A Burning Creativity: Bruno’s Garden

Bruno’s Sculpture Garden, within walking distance of the coffee shop in Marysville, is a haven of green tranquillity, and showcases over a hundred sculptures.

Magical creatures

Magical creatures

During my visit to the garden, I kept wondering, “What were you thinking?”  I thought that about arsonists around the country who start murderous fires without thought of those who will lose their property, their animals and perhaps their lives.

I also thought it of Bruno himself.  While many of his sculptures are evidently taken from real life (maybe his own family), others are the most amazing creations, drawn perhaps from stories heard during a childhood spent in South America.  It also reflects passionate hard work and a remarkably creative mind.

I wondered how this little fellow below burst into life, and what did that silver object on the turtle’s head use to be?


Why is this horned man drinking beer on a throne made of wine bottles?b9

How does someone see that a spiral plate would fit so neatly over a statue’s head?


Any reports about Bruno’s Garden always start with his gratitude that he and his family, unlike many of their neighbours, survived the fires.  It took several months to get back into the area to rebuild, as the police closed the town so that they could hunt thoroughly for the remains of people who did not get out in time.

Bruno himself barely got out.  In the late afternoon of Saturday 7 February, the wind died down and it seemed that Maryville would be spared, but within minutes the wind came up the valley from a different direction, bringing 100 m high flames with it.  Bruno, with a few other townsfolk, spent the night across the road on the cricket oval (thank goodness it was there!) watching his house and gallery burn down, with collapsing trees decimating his sculpture garden.

By some miracle, about half the statues survived the falling burning trees, sometimes by a whisker.

The orphans, half destroyed

The Orphans, half destroyed


The Orphans, now restored

The rebuilding work must have been immense, but to a new visitor, the garden appears as magical as it probably was before the fire. b1a

After the fire, nothing green was left.  Ferns, azaleas and bulbs grew back quite quickly, but the bulk of the garden was replanted.  Visitors are invited to join in with weeding if they feel like it.

The statues range from realistic to mythical to even a little disturbing at times, and it was fun to discover them on the paving, the twisting paths or in the little streams.

b2a b5




b16b b21 b24






When we walked in, it was very quiet but someone was moving the sprinklers.  It was Bruno himself, and he agreed to let me take a photo of him working on his latest statue.

Bruno Torfs at work

Bruno Torfs at work

Self portrait?

Self portrait?

The anniversary of Black Saturday 2009 is tomorrow, 7 February.  This afternoon it was announced that the Marysville victims will share a $300 million settlment from AusNet, a power company whose faulty power conductor is presumed to have started the fire in that area.  The lead plantiff says it helps to know that this fire was not set deliberately.

The news last night reported, however, that already over 140 suspicious fires have been set in the state of Victoria since December, ie 3 fires per day.  Yes, what ARE these fire-bugs thinking?  Do they have $300 million?

For more information on Bruno’s Garden, see http://www.brunosart.com/ 


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The town that rose from the ashes

Good name for the museum

Good name for this museum

I’m really leading up to writing about Bruno’s Sculpture Garden, because it’s been one of the highlights of my visits.  However I have to set the scene first – in Marysville, famous for burning up on Black Saturday.

In a few days time, it will be the sixth anniversary of Black Saturday, a terrible series of fires in the rural areas around Melbourne (at least 400 fires) that caused at least $4 billion worth of damage and killed 173 people.  It’s estimated that 1 million animals died too.  Marysville was practically wiped out, and was closed to surviving residents for five weeks.

This is how it unfolded. On 7 February 2009, Melbourne recorded its hottest temperature ever, 46.4 ^ C.   January had already been extremely hot with many days over 40 degrees, and the humidity was down to 6%.   100 kph winds were gusting and the state was under a total fire ban. Unluckily several mishaps occurred to start fires, including arson – sad but true.

In the high winds, a rusted stay for one of the powerlines at Kinglake snapped, and the falling power cables set a eucalyptus tree alight.   Someone using a power tool caused a spark that set another area alight, and lightning played its part elsewhere too.  By lunchtime, the ABC had abandoned its normal radio programming to focus on the fires.  Hospitals in Melbourne were alerted to be ready for burn victims, and they were kept busy as over 400 people were injured as well as the 173 fatalities.

Now the weirdest thing is that Australians build their houses out of wood with a small brick veneer… and we saw yet another house going up in Marysville with a wooden frame.  A wooden house in a fire-prone eucalypt forest – why not?

Nice and flammable

Nice and flammable

Apparently many of the houses that burnt down on Black Saturday were set alight by exploding gas from the houses next door, in a domino effect.  I find this a mind boggling situation.   Around the rest of Australia, there seems to be an inordinate number of reports of houses burning down in urban areas, but still wooden houses go up.  However since bush fires can reach well over 1000 degrees, maybe even 1600 degrees, I guess anything would burn at that rate.


A  TV programme we saw this month talked about how Marysville is now struggling financially, since only about a third of the residents moved back and so the ratepayer base is greatly reduced.  Also the generous outpouring of rebuilding help from all over the country (in time and materials) might not have been entirely what the residents wanted – eg they have a brand new indoor basketball court which has never once been used, but which now has to be maintained.  There was also a mention that few tourists come any more, so we decided that now was the time to visit.

Premier Daniel Andrews must have seen the same TV show, as he was there too, talking to two big cameras and about 10 people.

Premier Daniel Andrews

Premier of Victoria, Daniel Andrews at press conference

We watched TV that evening to see what he spoke about, but the only quote to come from that interview appeared to be about a proposed (or disproposed; I’m losing track now) Melbourne highway.  Weird to go all that way away from Melbourne to talk about that, because it is quite a drive.  It takes an hour to get past the outskirts of Melbourne, and then it’s a lovely scenic drive through the Yarra Valley wine farms covered in hectares of bird netting.  Ye olde rural niceties.

Saving the grape harvest

Saving the grape harvest

We went past the old family home of opera singer Dame Nellie Melba.  The home is still run as a boutique wine estate by her descendants, open daily.  This is a poor photo as we didn’t stop, but it seems worth its own expedition another day.

Nellie Melba's estate

Nellie Melba’s estate

Then through the tall eucalyptus forests, which must be really scary to traverse on extreme fire danger days, as the roads are narrow and winding – little chance to race away from the flames.

Thick forests

The buildings on the main road of Marysville looked fresh and new, which  I guess they were.  There was the odd scorched tree trunk, but little indication that a fire had passed through 6 years ago.  If we had known the town beforehand, it would have been more apparent where there were buildings missing, I’m sure.

Something really odd – there are two shops selling ski equipment, in a town with one coffee shop and about 25 houses (and the basketball court). Fire and ice alternating, evidently.

Ski equipment for sale in the non-fire season


We decided to spread our money around and have coffee at one place and lunch elsewhere, but as it turned out, we shot our bolt by choosing the only lunch place for coffee (the other place was closed that day).  So our lunch option was back towards Melbourne in Narbethong at the Black Spur Inn (sorry, that name tickles my black humour funny bone). Narbethong was also decimated during the Black Friday fires of 1939 that left only the hotel standing, so evidently it’s safer to eat there during the week.



The coffee shop was lovely – organic coffee in the small garden outside with melodic magpies who were anxiously waiting to see if any crumbs were dropped.

The not-yet-thieving magpie

The not-yet-thieving magpie

It looked peaceful and safe, and one man who seemed to be using the cafe as an office away from the office wandered off leaving his laptop/tablet unattended. Decisions, decisions: dodging Aussie bushfires vs South African tsotsis – hard choice, isn’t it?

Confidence in honesty

Confidence in human honesty

After coffee, we walked up and down Murchison Street to say we’d done it, and then headed for the real goal: Bruno.   Easy to find as his sculptures start outside already.

At the entrance to Bruno's Garden

At the entrance to Bruno’s Garden

His quirky sense of humour was apparent at once, and I’ll focus on his garden next time, because that illustrates more than anything how the residents of Marysville have rebuilt.

Nice sign


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That’s why they call them Falls

Steavenson Falls

Steavenson Falls

We went to visit Steavenson Falls (yes, it’s spelled that way, and here’s the proof):

What's along Falls Road

What’s along Falls Road

All I can say is that Steavenson must have been a mere mortal, whereas Victoria was of course an Empress.  It felt surprising that of the few roads in the area with a name that wasn’t something like B360 or C508, this road was actually called Falls Road.

Anyway, it was quite a sweet little trickle.  They take it seriously, and have floodlighting till 11pm each night.  More floodlights than Newlands Stadium right now, I bet.


Lighting for evening show


I stood on the bridge part of the way to the top, and took a photo.  Now the thing to note about the photo below is the mother and her children just about to step into the rocky river, to get back to her husband, whose arm is in the left of the photo.

This is going to end badly, can you tell?

This is going to end badly, can you tell?

I went behind him and walked along the left of shot to get to another viewing area,  Then I heard the woman shout in alarm that the rocks were very slippery and she could not bring the children out safely.  Her husband carried on enjoying the scenery, so being the only other person in sight, I hastily put down my camera on the side of the path and went down the bank to reach the children.

I thought the toddler would cry when I grabbed him, but he was fine, and stayed put till I’d brought his sister out and then given a hand to the mother. I found the shoes and threw them up the bank to the family, by which stage the husband had noticed that he was nearly a family member or three short.

They thanked me profusely, but it had really been a nothing-sort-of-rescue; as long as no one hit their heads, they were in no real danger of drowning, I think – just spraining an ankle or ending up with several bruises if they fell.  I congratulated myself that I hadn’t been the one to fall and make a fool of myself, because so often when I help people I come off badly.  Not sure why, it’s just a Thing.

So happily on my way, good deed done, I picked up my camera again (it was still there!).  And that’s when the bad news hit.  I had put it down so fast that I scratched the lens on the rocky side wall.  While it doesn’t seem to have affected the photos taken since then, I’m devastated as I have been so careful always to cap the lens when not filming, and not to take the camera into danger.

I wonder if next time I will stand on the bridge instead and take a video of babies floating downstream.  What do you think?


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Chocolate, Crystallography and Wine

I’ve just seen this advert, and it looked awfully familiar. It reminded me of  this logo:

Synchrotron logo

Synchrotron logo

…and the model of the Synchrotron building:

Synchrotron model

Synchrotron model

2014 was the Year of Crystallography, and we only found out about it on 11 December.  So there was no way to celebrate or buy stuff, you know, but at least we were able to attend an informative event at the Australian Synchrotron down the road from us, at the Monash Uni Clayton campus.

Till then, my understanding of crystals or crystallography was split between

  • a vague memory of first year Geology (filler subject) where diamonds were just like graphite except that the atoms were better organised, rather like a museum vs your granny’s attic;
  • growing salt and sugar crystals when my kids were small; and
  • seeing a film about how Watson and Crick unethically took Rosalind Franklin’s X-rays of DNA, to help them to an understanding of the structure of DNA that won them the Nobel prize for Physiology/Medicine in 1962.

But, hey, it was free event, so we went to have a look, and found out that crystallography is much more than that!  Crystallography is involved in studying processes as diverse as proteins in the human body, pharmaceuticals, food technology, agricultural technology, mining, and information sent back from Mars (more on that later) and many others.

How can tiny crystals and even atoms be seen, and how are the pictures useful? In the lecture hall the basics were explained in very simple and concrete ways.   As we age, we find that we need bright light and  lenses to see more clearly.  The Synchrotron makes an extreme light source  to be directed at the compound being studied, and the scatter patterns will explain how the molecules are put together.

The experiments can also tell quickly how to alter those compounds for more effective manufacturing and development. eg targeting cancer treatment to tumours only, not the surrounding healthy cells; making bio-plastics from waste bloodmeal, or a type of ecologically-friendly concrete from fly-ash left over in coal-fired power stations and slag from iron smelting.  Um, different experiments and different beamlines.   But can you picture the headlines when they invent a compound that handles all these?

The light source is up to a million times brighter than the sun.  That would fry our eggs nicely, I should think.  It wasn’t quite explained  (not from the national grid, I reckon) how the energy source is pumped into the linac (circled part).  At various points, microwaves add to the power so that the electrons reach 99 point something % of the speed of light.  Large magnets keep the electrons curving round, as they would travel in straight lines otherwise. Light is tapped off as needed into one or more of the nine beamlines for the experiments.

Experiments are run 24/7 by academics from all over the world, according to a merit-based application process.  Industry can source the Synchrotron more easily, for a fee.

We heard two of the researchers talk about their projects.   The first researcher studies how the  protein plasminogen digests blood clots inside the body.  Obviously, plasminogen cannot be free to digest things all the time, and it is combined with other protein parts until the moment of need, when yet another protein split the bonds and allow plasminogen loose to do its work.  The graphics looked like beginner knitting, and it’s amazing they made sense to someone.

The second researcher gave us a fascinating insight into the exploration on Mars.  In 2006, a new group of minerals called jarosites were discovered. Jarosites form in a wet environment but break down quickly if water persists.  When the Mars Exploration Rover “Opportunity”discovered jarosites, there was great interest.  Evidently there was water on Mars at some stage, and NASA’s main focus now is to look for signs of life in the sedimentary clays of the Martian lake where the rover “Curiosity” and its crystallography instrument is now parked.

The practical earth-based implications for jarosites are eg in zinc smelting, where forming jarosites as early as possible will trap the iron impurities, leaving a clean zinc product.  Conversely, the formation of jarosites in bio-leaching of mine dumps will prevent the microbes from working effectively, and crystallography helps show which of the processes to halt, and what temperatures, timings, pressures and pH to use.

Outside the lecture hall, PhDs who looked as if they had left school last month stood at tables to discuss the latest developments in which they are involved – metals with shape memory (ie they can revert to their original annealed shape at the set temperature), improving battery size and memory, and showing lattice structure of minerals.

The highlight of the event was a guided tour through the main Synchrotron building. One of the beamlines shoots across to the medical imaging building on the other side of the parking area (underground, luckily, otherwise we could have had an unexpected x-ray when we arrived) , and that wasn’t part of the tour.

Approaching the main Synchrotron building

Approaching the main Synchrotron building

Inside the Synchrotron

Inside the Synchrotron

synch 7 synch 8

The main building is about the size of the Melbourne Cricket Grounds, and the concrete for its floor was cast in a single pouring, since it has to be utterly stable.  That must have been some orchestration!

The literature we received mentioned that wine scientists have also used the Synchrotron to study tannins in wine.  The size and shape of tannins affects the taste of wine, and alters according to the affect of other compounds present or missing in wine.  I suspect that this will help them standardise wine in future – but will that be as much fun as anticipating a new experience each time one pops the cork?

They could have started with the wine on our floor last night, which uncannily had yet another synchrotronic pattern on it:



We didn’t stop to eat at the cafeteria, the Kitchen Synch, so I don’t know if they serve wine and chocolate.  Probably reminds them too much of lab chemicals….

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The Long Tale of the Long Drops

Eureka Tower, Melbourne

Eureka Tower, Melbourne

A quiz question on TV yesterday was, “Which was the tallest  structure in the world until 1311?”   The answer is obviously the Great Pyramid at Giza (139m) but what happened in 1311?

That was the completion of Lincoln Cathedral , though some people dispute its supposed height of almost 160 m.  We cannot measure it ourselves, since the tower fell down in a storm in 1548.  First point to the Egyptians, since the pyramid is still standing after more than 4000 years.

Of the list of the world’s tallest churches, number 4 is one I recognised and had visited: Cologne Cathedral, or Kölner Dom.  It’s just topped by a church in Yamoussoukro, Cote d’Ivoire…which I find hard to believe, but impressive if true.  (By the look of the one in Africa, I’m guessing it would hold all the country’s churchgoers in one go, plus a few atheists.)

The Cologne Dom was begun in 1248 and rose to 157.4m by 1880, to become the tallest building in the world for four years.  And then the pesky Ulm Minster fudged its plans so that its short spires went above the Cologne spires.

The Dom was not too badly damaged during the bombing of Cologne in World War II.  Do the Catholics get a point here for indestructible holiness?   Well, maybe, but apparently it was such a useful landmark to the British planes that they left it standing on purpose, or so they say now.  So perhaps the point should be shared with the bombers.

In 1986, I climbed to the Cologne  Dom viewing place, 98 m above ground, up a small winding staircase.  No elevators for the tourists; I guess the good Catholics are raised by the Holy Spirit.  It provided a great view over Cologne and the Rhine.

We enjoyed another great view of Cologne at the same time by going up a then-modern skyscraper to an official viewing platform.  I can’t remember the name, nor find it via Google as many other taller buildings do a better job these days in Cologne, and our tower is no longer part of the records.  However it was not that much higher, if I recall, than the Dom – which is stunning to realise, since the church was started in the 13th century.  In fact, when the plans were drawn up, the builders had no idea of how they could possibly complete the building, so 1 point goes to the architects.  Wikipedia tells me that the church was completed in 1880, but I distinctly remember the priest with the donations box telling us in 1986 that it was not completed yet (perhaps they are raising funds for a 4 m extension on their spire to overtake Ulm Minster).

Right, what does this all have to do with being in Australia?   This week I went up the Eureka Tower in Melbourne, and it was a great deal taller than 98 m of the Dom viewing platform.  The Sky Tower in Auckland, where I went in 2012, is for the time being the tallest building in the Southern Hemisphere at 328 m (1 point to New Zealand), but the lower viewing deck is 186 m and the upper deck is 194 m high.  The Eureka tower has its viewing deck at 285 m, the tallest viewing level, though the building’s height is “only” 297.3 m.  The Eureka Tower probably wins that round.

For now.  Shortly Australia 108 will rise 22 m higher than the Eureka Tower, also in Melbourne but by 2018, an even taller tower will be completed in South Africa… in Centurion,  of all places!  (Paarl was second choice, just kidding).   Otherwise the list of tall buildings is remarkably heavily weighted in favour of the northern hemisphere.

It was Trevor’s 50th birthday, so this was a special trip.  We went up 88 floors (in 38 seconds) and took pictures all round Melbourne through the thick glass, and even walked on to the outdoor balcony – rather windswept, but behind thick mesh.  Here are a few shots of the landmarks I know by name –

  • the MCG;
  • Flinders St Station, ie the terminus if we come into town by train, opposite Federation Square and ACMI (the Australian Centre for the Moving Image that takes up most of Fed Square);
  • Melbourne Opera and the Arts Centre with its strange fish netting and the tower that was set alight by fireworks on New Year’s Even 2011;
  • and finally the lovely flower clock (which is actually microscopically present in the Art Centre picture, if you know where to look.  Yay for my wonderful zoom lens)
Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG)

Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG)

eureka 5a

eureka 4

Arts Centre and Opera House.  (Sydney wins!)


Flower Clock

Flower Clock

Then we started egging each other on to go on the Edge with Carly.   The Edge is a frosted cube that moves slowly outside the building at 285 m and then suddenly clears, leaving one with an unimpeded view of the city (see here for a wobbling video taken from the outdoor balcony and here for a better  one of the whole experience.)  You are not supposed to go on the Edge if you have claustrophobia, fear of heights, heart ailments or are startled by unexpected noises.

The cube at The Edge, taken from the outdoor balcony at 285m

The cube at The Edge, taken from the outdoor balcony at 285m

It was something I’d had no intention of ever doing, but out of the goodness of my heart (to make Trevor feel he’d really achieved something on his birthday) I forced him not to back out and said I’d go with him.   I told him how illogical it was that anything bad would happen, that it was just our ancient biology that told us being up in the air was a bad plan, and that in the history of the world, no one had ever died falling from a viewing platform.

I even offered to pay (do I get a bonus point?) and stood in line to do that.  That’s when the great arm of Eskom reached over to Melbourne and turned off the power.   Funny enough, the issue on my mind was not that the Edge cube wouldn’t move out (or in!) during a power cut, but that they couldn’t sell me the tickets with the computers off.  Nor a cup of coffee during the long wait.

Some instinct of self preservation inspired me to ask if the lifts were still working.  Yes, they were on a different electrical system, and at the moment, another bunch of tourists was disgorged to the viewing platform.   Knowing that we could still exit the tower, we sat patiently waiting for the computer power to come back on.  And then the great god Eskom took another look and turned the lifts off too, and we had an announcement that the whole of Melbourne’s South Bank was powerless.

It’s an uncanny feeling being up in the clouds with no power, above the cellphone towers where you can’t even get a help message out.  The stairs were cordoned off, but we imagined we would be trudging down there eventually when everyone came to their senses.   Apparently some people do it for fun anyway.

Eureka stairs

Eureka stairs.  We reckoned down would be faster, even for us

We walked round the viewing platform again while waiting.  Here’s a picture of the Westgate Bridge at the back of the building – leading to Geelong and the west, and the back road to the airport for those who refuse to pay the Tullamarine e-toll.

Westgate Bridge

Westgate Bridge

There was also the southbound ferry for Tasmania – many ways to escape Melbourne if one was only on the ground.

Spirit of Tasmania

Spirit of Tasmania

Independently, Trevor and I both started thinking about 9/11 and people jumping off the Twin Towers.   How uncanny is that.  And there is nothing like testing your ability to go into a tiny space alone than going into a totally dark toilet in a strange place.

The staff worked hard to detach the airlock doors so that the people on the balcony could get back inside….

Electric door problem

Electric door problem

…while one passed the time by cleaning windows on the inside. Oh, for the real thing, look at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mNUWyoo3pkY

Window cleaner

Window cleaner

After about an hour, the power came back on, and like idiots, we bought those Edge tickets.  We just pressed forward with the plan, and it was only when we were actually inside the cube, no escape, that the bad thoughts finally set in.  If there is one power cut when previously it was thought impossible, why not two?

The cube edged out, screeching greatly (uh oh).  It stopped and I wiped my sweaty palms on my jeans.  And then the frosted glass cleared and flippin’ hell, we were suspended in space without a parachute.  No thought any more of the thickness of the glass and the up-till-now clean safety record.  All I could think of was the unreliability of the South Bank power and how I could not possibly spend even an extra second in this box after the 5 minutes I’d paid for.   And then the sound effects started – thunder and lightning and shaking (perhaps an earthquake simulation, we couldn’t decide).

Adrenalin is a wonderful hormone when running from lions, but not 285 m up, stuck inside a small clear box.    I was still shaky the next day.  I think this experience has shortened my life by at least a month.

I was proud of myself for surviving it without banging on the door begging to be let out (the precedent was already set at Ratanga Junction, when they stopped the ride to let me off, back in 2000).     All remaining points to me!

Hold on, the next morning a friend posted pictures of herself up in the Sky Tree in Tokyo at 451.2 m.  Game, set and match to her – she is out of my league.  I’ve reached my ceiling.





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The all-edible pumpkin

Promising pumpkin

Promising pumpkin plant

We had a pumpkin, or perhaps a butternut, come up by itself in the vegetable garden. Like many puppies, it started off really cute and small.  I was thinking of free food: pumpkin fritters or butternut soup down the line.  Then, like many puppies, it grew and grew and started destroying the vegie garden and trying to escape over the fence.

First it overshadowed the baby spinach and then took over the Brussels sprouts and was heading for the tomatoes, garlic, cucumbers and beans.  It was a triffid pumpkin.   I remembered that I don’t like pumpkin much, especially ONLY pumpkin, so I pulled it out.

It was covered in pretty flowers and even a few tiny fruit, so I looked up “cooking with pumpkin flowers” and discovered  pumpkin “spinach” with the small leaves and flowers.

The demonstration video was bizarre, as the man was shown cutting the leaves from the garden, then stripping off the strings from the stalks and leaf ribs (rather as we had to string green beans in the bad old days, but on all sides).  But when he cooked the leaves he used bottled crushed garlic “because it’s easier and life is all about making things easy.”   Wow, how hard is it to peel and crush a clove of garlic? He must have been exhausted after spending 10 minutes peeling pumpkin stalks.

Freshly picked

Freshly picked


Freshly chopped


Stir frying


Full of folate and colour

I didn’t bother to peel the stalks and leaves, and I didn’t throw away the stamens part of the flower as recommended.  Maybe that was a mistake.  It was certainly true that something in the dish was very bitter, but I couldn’t tease it out.  The fresh garlic part was rather nice,  though.

I’m reminded of my son coming home from nursery school 20 years ago, all excited because they had helped their teacher make pumpkin pie for Halloween.

“First you cut up the pumpkin and cook it with sugar and cinnabon [sic].  Then you mix butter with white powder to make pastry.  Then you put the pastry on top of the pumpkin and cook it in the oven. I HATE pumpkin.”

I hated pumpkin too when I was a kid.  Now I know that I don’t like pumpkin leaves.  So much for that.


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Skullduggery and Murder Packaged as Culture

Along the Yarra, in Melbourne, on the way to the Opera House

Along the Yarra, in Melbourne, on the way to the Opera House

The other evening we were at the opera.  Well, at the Opera House….though in fact Melbourne hides the dreaded O word by calling the building The Arts Centre.  The event was merely a talk about the forthcoming production of Tosca, and free tickets were posted on request, two per mailing-list member.

So we came in our droves.   The arts director gloated when the curtain rose, “We have a full house!”   Then he added, “It’s clearly a free event….”

The free hour was over quickly, but we had a treat – the two good arias by Tosca and her lover including the famous one as he  awaits execution.  How good is that, to get the best and skip the rest?  In addition, we were in the Stalls, 7 rows from the stage and in the middle (a saving of $249 x 2.)

We also heard from the director John Bell and the conductor Andrea Molino, in front of the gorgeous scenery of the first act. The set designer Michael Scott-Mitchell has  re-created the interior of the real church of Sant’Andrea della Valle in Rome, where Puccini placed the first act.  The set is at an angle to the audience, so that different parts of the audience see different things – unusual and entrancing.  We were not allowed to take photographs, so here is a shot stolen from elsewhere:

Yonghoon Lee as Cavaradossi, Alexia Voulgaridou as Tosca in Opera Australia's Tosca. Photo by Prudence Upton.

(Photo credit: Prudence Upton from the Opera Australia blog)

There was a slightly malicious chuckle that the set had to be enlarged for Melbourne after the Sydney run.  On our tour of the Melbourne Opera House some years ago, the tour guide commented, “There is only one opera house in Australia.  Sydney got the outside, Melbourne got the inside.”  One day I’ll see inside the Sydney Opera House too, and will also be able to chuckle at how small it is.

Apparently, Puccini took great care to sit at the real venues at 4 am (the time of the execution) and listen to the bells of Rome ringing at various distances, and he noted those sounds and volumes in the score.  He went to four different foundries to get bells cast for his performances and while his collaborator complained that the great expense hardly added to the effect as no one noticed, the issue of the relative sounds of the bells has bothered producers of the opera ever since.  This is another of these little traditions that have to be carried forward with pride, no matter how difficult.

Attention to detail abounds.  I was impressed that while the painting that plays a vital role in the plot faces away from the audience for the entire opera (in this production), it is actually a real picture.   We were afforded a peep, though other secrets were kept.

The setting is still in Italy, but the era has been changed from 1800 (during Napoleonic times) to 1943, and Tosca apparently does not jump this time (the conductor said he was recently in Rome and he saw that it would be rather difficult to kill oneself by leaping off the Castel Sant’Angelo as the original setting requires.)  How this version of the opera ends is a mystery to be solved by paying $59 to $249 per ticket later in the month, and then actually attending.

If opera isn’t your thing but you feel you should know something about it, here is a 9 minute outline of the plots of 11 operas, death tally 38 – listen fast.   I’m sure you have somehow heard at least one aria from each opera, without knowing it, but you won’t get any inkling of actual music while watching this video.   Sad, as that’s the one redeeming feature of opera, in my opinion, as it is usually too hard for me suspend disbelief at the plots and the middle-aged, large but apparently irresistible virgins.

Talking of glorious moments and tedious half hours, Anna Russell’s century-old precis of Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung gets you up to speed on that musical drama (yes, her precis is also in parts…. you’ll find the others).  The Ring Cycle is the famous 4-night-long opera, whose premise is rather like Lord of the Rings but with more singing and fewer hobbits.   No hobbits, in fact, and much, much, MUCH more singing.  No New Zealand and much more stage.  Ok, the similarity probably begins and ends with the evil ring, and the dwarf.

We said goodbye forever to our lovely expensive seats and walked back to the station under the full moon.

The Yarra under the full moon

The Yarra at night

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