scandalising the court.’

But you need to bear one thing in mind about the first, or sub judice, kind of contempt. As indicated, that contempt may involve either an intent or a tendency. The law is clear about the first. If a person is found to have intended to interfere with the administration of justice in a way that would be unlawful, then that intentional conduct will found a finding of contempt, irrespective of whether that conduct could have achieved the desired result. Intent is not necessary but it is sufficient in this difficult part of the law. So, if I brandish a knife at a witness to deter her from giving evidence against me, I am guilty of the offence even if my conduct had no effect on the witness.
The question of intent is of course one of fact. As a judge said a very long time ago, the state of a man’s mind is as much an issue of fact as the state of his digestion.
This issue is important because the judges tend to hold that they are not and cannot be influenced by what the press says. That is just as well because the press very often gets it very wrong on sentencing, and you can’t help thinking that bleating about light sentences sells newspapers. Descendants from convicts curiously don’t often seek lighter sentences.
What normally happens when there is a credible allegation that a crime has been committed? The police investigate and the relevant officer of the Crown decides whether to prosecute the accused on that evidence before a court. In contempt cases, as with most serious criminal cases, it is the Director of Public Prosecutions who makes that decision. As I recall it, that office was created so that the Attorney General, an elected politician, does not have to make legal judgments that have political consequences.

The normal process of the law was not followed here. As far as I know, neither the police nor the DPP were consulted. The police could have investigated the issue of fact I referred to above. Did these ministers in fact intend to interfere with the course of justice in the case before the court? Had the police interrogated the ministers, the ministers could have sought advice on whether they might take the fifth – that is, whether they might refuse to answer on the ground that they might be incriminated. It is not hard to imagine the seismic reaction to that course. If the DPP had been approached, that office could have determined what on all the evidence was the best way for the public interest to be protected. That is precisely the job of that office.

Why didn’t any of that happen here? The short answer is that I don’t know, but one press report suggested that a previous Chief Justice of the Federal Court had pursued a course like that followed by the Court of Appeal here.
This is what happened. An officer of the court wrote to the ministers asking them to appear before the court to show cause why they should not be dealt with for contempt of court. They did not attend court personally, but the Commonwealth Solicitor-General did on their behalf. The result was a very unhappy shambles. The ministers were prepared to express regret, but not to apologise. Are these the kinds of games we pay our ministers and Law Officers to play, like little boys playing with matches behind the shelter shed? Should the Solicitor-General be appearing for politicians who get into trouble for taking part in a crude party political stunt? Is it part of the portfolio of a Commonwealth minister of the Crown to shaft the State government of the opposition party?
As a result of forces that we shall probably never know of, the ministers changed their minds. They again did not attend court personally, but this time the Solicitor-General on their behalf retracted all their claims and apologised unreservedly. They tossed the towel in. The judges said in that case they would not then seek to proceed further. Case closed. The Commonwealth Attorney-General gives one of his watery smirks, and the three naughty ministers, who have not set foot in the court, remain at large to practise their dark arts.
But some people, like Mercutio, have misgivings.
Three idiots who should have known better put three of our judges in a very difficult position. The judges had to react quickly and firmly to protect the integrity of their high office, both in this particular case, and generally. I have no reason to doubt the rightness of their course, but it may be as well to reflect on what we have lost because that course had to be taken.
This was a serious and calculated political attack by members of one arm of government upon another. If this kind of malice is tolerated, we could be in deep trouble in this country. This is precisely the form of cancer that was a symptom of the rise of those regimes that we least admire. Not many people trust their politicians now, here or elsewhere, but we do by and large trust our judges. A concerted political attack on them is therefore as vicious as it is sinister.
It matters not that the attack was childishly inept, but it does matter that the three miscreants were trained as lawyers. It also matters that with the benefit of the advice of the Solicitor-General, at my expense, they persisted in and aggravated their criminal conduct. It also matters that they sought to recite themselves into a possible defence by claiming that ‘our own role as ministers’ necessarily involved them in ‘participating in public debate on controversial issues’. The sentencing of terrorists has nothing to do with their portfolios, and their ignorance of the law is boundless.
Even these politicians must know that in these troubled times, when public faith in public office is falling through the floor, the most likely result of their initial offence – that is, their crime – and their contumacious persistence in it, was to bring into question the conduct of the judiciary. It’s as if having debauched their own currency, they were content then to debauch that of the judiciary.  Yet they walk away with nary a smack, and not even a reprimand to their face. Some people out there are, then, likely to feel short changed.
Due process goes both ways. The accused have rights. So do we, the public. (That’s what the appeals were about.) Did not the public have an interest is seeing that the serious issues raised here were dealt with in the ordinary way? Evidence is led and tested and arguments on the law are all held in public before a dispassionate and unengaged court. It then gives a considered judgment. There may then be appeals. The public knows exactly what is going on and why. These shabby ferrets would have been pursued into their burrows and then brought out again into the cauterising glare of a public hearing, where otherwise high personages get the same treatment as you or I would get. We are all, after all, supposed to be equal under the law.
And in addition to inquiring into the evidence of the state of mind that led to this attack, the court, including quite possibly the High Court, could have given us guidance on two important legal issues.
First, litigation cannot act as a brake on all public discussion. There is a defence to this kind of contempt, associated with the unromantic name of Bread Manufacturers. In that case, one of our distinguished jurists held that:
The discussion of public affairs and the denunciation of public abuses, actual or supposed, cannot be required to be suspended merely because the discussion or the denunciation may, as an incidental but not intended by-product, cause some likelihood of prejudice to a person who happens at the time to be a litigant.
You can see again the importance of the issue of intent, which is here expressed in the negative, so possibly raising nice questions about onus. The issue of intent would also be fundamental to the question of punishment if the ministers were found guilty.
A second question may then arise. Would this finding of guilt for an offence which is punishable by indefinite imprisonment disqualify these people from retaining their seats in parliament under the Constitution?
And if the court found that these men did intend to interfere, a political question, and possibly a legal issue, might then arise. Are they fit to hold office as ministers of the Crown?
In the events that have happened, we will not see any of those issues dealt with.
Instead, after the first appearance, the judges may have felt uncomfortably close to be being seen to have performed any one of the following roles – victim, informant, witness, prosecutor, judge, jury, and court of appeal. Some of that confusion may occur in what is called contempt in the face of the court, but that was not the issue here.
The judges may also have felt a little like Mr Bush or Mr Blair after they occupied Baghdad – it seemed like a good idea at the time, but what do we do if the natives don’t cooperate and play ball?
Then we have to ask whether it was right for the judges to be embarking on this contempt inquiry while sitting in judgment on the relevant case. What on earth may have happened if either party had asked the court to step aside because its members were publicly discussing the possible reaction of the public to their conduct in the case from the pressure being brought to bear on them by the government?
For reasons I can well understand, the Chief Justice put it to the Solicitor–General that the Ministers had put the court in a difficult position. If they dismissed the appeal, ‘we’ll be accused of engaging in an ideological experiment or being hard-left activist judges.’ But if they increased the sentences, ‘the respondents [the convicted terrorists] may have an understandable grievance that we were doubtlessly affected by what three prominent ministers for the Crown had to say.’ Well, sentences were increased, and we are left with the worry that not just the interested parties may think that the government had its way after all.
As it happens, some sentences were raised in a way that has brought a warm outer glow back to The Australian, whose front page headline reads this time ‘Bar raised for terror sentencing.’ This happens shortly after three members of the government have attacked not just the judiciary, but members of this particular court, for being too lenient. What inference does the average terrorist draw from that sequence? What does the fair minded observer in the public think?
That brings me back to the issues fact in this tawdry case. What did these ministers intend to achieve by their attack? As we saw, they were not interrogated by the police. They were not, so far as I can see, asked to put their response on oath. They certainly were not cross-examined – in a case where counsel would not have to be Buddy Franklin to be kicking goals from all round the ground. Instead, they were suffered through their mouthpiece, the Solicitor-General for the Commonwealth of Australia, to offer what lawyers call a bare denial. As indicated, they said in part that:
…. it was never our intention nor would it ever be to influence its decision-making process…we did not intend to undermine public confidence in the judiciary…
Well, then, what did these three soi disant lawyers intend to do – hold communion with the pixies, or have Crocodile Dundee sing Advance Australia, Fair? How would the average punter react to that rubbish? Try answering that question in polite language. It’s as if the apathy about honesty has wafted our way over the Pacific.
May I make one final observation about the course that these ministers by their conduct imposed on the court? In the 70s, 80s and 90s, I was involved in fighting many contempt cases. I lost them all – by some margin. Since then I have been involved in advising the press before publication. These issues are often difficult, especially with deadlines. Journalists, and their lawyers, don’t usually get the clear air that judges have. Nor do they get any sympathy from the judges. The risks are awful – for example, the Crown only has to prove a tendency; the accused has no right to a trial by jury; and the sky is the limit on penalty. The owner may be able to write a cheque, but it can’t do the jail time.
But in all my time, I cannot recall a journalist being asked to show cause why he or she should not be prosecuted for contempt – on the apparent footing that an apology will end the matter. In I think every case I have known, I would personally have embraced the offer – with both bleeding arms. Why is it then that ministers of the Commonwealth get offered this soft velvet treatment but journalists do not?
One thing looks clear. The next time a journalist is charged with contempt without having received the offer made to Commonwealth ministers, we can expect a thumping editorial about inequality – and possibly an industrial reaction.
How did the press react? The ABC News at 7 pm led with the story and said that the three judges had been ‘fuming.’ It would be tart to say that the judges aren’t paid to fume, but Aunty need not expect a rude letter. As I said, The Australian thought the increase in sentences was terrific. With their ineffable capacity to get legal affairs wrong, one article commenced with phrases captioned on page one:
Victoria’s Court of Appeal judges have muscled up. No longer will courts let convicted terrorists off with a lenient sentence.
The editorial is indeed remarkable. It begins by saying:
Victoria’s Court of Appeal made a fair and responsible ruling yesterday when it increased sentences of two men convicted of planning separate terrorist attacks in Melbourne.
Well, that’s nice for their Honours – they are secure in the knowledge that they have the blessing of The Australian. The editorial later referred to a ‘problematic twist.’ They referred to the purple language of the ministers that I have set out, like ‘hard-left activists’ and ‘divorced from reality.’ Then we get this:
Yesterday’s sentencing decision proves otherwise.
Have these people got no sense of decency at all? They apologised unreservedly to the court that they had published these vile and baseless charges – and now the editor finds that the judges are not guilty of them! The newspaper has found in favour of the judges! It passes belief. Then they go on to explain why the ministers’ ire had been raised’. Then they make one of their trademark infantile digs at the ABC. What mistake did the ministers make? They had based ‘their remarks on an ABC report that had not given the full context of the judges’remarks.’
God give us strength to endure all this. It’s as if Rupert Murdoch has done the people of Victoria a favour.
What is the most worrying thing here? These three bunnies were in the sewer up to their necks and they didn’t even smell it. That shows the shocking decline in standards in our public life.

Sir Owen Dixon is by common consent the greatest judge that this country has produced. He was a stickler for form. In a very well-known passage, his Honour said:
Such a function has led us all I think to believe that close adherence to legal reasoning is the only way to maintain the confidence of all parties in federal conflicts. It may be that the Court is thought to be excessively legalistic. I should be sorry to think it is anything else. There is no other safe guide to judicial decisions in great conflicts than a strict and complete legalism.
We may hope that Sir Owen’s view prevails and that it’s business as usual when cases like that of the three ministers come up again in the future. It would too much to hope that our politicians might get better.

Why opera? 6 – Wagner



Let’s fast forward to 7 May 1942.  Reinhardt Heydrich was the head of the Gestapo.  The son of an opera singer and an actress, he excelled in fencing and he wept when he played the violin.  He was cashiered from the navy after he revolted other officers by blaming a pregnancy on the girl.  An American journalist described him as a ‘long-nosed, icy-eyed policeman, the genius of the final solution.’  He was known as Hangman Heydrich in occupied territories.  He hated Catholics as much as Jews.  He embodied the moral disintegration of the people who had given the world Bach, Kant, Goethe, and Beethoven.  He might be said to represent the fall of man.

Two Czech patriots, for such they may be called, assassinated this monster on the date I mentioned above.  The reprisal was the liquidation of the town of Lidice and the murder or enslavement of its people.  More than a thousand people were killed.  The Teutonic death rites were ghastly in Berlin.  Heydrich had been the Reich’s flaxen haired Siegfried.  All the frightful Nazi paraphernalia came out.  The Fuhrer personally consoled the family.  He lay German Order and Blood Order medals on the funeral pillow. And the climax was of course the appropriate music from Hitler’s favourite composer.  Siegfried’s Funeral March (‘Trauermarsch’) from Gotterdammerung (‘The Twilight of the Gods’).

Alan (Lord) Bullock said this in Hitler and Stalin, Parallel Lives:

Hitler’s great hero was Richard Wagner, whose music dramas held him spellbound.  Hitler was later to declare that he had no forerunners, with the single exception of Wagner.  Much has been made of the fact that Wagner was anti-Semitic, but what first attracted Hitler to him was the theatricality and epic scale of his operas, which he never tired of seeing, and which were the source of the theatricality and epic scale of his own political style.  Even more important was Wagner’s personality and the romantic conception of the artist as genius which Wagner had largely created, and which he put to the proof by triumphing over every conceivable obstacle to establish the shrine of German art at Bayreuth….so Hitler identified himself with Wagner.  It was an inspiration that never failed him.  Whenever his confidence in himself wavered, it was immediately restored by the magical world of Wagner’s music and the example of his genius.

Now, it would be very wrong to seek to blame Wagner for Hitler.  But it is not just the case that Wagner hated Jews and that he was a dreadfully selfish egomaniac who believed that the world owed him a living.  The problem for a lot of people, including me, is that the image of Hitler keeps surfacing when we listen to Wagner.  That happens in part because of the matters I have just referred to, but also because Wagner was fiercely nationalistic and he used his magic to enthral Germans about their future by idealising their past in a way that emotionally overcame them, so that they could lose their judgment.  And that was precisely the modus operandi, or as we would now say, the schtick, of Adolf Hitler.  And for reasons I will come to, I find Parsifal to be utterly repellent.

That’s one of the issues that some people have with Wagner.  Now listen to the Prelude to the opera Lohengrin (from which opera we derive one of our wedding marches).  Can you think of another piece of music of such exquisite beauty?  Anywhere?  In any mode?

Now listen to Wotan’s farewell (‘Leb wohl’) from Act III of Die Walkure.  Can you think of another piece of music drama as compellingly moving as this?  Would you not be happy to have it played at your funeral?

Wagner’s operas contain many moments of such utter transcendence – although you often have a long wait for the next one.  But what happens if this awful power falls into the wrong hands?

Well, let’s put this aside as the musing of a squeamish neurotic.  Obviously this is not an issue for a lot of people – although it might be one that some dedicated, snooty Wagner fanatics might bear in mind.  Speaking of which, they would be disappointed if I didn’t mention Mark Twain on Wagner.

One in fifty of those who attend our operas likes it already, perhaps, but I think a good many of the other forty-nine go in order to learn to like it, and the rest in order to be able to talk knowingly about it.  The latter usually hum the airs while they are being sung, so that their neighbours may perceive that they have been to operas before. The funeral of these do not occur often enough….I have witnessed and greatly enjoyed the first act of everything which Wagner created, but the effect on me has always been so powerful that one act was quite sufficient; whenever I have witnessed two acts I have gone away physically exhausted; and whenever I have ventured an entire opera the result has been the next thing to suicide…..The banging and slamming and booming and crashing were something beyond belief.  The racking and pitiless pain of it remains stored up in my memory alongside the memory of the time that I had my teeth fixed…

Some of the Wagner fanatics, especially the Ring addicts, do take themselves very seriously.  Perhaps they think that they have earned that right through pain and suffering.

Now, the second problem people have with Wagner cannot be batted away as easily as the first.  In my case, it is unanswerable.  It comes from the Bill of Rights, which is still part of the law of Victoria.  That basal law expressly forbids ‘cruel and unusual punishment.’  That’s what most of Wagner has become for me.  I survived and more or less enjoyed the two Ring Cycles in Adelaide.  I just survived Tristan und Isolde in Melbourne.  Simone Young told us that if we were lucky, someone or other might give us the extended version.  I prayed that it would not be for us, but I fear that it was.  I limped home in serious physical pain, a saddened man.  My memory is of a backbreaking celebration of neurosis, narcissism, and aural masturbation.  But it was Parsifal in Adelaide that finally broke my will.  Two of the three acts are set on Good Friday.  It is not just endless; it is so repetitive.  I thought that I was at risk of screaming if I heard the same phrase again.  Here is Mark Twain again:

The great master, who knew so well how to make a hundred instruments rejoice in unison and pour out their souls in mingled and melodious tides of delicious sound, deals only in barren solos when he puts in the vocal parts.  It may be that he was deep, and only added the singing to his operas for the sake of the contrast it would make with the music.  Singing!  It does seem the wrong name to apply to it.  Strictly described, it is a practising of difficult and unpleasant intervals, mainly.  An ignorant person gets tired of listening to gymnastic intervals in the long run, no matter how pleasant they may be.  In Parsifal there is a hermit named Gurnemanz who stands on the stage in one spot and practices by the hour, while first one and then another character of the cast endures what he can of it and then retires to die.

In 1993, The Times reviewer said of Tristan:

Nearly six hours spent in the theatre being buttonholed with long winded and specious justification of the composer’s taste for other people’s wives in general and Mathilde Wesendonck in particular is wearing on one’s patience.

The English critic Neville Cardus complained of the ‘eternal recurrence of leading themes.’  He spoke of being ‘imprisoned’ for hours ‘by this unreasonable tyranny of Wagner, this inordinate length and prolixity….utterly lacking in poise and taste.’  This was of Parsifal, which started at the ungodly hour of 5.45, and in which he heard another critic say ‘Amfortas is the wisest man here; he’s brought his bed with him.’

The third problem I have is that too many of the plots are plain silly or boring.  For example, the Valkyries are the women who choose the soldiers who will die.  The chosen go to Valhalla.  One of the most moving parts of the Ring is the entry of the Gods into Valhalla, but it is no accident that when the makers of Apocalypse Now wanted to show the most frightful aspect of the Vietnam War – ‘I just love the smell of Napalm in the morning’ – they chose to do so to the swelling sounds of the Ride of the Valkyries from the final act of Die Walkure.  I think Wagner wanted live horses on stage.  One version I saw had them as mermaids sitting at a bar.  How do you figure that out?

Richard Wagner (1813 to 1883) was a rolled gold five star jerk.  He was born in the Jewish quarter of Leipzig to lower middle class parents about two years before Waterloo.  His parentage is problematic, and that issue recurs in his work.  He got interested in theatre, and then he took music lessons.  He wrote his beginner’s pieces.  He married in 1836.  He was perpetually in debt, but he was already coming to the view that the world owed a living to a man of his genius.

Rienzi premiered in 1842.  The Flying Dutchman came out the following year.  This was the start of Wagner’s revolution.  Tannhauser and Lohengrin followed.  He had ideas for Die Meistersinger, Tristan and Parsifal.  Wagner was after the ‘total work of art’, involving all the arts.  He would write the script and have total control.  The music would have interacting themes – the leitmotifs, or ‘leading ideas.’  He would push Romanticism so hard and far that the reaction would be uncomely.

Wagner was involved politically.  He did of course believe that he could do anything.  He was involved in the events of 1848, what Sir Lewis Namier has described as ‘The Revolution of the Intellectuals’.  Wagner had to flee to Zurich.  (Did he prefigure Lenin?  God forbid!)  In 1850, Liszt conducted the first Lohengrin in Munich.  Wagner then completed the poetry for the Ring.

His marriage finally dissolved in the 1860s.  Wagner had fallen for Cosima, the wife of a close friend and the daughter of Liszt.  He was bailed out by a nut, King Ludwig II of Bavaria, who kept shrines to the Master in his crazy castles.  Wagner’s capacity for self-adoration at least matched that of Donald Trump.  He spoke of himself in the third person.  Like Hitler, he was an animal-loving vegetarian who was hateful to any human who did not bow to him.  In his eyes, his genius excused all.  He is the most appalling example of the artist as hero.  In 1872, a Munich psychiatrist said that Wagner suffered from ‘chronic megalomania, paranoia, and moral derangement.’  As part of that syndrome, he was toxically racist and a predatory womaniser.  What psychiatry hasn’t explained is why people who fall for these jerks are so forgiving.

The Ring was composed in the 1850s and premiered then and in the 1870s.  In 1871, the people of Bayreuth gave him the land for his temple.  Wagner devoted much time to Parsifal.  It was first performed at Bayreuth.  It premiered there six months before his death.

In conjunction with this opera, Wagner published a nauseating polemic, ‘Heroism and Christianity’.  He insisted that Jesus was of Greek origin and that the New Testament had nothing to do with the Old.  Sweet Christ, is this not the seed of the obscenity of the Reich?  Wagner said that the Aryans, the German leaders of mankind, had evolved from the gods, while lesser races had evolved from the apes.  He was revolted by the notion that Aryans might worship a Jew.  Nietzsche in his turn was revolted by Wagner.  He described Parsifal as ‘Christianity arranged for Wagnerians…a work of malice, of vindictiveness….an outrage on morality.’

After Wagner’s death, Cosima managed Bayreuth.  She was followed by her son Siegfried and his English wife, Winifred.  It was Winifred who befriended Hitler, and ensured that he and other Nazi leaders made pilgrimages to the birthplace of the new Teutonic order.

In 1993, Wagner’s music was first played live in Israel.  The event caused huge conflict.  The Master may have turned in his Wahnfried grave.  Wahnfried means ‘Peace from Illusion’.  God knows that I love the Germans, but their penchant for euphemism can be alarming.

In discussing Verdi, I referred to Berlin’s description of him as a ‘naïve’ artist.  He said that naïve artists were at peace with themselves and happily married to their Muse.  He distinguished them for ‘sentimental’ artists like Wagner.

Hence the effect of the sentimental artist is not joy and peace, but tension, conflict with nature or society, insatiable craving, the notorious neuroses of the modern age, with its troubled spirits, its martyrs, fanatics, and rebels, and its angry, bullying, subversive preachers, Rousseau, Byron, Schopenhauer, Carlyle, Dostoevsky, Flaubert, Wagner, Marx, Nietzsche, offering not peace  but a sword.

Some of that is a bit large, but I get the drift.  Against that, two English philosophers have written books in praise of Wagner – Michael Tanner, and Roger Scruton.  I only have the first.

So, they are some problems with Wagner.  But I don’t see that as a reason why people should not look and listen for themselves, and I recommend that you do just that.  There are any number of recordings of extracts or famous parts – including some that exclude singing and just present as finished orchestral works.  You could start with one of those.  Many years ago now, someone who had succeeded in business told me that she was interested in coming to terms with the Ring Cycle.  I lent her a two disk set of extracts, and listed the order in which she might play them – beginning with Wotan’s Farewell.  The experiment came off – and with some fruit for the company as this lady is a leading sponsor.  Try a recording called ‘Richard Wagner: The Best Overtures and Preludes’, or ‘The Best of Wagner’ – there are two on offer.

As for individual operas, I have seen Tannhauser, Lohengrin, Tristan und Isolde, and The Flying Dutchman by the AO on stage and a concert program conducted by Simone Young.  I very much enjoyed The Flying Dutchman.  As I recall it, there was no interval.  There are many full recordings available on the internet.

Here is how an English writer summarised the Ring under the heading ‘Fifteen hours in a few words.’  (It’s a clip I found in one of my books on Wagner.  I think it came from The Guardian by John Crace.)

Three Rheinmaidens – either naked or in fat suits, depending on the production – frolic in the water while teasing Alberich the dwarf.  He throws a strop and nicks their gold, which he forges into the ring of absolute power.  Elsewhere, Wotan, king of the gods, is involved in a complicated series of double crosses with a pair of giants, Fasolt and Fafner, over arrangements to build him a castle.  Loge, the god of fire, persuades Wotan to steal the gold and give it to the giants.  By the end of Das Rheingold, Alberich is sulking, Fafner has killed Fasolt, and Wotan is skipping off to Valhalla.

Wotan is busy between operas shagging his way through Valhalla and has had a couple of kids, Siegmund and Sieglinde, with Fricka, and Die Walkure opens with Siegmund turning up unexpectedly at the home of Hunding, Sieglinde’s life.  Needless to say, Siegmund and Siegfried don’t recognise each other at first, but after Siegmund has magically pulled a sword out of a tree and been threatened by Hunding, they cement their relationship by embarking on an incestuous affair.

Fricka tells Wotan he has to put a stop to this.  He doesn’t want to as he has been banking on Siegmund to get back the ring; but he gives in and sends Brunnhilde, the top Valkyrie, to sort them out.  She reneges on the deal, so Wotan has to step in himself.  Siegmund dies, Brunnhilde is put to sleep on a mountain top and Sieglinde goes off to have Siegmund’s baby.

Sieglinde dies in childbirth and baby Siegfried is brought up by Alberich’s brother, Mime.  Don’t ask.

The best that can be said for Siegfried is that he is a dreary, brain-dead Aryan lummox who spends most of his eponymous opera either in a vegetative state or a psychopathic frenzy.  After re-forging his father’s sword, killing Fafner and taking the ring, Siegfried decides to take his orders from the birds.  They tell him to kill Mime and head for the woman on the mountain.  En route, he bumps into Wotan, who now calls himself the Wanderer, and breaks his spear.  Brunnhilde then thrills at Siegfried’s arrival.

For no good reason, Siegfried abandons Brunnhilde at the start of Gotterdammerung in favour of adventure and winds up with the Gibichungs another bunch of halfwits, who are ruled over by Gunther and his henchman, Hagen, who just happens to be Alberich’ s son.  Hagen slips Siegfried a Mickey Finn that makes him forget Brunnhilde and he agrees to marry Gunter’s sister, Gutrune, and to abduct Brunnhilde for Gunter.  Brunnhilde is none too happy.  Hagen then kills Siegfried and everyone left standing falls out with one another.  Hagen claims the ring but Brunnhilde insists it be given back to the Rhine and rides into Siegfried’s funeral pyre.  Valhalla combusts and the Rheinmaidens drag Hagen to his death as they reclaim their gold.  Fifteen hours later, we are back where we started.

For the Ring Cycle, I collected some extracts and I have full sets by Karajan, Bohm, and various conductors at Bayreuth.  It is better to search for individual names – Das Rheingold, Die Walkure, Siegfried and Gotterdammerung.   In each you can watch the whole production of Patrice Chéreau with Pierre Boulez.  I have the Die Walkure, which is the best of the four for me, and this is a wonderful filmed version of this work performed at Bayreuth.  Each member of the cast is sensational.  (The French director, Chéreau, received death threats.)  Wotan in particular is beautifully presented and it was, I think, this version that first alerted me to the power of his farewell to Brunnhilde – and of the cycle at large.

After Leb wohl, my favourite music of Wagner is the overture to Rienzi, about his first work of note.  It has for me all the music drama of the later work, but none of the imagined pagan Golden Age or the perversion of Christianity.  And it swings, and it is decently German.  Try it with Georg Solti – who is Jewish – and the Vienna Philharmonic.  Those cats can really swing, man.

Well, there you go – you have an introduction to the glorious enigma of Waggers.  Sample and enjoy what you can.  There is much of pure beauty, but there are long arid moments between drinks, and I can’t help feeling that the prodigious ego of Waggers is at the root of most of the problems.

I met the late Gough Whitlam for the first time before the opening of the first Ring Cycle in Adelaide.  Gough nailed it on the spot.  ‘The problem with Wagner is that he was such a megalomaniac, he had to write his own libretti.  He badly needed an editor!  Margaret and I saw Tristan in Dresden.   The hero gets caught in flagrante.  The king comes out to castigate.  Fifty minutes!  Ten would have been more than enough.’  Spot on, Gough.  The world is coming to grips with living with another unmannered egomaniac – still, at least Wagner had some brains, if no manners.

Here and there – An Australian novelist on being Australian

This is the second piece on Tim Winton’s reflections on Australia in his book the boy behind the curtain.  The following extract comes from a discussion about aborigines and the environment about Lake Moore and Mount Gibson.

Aborigines on site

Although the site on the lake is protected under federal legislation, its custodian is a frail old man who lives nearly 200 km away, and upon his passing there is small prospect of the place having a new guardian with the full authority of traditional law.

There are human sites in this country that thrum with power, places whose ancient presences intimidate and confront, but this is not one of them.  This feels like a monument to lost songs, languages, connections and clans, and a place without its people is bereft.  Across Australia, many of the 250-plus Aboriginal languages have disappeared since the colonial era, and too many folkways have fallen away in our own time.  The coercive paternalism of earlier eras has been replaced by a paralysing and infantilizing regime of cradle-to-grave welfare.  And to be blunt, the journey from cradle to grave is scandalously brief great shame, for despite significant legal and political advances, there are likely now more Aboriginal Australians in ill health, without education or employment, than in the years of my childhood, more adults without agency in either tradition or modernity, more young people illiterate in every sense.  In some Aboriginal communities, the funeral has become the dominant form of social gathering.

On previous visits to this ancient site I have walked away consumed by sadness and anger.  But my conviction that it was a lost place, another bit of silent country, was presumptuous.  In recent years Aboriginal people have been coming to the lake and its environs more frequently, either seeing these sites for the first time or revisiting them in an effort to revive the old and educate the young.  Separated by great distances, some Aboriginal people are looking to the internet as a tool for the encryption and propagation of secret and sacred lore, and although cultural connections are sometimes as sketchy as the register of extant species of marsupials hereabouts, the will for recovery and restoration gives some cause for optimism.  When the surrounding country bore all the disheartening marks of degradation, it was harder to sense much human promise in this place.  The old war on nature, for too long our prevailing mindset, seemed unassailable.  It was evident in every bullet-riddled sign, every bleached paddock, every redneck bumper sticker and depressing roadhouse conversation.  But this year, in a landscape speckled with new growth, hope for the cultural and environmental future of the region is just that little bit easier to cling to……

These projects are all private concerns, the labour of mere citizens.  The native flora and fauna under their protection belonged to the state, but the operations are leaner and nimbler, and can be more immediately responsive than most government agencies, which are politicized and bureaucratically inert.  Faithful public servants working to protect the environment have to endure vacillations of policy, infuriating budgetary constraints, and the sick reality that every other arm of government is hostile to their efforts.  The advent of this new movement will hardly make the work of government agencies redundant.  Nor does the welcome emergence of philanthropy in this part of the world mean that strident advocacy has become unnecessary – far from it, for most significant gains in conservation must still be won in the brutal, sapping rhetorical arenas of the courts, the parliaments and the media.  But the arrival of a quiet and respectable third way is a critical part of the cultural change needed in Australia if we are to restore our scorched earth.

If you drive from Broome to Darwin, you will likely be reduced to hopeless despair about our blackfellas. Apart from saying that in my view Jonathon Thurston is the most valuable and the grittiest footballer in Australia – he plays rugby league – I have no idea what to do or say about the first owners of our land.  I think that what Winton says sounds sensible and fair, about both the land and its people, but who would want to try frame Australian values about the aborigines?

Why opera? 5



When Verdi died in 1901, the nation that he had helped to shape, Italy, was convulsed with grief.  It was not just that the Italians could be heard whistling tunes like Donna e mobile or De quella pirra the day after they had seen the relevant show.  Verdi had become associated with the movement for the unification of Italy, known as the Risorgimento.  The chorus from Nabucco known as the Slaves’ Chorus (Va pensiero) had become a kind of anthem.  It is thought that more than 300,000 attended the memorial service.  Arturo Toscanini led a choir of more than 800 in performing that chorus.  (When Caruso died in 1921, at the cruel age of 48, the King of Italy opened the Royal Basilica for the funeral.)

Verdi was born to parents who owned a tavern in the Parma region of Italy.  Shortly after he was born, Russian troops committed an atrocity in the local church.  Verdi’s mother hid with him in the bell tower and they survived, but the incident left its mark.  The family was poor, but the young boy showed talent with music – but not enough to get a pass at the conservatory at Milan.  (Well, Harvard would later knock back Warren Buffett.)  Verdi took some private lessons and got a job with the local orchestra.  He married and then he moved north and submitted the first of his operas which has survived to La Scala.  He became known for being single-minded and coming straight to the point.  With help from a young soprano called Giuseppina Strepponi, La Scala accepted one opera, and gave a contract for three more.

In 1840, Verdi lost his wife and children, and he went into depression.  He wrote a bad comic opera, but in 1842, he produced Nabucco.  This biblical tale spoke to the needs of the Italian people at the time.  In the next eight years, he produced thirteen operas mostly tragic and historical.  He married Strepponi in 1859.  The relationship would last half a century.  She was the ideal companion for a man who could be blunt.

In 1851, Verdi produced Rigoletto. It was based on a story by Victor Hugo.  This was followed by Il Trovatore and La Traviata.  Verdi was now both famous and rich.  He was obsessed with Shakespeare (whom he read in translation).  Macbeth came early, but Otello and Falstaff are among his mature masterpieces.  He had fully mapped out his King Lear, but he never wrote it.

The most famous and wealthy composer in the world set up a retirement home for musicians in Milan.  He died of a stroke in 1901.  He was not overtly religious and he had prescribed for his funeral ‘One priest, one candle, one cross’, but, as we saw, the occasion became one of national mourning.

Verdi managed to blend drama and melody, and in his later works, he gave opera new direction.  About a dozen of those are still in demand.  He had a natural ear for melody, and a feel for drama, and some of his greatest music sounds like a tuneful village band.  From Rigoletto on, he was able to devise melodies that were striking and that expressed the deepest emotions without sacrificing what sounds like simple tunefulness.  That is a very high form of art.

One biographer of Verdi said this:

What, then, remains in his work if the ephemera of time and place are drained away?

First, the potential nobility of man.  In his early and middle years, Verdi saw men and women risking life and personal happiness to further an ideal, and in his operas he celebrated them, holding them up as models to be copied.  In La Traviata, Verdi wept for Violetta, but he presents her decision in her circumstances as right.  His operas, though with artistic restraint, are didactic: they urge men and women to be noble.

As a corollary, however, his work throughout sounds a constant note of melancholy.  Life, he suggests, is hard, happiness fleeting, and to death the only certainty.  He never pretends in his call for generous, noble actions that these do not often end in suffering, but offers them as the best response to death.

Though these themes, the potential nobility of man and the tragedy it often entails, was stimulated  by the events of the Risorgimento, they are universal, sensed by adult men and women everywhere.  Though in different eras they may be more or less to the fore, they are never wholly absent from the feelings of men.  They are an important reason why Verdi’s operas, generations after his death, still find an audience.

Let us start with Rigoletto which, with La Traviata and The Marriage of Figaro, would be the ideal opera for the first timer.  The hero is a misfit, a hunchback who hates his court, and is hated and baited by them in return.  His only solace is his daughter, but she is cruelly seduced by the evil duke.  They plot revenge with a professional killer.  Verdi said of the Victor Hugo plot that it was ‘the best plot and perhaps the best play of modern times…it cannot fail.’  He said Rigoletto was ‘grossly deformed and absurd but inwardly passionate and full of love.’  The opera overturned many conventions, but it was a quick success and it remains hugely popular.

As you could imagine, there is a smorgasbord of great performances on offer, and you will not be surprised to hear that my fancy is for the EMI with Callas, di Stefano, and Gobbi.  This was a golden time for the three of them, and together, they were in my view unsurpassed.  In his prime di Stefano was a thrilling and assured lyrical tenor.  There are many complete versions of the opera, and even more of the big hits like ‘Donna e mobile’ and ‘Caro Nome’ (neither of which enthrals me) and the famous quartet in the last act ‘Bella figlia dell’amore’.   In that quartet, you might compare the version above with the raw horse power of that of Sutherland and Pavarotti.  But this is an opera where the acting of the lead is vital, and Gobbi had no peer.  And if you want to see and hear the beating heart of Italian opera get the ‘Si, vendetta, tremenda vendetta’ (you won’t need translation) and watch Tito Gobbi and Renata Scotto set the stage ablaze – the clip begins with a repeat of the curse.  You just can’t get more Italian or dramatic than this, and it’s a reminder of the sustaining influence on opera of commedia dell’arte.  As nights go at the theatre, this is very hard to beat.

You can just about repeat all of that for La Traviata, including the preferred casting.  There was a famous photo of Callas on a record cover showing her wringing her hands, and someone said that ‘even her hands wept.’  (I think this was from the famous 1955 Visconti version.)  This is one of the great tear-jerkers of the stage; when it comes to Kleenex, this is a full box job.  It is also the most frequently performed and recorded of these operas.  The story comes from Alexander Dumas’ La dame aux caméllias.  Violetta is a courtesan who is unwell.  Alfredo, a member of the gentry, falls for her.  His father, Germont, persuades him to drop her.   She reluctantly agrees – for his sake.  He then throws money at her.  He later repents, but too late.  La Traviata has about it the horrible inevitability of King Lear.  In the famous letter scene, you can hear Callas, you can feel Callas, spitting her anguish at God.

We are really spoiled.  Why not start with the whole of the Salzburg 2005 version with Anna Netrebko, Rolando Villazon and Thomas Hampson with the Vienna Philharmonic under Carlo Rizzi.  Years ago, I bought the DVD (for $34).  The DG sleeve notes said that this was the opera event of 2005 and that ‘this thrilling production prompted riotous ovations not see since Karajan’s heyday.’  After that you can take your pick.  There is a famous duet for Violetta and Germont in Act II which you can take, among others, with Renée Fleming and Dmitri Hvorostovsky in Moscow, in 2006.  The sound is gorgeous – but the gorgeous soprano looks like anything but a sick prostitute – not least because she is dressed in white in something like a bridal gown.  This duet is a shining moment in our theatre.

A Masked Ball got savaged by the censors.  It resembles Traviata in that it’s about love and death among the better people, but it has the kind of hot drama we get in Trovatore.   Some see it as flawed.  I’m not one of them.  It might sound silly, but for me it is intensely musical.  One critic called it ‘the most operatic’ of operas’.  A ruler – the censors forced some changes: political assassination was sensitive – meets the wife of his mate who warns him of plot to kill him.  A fortune teller tells the ruler he will be killed by the next person to shake his hand.  That is the wife of the mate.  A lot of the music has a kind of dancing, mocking lilt, but, if you key in the Italian name, you can get the whole opera featuring either Pavarotti or Domingo.  The Domingo version comes with Claudio Abbado from Covent Garden, if you are not familiar with it, and it features Katia Ricciarelli and Piero Cappuccilli – each of them is assured with Verdi.  It would be hard to top this version.

Don Carlos is long, and the plot is not simple, but it has great music and drama.  As to length, Bizet wrote that ‘Verdi is no longer Italian, he is following Wagner.’  We listened to the great duet in the first chapter, and there is a magnificent confrontation between the Grand Inquisitor and the King.  The show is charged with tension, and lyrical moments are rudely interrupted.  This show is not one for the first timer.  The Solti version has Tebaldi, Bergonzi, and Fischer-Dieskau.  Renata Tebaldi and Carlo Bergonzi may not have the cachet of others of their time, but they are Italian, and they are normally flawless, as is their German colleague on this recording.  There is also Von Karajan at Strasburg in 1975 with Domingo, Freni, Cappuccilli and Ghiaurov.  Both these performances represent opera royalty.  If you want to know how things are now, you could try the fearfully good looking and assured Kaufman and Hvorostovsky with another version of the show-stopping duet.  This is men into bodice-ripping on each other!  These guys may have tickets on themselves, but they are entitled to at least some.  Assurance at this level counts for so much, and I could imagine footy coaches using this before a grand final.  This is spell-binding stuff from a man who had ascended his own Everest.  If you ever hear more powerful music than this, could you please let me know?

That leaves us with Falstaff.  Some romantics get seduced by the lying coward Falstaff, who is probably Shakespeare’s most popular character, but opera goers only get the soft version that comes from the comedy farce The Merry Wives of Windsor, the only plot, I think, that Shakespeare ever invented for himself.  The silly old drunk thinks he can seduce the wives, but he is easily foiled, and a sub-plot for young lovers allows some very pretty tunes.  So here we have a combination of humour and sadness, redolent of Mozart.  The farce is brilliantly orchestrated by Verdi, and it requires a strong orchestra and baritone.  This is an ensemble piece in which the company is the star.

Rossini had said that ‘Verdi was incapable of writing a comic opera.’  Verdi decided on the project at the age of seventy-five.  He laboured on it for four years with the librettist in secret.  He conducted it at the opening at La Scala.  It was received as the masterpiece that it is.

My preferred version is that of Gobbi with Karajan – you can choose your own.  But you should watch the clip of James Levine in rehearsal at the Met – it is from one of those HD films (one that I saw) and the clip is presented by Renée Fleming.  You should also see the clip of Ricardo Muti assisting an awe-struck student at rehearsal.  The young man could not get over being taught by the maestro – who has a sense of humour – in person.  There are some full versions including the 1982 Covent Garden production under Giulini with Bruson, Nucci, Ricciarelli, and Hendricks.

Well, there are just some of the reasons that we owe so much to this Italian composer.  The English philosopher, Sir Isaiah Berlin, wrote a paper called The Naiveté of Verdi.  In it, he said:

Noble, simple, with a degree of unbroken vitality and vast natural power of creation and organisation, Verdi is the voice of a world which is no more.  His enormous popularity among the most sophisticated as well as the most ordinary listeners today is due to the fact that he expressed permanent states of consciousness in the most direct terms, as Homer, Shakespeare, Ibsen, and Tolstoy have done.  This is what Schiller called ‘naiv’.  After Verdi this is not heard in music again.  Verdi’s assured place, in the high canon of the musical art, which nobody now disputes, is a symptom of sanity in our time.

It is significant that in this essay Berlin distinguished Verdi as a composer from the kind that is up next.

Passing Bull 112 – Bull about terrorism and patriotism

Sebastian Haffner was a law student in Berlin when the brownshirts evicted the Jews from the law library.  He said that the failure of educated Germans to deal with Adolf Hitler led to a kind of national nervous breakdown.  He summed it up as follows.

The only thing that is missing is what in animals is called ‘breeding.’  This is a solid inner kernel that cannot be shaken by external pressures and forces, something noble and steely, a reserve of pride, principle and dignity, to be drawn on in the hour of trial….At the moment of truth, when other nations rise spontaneously to the occasion, the Germans collectively and completely collapsed, and suffered a nervous breakdown.  The Kammergericht [superior court] toed the line.  No Frederick the Great was needed.  Not even Hitler had to intervene.  All that was required was a few Amstgerichstrats [judges] with a deficient knowledge of the law.

When Saudi funded terrorists successfully attacked the twin towers in New York, the Americans suffered a loss of nerve, a failure of mettle.  They harped on the need for patriotism and they passed a law called the Patriot Act. Why should one kind of crime lead to calls for patriotism, but not others?

Some terrorists do want to undermine government, and in that sense they resemble those guilty of the crime of treason – people who are called traitors.  If you feared that a fifth column may be at work and ready to aid an invading power, you might then appeal to patriotism.  You might even invoke terror yourself in order to meet the threat and to defend the motherland.  This was precisely the course taken by the French government after 1789 when they declared, for good reason, that la patrie est en dangère.

   But there is nothing like that threat facing people in Britain, the U S or Australia from I S or other manifestations of terror linked to Islam.  Nor does the present threat level appear to exceed that faced by Britain from terror linked to Ireland in the last third of the last century.  In none of those cases could it be said that the nation’s very existence was in peril.  Why then do some people feel the need to invoke patriotism for this kind of crime and not for others?

There is nothing new about terrorism.  The bible and the Koran are splattered with it.  Homer had the man-killing Achilles claim that he was the most terrifying man alive.  Ancient Athens thought nothing of putting a whole town to the sword for not paying protection money.  Sparta was worse.  One Roman general injected discipline by killing every tenth soldier in his army. (Hence we have the word ‘decimate’.)   Rome responded to a slave revolt by crucifying 6000 of them on the Appian Way.   Before at least one crusade, the crusaders got their arm in for the slaughter of Muslims by slaughtering thousands of Jews on their way to the Holy Land.  The nations of the U S, France, Ireland and Israel were all conceived and born amid acts of terrorism.

If you look up ‘terrorist’ in the OED, you will find that it ‘applied to the Jacobins and their agents and partisans in the French Revolution.’  Robespierre is not greatly loved now, but there is still a Robespierre Society in France devoted to the archetypal terrorist.  Whether you regard people like George Washington or Nelson Mandela as terrorists depends mainly on what side wins. As one American rebel mordantly remarked, they would either stick together or they would hang separately.  For that matter, more than a few blackfellas would think that the white occupation of Australia was only effected by terrorism, and brutally effective terrorism at that.

The Patriot Act was said to be about ‘Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001’.  That kind of silly word game of itself suggests a loss of nerve.  Outside of the U S, patriotism has not had a good press since Dr Johnson described it as the last refuge of the scoundrel, a proposition exemplified in a case we will come to, and E M Forster declared that if he had to choose between betraying a friend and betraying his country, he hoped he would have the courage to choose the latter.

Outside the U S, the word patriotism has become a dirty word since it was perverted by the scourge of Senator McCarthy.  For similar reasons, phrases like ‘Un-American’ die on our lips.

At the beginning of what we call the Cold War, many Americans felt that communism posed a threat that might be unhelpfully characterised as ‘existential’ (a word that should be left to followers of Jean Paul Sartre).  Some thought that this threat permitted appeals to patriotism.  They relied on high minded informers like Ronald Reagan to produce scapegoats by dobbing in their mates.  (Has any culture ever smiled on informers?)

Senator McCarthy – a vulgar, loud mouthed and vicious drunk – used a government committee to conduct an inquisition.  The inquisition was, like its European religious ancestors, based on fear and smear.  The fear was twofold – there was the popular fear of communism, and there was the fear felt by the targets of the inquisition.  (On one his trips to the Inquisition, Galileo copped this bell-ringer straight off: ‘Why do you think that you are here?’)  The smear consisted of labelling all communists as the same, and by saying that people were guilty merely if they were suspected of being communists.  In this, they reverted to type, and the infamous French Law of Suspects, that enabled Robespierre to lift the death rate sharply.  (On one occasion, Robespierre said ‘Look about you and share my fear.’  He was only brought down when those who were left realised it was just of matter of time until it was their turn.  One survivor bustled about saying ‘I hear he has a list – and that your name is on it.’)

The ultimate crime of McCarthy, as it is in all such inquisitions, lay in seeking to induce or compel witnesses to repeat the crime of Judas – not by holding out thirty pieces of silver, but by abusing the power of government.

We can I think see precisely these techniques being applied to Muslims in Australia by nasty people like Pauline Hanson, Alan Jones, Cory Bernardi, Andrew Bolt and other parts of the press (but not the decent press).  It may therefore be as well to reflect on why McCarthyism is such a dirty word, a word that casts at least as great a stain on the U S as the Salem witch-hunts (a word that the current U S President is greatly attracted to).  Indeed, it might be helpful if some scholar were to analyse the two together – with particular reference to the influence of perverted religion on each.  (The same scholar might consider the ways that the crusades involved a perversion of religion.  He or she may also want to look at whether religion was involved or invoked on either side of the terrorist atrocities of the IRA.)

Ike – President Eisenhower – loathed McCarthy, who said that his mission was ‘making certain that every government employee is a loyal American.’  Ike said:

We have opposed the confusing of loyalty with conformity, and all misguided attempts to convert freedom into a privilege licensed by censors…We must, even in our zeal to defeat the enemies of freedom, never betray ourselves into seizing their weapons to make our own defence…[America] is too strong ever to acknowledge fear and too wise ever to fear knowledge….This is the kind of America – and the kind of Republican Party – in which I believe.

As warriors go, Ike’s credentials are hard to beat.  Later he said of a critic:

The writer labors under the false but prevalent notion that bullying and leadership are synonymous; that desk-pounding is more effective than is persistent adherence to a purpose and winning to that purpose sufficient support for its achievement….As for McCarthy, only a short-sighted or completely inexperienced individual would urge the use of the office of the Presidency to give an opponent the publicity he so avidly desires.

(In the name of heaven, what would Ike have said about the ‘short-sighted or completely inexperienced individual’ in the White House now?)

Harry Truman was subpoenaed to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee.  He condemned the government for ‘yielding to hysteria rather than resisting it’ and rounded on ‘fake crusaders who dig up and distort records of the past to distract the attention of the people from political failures of the present.’  Harry Truman was a model president.

Then four Puerto Rican terrorist gun-men opened fire in Congress and shot and wounded five congressmen. Terrorism had hit home on the hill. Ike responded by saying that ‘we are defeating ourselves by [using] methods that do not conform to the American sense of justice and fair play.’

Ed Murrow then gave a nationally televised address.

We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty.  We must remember always that accusation is not proof and that conviction depends on evidence and due process of law.  We will not walk in fear, one of another.  We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason, if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine, and remember that we are not descended from fearful men – not from men who refused to write, to speak, to associate and to defend causes that were, for the moment unpopular.  This is no time for men who oppose Senator McCarthy’s methods to keep silent….We cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home.

Ike gave an impromptu speech from rough notes – ‘Just let me get up and talk to the people’ – in which he referred to ‘the fear that we will use intemperate investigative methods, particularly through congressional committees, to combat communistic penetration.’  Then Ike attacked the press that he thought had a guilty conscience for having built McCarthy up.  (A preview of Trump.)  He said they ‘put a premium upon clichés and slogans’.  Boy, could he see them now!

We incline to persuade with an attractive label; or to damn with a contemptuous tag.  But catchwords are not information.  And most certainly , sound popular judgments cannot be based upon them….Freedom of expression is not merely a right, its constructive use is a stern duty….Along with patriotism – understanding, comprehension, determination are the qualities we now need.  Without them, we cannot win.  With them, we cannot fail.

McCarthy was finally brought undone in a confrontation with a Boston attorney called Joe Welch.  It was a stand-off that makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck whenever I watch it.  Welch was counsel for the U S army – which was another target of McCarthy.  Welch told a young man named Fisher on his staff that he should not take part in the case because when younger he had belonged to a suspect group.  McCarthy dredged this past up as a smear.  Welch responded in terms that do eternal honour to the profession of the law and which earned him a long ovation.

Until this moment, Senator, I think I never gauged your cruelty or your recklessness.  Fred Fisher is a young man who went to the Harvard Law School and came into my firm and is starting what looks to be a brilliant career with us……Little did I dream that you would be so reckless and cruel as to do an injury to that lad….. I fear he shall always bear a scar needlessly inflicted by you.  If it were within my power to forgive you for your reckless cruelty, I would do so, but your forgiveness will have to come from someone other than me……Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator.  You have done enough.  Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?  Have you left no sense of decency?….Mr McCarthy, I will not discuss this with you further…I will not ask Mr Cohn any more questions.  You, Mr Chairman, may, if you will, call the next witness.

There is much for us to heed from the cancer of McCarthyism.  If we are being attacked by people who want us to change our laws and customs, then it makes no sense for us to respond by doing just that  – whether under the label of patriotism, or at all.  If we respond to terrorism by giving up rights that preserve our freedom, are we not just giving in to the terrorists and completing their work for them?

Recent events in Holland, France and Germany suggest that Europe is holding the line.  That cannot be said for Australia, the U S or the U K.  Here, the two major parties are so much on the nose that either in government will be elected by about one third of the voters and then face people elected by the other two thirds of the voters.  And we have learned from the U S the art of unprincipled opposition.  The nation looks to be about as ungovernable as France was until recently. We have a government that is without principle or leader facing an opposition that is at least as deficient in both – and the people know it.

In the U S and the U K, people who look unfit for any kind of office have attracted large numbers of votes from voters who are as impervious to reality as they are indifferent to truth.  These people are not just disaffected with politics – they are deeply aggrieved that the whole world is unfair to them – and sensible people should understand their grievance.

And the malaise in all three nations is now such that politicians in senior positions and the lesser press feel no compunction about attacking judges and doing so in ways that are as spiteful as they are groundless.  Most of these people making these attacks should know better – except for Donald Trump, who has no sense of decency at all, and Peter Dutton, who may well be the most frankly vicious minister of the Crown that this nation has ever produced.

The inference appears to me to be plain that at least some of these people attacking the judges are seeking to undermine public trust in that organ of government called the judiciary.  Having debauched their own currency, it is not hard for them to seek to spread that form of cancer around. That being so, it may not be all that simple to articulate the moral difference between these dissolute rock throwers and common garden terrorists.

We are looking at an illness, a cancer, across our public life.  But when we look at the events in the U S and the U K, and the hopeless and unworkable condition of our Commonwealth Parliament, then it is clear that not just historians but all of us will now gaze with different eyes on the irresistible rise and success of evil people like Mussolini and Hitler.  Only a glib idiot would say that it couldn’t happen here.

We are not just speaking of a failure of nerve.  We are contemplating the erosion of that ‘solid inner kernel’ so finely drawn by Sebastian Haffner.  It is this kernel that has prevented us from descending to the primeval slime experienced by so many nations that have been exposed to violent revolution because they failed to react decently to change.

It took the English and their descendants more than eight hundred years to develop the rule of law and the Westminster system. They are the institutions that underlie our rights and freedoms – our whole way of life.  We can lose it all in a fraction of that time – especially if we insist on parroting nonsense about patriotism, and especially if we do that, as I think that we do, in order to discriminate against those of a faith different to that which our elected leaders affect to pray to on each day that they sit together to lay down our laws.

Poet of the month: Homer’s Iliad

Ye kings and warriors! may your vows be crown’d, 

And Troy’s proud walls lie level with the ground. 

May Jove restore you when your toils are o’er 

Safe to the pleasures of your native shore. 

But, oh! relieve a wretched parent’s pain, 

And give Chryseis to these arms again; 

If mercy fail, yet let my presents move, 

And dread avenging Phoebus, son of Jove.’

Passing Bull 111 – Bull about the Prime Minister and the President

Our Prime Minister took the Mickey out of Donald Trump at an event for politicians and the press – where people are expected to be funny.  (They have a similar event in the US that this President boycotted.  He hates the press because they take the Mickey out of him all of the time.)

Sadly, a very experienced member of the press, who was at least until now respected, stayed away from the event.  Laurie Oakes takes the distorted view that his absence frees him from any obligation of confidentiality that he may have been bound by had he attended the party.  That casuistry of itself casts a pall on his trustworthiness.  I say that this incident is sad because it suggests that the reputation of our journalists might be sinking at about the same rate as that of our politicians.

I haven’t seen the parody, but everyone I have spoken to says it is terrific.  They found it hilariously funny and dead set true.

The exceptions, as we may have expected, also sadly, came from The Australian.  Three viscerally pro-Abbott hacks – Dennis Shanahan, Greg Sheridan, and Chris Kenny – rebuked the P M sharply.  Kenny was as usual revoltingly unprofessional (and he shares Oakes’ logic about confidentiality).

My golden rule for Liberal and Nationals politicians is that if they are pleasing the press gallery – especially Fairfax and ABC journalists – they will invariably be doing the wrong thing by their party and constituency.

It is a well-worn path – especially for moderate liberals – to appeal to the sensibilities of the so-called progressive media: speak with alarmism on climate and feel the love; speak with compassion on border security and be swept up in their embrace; or mock conservatives and have them eating out of your hand.

Someone should really tell the poor fellow that his view on the things that derange his thinking are about three generations out of date and that mocking the majority of his profession is as unprofessional as you can get.

But let me  make three comments on the kow-towers whose views were echoed in today’s editorial.

First, no one is suggesting that to the extent that the parody criticised Trump it was not justified.   It plainly was, and Trump is so absurd that he has generated a revival of late night comedy routines that command huge support in the U S.

Secondly, if the critics think this form of fun may impair our interests, the premise of that fear must be that in addition to all of his other faults, Trump is an irrational, vane, vengeful pig who might retaliate on Twitter in a way that could hurt us.  I agree with that, but I don’t think we should cringe in fear from an irrational, vane, vengeful pig – even one who holds the nuclear codes.

Thirdly, these commentators lead the charge in that newspaper in all that nonsense about freedom of speech and political correctness.  This must be the example par excellence of freedom of speech giving way to political correctness.

There is no to their hypocrisy.

Poet of the month: Homer’s Iliad.

Declare, O Muse! in what ill-fated hour

Sprung the fierce strife, from what offended power

Latona’s son a dire contagion spread

And heap’d the camp with mountains of the dead;

The king of men his reverent priest defied

And for the king’s offence the people died.

For Chryses sought with costly gifts to gain

His captive daughter from the victor’s chain.

Suppliant the venerable father stands;

Apollo’s awful ensigns grace his hands

By these he begs; and lowly bending down,

Extends the sceptre and the laurel crown

He sued to all, but chief implored for grace

The brother-kings, of Atreus’ royal race.

Why opera? 4 Bel canto


Bel canto

On 17 February 1959 a young Australian soprano made her debut in the title role of the bel canto opera Lucia di Lammermoor by Donizetti at Covent Garden.  A bad marriage leads to a murder at a wedding and the most celebrated Mad Scene in all opera.  This young woman darted and flitted about in a bloodstained shift, and struck amazing notes.  She generated intense excitement in the audience.  Almost no one had heard or seen anything like this.  The last act ended after the death of Lucia with what one observer called a ‘riot’.  The audience could not wait to give the Australian the biggest ovation heard at Covent Garden for years.  She seemed to be a different person through countless curtain calls.  She blew kisses to the crowd and that just made them hungrier.  Her reception was such that for the first time, the BBC changed its advertised schedule to broadcast the opera in full later that week.  A bright new star had erupted.  Well, you can’t hear Joan Sutherland on that debut night, but you can hear her nine days later on 26 February.  It is hard to know what is the more spine tingling – the singing or the audience reaction.

Bel canto means beautiful song or singing.  (An impresario would have to be a dill to offer mal canto.)  Sutherland would become a leading exponent of it for decades.  She was in some part responsible for its renaissance.  She had sought out Maria Callas in concert and in rehearsal as a model for her to follow.  The genre is associated with three Italian composers of what is called the Romantic period – Rossini, Donizetti, and Bellini.  With its customary pithiness, the Rough Guide says that we are speaking of:

…. highly dramatic operas in which the bulk of the emotional freight was carried by the vocal line – whereas in German opera, the orchestra was emerging as the dominant partner.  At its weakest, bel canto amounted to little more than floridly pretty music applied to a weak plot and inane libretto, but although the hugely prolific Donizetti was culpable of spinning a fair amount of musical candy floss in his operas, the same could not be said of Bellini, who often applied himself assiduously to the setting of the texts he used.

The genre comes in and out of vogue and it is not currently heavily represented in Australia.  The work of Bellini did however influence Verdi and Puccini and Wagner always acknowledged the importance of Bellini to him.  It is still widely taught, especially in Italy, where it is put forward as a goal which all singers should seek to achieve.

Before looking briefly at the three composers, may I make two introductory observations?  First, when we talk of opera as an art form, we are speaking of at least two kinds of artist – those who compose the work, the composer and the author of the libretto, and those who perform the work.  The latter include the singers, the orchestra, the director, the conductor, the costuming and lighting people, and all of the other people backstage or the front of house.  There is obviously a great scope for differing levels of quality to be delivered.  The reference we have just made to the performance of Joan Sutherland can reveal the immense impact of a single performer who just hits everything right on the night.  The examples that we looked at in the last chapter show the high place of acting now in opera.  As we saw, Sutherland was not there to act.  She took the view that if you want to see acting, you can go to the theatre.  She had the horse power to deliver at the limit, and no one has everything.  She was in truth a freak, but very few opera performers can get away with that attitude now.  But the simple point remains that opera is one of the performing arts.

And all sorts of learning and training and experience goes into developing the art and craft required by singers.  Like the rest of us, they learn as they go.  In the DVD Three Legendary Tenors, Nigel Lawson said that Beniamino Gigli had learned every trick in the book.  The memoirs of Richard Burton are replete with references to actors who would steal the limelight or the scene.  (A major culprit was Michael Hordern.  You can see why if you recall him as Kate’s dad in the Zeffirelli Taming of the Shrew, or the way he deals with Parolles in Act 5 Scene 2 of the BBC All’s Well that Ends Well.  The sidelong glances come from an alchemy that cannot be taught.)  Callas taught master classes, but the one thing she couldn’t teach was how to be Callas.

Let me here say something about the role of the director in opera.  The Ring Cycle of Wagner is a massive project for any company.  The first two Australian Opera efforts were great successes, in no small part because of the role of Neil Armfield (whose production of the AO The Makropolous Case was terrific).

Let me give an example of where a director can really get offside with at least some of the audience.  The 2006 Salzburg Figaro had Nikolaus Harnoncourt with the Vienna Philharmonic, and a cast that included Ildebrando D’Arcangelo, Anna Netrebko, and Christine Schafer (this time as a more orthodox Cherubino).  A Bentley cast for the Rolls Royce of operas.  But the director, a man called Claus Gutt, decided that they needed help.  He would improve on Mozart.  He put on a fairy.  A young man in the same schoolboy clothes as Cherubino, with two white wings attached to his back, wonders about casting spells and shedding feathers.  I regard this interference as an outrage.  Yes, Raphael put two putti in one of the most sacred paintings in western art – but they were Raphael’s putti.  This director had no right to second guess the greatest composer ever, and this act of defilement spoiled the whole show for me.

The New York Times did not mention this outrage, but they got another one:

In Act II, when Susanna and the Countess start dressing Cherubino in girl’s clothing, the game gets out of hand: the women fondle Cherubino like some boy toy, and all three wind up rollicking on the floor atop a fur coat. 

That’s what my kids used to call ‘gross.’  We have to put up with this kind of callous arrogance with Shakespeare.  In my view, it should carry jail time.

The problem may be not just the competition in Europe, but the sheer number of performances of the most popular operas.  Wagner is routinely treated in a way that would have horrified him, but if his operas were performed now as he wanted them performed, not many would turn up.  I recall hearing Simone Young give a talk before Tristan und Isolde.  She said that many Germans inclined to the view that a show might be thought to be a flop in Germany unless there were as many raspberries as cheers.  It’s very sad if Mozart has to put up with that sort of nonsense.

The second point is that although I have seen and enjoyed the operas I will refer to in this chapter, which contain some of the best known songs on the concert stage, this kind of thing is not really my cup of tea.  Well, there had to be a let-down after the descent from the Everest of Mozart, but you can sense the coolness in the guide I have referred to.  Even the more prosaic Oxford Dictionary of Opera refers to the ‘traditional Italian art of singing in which beautiful tone, fine legato phrasing, and impeccable technique are emphasised, though not at the total expense of dramatic expression, as some of its greatest exponents, above all Callas, have demonstrated.’

It rather reminds me of some batsmen in cricket who think that style is everything.  It’s not – their job is to make runs.  We go to the opera to be entertained – but to be entertained by the drama in the music, not by vocal pyrotechnics.

Well, I have made my disclaimer, but any introduction to opera, even one as short as this, must look at bel canto.  And, as indicated, we will come across some of the best known songs of all opera.  And if you like a good serve of Italian melodrama, or if you just want to wonder at the range of the human voice, it would be hard to think of anything better than the Mad Scene from Lucia.  And just spare a thought for those sopranos coming on who see and hear how high Joan Sutherland set the bar for everyone else that night at Covent Garden.

Now, for the bel canto composers.  Gioachino Rossini (1792 to 1868) became a national treasure in Italy, a place that he would cede only to Verdi.  His parents were both musicians, and he quickly learned a number of instruments – by the age of fourteen, he had learned the horn, violin, cello, and harpsichord, and he had sung professionally, and written a cavatina in the buffo style.  Within three years of starting at the Bologna conservatory, he had composed his first opera.  He had written ten of them by the time he turned twenty-one.  His first comic masterpiece was L’italiana in Algeri.  He tried tragedy with Otello – but the Italians were not then conditioned to Shakespeare, and they didn’t like the unhappy ending – which was replaced with the Rome revival.  His enduring prize is The Barber of Seville, which again features the Figaro of Beaumarchais.  It in fact got a stormy reception, but it soon recovered and it is in a lot of top tens today.  For whatever reasons – perhaps he had just run out of steam – Rossini retired from conducting at the age of thirty-seven.  Stendhal had said of him: ‘The glory of the man is only limited by the limits of civilisation itself, and he is not yet 32.’  But for his last 39 years, he wrote no more opera.

Rossini was nothing if not Italian.  He was also a famous food tragic. Not only did he come from an area where food was central to life, but he went to a school in Bologna, that was known as La Grassa, or ‘The Fat One.’  Then he moved to Paris. His life was spent in the most famous food cities in Europe.  His modest upbringing made him value the pleasures of fine food.  He adored truffles and foie gras.  Recipes are still being attributed to him even now.

He had a long running feud with another composer, Meyerbeer.  The latter would send two well-dressed gentleman to every performance of a Rossini opera.  They had to sit in the most observable box and fall asleep after fifteen minutes – to be woken by the usher at the end.  Rossini sent Meyerbeer some tickets – the best in the house – with a note that ended: ‘Shortly before the end of the performance I shall have you waked.  Your true admirer, G Rossini.’  It’s hard not to like a dude who has that kind of sense of humour.

Leigh Hunt described Rossini’s operas as ‘the genius of sheer animal spirits.’  We know that Stendhal, the great novelist, was a fan, but so too was D H Lawrence, and he was no lightweight.

I love Italian opera – it’s so reckless.  Damn Wagner, and his bellowings at Fate and death….I like the Italians who run all on impulse, and don’t care about their immortal souls, and don’t worry about the ultimate.

Some might say the same for Scuderia Ferrari – at least on a bad day.

When it comes to recordings of bel canto, two pairings tend to dominate – Callas and di Stefano, followed by Sutherland and Pavarotti.  For The Italian Lady in Algiers, you can catch the overture played by the wonderful Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Georg Solti.  (Just where do they get their white ties laundered?)  You will recognise the style if not the tune.  You can get the Finale to Act I from the Met Centennial in 1983.  For a composer who worked at a whirlwind pace, this music is amazingly intricate.

For The Barber of Seville, you can get one of the great pairings of opera – Callas and Tito Gobbi (at least on EMI).  The opera has edges of commedia dell’arte.   You can watch the indecently good looking Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky having a whale of a time entertaining a Montreal concert crowd with the famous ‘Largo al Factotem.’  Again, it’s hard to see what is more affecting – the performance or the crowd, which erupts like kids at a birthday party – and they know how to stand in North America.  You can get the pairing of the whole opera with Callas and Gobbi live at La Scala in 1956.  There are also many other arias and couplings from this opera from these two including ‘Una voce poco far’ and Figaro’s aria above.  This Italian, Tito Gobbi, was the outstanding opera actor of his time, and some of his pairings with Callas will never be forgotten.

Gaetano Donizetti (1797 to 1848) comes to us as a sad character.  If you look at his portrait, you may see a withdrawn, anxious character, someone down on his luck.  If you look at a portrait of Bellini, you see assurance and breeding, nobility even.  Heine called him a ‘sigh in silk stockings’ – which is one up on what Napoleon said of Talleyrand.  He produced a massive seventy-three operas – it is very hard not to debase your currency at that rate of printing.  His syphilis helped to send him mad, and he wound up in an asylum.

Yet The Oxford Dictionary of Opera is sympathetic.

…Donizetti is the most important direct forerunner of Verdi.  The tunefulness of his 70 stage works, not to mention their superiority, even at their most erratic, over most contemporary operas, long ensured their place in the repertory; and in modern times, they have won new audiences for their dramatic power as well as for their melodic charm and skilful stagecraft.

We have looked at Sutherland in Lucia.  You can get her at later times in the same role.  You can hear Callas and Di Stefano at La Scala in 1953 for the whole opera.  There is also a better recording of the pair at Berlin with Von Karajan.  There is stunning vision of Anna Netrebko at the Met if you want to be brought up to date – stunning to the eye and ear.

Mary Queen of Scots and Queen Elizabeth I never met – but they do in Maria Stuarda and there is the mother of all catfights.  You may care to watch Joyce Didonato rehearse and talk about her role in one of those HD broadcasts from the Met.

L’elisir d’amore is full of songs the most famous of which is ‘Una furtiva lagrima’ (‘A furtive tear’).  You can hear Pavarotti either in concert or, when he was younger, and softer, and when the engines fired on all cylinders, in the theatre.  The effort and strain are palpable, and the crowd goes wild.  You should also listen to the great Caruso.  The differences are remarkable.  You can also get Netrebko and Villazon in a duet.

Vincenzo Bellini (1801 to 1835) is a very different proposition, but as you can see, he died young, Keats young.  He left ten operas – the other two were in their thirties by then.  He sought to focus more on the drama.  Wagner said that Bellini was all heart – ‘he is one of my predilections because his music is strongly felt and immediately bound up with the words.’  Bellini even saw himself in much the same way as Beethoven – the instrument of a greater force.  It was said that Chopin’s long melodies owed a lot to his admiration of Bellini.  He fell ill and died alone in Paris.  At the Requiem mass at the Invalides, Cherubini and Rossini each held a corner of the shroud.

The best known opera is Norma.  Wagner said he hoped Isolde would become his Norma.  You can have Sutherland in Sydney, or Callas with Corelli at La Scala.  The Rough Guide says that Corelli’s part:

….is one of the most moving examples of heroic tenor singing on record.  If you think Pavarotti is exciting, listen to this – Callas rarely came so close to being outshone by her leading man….Callas’s voice is not what it was , with some shrill high notes and plentiful outbreaks of the notorious late Callas vibrato, but as a singer-actress, she has no equal…’

That is a sensible critique.  You can also see an astonishingly statuesque Netrebko sing the famous aria ‘Casta Diva’ in concert, and compare this to the stage versions of Montserrat Caballé, the powerful Spanish singer who was a gun in Bellini roles.  The trouble with Norma is a bit like the trouble with Shakespeare’s Cymbeline.  It’s set among pagans; the names are dumb; and the plot is dumber.

For La Somnambula, try Nathalie Dessay at the Met with some very imaginative staging.  It is a very evocative reading of ‘Ah! non credea mirarti’ and a beautiful example of bel canto.  You may wish to see the same artist entertain the crowd with a song and dance routine to the folksy ‘Ah! Non giunge.’  This is an artist working at her limit, and getting her reward from the audience.

Natalie Dessay had some issues with her voice, but she had a vital and perky presence on the stage.  This lovely French born woman started off in dance but having discovered her voice, she became a greatly loved coloratura on both sides of the Atlantic.  She left the stage at about the same age as Renée Fleming, and for similar reasons.  After a Carnegie Hall concert in 2017, The New York Times said:

Ms. Fleming, 58, and Ms. Dessay, 52, faced the same problem over the past decade or so.  Their voices didn’t much darken or deepen in their 40s, leaving them basically stranded in the ingénue roles they’d been singing since they were young.  This was a particular frustration for Ms. Dessay, whose specialty was cute, spunky girls whose vocal lines exploded into stratospheric coloratura, the likes of Zerbinetta in Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos.

L’elisir d’amore was done by the AO in an Australian setting in 2015.  Lucia was, I think, last done by them in 2012, with Emma Matthews.

Well, that is the intro to bel canto.  I enjoyed this part of the journey more than I thought I would, but now it is time for Italian opera royalty.

Before coming to that, may I for completeness mention two works by Italian composers who were anything but bel canto?  Leoncavallo (1857 to 1919) and Mascagni (1863 to 1945) wanted realism – opera verismo.  The first wrote I Pagliacci and the second wrote Cavalleria Rusticana.  Each is a short one act affair, with plenty of vendetta.  They are commonly paired on the one program, although in the reverse of the order above.  ‘Veste la giubba’ is the famous aria from the first and ‘Mama quel vino generoso’ from the second is popular with concert audiences.  There are plenty of versions of each in full.  You might for example take the Zeffirelli film of the first with Domingo, although you may want to catch Jonas Kaufman rehearsing the aria.  For the second, you can again get a Zeffirelli film, and listen to the aria sung by Kaufman and Corelli.  (Do you think it may help if you are Italian to sing these numbers?)

Each of Mozart and Wagner is in a class of his own, but when we get to dedicated opera composers in the great tradition, there is only one king.

An Australian novelist on being Australian


Tim Winton’s book the boy behind the curtain contains lyrical reflections on the Australian condition.  I think that the notion of ‘Australian values’ is at best empty, and at worst dangerous.  In the present climate, it is commonly invoked to advance a kind of McCarthyism against those of one faith.  The usual suspects of the IPA and the Murdoch press commonly refer to ‘western values’.  We have waited a long time to hear how those values are different from ‘eastern values,’ or why our Chinatown might feel out of sorts, if not out of place.  We tend to forget that the three main faiths in Australia come out of Asia.  That’s why I thought it was very droll of Disraeli to see the Church of England as ‘a sacred corporation for the promotion and maintenance in Europe of certain Asian principles’.

So, I thought I might take out some of the snapshots of us taken by Tim Winton, and see if they might help us to frame a better view of what might pass for Australian states of mind – to use a neutral phrase.


Perhaps, deep down, everyone wants to feel dangerous.  Being rich can do that for you.  So can being very smart.  For the rest who are neither, the gun is a short-cut.  And whatever our circumstances, we’re all steeped in its romance.  We’ve marinated in this cult all our lives; it’s inescapable.  Even in a country where there is no fetishized right to bear arms, gunplay is a staple of entertainment.  Researchers estimate that by the age of eighteen, the average American child is likely to have been exposed to as many as 26,000 gun murders on TV, and there is no reason to assume Australian children’s exposure differs much.  In TV, movies and video games, the underlying showbiz message is that the world is a dangerous place and the only tool that will make a difference in it is a firearm.  The gun ends the discussion, solves the dispute, and, of course, brings the episode to its ‘natural end.’

This is a potent trope against which our children are largely undefended.  All-pervasive as it was in my childhood, it is even more raw and brutish now.  I’m not suggesting entertainment is uniquely responsible for gun violence, but in a country like ours, where gun ownership is uncommon, most young people’s knowledge of firearms is drawn from the festival of screen time killings.  And as the Internet has made plain, humans are suckers for a script.  In recent years to organisations have prospered by broadcasting real executions and assassinations, showing young men and women all across the world that they’re ‘getting things done’, just as the gun-slinging idols of every generation have, from Randolph Scott to Idris Elba, from Dirty Harry to Harry Brown.  Jihadis don’t upload these outrages solely for their own masturbatory gratification; the fact is, these video clips work as propaganda, as recruiting tools, they hit home.  For those who claim to believe that God is Greatest, the AK – 47 ends the discussion.  In their minds, it would seem, even the most sacred words are utterable are insufficient to the needs of the faithful.

A youth who is confused, depressed, or fearful will be tempted to resort to whatever means he has to make himself felt, if not understood, even if his problems, like those of my puberty, are minor and ephemeral, and a truly angry kid is liable to do something extreme and impulsive.  In countries where firearms are commonplace in the home, this often extends to more than self – harm.  Mass shootings have become a fixture of American news.  The carnage in schools and public places is so unremarkable that ritual ‘outpourings of grief’ border on the perfunctory.  Gun murder is so normal in the US it’s banal.  And the gun itself is sacrosanct.  The right to bear it outstrips a citizen’s right to be protected from it, and even a tearful president is impotent in the face of this cult.  In 2016 Barack Obama declared that modern gun restrictions were ‘the price of living in a civilised society’ but it seemed few were listening.  By all accounts, God is Great in America, too, but in truth the nation has always lived as if the gun is greater.  In God they trust, but armed they must proceed.

Most Australians have never owned a firearm.  Few will ever handle or discharge one, and I think this is something to be glad of. In moments of turmoil, the mere presence of a gun alters the atmosphere.  In a domestic dispute, a roadside altercation or a bout of depression, the thing most likely to push the scene out of shape beyond saving is a firearm.  It so often gets the wrong job done. 

Later on, Winton spoke of the leadership that then Prime Minister of Australia, John Howard, showed on the issue of gun laws.

I was never a fan of John Howard.  I despised his retrograde social policies and was dismayed by his nostalgia for the unchallenged whiteness and patriarchy of the 1950s, but at a pivotal moment in our history, he literally stuck his neck out and did something vital and brave. By following through on gun reform, he made this country a little safer.  Fronting angry rednecks from the dais that day, he looked pale and stiff, like a man unwell, but that sick look was the face of courage.  That was the spectacle of a man exceeding himself.

That writing is beautiful, but here’s my bias.  I agree with every word of all of it, and I wish I could have put it even half as well.  Two things are involved in this kind of piece – having a clear view, and saying it well.  Winton succeeds completely in both and he brings sense – no, sanity – to areas of public discussion that are mired in nonsense and pure bullshit.

Winton allows us to see some of the nonsense about mass murder and terrorism in context.  We allow our children to soak up fake murders and our Protector indulges in the mass murders of its children by adherence to a fake ideology and a corrupted lobby.  We mash our children’s’ brains with Netflix and then smash their manners with Twitter.  Then we expect them to look solemn when a mass murder takes place in real life.  But what is ‘real’ and what is ‘life’ for these children of cyberspace who take their reality from Facebook before electing another fake politician?

If your child has been one of the victims of a mass murder, does it make any difference to you if the killer was a psychotic misfit who should never have been allowed to go near any kind of gun, or a deranged young man who has concluded, with help from the internet, that his religion warrants his joining in mass murder ending in his own suicide?

Would I say that these views should represent the chimerical values of this land?  Bloody oath, I would.

But there’s the problem.  When the late Jim Kennan was Attorney General, he told me that he was having trouble with our gun lobby.  I said that I thought that was a U S problem.  He said that we had such a lobby here, and that they were the last people I would ever want to see behind a gun.  The opposition to John Howard – about semi-automatic weapons – was such that our Prime Minister wore a Kevlar vest to the dais that Winton referred to.  And now some very unreliable people are being voted into parliaments on gun tickets, and the views of Tim Winton would gravely offend the heartless imbecile who currently resides in the White House. And if our politicians have one unshakeable value, it is that we don’t get fresh with Uncle Sam.

I shall return to Tim Winton’s Oz later.