Friday, August 25, 2006

Peter McCallum needs to get out more... or stay home more. I’m not sure.

Well, here’s a strong contender for inclusion in the second edition of Creme de la Phlegm. It’s Peter McCallum’s no-holds-barred review of Batavia, that multi award-winning shipwreck of an opera, which has sailed its way into Sydney Harbour.

The review, for the Sydney Morning Herald, opens thus:
“First I need to be honest and say that I found Peter Goldsworthy and Richard Mills’s Batavia the vilest thing I have experienced in the theatre...”
Mr McCalum goes on to say that he felt that he was in the thrall of “people with megalomaniacal visions” who were not going to release him until he had experienced their grand narrative:
“so that one felt raped by the volume, alienated by the lack of sensitivity or aptness in the musical symbols, and repelled by the unctuous sermonising.”
It certainly makes Alison Croggon’s response to the first act [the link to the sixth comment doesn't seem to be working... Alison writes “I was dragged out of the opera Batavia at interval by my embarrassed husband because I was standing up and booing”] seem positively restrained.

Mmm, maybe not!

Contrast McCallum’s review with that of David Gyger’s, in Opera Opera, after the premiere season in 2001:
“With Batavia, Richard Mills consolidates his claim to be considered Australia’s most promising composer of opera at the dawn of the new millennium.”
Me? I reckon Mills should go back to something more homey. I quite liked his singspiel version of Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, which Richard Wherrett directed for the Victoria State Opera in October 1996, when the VSO was in its death throes. (Well, it was knocked-up and invites to the shotgun wedding with the Australian Opera had been roneod.)

Which reminds me: check out the company logo in Dan Potra’s set for Batavia... Curious coincidence, of course, that the brand new Victorian Opera company should have a VO5-style logo of Victorian primness... not unlike this one:

A couple more things for trivia lovers -- and Trivia was a goddess who could see in three directions -- when The Doll was on in The Playhouse, Batavia’s champion Simone Young was conducting Die Frau ohne Schatten in the adjacent State Theatre. (The Covent Garden production with sets by David Hockney.)

Incidentally, Lindy Hume -- who went on to direct Batavia -- was the short-lived artistic director of the VSO. She was appointed just days before the company was scuttled.

Yeah, right. You needed to know all that.

My review of the Melbourne premiere is posted here.

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Anonymous Kathy said...

Judging from the quote you selected I was expecting a crude hatchet job, but in context I actually thought Peter McAllum's review was thoughtful and passionate, and he made an effort to distinguish his personal distaste for the piece from production aspects that he thought were praiseworthy. So as much as he hated the show he made it sound like an interesting night out.

Thanks for the link Chris.

10:29 AM  
Blogger Chris Boyd said...

It's a little bit shocking to read a review quite so engaged, isn't it?

The thing I dislike about Angela Bennie's book Creme de la Phlegm is that it lines up impassioned, thoughtful, thundering reviews alongside stupid, ill-informed tirades. Bennie doesn't make much attempt to distinguish between the two.

Obviously, I think McCallum's review is in the first category.

Still, I am a bit bemused. How could someone could hate a show I felt quite neutral about. Stuff to dislike, stuff to admire.

3:10 AM  
Anonymous Peter Goldsworthy said...

Don't read your reviews, measure them, Joseph Conrad said, but how could I forgo the pleasure of reading Peter McCallum's review of the opera Batavia which blamed me - and Richard Mills - for providing "the vilest" theatrical experience of his life? It's an opening line that tends to catch the eye - and surely a real feather in our Dutch caps. Thank you, Peter McCallum.

I thought I had it tough when the Reverend Fred Nile tried to get one of my novels chucked off the NSW HSC syllabus - and The Sun-Herald ran a front-page banner headline, "Cut the smut", over my photograph. Now, as well as being a smut merchant, I find I am an audience-rapist and "megalomaniac". Fantastic stuff.

Of course, our opera should not be above criticism (I still like tampering with the libretto after each season) but the conjunction of the "vilest" review I have ever seen in my life, with the most highly awarded Australian theatre piece I know of (three Helpmanns, seven Green Room awards, standing ovations in three cities) begs a couple of small questions, especially in the light of McCallum's 20-year history of trashing Richard's music.

Even in the unlikely event that all that music is, well, trash, what drives such intemperate language?

There are always plenty of look-at-me-I'm-important-too reviews in this country - God knows I regret writing some - but this is more the look-at-me-mum-no-brains type. Is McCallum's objection moral or aesthetic? He seems confused on this point. What precisely, for instance, does he mean by "vile"? Is describing us as megalomaniacs just a tad over the top? I can be a bit of a micromaniac at times, granted, but does McCallum know of any non-comic opera of any durability without a "grand narrative"? Or is durability the problem?

I'm not sure I read his critical sensibility correctly (it seems a bit muddied by an unctuous puritanism) but I suspect it's that narrow brand of high church modernism that seems so quaintly last century these days. Richard Mills paints on a much broader, bolder and, ironically, more modern canvas than that.

But McCallum left the very best until last. He seems personally offended by the notion that he might have the potential for wickedness in his own heart. Hilarious stuff, but perhaps final judgement on that question is best left to readers of his impassioned review.

8:12 AM  
Blogger Alison Croggon said...

Actually, I'm with McCallum all the way - except that I would be a lot harder on Peter's libretto (Spenserian stanzas? Like, c'mon... and there's a good reason why Shakespeare didn't begin The Tempest in Naples). Forgive me, Peter. But I really think you are a much better writer than this libretto demonstrates. And I said at the time that the score was as if the 20C hadn't happened.

(I really can't see what either music or text have to do with Artaud...)

Like McCallum, the only thing I liked was Potra's set. Admittedly, I didn't see all of the opera (though I read the libretto) and I didn't see this production (though it sounds much the same). But McCallum's response - one of passionate anger - actually really chimes with my own, and I recognise what I saw in that review.

9:49 AM  
Blogger Alison Croggon said...

And as a long PS, quibbling here with Peter - although I must emphasise that it's great to see Peter come online and join the discussion.

As one who has often sat, as Michael Billington memorably puts it, in "mutinous isolation" among a whole lot of enthusiastic applause, I really don't think that disagreeing with everyone else is a foregone conclusion of being "wrong". I actually think McCallum makes his point fairly, if strongly (eg, he makes it clear that his is a minority viewpoint). And aside from the fact that he and I had markedly similar responses, I think that dissenting views are important as part of a rich discourse, and must be permitted.

It's vital that majority verdicts are not considered the ne plus ultra of theatre criticism. God forbid. Cosy agreement has been throttling theatre discourse here for years.

Otoh, I had a look at that Creme de la Phlegm finally, and confess to a feeling of disappointment. Why not publish the best criticism, rather than just the nasty stuff? It's like reading George Bernard Shaw at his worst forever and ever. It's hard to argue for the worth of critical discourse if you only see its destructive role. The best critical work might have destructive elements, as the best art does, but in the end it is always advocacy; and that book reflects almost nothing of this role.

10:10 AM  
Blogger TimT said...

Have to say, I'm rather enjoying Creme de la Phlegm at the moment. I've only just started, but the first two reviews I've read (gone through about five by now) are quite mild. I was expecting full-on verbal BIFF, but no. None of that.

I'm interested in the way the book is a record of Australia's newspaper/journalist culture. Most anthologies are of Australian poetic/fictional culture. Most enjoyable.

4:15 PM  
Blogger Chris Boyd said...

Hey Tim, it sounds to me like you might enjoy another new MUP book called Life After Death: the art of the obituary by Nigel Stark.

Not much biff, but a really unusual and engaging look at very one small (but fascinating) part of journalism.

7:06 PM  
Blogger TimT said...

I think I saw a review of that in The Oz a few weeks ago.

A few months ago, I saw this book in a Kew bookstore, and I'm still drooling lustfully at the thought of it.

Maybe once I get that book, I'll have a look for that MUP book.

9:02 PM  
Blogger Chris Boyd said...

Oops. It's Nigel Starck, not Stark!

5:23 AM  

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