Burlesque Goes Mainstream


A couple of years ago a burlesque artist moved in next door. There goes the neighbourhood!

Being of a certain age, your correspondent may justifiably claim unreliability of memory, but there is a recollection of once attending, in Sydney’s King’s Cross, a joint called The Paradise Club, a stereotypical strip joint featuring knee-boots and nipple bonnets, high drink prices and tired jokes. Probably one of Abe Saffron’s locales. The entertainment was clearly directed at men. The same appeared to be the case in a couple of clubs in both Hamburg’s Reeperbahn district and West Berlin in the seventies when, accompanied now by Mrs Oz, a different sample of nightlife was entertained.

All the constraints of a conservative, family oriented middle age then intervened, so it was not until post-regular employment in the “noughties” that attendance at burlesque and cabaret shows was again occasionally on the agenda. The one name that stood out then and now as a remarkable producer and exponent of the art was Moira Finucane, a particularly savvy producer, whose work appealed for its social commentary and biting wit, along with good old-fashioned entertainment. It was respect for Moira Finucane, who many might say works in a rather arcane segment of the arts, which led your correspondent to seek to know more of the work of the recently arrived neighbour.

Well versed readers will understand when reference is made to that old G and S Policemen’s Song: “When the enterprising burglar’s not a burgling…” . It is true too of burlesque artist neighbours who, saddled with the pressures of wifedom, motherhood, home ownership, car and all the other elements of suburban life, give little away about professional life. But an early reference to writing for an “obscure New York publication” sparked the interest of this fellow wordsmith. A stage name, revealed later, led to opening up a fascinating world. That obscure publication turned out to be Burlesque Beat, a source of vast information on the burlesque scene around the world. The writing style might not get you a piece in The New Yorker but it’s fresh and honest. 21stcentury millennial style perhaps? And while the amazing life’s journey of our neighbour is one element of this world and can, in part, be accessed in that publication, it is the size and development of the art of burlesque which also attracted the interest of your correspondent. This is how Burlesque Beat’s Contributing Editor put it in a 2016 article:

“Burlesque went mainstream—it happened, folks. It’s everywhere now, with hundreds of festivals, schools popping up like mushrooms, scenes thriving in small towns everywhere. It’s exciting. But it didn’t go “mainstream” like some of us hoped it would—it became more common, and maybe lost some of its outlaw appeal.”

 That is not only true of the USA. In Australia there are competitions in all states except the Northern Territory, as well as a national title. There are schools all over. And even a museum. The shows may generally be found as part of fringe festivals or at smaller venues such as Sydney’s Red Rattler, The Old Fitz or The Factory Theatre. But they also form part of major festivals. Sydney Festival 2019 included a wonderful cross-cultural show “Shanghai Mimi” at Riverside Theatres, Parramatta produced by none other than Moira Finucane. What about Sydney Opera House?  The Sydney Symphony Orchestra put on “A Night at the Speakeasy” as part of their 2018 mainstage opera house programming. Burlesque with classical musicians? That’s mainstream. The sector knows it’s made it, even if Shanghai Mimi and A Night at the Speakeasy were rather light on Burlesque Beat’s “outlaw appeal”.

The better shows in recent years have developed significant social and political edge which probably has been a boon, not only for the audiences but also for producers looking to add some grunt to the plethora of hula hoops and aerialists. Along with social commentary the sector appears to be wrestling with many issues concerning other sectors of the arts: diversity, inclusion, cultural appropriation and so on. Check out this passionate blog post from 21stCentury Burlesque. Depending on your point of view this concern may be natural or perhaps surprising given the genesis of the artform in nineteenth century Britain where it was designed to poke fun, satirise and send up mainstream performance arts and the society around which they revolved, through comedy, song and dance presented by both women and men. Crossing the Atlantic in mid-century, burlesque often presented female producers and performers increasingly questioning the way in which women appeared, challenging their accepted status and Victorian constraints. Politically correct it was not.

No doubt driven in part by the radical changes happening at the time in the entertainment industry, burlesque suffered a downturn in the mid twentieth century, sliding into a sleazy, strip based culture directed at primarily male audiences. Happily, the 21stCentury resurgence of the form as noted by Burlesque Beat has reversed this trend. Neo-burlesque perhaps. It has taken a while for realization to strike your correspondent. Why did shows have such enthusiastic female audiences? The female whoops and shouts far out clamoured the male. Then, one night at the Red Rattler, at a benefit show for a dance school, it dawned. The genre now represents what it did back in the nineteenth century in terms of female empowerment. In a similar way to the growth of pole dancing clubs, shows and competitions, burlesque has become the place for women to express a powerful presence and their individual millennial selves.

This is all very well but has a minor downside for your correspondent: he now gets emails from Sheena Miss-Demeanour. Better not tell Mrs Oz. And by the way, the neighbourhood is doing just fine, thanks.










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Pay Day in Port Kembla

Over half a century ago your correspondent, then a student, worked for a time in the steel town of  Port Kembla. This vignette, which came to light recently during a clear-out of the family home in Melbourne, was penned at the time and originally appeared in “Cranks and Nuts” 1960, a publication of the Melbourne University Engineering Students Club.


The day shift draws to a close. Diesel hoots mingle in three-quarter tone harmony with boiler house sirens and the whine of overhead cranes. In the grit and smoky air a restlessness pervades the tired bodies. Boilermaker, rigger, staff man, all have their mind on a brown manila envelope. The works buses are more crowded than any other day yet the same number of men leave the plant. Perhaps they all feel bigger with notes at their hips.

On the footbridge across the railway a union organiser stands, his grimy coat flung carelessly over the handrail. A battered kitbag squats at his feet like a faithful dog. “Paid yer quarterly dues?” he asks of each bunch of men. They, unconcerned, pass him by. He has been there before, and will be there again.

Down by the canteen a huckster grinds out a tune on a barrel organ, his two-tone shirt shining like a gem among the coal-dirty buildings and be-whiskered faces. The faces toss loose coins onto a rug in front of the organ. They, rich for the day, feel a momentary thrill like a patron of the arts. Yet it is gone in a second and the faces turn to more important things: tobacco; newspapers. A fight it is too through the sweaty bodies to the tobacconist’s window, for today no man may ask his mate for the “makin’s”. Even the Vendolux is laying cigarette packets like a prize hen.

Along the main road two vans are parked, their rear doors open displaying a multicoloured array of cheap clothing. Where is it from? Nobody asks. Many finger the wares while a greasy faced man extols the virtues of this jacket or that pair of stovepipe trousers. Some buy. Necessities must be bought when the money is on hand.

There is another sight, one which is too common to bode well. Many wives come, squealing  children coupled like carriages behind, to meet their men. To remove temptation. To remove doubts and fears they have of a blustering sot, blundering through the house before collapsing asleep and missing the next day’s shift.

A steady stream heads for the pubs where rows of empty, foam etched schooners line the puddled counter, relics of those who came and are gone already. A few play pinball or darts, but most concentrate on the glass in hand. The night is yet to come. There is time enough for games.

The evening traffic swells to a capital city rush as the workers head for the clubs. The men hurry as if eager to lose to lady luck, joining the queues waiting a chance for the monotonous excitement of the press-pull, press-pull action on the poker machines. Then a drink, and again to the machines. The drug possesses the mind, daemonic and horrifying till the last florin is gone.

All the joints are open. The proprietors know that tonight business will be good. And so it is, till ten o’clock when the stream is homewards, gutterwards, while the stench of beer breath fills the air, the sickly thought of tomorrow turns the mind and the stomach turns itself.

It’s a frightening thought, almost unbelievable: a fortnight’s wages blown in a night. But proof enough is the affluent ostentatiousness of the clubs, and the rings on the fat victuallers’ fingers. There is money in steel. It will be the same in a fortnight.



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Orpheus, Presented by Forest Collective


Photo by Kate Baker

It may come as a surprise to the alert members of this blog’s readership that your curmudgeonly correspondent has even heard of Melbourne’s Midsumma Festival, let alone gone to a festival performance. The festival, which has been growing in size and stature since 2009 is a celebration of LGBTIQ culture held annually in Melbourne. Last night it offered two classical music offerings. “Homophonic”, now in its eighth year, celebrates the works of queer composers. This year the works ranged from Thomas Ades to Nico Muhly with a raft of young Australian talent included both as composers and performers. The second offering was “Orpheus”, a new look at the famous Greek myth, created by Evan Lawson and his Forest Collective at the Abbotsford Convent. This blog first reviewed a Forest Collective performance, “Shared Lines” back in 2013. Since then Lawson and his group have continued, with obvious dedication and commitment, to present innovative and interesting, relevant, programming.

Orpheus, billed as an opera, might better be called a danced oratorio. Each of the three characters has two creators, one a singer and the other dancer, backed by a collective of musicians ranging from harp to bass flute. To those who might question why Orpheus needs another retelling, Lawson explains: “Since the Victorian era many ancient  Greek myths have been hijacked and altered to have any reference to same-sex relationships or gender fluidity removed.” “I was fascinated to find about [Orpheus’] pederasty relationship with fellow argonaut Calaïs. It provided… a fascinating…love triangle to explore on stage.” Lawson also wanted to draw a new perspective of Eurydice, presenting her challenges and responses more strongly than her more common presentation as just a love object.

Lawson, who also wrote the music, drew on texts from three sources for the work of just over an hour: libretti from Ranieri de Calzabigi and Alessandro Striggio and words from Phemocles as well as Shakespeare. The text was sparse however, and often reinforced by non-flexible vocables to strong emotional effect, while many phrases were repeated as is common in baroque opera.

Opening with ethereal sounds from flute and bowed harp, three singers evoke the sea with an Ancient Greek hymn. The work then falls into four distinct parts followed by a brief epilogue. First is a musical, and then danced, dialogue between Orpheus and Calaïs on board The Argo. Dancers Ashley Dougan and Luke Fryer presented a languorous if somewhat stylised duo which seemed more dalliance than intense relationship. The Siren’s song is depicted by complex harmonies across the ensemble. In the second part Orpheus is joined by Eurydice, danced most effectively by Piaera Lauritz, both in duo and solo leading up to her death which was ominously followed by a quiet rumble of thunder, perhaps foretelling the further trials to come. The dance is combined with some fine singing from her alter ego, presented by mezzo soprano Kate Bright who moves around the stage from time to time giving her the most involved parts amongst the singers. At one touching moment Eurydice comes up behind her singing self and cups her hands in front of Bright’s mouth, modifying the sound to give ethereal effect.

Part three involved Orpheus in a long solo dance, first quiet, developing his remorse and confusion, then becoming more intense and agitated before Eurydice returns to the dance, perhaps in Orpheus’ imagination.

Part four then develops Orpheus’ despair, having lost both his loves, with an elegant trio of dancers, again perhaps in the imagination of Orpheus, at times dancing in unison, in line, reflecting the sad tension of failed relationships.

The epilogue relies on Shakespeare to conclude the tragedy:

“In sweet music is such art

Killing care and grief of heart

Fall asleep, or hearing, die.”

The spare production leaves a great deal to the imagination of the audience. Many of the complexities of the story are related by dancers rather than the sung text. This is a production where a second helping would undoubtedly bring great benefit. The lack of lighting effects also detracted from the overall atmosphere. No doubt cost and constraints of the venue played a role here.

The performance will be repeated on Sunday 3 February at 3.30pm and 7.30pm at Abbotsford Convent.






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Woodwinds, Wine and Wind: Huntington Estate Music Festival 2018

HE FEstival 2018The challenge of reviewing a music festival is daunting: so many concerts, so many players. And then of course there’s so much wine and fellowship – not conducive to reasoned debate and scholarship. But then your correspondent has always left the learned discussions to the experts. Here you will get the personal reflections of a dilettante. FWIW, if you will.

Last Sunday saw the end of the 29thHuntington Estate Music Festival. Its illustrious past embraces the Australian Chamber Orchestra years, and then the Musica Viva era. Different in so many ways but one thing has remained constant: an intensely personal touch which leaves the audiences and musicians with a feeling of friendship and family which is particularly special. This year was no different.

The cold winds tried to cool the spirits this year. But musical and personal communication warmed the Barrel Room such that mere climate became irrelevant. Don’t stop the music!.

There were two particular threads to this year’s festival: a focus on English composers of the 20thcentury (Britten, Bliss, Bridge, Elgar, Finzi, Vaughan Williams, Grainger) and a concentration on woodwinds, with clarinettist Sebastian Manz and oboist Juliana Koch performing a wide range of works. Of the two, Sebastian Manz was the performer with personality and strength who drove the high levels of excitement which we have come to expect from good music festivals. This is not to demean Koch, a fine oboist who performed with precision and care. Just she was less exciting a performer. Australian composers, both living and dead also received attention with Carl Vine allowing himself a brace of his own works, along with Roger Smalley, Nigel Westlake and Stuart Greenbaum. If the purists prefer to claim internationalist Percy Grainger as Australian, then he can be included here too. There is more on the two young Australian composers later. One of them is female which will hardly allay the concerns of those who demand more women composers in their programming. There were no other female composers featured during the festival.  I suspect the happy audience didn’t notice.

The highlights of the festival were too numerous to detail, but some warrant particular mention. Amongst the necessary “tops of the pops” standards were the Weber Clarinet Quintet where Manz was joined by the Goldner String Quartet. While always a crowd pleaser, in this work Manz delivered a revelatory reading which owed much to his skills communicating new clarinet sounds and sensibilities to a, sometimes, jaded audience. (Did we really need “Death and the Maiden” again?) It was as if hearing Weber’s work for the first time. Manz, who as a young student was strongly influenced by Benny Goodman’s melding of classical and jazz, has clearly embraced the jazz idiom and incorporates it into his own, personal, interpretations. Then, later, it was educational to hear his Mozart Clarinet Quintet, again with the Goldner. It was a clear and precise rendition, without mannerisms, a performance which could not offend the most puritanical of musicologist. At most Manz allowed himself a couple of finely crafted ornaments in the slow movement. This was pure joy. Was the influence of Sabine Meyer on show? Perhaps. She taught Manz free for a year in his formative youth.

It would be remiss not to mention the Concertino for Oboe, Clarinet and String Orchestra by Alexandre Tansman, a Polish composer who lived mostly in Paris in the first half of the 20th Century. In this work a chamber orchestra of strings from the Australian National Academy of Music joined with Manz and Koch to deliver a resounding and joyful performance which displayed the soloists’ skill in both duet and conversation, as well as wild delight. Festival music at its best.

Artistic Director Carl Vine, whose final Huntington Festival will be in November 2019, programmed two premieres by young Australian composers. The first, “Interwoven”, a string quartet by Elizabeth Younan was a moving work in which differing musical ideas are interwoven to form a complex whole. The composer says the work finishes with a “rush of joy and hope”. The Orava Quartet delivered this with convincing style.

The second premiere, a string octet by Harry Sdraulig, was equally impressive. While an integrated work, there were elements of conversation, or interaction, between the two quartets which suggested to your correspondent that the players should better have been opposed rather than integrated as is the common practice for the better known octets. The work has some beautiful lyrical elements and wonderful moments for viola. It is a fine addition to the limited string octet repertoire, although not quite on the scale of those which are often selected as the big work to end events. It is salutary to observe that Musica Viva has been instrumental in encouraging the composition of at least three string octets, the others being from Jakub Jankowski and Nicole Murphy.

Soprano Taryn Fiebig played an important role at the festival. Her Schumann “Liederkreis” Op 39 was quite delightful, although could have been even better had her diction carried the German text through the hall. A German text alongside the English translation would have helped the audience. Similarly, the beautiful concept of Samuel Barber’s “Hermit Songs”, based on snippets written by medieval monks and nuns in the margins of religious manuscripts, would have been greatly enhanced had the audience been provided a text to illuminate their enjoyment. In the event a fine work was reduced to indifference. Taryn Fiebig’s unprogrammed intervention in which she accompanied herself on cello was also less than successful. She rendered three arias which lacked form and style, works which she clearly knew well, but failed to embrace while having to play her own accompaniment. Perhaps had she selected works written specifically for singing cellist this segment may have worked better (Gramata Cellam from Peteris Vasks, or Uluru Song from Martin Wesley-Smith come to mind).

Pianists were in abundance of course with Jayson Gillham, Amir Farid and Musica Viva Future Maker Aura Go all contributing to the overall program. Particularly noteworthy were Gillham’s performances of works by Stuart Greenbaum and Percy Grainger. Pure enjoyment. Amir Farid’s playing of the complex piano part in the Frank Bridge Piano Quintet, along with the Orava Quartet, was impeccable with fine articulation and sensitivity. He is a wonderful chamber musician.

There was of course much more. A musical feast accompanied by a feast of food and wine, delivered by a family with whom, over the years, many attendees have formed a fine bond. It is worth the drive to Mudgee. And next year will be the thirtieth anniversary, Carl Vine’s last as Artistic Director. Perhaps a good reason to come along?


Note: Artists for 2019 include: The Australian String Quartet; Arcadia Winds; Ian Munro; Goldner String Quartet and a world-famous violist. Further details to be announced.



Posted in Chamber Music, Goldner String Quartet, Musica Viva | 1 Comment

In Remembrance of Richard Gill

While your correspondent did not know Richard Gill personally, the character of the man was such that many who did not nevertheless felt they did. His influence was all embracing; the intensity of his message unavoidable. So, like so many others,I feel the urge to pay some sort of tribute. Back in 2015 I penned a piece on music education prompted by two inspirational people. Richard Gill gave the Peggy Glanville Hicks Oration that year. I repeat my blog post in his memory. While my words may not sufficiently reflect the stature of the man, those of many others, in the last few days, have made up for my inadequacy. May his legacy grow.

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Major Performing Arts Sector Under Review

The Framework for the Major Performing Arts sector in Australia is being reviewed, driven by the Federal  Department of Communications and the Arts.

Your correspondent finds it interesting that of the MPA companies that regularly send emails, marketing material and the like, only one has seen fit to alert their stakeholders to the survey and suggest participation. The Australian Brandenburg Orchestra sees broad input into the considerations as important. (Stop the presses: Belvoir have just also put out the call!) Who would not agree? The attacks on the MPA sector by the small end of town back in the Senator Brandis days might suggest that an avalanche of submissions will be received bad mouthing the larger players. There was something of a diatribe from Scott Rankin from Big hART carried in ArtsHub earlier this month but that appears to be about it. Perhaps all the others are keeping their views to themselves and just submitting responses quietly. It seems there have been some 2000 submissions so far so perhaps there is more going on. A quick and unscientific Twitter search suggests the only organisation calling for submissions other than state arts departments is BlakArt. Good for them.

From the antediluvian perspective of your ageing correspondent there is a need to maintain something like the MPA framework. There is a distinct role for the large companies, and some justification for separating the funding from the small, medium and independent sector. It is the natural order of things that the smaller players will be the leaders in innovation and the contemporary. No one wants to see Sydney Dance Company do “The Nutcracker” or Chamber Made do “Aida”. But these sorts works do need to be staged from time to time as part of a vibrant arts scene. Is there need for some cultural change on the part of MPA companies? Almost certainly yes. But give them credit where it may be due. You never hear mention from the complainers of the likes of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s “Metropolis” series. It’s been going for twenty years. And while admittedly part of a festival, the South Australian Opera did stage Brett Dean’s “Hamlet”. Over the years your correspondent has enjoyed some remarkable events, all at the hands of the majors: Steve Reich’s “Piano Phase” at the Sydney Opera House, “Nixon in China” in Adelaide, “Madelaine Lee” by Opera Australia (or was it the Australian Opera then), “Bliss” courtesy of OA, and a whole raft of good times courtesy of Musica Viva. Sydney Theatre Company did “Secret River” and the Sydney Dance Company “Nude Live”. Perhaps these are just the unspecified half dozen good guys referred to by Scott Rankin in his ArtsHub piece. But it is the experience of a single participant, so must therefore be limited.

Lest readers get the impression nothing needs to change, far from it. But the best approach is to strengthen the best parts of the majors, encourage culture change and perhaps introduce some form of peer review. Not for funding allocation, but to ensure the prime criteria for being an MPA company are being fulfilled. Limit the tenure of artistic directors? Perhaps, but then there are the likes of Carl Vine at Musica Viva. There will always be exceptions.

For what it is worth, quoted below is your correspondent’s final comments as submitted in the final survey box. There was scope for 4000 words. Here are just a few hundred. Let the other pontificators quote the malleable statistics and write learned essays. But whether you agree or disagree, you should have your say. the link is here.

“It has been disturbing in recent years to see how the arts practitioners have turned against themselves with the small to medium sector aggressively attacking the MPA companies for perceived (and sometimes real) failings. This is usually prompted by dissatisfaction about funding and a belief that the MPA sector sucks an unjustified proportion of funding from the available pool. The MPA sector needs to do a better job of promoting the work it does alongside their conventional mainstage activities which tend to receive greatest criticism. In addition the MPA sector needs to strengthen its collective voice in advocating for the broader arts sector, for better funding for all, for the development of sound policy and the development or creation of institutions and infrastructure which benefit the sector as a whole. While the big end of town will always receive much criticism, individual MPA companies can do a much better job of explaining their broadly based activities. And of course some can do a better job of programming the under-represented (women, indigenous, Australian etc.) But that notwithstanding, the sector should not succumb to the introduction of quotas or the like which would potentially lead to compromises of various sorts. It should be part of their culture.

There also needs to be a clearer framework for evaluating whether MPA companies are fulfilling their roles. Evaluation should be regular, if not on-going. It should not have to wait for a major review such as that of opera companies which was the catalyst for change at, for example, South Australian Opera. Perhaps some sort of regular peer review could be introduced to assess whether MPA companies are operating according to the funding priorities. Aside from ensuring companies were encouraged to address shortcomings early, this would also help to answer the often claimed fault that funding for MPA companies is not peer reviewed.”

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Melbourne International Chamber Music Competition: all over for another four years. Thanks @MusicaVivaAU #MICMCM2018

Your correspondent is still recovering from some hectic days in Melbourne. After a conscious decision not to review individual performances or to pick winners it seems, nonetheless, that quality will out even in the earliest moments of competition. You may have heard it streamed on 3MBS but nothing can compare with hearing it live. The wonderful CutCommon asked me to reflect on the eight days of competition. Here, with their permission, is a link to your correspondent’s thoughts about the event.

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