Category Archives: Attempted Comedy

“We are not amused,” said Queen Victoria

Napoleon’s Dynamite

It’s one of the oddest films ever to come out of Hollywood, an extended exercise in the gently bizarre that has been on near-permanent rotation in my DVD player, so much so that my wife now suspects an unhealthy obsession with a gawky, mega-awkward teen

napoleonFor the serious tourist, it is disappointing to pass through a major historic site without being aware of it. I had that experience in Idaho two years ago.  My host merely slowed the Dodge Charger  through  Preston (pop 5000), with its farm-machinery sheds and neat homes with nary a front or side fence – unlike Aussie home-owners who barricade their blocks. I asked, “Why no fences?” and he said, “Because we own guns”. 

We’d come 27 miles north from Logan, Utah, to lunch on fried shrimp,  twice-baked potatoes and honey-buttered scones at the Deer Cliff Inn, which sits by the Cub River canyon. Opposite is a cliff with an 80deg slope. The Shoshone, until virtually wiped out in the Bear River Massacre nearby (1863), used to stampede  deer herds over the cliff, heedless of environmental impacts.

Last week my host, a Perth classmate who went native in Utah, emailed me and mentioned that he’d not given me a “Napoleon Dynamite” tour of  landmarks in Preston, the setting for the film of 2004. I hadn’t seen the flick but the very next day I was in an op shop to buy toys, and there on an otherwise empty shelf was the DVD, price $2. It could not have been coincidence.

I have since watched it three times and according to my spouse,  have developed an unhealthy obsession with mega-awkward teen Napoleon, his weedy brother, Kip (32), Kip’s unlikely black lover LaFawnduh and Tina the family’s llama.

The houses, farms and especially Preston High School are now sacred sites for Napoleon Dynamitetragics, attracting pilgrims from as far afield as Korea and New Zealand. Even Tina has her cult, though cynics claim the original llama has passed and visitors are patting a look-alike.

The cult film cost a paltry $US400,000 to make during 23 days shooting. That included a $US1000 salary for the star, Jon Heder. It made $US 40million at the box-office, although it’s so off-beat that none of Hollywood marketers’ algorithms could cope with it. Writer-director Jared Hess himself went to Preston High. He parceled all the weirdness of his adolescent world into the film. The plot is typical revenge-of-the-nerds, but the underwhelming characters are quirky bordering on surreal. There is no profanity, no sex, and no grossness. The Mormon ambience is obvious only to initiates. Preston also happens to be the second-most Republican-voting town (93%) in the US.

Much of the sly comedy can slip by  un-noticed. You will also learn new meanings of boondoggle (in Idaho, plaited nylon keyring add-ons) and Tater-Tots (dice-sized cubes of potato, hash-brown style). The politically-correct class claim the film mocks the disabled and Mexicans. Napoleon Dynamite, as his name doesn’t suggest, is a 16-year-old carrot-topped misfit. His jaw sags, his eyes stay half-shut and he can barely manage a sentence. He pals up with a sluggish exchange student, Pedro from Juarez, with even less vocabulary and animation. One exchange goes:

Napoleon: How long did you take to grow that moustache?
Pedro: A couple of days.

The film is set in 2004 but abounds in 1980s anachronisms such as VCR players. For some reason Napoleon has no parents but is looked after by his grannie, Carlinda, who has trysts with boyfriends on quad-bike outings. Napoleon’s brother, Kip, is a 5ft, live-at-home weakling who is still getting his teeth straightened. Kip says,  “Napoleon, don’t be jealous ’cause I’ve been chatting online with babes all day. Besides, we both know that I’m training to become a cage fighter.”

Napoleon invites regular buffetings from class bullies.

[Sports jock] Don: Hey, Napoleon. What did you do last summer again?
Napoleon: I told you! I spent it with my uncle in Alaska hunting wolverines! [similar to a small bear].
Don: Did you shoot any?
Napoleon: Yeah, like, fifty of them! They were surrounding my cousin! What the heck would you do in a situation like that?
Don: What kind of gun did you use?
Napoleon: A friggin’ twelve gauge, what do you think?

In grandma’s absence (dune buggy pile-up), middle-aged Uncle Rico minds the pair. Rico’s a door-to-door con-man selling plastic-ware and breast enhancement kits. Nostalgic for his glory days at school football, he buys a time-machine kit on-line, which Napoleon and Kip try out. Napoleon just gets electric shocks and exclaims, “It’s a piece of crap, it doesn’t work!” as if any other verdict were possible. In a typically weird twist, the pathetic Kip invites his Detroit chatroom girlfriend, LaFawnduh, to Preston by bus. She turns out to be a tall, lascivious-looking black woman (think Hugh Grant’s kerbside carnal consultant, Divine Brown), but in fact she’s a nice gal and genuinely smitten with Kip.

The  outdoor marriage takes place after the film’s closing credits – I overlooked it first time around – when Napoleon gallops to the ceremony on what he claims is “a wild honeymoon stallion” he has tamed. The odd couple piggybacks into the sunset.

Pedro tells Napoleon he has a talent for sketching warriors and ‘ligers’ – a fantasy lion/tiger hybrid. Napoleon gives attractive classmate Trisha a horrifically crude portrait, with the promise, “There’s a lot more where that came from, if you’ll go to the dance with me.” Trisha’s expression says it all.

The sullen Napoleon does manage to pair with gauche classmate, Deb, after despairing of success: “I don’t even have any good skills. You know like nunchuck skills, bow-hunting skills, computer-hacking skills. Girls only want boyfriends who have great skills!”

His pick-up line to Deb, sipping milk, goes: “I see you’re drinking 1%. Is that ’cause you think you’re fat? ‘Cause you’re not. You could totally be drinking whole if you wanted to.”

In one vignette of Preston’s bucolic life, Napoleon takes a vacation job in an 8000-chook shed. “Do the chickens have large talons?” he asks owner Lyle, in real life Dave Critchlow, who steals many scenes with his part-paralysed face and personally-improvised  lines.[i] At one point Lyle is  preparing to shoot an attractive cow front-on (as farmers do). Just in time, the passing school bus blocks our view, but exposes it instead to the horrified kids. Lyle caters to his teen workers, exhausted from feathery exertions, with a lunch of eggs, egg sandwiches and egg drink.

The film is not much about nothing much, but for entertainment, it sure beats Australian politics.

Tony Thomas’s new book That’s Debatable – 60 Years in Print, can be bought here.


[i]  Officiating at Kip’s wedding, Lyle ad libs: “When an argument arises, if you go outside and take a nice walk, you’ll calm down and then you can come back and it won’t be an argument. And you’ll find that helps your health. All that fresh air and exercise will do you a lot of good.”

 

Fool’s gold on Rue de la Folie Regnault

by Tony Thomas

December 7, 2012

Marg and I lobbed into our latest apartment in Paris, delighted to find it well fitted out. Previous apartments were stocked with items left over from the owners’ attics after all the relatives and local gypsies had picked them over for anything of value. Next morning, I explored the bookcase in the bedroom while Marg washed up, swept the floor and went off to check the local laundromat.

Most books were in French, one of the few languages I have difficulty with. I opened an old paperback called ‘Fontainebleu’ and – oh ciel! — banknotes began to pour out of it like beautiful pressed flowers.

They were Euro (€) notes, which meant they had been hidden there in recent history. As to the amount…a couple of hundreds, a fifty, a fistful of 20s, they just kept coming. Still unbelieving, I counted them out. €380 in total, that is, about $A500. I speculated that some previous traveler hid the funds, departed in a hurry or half-blotto, and for some reason never followed up to reclaim the money, or maybe thought it had been lost to pickpockets on the subway.

I was sitting there, eyes glazed over, when a sepulchurous began chanting, “Do not tell Margaret…do not tell Margaret.” When I hear this voice, I am instantly in its power, fight it though I may.

In any case, I reasoned, if I did tell Marg, any of the following would happen:

1. She would tell the apartment agent to come and get it, or

2. She would spend it on essentials, or

3. She would insist we celebrate with a snack, coffee and cake for two at the friendly and picturesque French café down the street with its red-striped awnings, after which there would be nothing left of $500 but small change.

The sinister voice then commanded me, “Re-hide it in case Marg opens the book by coincidence. Put all the notes between the two baseball caps on the top of the wardrobe.” This I did, robot-like.”

But my higher faculties cut in. Would my actions, however involuntary, meet the four-way test of the XXX Rotary Club, of which I am a much-loved member and wannabe President? Grrr, probably not even meet a two-way test. But I could email the apartment owner in Adelaide and alert him that some money had been found, that it was held in trust by myself, and would be given to anyone who could correctly state the amount, hiding place and my mother’s maiden name.

That left the ethical dilemma. Would Marg find out, e.g. through her snap audits of my wallet or her spooky intuition, that has felled me so often in the past?

Previously I could launder amounts I overspent (above my meagre weekly allowance) in the Bermuda Triangle between our bank and Visa-card accounts, as per rogue forex dealers. But that has become dangerous since Marg took a course in forensic accounting, apparently as a hobby.

I remembered I shortly have a two-week window traveling solo in UK, where I could “disappear” quite a lot of funds on opera tickets, “presents”, the odd book and CD etc.

Another option is the fait accompli. I would come home to Melbourne with the funds. Soon after that, I buy the computer I have long craved, and march through the front door with it, saying, “I’m home! By the way, I’ve just bought an iMac!” The fait accompli really separates the men from the boys. Although the initial explosion can be large, things usually settle down a bit after three or four months.

Another point is that the body will embark, as after childbirth, on “biological forgetting”. In fact, I previously tried the tactic in 1991, 1994 and early 2004.

Best thing for now, I thought, would be to let the matter ferment for 24 hours, in the expectation that a safe and honorable plan would emerge.

So, time now for our daily expedition. We headed off for Chateau de Vincennes. I walked with a slight swagger, as per a Lachlan Murdoch, youthful, virile and very rich. The subway trip was enlivened by some French plainclothes police collaring a small gang of teenagers from our train and banging their heads against the wall, as in excessively violent cop movies.

The chateau was wonderful and so was I, treating Marg to a coffee, buying her a CD (Cavalry Fanfares of the Republican Guard), and arranging a trip for her that afternoon to the Musee de l’Armee. On the way home she begged a second stopover at a French café. Instead of having the usual ugly scene, we sat on the pavement table sipping beer and watching the sun set on a perfect Paris spring day, while the café proprietor could hardly believe his luck. Certainly, Romance was in the air.

So much so that your hero began to re-examine his plans on the $500. Surely Marg deserved better treatment than this? I should come clean. But how to cover my grimy tracks?

I would seize a moment while she was peeling spuds or sorting washing. I would retrieve the hoard from the baseball caps, put it in my wallet, and leave the wallet conspicuously on the table. And it all went like clockwork. Marg looked out from the kitchen (not hard to do as it is the size of a phone box) and said, “Have we any money left over from today?”

Myself, on derelict sofa, engrossed in The Guardian: “Probably something. {Casually} Why don’t you check my wallet, it’s on the table.”

The wallet is opened. I peer over the newspaper to enjoy Marg’s expression. Her eyes widen. She starts pulling out high denomination notes, instead of the tatty €5 note or two she had expected. They pile up on the table. Of course, she wears an expression of deep suspicion. This I had allowed for.

Marg {deeply suspicious}: You have been to the autoteller and got money without checking with me!

Me {smugly}: No I haven’t.

Marg: Yes you have! You promised me you wouldn’t do that!

Me: No, I haven’t been to any autoteller.

Marg: Yes you have. You’re lying, as usual.

Me: No I’m not. I haven’t been to the autoteller.

Several cyclical repetitions of this exchange, with a rising inflection, are omitted here to save space.

Marg: Well, where has it come from?

Me: {triumphantly}: I found it!

Marg: Marg carefully counts the money and gets the tally of €380: What do you mean, you found it?!

Me {delightedly}: I found it in the bookcase!

At this point, I sensed from Marg’s darkening expression that my scenario was running off the rails. I felt I was out on a lonely plain, with a bolt of lightning hissing down and a thunderclap to follow. What had come unstuck?

Even my thickest reader, yourself probably, has by now worked it out.

Marg made a tiger-like spring to the bookcase and I sat dumbfounded as she grabbed that very same book, Fontainebleu, and shook it like a brown bear with a salmon.

Marg {through gritted teeth}: Great. GrrATE! That just happens to be the rent money for the agent. I hid it in the book. She’s coming in a couple of days for it.

Unable to find words, I essay a small fake laugh.

Marg: When did you find it?

Me: {unable to find words}

Marg: Where has the money been all today?

Me: {unable to find words}

Marg: Why didn’t you tell me you’d {heavy sarcasm} ‘found it’ in the first place?

Me: {unable to find words}

In stage comedies, eg by David Williamson, the hero generates a wry, self-deprecating line, the heroine responds with an angry put-down, but then her eyes twinkle and we know that, actually, she has forgiven him. She giggles, throws herself at him and they collapse helplessly on the divan in a tangle of limbs, while the audience breaks into delighted applause.

But I was in another screenplay altogether. Many husbands may have been in situations like this (perhaps even worse ones, although that’s drawing the long bow) so there is no need for a verbatim account of the next half hour. I did all I could to show I was genuinely contrite, including a failed whipped-puppy impersonation.

After the counselling, we had a quiet dinner, characterized by rapid and somewhat noisy and theatrical table service. After that, I watched French TV.

Certainly, romance was off the agenda. I would be a stupid man if I failed to draw any lesson from this trauma. I mentally reviewed the events phase by phase, and concluded, “Well, tomorrow night is another day.”

The Madman of Tullamarine

by Tony Thomas

October 31, 2012

I was required to deliver one of my daughters, Briony, to the airport the other day. She drove her car with me in the passenger seat.

On arrival at Tullamarine, the 3-minute parking bays for departures were pretty full. I pointed to a small gap and said, “Stick your bonnet in there, it doesn’t matter if the car’s backside is sticking out because I’ll be on my way home with the car in no time.” I got out and gallantly went round to the boot to unload her uber-heavy cases. With an affectionate farewell, daughter disappeared into the terminal, bound for Singapore.

I paused to give the sigh of fatherhood, then went round to the driver’s seat and leaned forward to key-start the car. But the key was not there. Daughter had taken it with her to Singapore.

I had a dilemma similar to the rat, standing on a metal plate, that gets an electric shock if it does not leap on to one out of two pads. But the experimenter also juggles the circuit to the two pads so one pad is also electrified but in random sequence. Thus the rat’s choices, stay, go, go left, go right, are all possibly adverse. This is hard on the rat but helps research on nervous breakdowns. The end justifies the means.

In my case, I could stay in car and hope daughter would re-emerge from the terminal. That would mean overstaying the 3 minutes and moreover, every minute I sat there increased the chance that daughter would find her way into the immigration hall and thence Singapore.

I could abandon the car and dash into the terminal in the hope of discovering daughter and wrenching the keys violently from her. This would mean the security guards would notice an abandoned car parked at 45 degrees to the footpath and with its backside sticking out a metre or two (all the other cars had meanwhile driven away leaving daughter’s car alone and prominent). At best, car would be towed away; at worst, blown up.

I chose to abandon car and locate daughter, and dashed into International Terminal. Milling crowds everywhere, and I had no idea which airline Briony was using. So I took up a position 5 metres inside, and shouted at the top of my lungs: “B-R-I-O-N-Y !!” This caused a sensation as people wondered who the elderly male was and why he was screaming. Briony failed to appear.

I checked the departures: a QANTAS 380 was boarding for Singapore. I dashed to the right to the special QANTAS section where hundreds of travellers were coiling around the people-barriers like a snakes and ladders game. Briony is short and if there, she would be undetectable. So I again bellowed, ‘B-R-I-O-N-Y !!” Again the crowd gave a startle-response but no Briony emerged. Staff are still talking about “the madman of Tullamarine” they saw that day.

By this time I was fearful about my daughter’s abandoned car. I dashed outside and sat in it, not realising that I could at least release the handbrake and push the car to align it with the kerb. But Briony by now could possibly be ticketed and heading for Immigration. I needed to go back again to seek her out among the multitude.

I dashed back into the terminal, dashed here, dashed there, and then caught sight of a group of officers outside the terminal, some armed, warily inspecting my daughter’s grey Nissan Tiida. I dashed outside again to liaise with the security squad. “This is your car?” they asked, grim-faced.

Myself, doing a little dance of anxiety: “Yes, that’s right, no, daughter’s! She’s in there somewhere [gesticulating towards terminal]. Suitcases…she drove… Singapore… no key…a good girl, usually…sure to come out soon with key…on my mother’s grave, I’m not al Quaeda! Can one of you please hotwire this car? Please don’t tow an old pensioner away!”

None of this impressed the bomb squad. They circled round the car like it was a wild beast, or a big pile of steaming ordure. Some wrote copiously in black-covered notebooks, others dialed up colleagues or maybe the SOGGIES [Special Operations Group] on their radio. They were joined by a parking inspector demanding to know of me why my car was so badly parked. While I was again explaining, a familiar figure holding car keys burst out of the terminal, my daughter Briony!

She explained all to the blue-clad commandos. She had been excited about her big trip to Singapore. She got her tickets. She remembered she had a letter to post and went to the airport Post Office. She pulled the letter out of her handbag and noticed the car keys. She put two and two together and thought I might need them. That’s all, officers, it’s quite a simple mistake.

The security squad conferred and wandered off, disappointed. The parking lady continued tapping busily into her fines device, ignoring my daughter’s increasingly shrill protests. Parking lady: “I’m just doing my job. Have a nice day”. And to me, “On your way, please.”

“Heck Dad! It’s your fault. You should pay the fines. Why didn’t you ask me for the keys!”

With another fatherly sigh, the madman of Tullamarine headed for home in Briony’s grey Nissan Tiida.

Tony Thomas is a parent of an adult daughter

A Blight at the Opera

by Tony Thomas

February 2, 2013

There’s nothing like a disaster: Captain Coward upending the Costa Concordia; Canberra race riots on Australia Day, 2012; the National Broadband Network; my first marriage…

In such a hideous catalogue, I should include the two performances of Puccini’s Turandot at the Palais, St Kilda, December 14 and 18, 2004. For my $120 ticket, I got even more drama than I paid for.

In scale, Turandot is like Aida, minus elephants. In coordination of resources, think Normandy landings. Turandot, after all, killed Puccini, half-way through the third Act. Someone else had to finish the score.

This Palais performance hinged on an imported Italian soprano we’ll call Ms ‘Z’. The diva was interviewed for the Melbourne production: “The soprano, who has sung the role at Torre del Lago in Tuscany where the open-air Puccini Festival is held, says she is carrying on the tradition of singing exemplified by Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland.”

As is usually the case, a lot was riding on the success of this. Premier Bracks, along with Lord Mayor John So and Dame Elisabeth Murdoch, were invited to the Palais, but not out of mere politeness. Melbourne Opera’s chairman, Peter Donnelly, and Lady Primrose Potter had buttonholed Bracks wanting $2.3m a year for the company, and Turandot “shows we can back up what we are saying”, Donnelly told him.

The production – sets, costumes, supervisors and the two principal singers, Ms ‘Z’ and Spanish tenor Antonio Ordonez – was shipped to Melbourne from Tuscany. This volatile mix was supplemented in Melbourne by an unpaid (volunteer) chorus, ballet dancers from the Victorian College of the Arts, a children’s chorus from Carey Baptist Grammar, a troupe of body-builders as the opera’s burly executioners, and an 80-piece paid orchestra. Local diva Rosemary Illing was the tortured and ill-fated slave girl, Liu, though not as tortured and ill-fated as the audience.

This Turandot had a rough ride from the outset. Supposed to open in November, it was delayed a month, requiring a vast phone-around to alert the myriad ticket-holders.

The ticketing and attendants system ran rough (the Palais, in all its faded grandeur, seats more than 2000). On Tuesday the show started 30 minutes late. (A scheduled Thursday performance disappeared).

Between the Tuesday and the Saturday, someone discovered that the two imported principals lacked work visas. The Palais itself was a nightmare for performers, with its backstage passageways and stairwells airless and so narrow that the cast of 120 suffered grid-lock en route to their entrances. Costumes could not be washed: the plus for the cast was that by Saturday all smelt equally bad.

‘Z’ made a big impact at her first rehearsal. A chorus member, also a Melbourne University employee, provided this account:

“She looks about my age or a little older, has a dramatic Italianate face and this tumbling mane of black hair. And she’s a size 20 easy and dressed dramatically in black and white. She walks from her face down – that is, her head and face go first and the body sails around underneath it. Very Dame Joan although without the lantern jaw.

She started to sing and we all thought “oh bugger” because none of the parts of this HUUUUGE voice seemed to be connecting and she’s supposedly this big international star. But then she went right up the top and did a NOTE of extreme loudness and bigness and made-my-ears-go-blat-and-ringness and KAPOW! There it was. This big, big, big dramatic soprano voice which one could use as a blunt instrument in a riot. She sort of picks it up and launches it into the music, like a bowler hefting a bowling ball. In her lower ranges it’s almost a growl, it’s so feral, and it doesn’t get any less feral as it goes up, just more intense. It’s an extraordinary, exhilarating, exciting sort of sound.

But it’s just a little too much for indoor use. Having that sort of thing shot at one from 10 feet away in a dusty, echoing church hall was an experience neither I nor my eardrums will ever forget.”

Others have remarked on Z’s voice. I noticed one comment on a youtube about ‘Z’ in the role of Amina, the lyrically vulnerable Swiss village maiden, in Bellini’s La sonnambula:

“She is mistress of the Art of Can Belto! She attacked that air with gusto and wrestled it to the floor. . . and Bellini and his Amina definitely were the losers here.”

How bad was Thursday’s opening of Turandot? The Australian’s Martin Ball wrote:

“Maria ‘Z’’s singing as Turandot was completely inadequate. She was out of time, out of tune, out of breath – in a word, terrible. What is more, she appeared to be aware of this, and her bravery in going for the high notes was almost poignant but for the fact it was largely in vain. Her curtain call was greeted with muscled boos….”

One of the boo-ers later outed himself as a ‘Philip Murphy’, who wrote:

“Aside from the planning bungles, Z in the title role was quite atrocious. So much so that I felt compelled to bring some Continental realism to the proceedings and, much to the shock of my companion that evening, threw out some raucous ‘boos’ at the curtain call.”

The Age’s critic John Slavin concluded: “I could not discern whether she had a bad cold (why not alert the audience beforehand if this was the case?) or the voice had passed its use-by date, but her tessitura was crumbling at the edges and she sang flat…One of the greatest soprano roles was reduced to a case for an ear-and-throat specialist.”

Slavin also conjured up a titillating description of the set: “Pietro Cascella’s art nouveau set design is evocative of the ‘female’ principle. A semi-abstract egg embraced by a crescent moon strains to drop into the narrow slit of a throne that represents the female yoni.”

Insert your puns at will. Slavin must have a highly-charged imagination – I just couldn’t put the alleged yoni pieces into any anatomical order.

Audience members were traumatised to varying degrees. For example, a University of the Third Age class member, apparently as therapy, turned his recollections of the performance into an essay on Schadenfreude, after changing the name of the soprano and the opera.

Another audience member, “Bertie”, blogged that if an opera is not over until the fat lady sings, the show must be still going on. My spy in the chorus was wearing a wig resembling, she said, a dead marmoset. She put the debacle of the first night down to a bad case of pride, self-delusion or “plain old terror”. She wrote:

“We were all happily excited, and ready to strike a few blows for The Re-Establishment of Opera in Victoria.

Come 8pm and the audience was pouring in STILL and we were all backstage ready to go and suffering through an excruciating half an hour of “can’t we start yet?”.

Finally – the oboe note in the orchestra – the signal for tuning up and we got to go on and start.

First act: it went well. They clapped. We tried not to be too excited.

Second act: it goes well. Until the arrival of The Soprano as Turandot. Let me say that this is a bugger of a role and it starts with an absolute bugger of an aria “In Questa Reggia” which is an Olympic-class aria and it needs to be sung by a big dramatic voice in full command of its faculties. ..lots of top Cs and bated breath all round for this act to work.

And Jesus Mary Joseph and Ethel Merman, her voice went PHUT on only about the second page of the aria. She squeaked, she missed a note, and it went PHUT again.

As one, the chorus froze and then broke out into a hot-and-cold sweat. We were guilty of murmuring: ‘She isn’t’; ‘No she IS’; ‘I thought she was better’; ‘You know she’s always awful the first 10 minutes’; ‘No, this is something worse, there’s something wrong with then middle voice’; ‘Oh BUGGER’.

The look upon Richard Divall’s [the conductor’s] face was scary to behold.

She limped through the aria. Limped? She CRAWLED. The middle voice was just not working.

Just to attempt “In questa reggia” shows true self-delusion. Maria ‘Z’’s voice is so freaky anyway, that we really didn’t know what would happen next at rehearsals. But usually it got better.

Not this time. The bit where she gives him curry was more sort of a Maggi Hot-Pot (with soggy sultanas) than the beef vindaloo (with extra chilli) that it needed to be.

We were in agonies and although they clapped again at the end of the second act we were now knocked sideways, unsure of everything….and bloody ANGRY. Here we had toiled away for months and months and this …ITALIAN PERSON had just scuttled it with her DRAMA.

I seem to have a knack for being in the right place at the right time backstage because I got to hear the conductor go past muttering ‘I can get any singer through ANYTHING but first they have to tell me that there’s a PROBLEM’. I also had a chat to a couple of our chorus tenors who are bloody knowledgeable and they assured me the third act would be fine because it was all in the upper part of the soprano’s voice.

And lo, it came to pass that we got through the third act in fine style and she got through it and at the end we all got a rousing reception and much applause and love from the good people of Melbourne, bless them.

So we were much cheered: Saturday was days away, her voice must surely get better, and, Gods-dammit, we had just sung a grand opera in full traditional style to a full house at the Palais theatre!!”

As for the Saturday’s grand finale, a full picture can be drawn, thanks to my own note-taking from the stalls and the brilliant account of my back-stage informant. (The newspaper critics had had enough after Tuesday and Saturday’s catastrophe went unreported). My account:

“In ‘Z’’s first big scene she was wobbly, her voice broke, she tried singing lower, and crumbled on every big note. When singing softly she was thin and feeble, and then she started breaking down altogether. Poor hero Calaf (Antonio Ordonez, from Spain) was trying to sing his part of the passionate duet to a vacuum and getting thrown, with a ‘where am I, what is going on?’ manner.

Midway through the piece, ‘Z’ stopped and clutched her throat. She called across the stage to the conductor in Italian, saying ‘I can’t go on’, and the prompt and the conductor (Richard Divall) were gee-ing her up to get through the scene.

This short debate continued while the orchestra paused in wonderment. The audience was agog. Divall struck up the band again and mercifully the second act finished soon after.

As lights dimmed again for the third act, Divall strode alone to the front of the stage and said, as near as I can recall:

“The soprano (he didn’t use her name) is having great difficulty, she is suffering from a serious allergy. During interval I suggested to her that we had several choices. We could stop the performance at the death of (Calaf’s loyal servant) Liu (Rosemary Illing), which often occurs by tradition marking the point where Puccini’s own death cut short his composition of the opera. However, in loyalty to the fellow cast members, the soloists, the chorus, the dancers, the producers… who have worked so hard for the performance, she said they should have the opportunity to take it through to the end. My wish is to minimise the strain on her. We have other choices including that she sing at times an octave lower, or that I do something I have never done in my career and that is deliberately have the orchestra drown her out. You are attending a wonderful production and you are a very special audience. This whole episode is an event I have never faced before, and I hope you will give the performers your best support.”

The audience applauded. The third act went forward with ‘Z’ managing to hold her role together, though singing in a very restrained way and not attempting any peaks.

At curtain call the cast all got a good ovation but ‘Z’ didn’t show until the last (we initially thought she was opting out) . She got some sympathetic applause and no boo-ing, as occurred on the first night.”

Now let’s go to the backstage version with our articulate chorine:

“Saturday afternoon: open the stage door and descend into the Stageworld again. I breathed deeply of excitement, sweat, adrenaline and the Funny Smell. We waited for half an hour for the audience (ANOTHER full house – bless the people of Melbourne) and we did a bloody good first act. They really clapped!

Gazelle-like tenors (pranced) again in the dressing rooms.

Second act: Yes! it’s all good. And here comes Maria! Who was WORSE. She actually STOPPED in the middle of the effing aria!!

Ididn’t think it was possible to feel even more panicked and hot-and-cold-sweaty than opening night. But it seems the body has endless reserves of adrenaline overload.

Antonio was magnificent – supported her all the way through the damned aria, sang over the top of her where possible – but if someone does a Sally Robbins and STOPS, even to apologise – no no no no NO! It was so all WRONG.

We came off and again I sat in the right place just off in the wings with other despondent chorines. We might as well have been furniture. We were incidental to the DRAMA, you see.

Maria had fled in tears (yeah – you SHOULD cry, you nutsoid soprano) to her dressing room and locked herself in, all so DRAMATIC. Oh the scurryings! The director, the director’s assistant, the other director’s assistant, the stage manager, the repetiteur, the chorusmaster, the producer and finally the conductor. Back and forth, many many tight conversations in Italian and broken English.

Rampant speculation all over backstage: Would she go on for the third act?? Would we continue?? What about Nessun Dorma? if Antonio didn’t sing that we’d get lynched!

More scurryings. More conversations. Finally, Richard Divall (who should get a knighthood or something) went past metaphorically pushing his sleeves up and saying “Right”. Then nothing for a while.

Finally Richard came back. And he leaned over to me and another chorine and said “I should have been a mother.”

By which – loud cheers! – I took to mean that we were going ahead. I’d already spotted the orchestra coming back in and they only turn up when there’s a paying gig, so I was confident.

Richard went out and made The Announcement and he was brilliant – in a few short phrases he turned the audience around to cheering for the stupid woman who Had Bravely Decided to Battle On. Berloody Hell! I was fascinated. I thanked him later for doing this and he said “That’s called Showing Leadership”. What is more, it absolutely was.

We zoomed through the third act and got another rousing ovation (the chorus got loud cheers – yay for our claque!). But victory was overlaid by the bitterness of the mismanagement of the whole Maria thing – her mismanagement of her voice and her inexplicable decision to go ahead without knowing how to deal with an Australian audience (ie let them know you’re struggling they’ll be with you every note of the way – treat them like idiots and you deserve everything you get) – and the mismanagement by the producers of the situation. No understudy, no backup – how did this blind spot happen??

I leave the final words on the matter to my dear friend Elley.

As we were wandering along Acland Street looking for coffee afterwards I said “Well, she won’t ever work in this town ever again.”

And Elley said “What are you talking about? She hasn’t worked in this town YET.”

However, to all this came a happy ending. There was no disaster, Madam ‘Z’ triumphed, and the audience was in raptures over her performance, or so the Italians in Italy were informed.

In faraway Livorno, Italy, the local newspaper (Stampa) carried a review, which I have rendered for you (via google-translate) in English.

“MELBOURNE. Ten minutes of applause for Turandot in Melbourne before the 2,800 spectators at the Palais Theatre…

“Many personalities attended this highly anticipated event.

“The performance ended with a standing ovation and bestowed a special tribute to the soprano Maria ‘Z’…Huge success for the interpretation by soprano Maria ‘Z’…”

I have no idea whether this auspicious production inspired Premier Bracks to decant millions of taxpayer dollars onto the Melbourne Opera Company. I’d certainly hope so.

Tony Thomas enjoys opera. Hang the taxpayers.

An old hand recalls the first digital revolution

by Tony Thomas

December 31, 2012

Curse you, orgasmologist Shere Hite! I wish my (verbal) intercourse with you at Canberra’s National Press Club had never occurred! But regrets are vain: someone long ago did a poem about the “moving finger” moving on, and nothing can lure it back.

At the time I was a young and naïve reporter, Press Gallery-based and aged 38. I had a title: “Economics Writer” for The Age.

A title is a precious thing. Later, I was an “Associate Editor” at BRW Magazine, but no-one knew why or what it meant. The reality was that another reporter was promoted to associate editor and I was awarded the same title in case I felt miffed.

At The Age, my title was often mis-stated by sub-editors as “Economic Writer”, as though I was a bargain or – implausibly – sparing with words.

In fact I was just a poor-man’s Kenneth Davidson, he being The Age’s (drum-roll!) current “Economics Editor”.

We can’t all be top dog. I did feel my title “Economics Writer” had gravitas.

Imagine my annoyance when gonzo journalist Mungo MacCallum (left) began referring to me in the now-extinct tabloid Nation Review as “Tony Thomas, The Age’s non-masturbating Economics Writer”. You may say, “What’s wrong with that? It could be worse.” Well, yes it could. But when I predicted a half-percent rise in official interest rates, I didn’t want this portentous forecast marred by gratuitous, albeit complimentary, personal detail. Worse, I had no-one to thank but myself for Mungo’s soubriquet.

The years have rolled by, but I still owe readers of both the Nation Review and The Age this explanation:

I was treasurer of the Press Club for several years (another title with gravitas, although I seldom got spending and receipts to balance). Our main activity was organizing big-shot lunchtime speakers every few weeks, giving celebs the benefit of a national forum.

I felt an obligation to enliven the question times, which were often ponderous, with some pre-planned witticisms. In any event I enjoyed showing off, especially in high-level company such as the Shahanshah of Iran, Maggie Thatcher and Jim Cairns.

To give you the idea, man-of-the-world Peter Ustinov was one of our speakers, and I went to some care to feed him a good question:

Me: When I was about 11, I went to see Quo Vadis, in which you played Nero, very brilliantly. I loved the scene where Deborah Kerr was tied to the stake, clad in diaphanous garments, and all set to be gored by a big black bull. Then, as you in Rome fiddled, so in the cinema seat did one small boy…

Ustinov (before I could even ask my pro forma question): My dear boy, you were the only person who really understood that scene!

He added that he had asked the director of Quo Vadis, Mervyn LeRoy, for any special insights into Nero’s motivations.

“Nero,” replied Mervyn, “The way I see him …”

“Yes?”

“He’s a guy plays with himself nights.”

Ustinov went on to explain that the “bull” from which the hulking slave Ursus saved Deborah Kerr, was actually a chloroformed cow, filmed so as to keep the udder out of shot.[i] Ursus had to twist the cow’s neck, which woke the cow: “Every time Ursus put his foot on the carcass to symbolize his victory, the cow would look up and moo pathetically.”[ii]

Someone asked him about the lions. He said there were 120 of them on the cast list, but they refused to act their parts as Christian-killers, something to do with their dislike of bright lighting. Eventually the lion-tamers organized human dummies stuffed with meat, which the lions did get stuck into, but too horrifically to make the final edit, he said.

I came away realising that Peter Ustinov was not easily upstaged.

None of the above clarifies why I became “The Age’s non-masturbating Economics Writer”; it may even raise more questions than it answers. Am I unconsciously dodging proper disclosure? Let me screw my courage to the sticking place and try harder.

Someone lined up Shere Hite as our Press Club speaker for April 19, 1978. She is often described as a “clitorologist”. She argues that direct stimulus to that organ beats penile intercourse as a route (or should I say, “highway”) to orgasm.[iii]

While talk about some aspects of sex in the 1970s was fairly liberated, Hite’s take on it was confronting stuff for an audience unaccustomed to female masturbation as a lunch topic.

As Hite got down to the nitty-gritty, people either forgot their roast chicken or subjected it to minute inspection and small forkfuls. The un-ease was palpable, especially when Hite began gesturing elaborately with her right middle finger to indicate her favorite style of clitoral stimulation.

Ms Hite finished to polite applause. She took a few innocuous questions, then I got the call: “Ms Hite, a good thing about masturbation is that you don’t have to look your best.[iv] I wouldn’t know. I don’t masturbate and never have…”

For form’s sake, I began a question on female fantasies, but it was drowned out in the roar from the room. People had been way out of their comfort zone. The tensions of the past half hour’s tutorial on ladies’ solo fulfillment now dissolved into ribald laughter.

When the racket died down, Shere (above) responded, in character:

“Well, I think when I’m masturbating I DO look my best.”

In the audience was Mungo MacCallum, who specialized in outrageous prose (now many do, but he was a local pioneer).

I had caused him recent offence over a silly incident, the insolence of office, when I was wearing my ‘Treasurer’ hat. He came into The Age’s gallery cubby-hole to put himself down as a “maybe” for a Press Club lunch. Since I had to manage the numbers and capacity, I told him he couldn’t register as a “maybe”, only as “yes”. I was cranky about too many “maybe” applicants and ended his expostulations by physically pushing him out the door. I should have apologised but life moved on, so I apologise now, 35 years in arrears.

Anyway, Mungo then pinned on me the descriptor: “Tony Thomas, The Age’s non-masturbating Economics Writer…”

I rang Mungo this week to see if anyone had ever asked why he had referred to me that way.

“As opposed to [name of famed Age colleague deleted]?”[v]

“Yes”.

“Well I’d forgotten the whole thing. It disappeared into the mists of time. No, I don’t think anyone ever asked.”

An ugly thought crosses my mind: maybe no-one was reading me OR Mungo.

Tony Thomas writes for Quadrant. His private life is actually none of your business.

[i] “Ursus” is Latin for bear. The actor playing Ursus was Buddy Baer. Spooky!

[ii] This was before the politically correct apologia, “No animals were hurt in the making of this film”, began appearing in the end-credits.

[iii] As her official website biog puts it: “In 1976, a young grad student from Missouri dropped a bombshell into the bedrooms of the world, and blew apart our preconceptions about women’s sexuality.”

[iv] I had picked up this bon mot from our worldly bureau chief, the late Allan Barnes, in a less-erudite context.

[v] Even then, it was a wide field.