Underground arias

“The aria, after all, is the soul of opera.”
— Richard Strauss

A phone call from my son sent me on a fact-finding expedition. We had spoken about an upcoming event in the limestone caves of Rockhampton, a north Queensland regional town. It was opera, a form of entertainment neither of us have fully explored before but one that intrigued us given the venue.

Keen to know more I headed to Google and discovered Brisbane Underground Opera. The company began in 2007 and perform not only in the caves but in abandoned buildings, mines, tunnels and airport hangers. An event was scheduled in my city in a heritage listed water reservoir. A place I had passed a week or so before on my Churches and Shrines walk. I bought a ticket.

The Springhill reservoirs, there were two I learnt, were not always covered by the odd-looking orange hut like structures that are there now. Built in the late 1800’s the set in-ground reservoirs provided water for the city of Brisbane  until 1962. Abandoned for nearly 50 years by almost everyone expect the homeless, misguided teenagers and possums, the site was reopened in 2014 by the Brisbane Underground Opera.  A most unlikely and extraordinary venue —once filled with water it is now filled with song and sound and joy. The space has been transformed and the experience is transformative.

One enters the chamber from above, down a rigged scaffold staircase. My first impression on entering this historical site was of wonder for the marvelous structure and architecture. The interior features columns and brick arches. A small stage in the centre provides a focal point. Clever lighting cast blue hues creating an interesting mood. Projected images of water bubbles cast upon the walls provided a reference to the history of the venue.

It’s an intimate setting, which allows the audience close access to the performers. I was the second row from the front, in the north wing, and could have reached out and touched the performers, so close was my seat. It is a theatre in the round design that works well. Performers adeptly played to the four sides and filled the space with their voices, sans microphones. As you’ve guessed there are no full-blown operas performed here with staging and sets, rather various arias. Let me not diminish the entertainment value and the clever use of minimal props to create stories for the audience. The cast had not only wonderful voices but also a keen sense of humour and delightful stage presence.

The performance I attended was a compilation of arias from a range of Operas and stage shows. Those featured included La Traviatta, Sweeny Todd, Carmen, Madame Butterfly, The Mikado, Phantom of the Opera and The Gondoliers. A good first time introduction I think. The surrounding brick walls, arches and tunnels provided arresting acoustics. A number of times I closed my eyes to shut out the visual input and absorb the elegance of being wrapped in sound.

This experience has not a convert to Opera made, though I would be keen to attend another event in the caves and an abandoned castle a short drive away. Carols in the reservoir sounds like something I’d like on my bucket list for this year too. The ambiance of a place adds much to the experience. The outstanding talent of the performers is something I can definitely appreciate.

Have you attended an event in an unlikely venue that has left a lingering memory?


Remembering and giving thanks

The bugle is sounded; it’s playing The Last Post.
The diggers spring to attention when they hear that mournful note.
They have two minutes silence.
You don’t hear a sound.
That’s in respect for the soldier in the ground.

The diggers wear a flower, the poppy is red
They throw it in the grave when a soldier he is dead.

Joe McSweeny – Soldier


War 1914

What a mug I have been
fighting in the war for the Queen
trying to dodge the enemy lead
jumping over the stinking dead.
Someone said you got good pay;
the mighty sum of four bob a day.

You chase the enemy day and night
strike me lucky, they give you a fright.
There are bursting shells of every type,
this goes on all the night.
I feel so crook and half fed,
I’d give a quid for a night in bed.
My legs are aching, my feet are sore
I have a toothache and a very sore jaw.

The Sergeant said, “In you go.”
The trenches is cold and covered in snow.
You shake and shiver to early morn
Out you hop, over the top, at the break of dawn.
Now the big guns boom and bark
they send big shells out in the dark.

Now the Diggers brave and true,
they hop over the top, same as you.
They fight the enemy, they were brave,
the hungry Digger without a shave.
Now they laugh and give a cheer
we would give a quid for an Aussie beer.

The soldier’s life it’s like being in hell
They take him out and give him a spell
They march him round and he is feeling fine
Seven days later, he is back in the line.

The Aussie boys are fighting machines,
They proved that by beating the enemy at the city of Messines,
In the trenches in Belgium and on the fields to the south
They Howitzer the enemy and bayoneted them out.

Now the war is over you can hear people say
‘Thanks to the Diggers, we will keep it that way’.

The bloke that wrote this was a backwoods kid
Everybody laughed at whatever he did.
Now he is old, his hair is grey
and if he was writing for money he would starve the next day.

Now you have heard my prattle and chatter,
No wonder I am as mad as a hatter.

Joe McSweeny

The bloke who wrote this was my great-grandfather.  A quiet and gentle man when I knew him.  He wrote a few ‘poems’ about his time in the war and while there are only several pages of notes and few words the essence, between the larrikin humour and the now political incorrectness, reveals a horror I hope never to face.

Lest we forget.

For peace of mind, focus on the small spaces in-between


The simple things bring lasting pleasure

Notice the small things. The rewards are inversely proportional.
Liz Vassey

Pausing the monkey mind was once a major priority for me. The constant chatter was deafening and debilitating. A wise woman shared with me a strategy; focus on the silence between the Oms in meditation.  It worked.  Those tiny spaces, for a breath, between the rhythmic chanting allowed my mind to rest and I eventually turned down and tuned out the monkey mind.

Today I see a great need to soothe nervous tension and anxiety, whether caused by work related stress or the result of too many responsibilities and expectations.  A great many people are being pulled into the eddy of chronic psychological dis-ease. Without discounting the support of professionals there may be a way we can help ourselves to resurface and recreate a more joyful life, using a similar strategy as described above. Instead, the attention would be on the small moments of joy between the larger grey periods.  Leader in the field of positive-psychology Marty Seligman, found that by consciously focusing our attention on what we want more of in life we increase our chance of getting it.  So turn your attention away from what you don’t want and see the things you do.  This is tough when you feel overwhelmed, on edge, lacking energy or can’t leave the house. So start small.

A posy of home-grown flowers from a friend, watching birds and animals in the wild (substitute garden), the soft ache of used muscles at the end of a long walk. These things bring me joy. As do following the path of a balloon as it rises into the sky until it is no longer visible or spotting a brightly coloured bush flower in a sea of green undergrowth as well as taking a moment to appreciate the magic of a giant tree soaring overhead while feeling the texture of its bark.  Filling the house with warm and soothing aromas on a cold, wet afternoon while baking cookies and brewing chai tea, the sound of a child’s laughter,  a smile from a stranger. These are the pauses in between.

Peace can be ours. We can rebuild joyful lives and it need cost nothing. Harmony can be restored. These things can be ours if we appreciate the many small moments in life. The first step is to notice. Notice where you focus most of your attention and refocus it if necessary.

My plans went awry today and it was great!

“Walk as if you are kissing the Earth with your feet.”
― Thich Nhat Hanh

Wilderness places and the natural world are antidotes for an anxious mind and tired body. I went for a drive today.  It was longer than expected ― the way was blocked by a landslide close to my destination. I rerouted, the long way, and after more hours than intended I arrived high up in the hinterland where a cool breeze whispered around my body and danced in my hair.

I set out with the intention of shrugging off months of overwork and brain drain on a 17 kilometre walk. Alas, it was not to be. The track was closed due to recent weather events and was unsafe. This was not shaping up to be the day or the soothing balm I had intended. Not to be deterred I opted for a much shorter though highly picturesque walk and drank in the gifts around me.


Making Modernism and me

Art has the power to transform, to illuminate, to educate, inspire and motivate. Harvey Fierstein

I have to confess, the majority of my favourite artists are men. Is it because there are fewer female artists or is it, as is the case with sport, that female artist have not enjoyed the same exposure as male artists or is it simply a gross carelessness on my part not to delve deeper and wider? Perhaps a combination of all three. The work of performance artist Marina Abramović, painter Margaret Ollie, sculptor Louise Joséphine Bourgeois move me. I am surrounded by female artists, many colleagues and friends are fine artists, sculptors, glass blowers, performers and I own art work by female artists. Yet, male artists seem to gain much space on gallery walls, in print and media. So I was excited, though unsure of what I would see, when I went along to the most recent exhibition at the Queensland Art Gallery. Making Modernism is a combined exhibit of works by three female artists – Margaret Preston, Georgia O’Keeffe and Grace Cossington Smith.

Preston and Cossington Smith are Australian and O’Keeffe, American. The gallery space was intimate yet displayed a generous number of works by each artist making for a unique and pleasing experience.

I felt an immediate affinity with Preston and a familiarity with her work that I realised came from having explored the same places, tended the same flowers and photographed the same bush flora she depicts in her art. I was propelled back to a childhood home that had tongue in groove walls when admiring a still life, I knew the texture of the wild flowers and banksias, and I was surprised to see a painting titled White and Red Hibiscus dated 1925. I recently discovered a white hibiscus plant, a colour so rare, even my grandmother, an avid gardener had never seen.

I felt a comfort in viewing her work.  It is immediately very Australian, not only in the subject matter but the restricted colour palette which closely resembles the colours chosen by indigenous Australian artists. Her woodcuts are absorbing, her still lifes strong and potent.

Moving into the space reserved for Cossington Smith’s work I was taken from a tryst in nature to a celebration of the urban environment. Her work is post impressionistic. Her use of colour is energetic and elicits emotion. On seeing The Curve of the Bridge and The Bridge in Building I recalled Ashley Hay’s The Body in the Clouds, a novel that explores three intertwined stories from different times on the site where the Sydney Harbour Bridge was built.

Standing back and surveying the works there are a strong reflections of Van Gogh and Cezanne in a distinctly Australian setting. The effect was transformative and surreal.

The landscapes of New Mexico, Colorado and Arizona fascinate me. I wish to explore and roam those places. A short time with Georgia O’Keeffe’s work strengthened that desire. I felt a strong connection with her,  not through a familiarity of setting as it was with Preston but sensing a shared love of and affinity with nature. O’Keeffe, like me, was pulled by nature. Her landscapes are expansive, luminous and evocative of place. Her flowers bring us in intimate closeness with nature. Having a habit of narrowing in with the camera I enjoyed Canna Leaves and Corn No 2 for the detail. I responded quite emotionally to many of her works. The flowers were pleasing, Pelvis a stark, compelling portal and Black Place, Grey and Pink caused a fleeting, wrenching despair, I felt drawn into the void.

Three distinctive styles, three incredible women, three strong artists.  This was an enriching exhibition, well worth a visit.