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The Scrivener: Centuries Of Magic

In this sprightly end-of-year column the inimitable Brian Barratt waltzes from cricket to opera, and opera to cricket.

It's something of an annual ritual to attend the opening day of the cricket test match known as the Boxing Day Test at the MCG (Melbourne Cricket Ground). The MCG, the oldest and largest cricket stadium in the world, can accommodate up to around 100,000 spectators. Yesterday, Boxing Day 2011, about 70,000 were in the crowd. That might seem a lot, but it represents only about 1.75% of the population of Melbourne. However, millions more in Australia, India and round the world were probably watching, too. On TV, of course.

70,000? Let's go back a few years. Long before TV arrived on the scene, one of the most celebrated singers in the history of opera gave a series of concerts in Melbourne and Sydney. They were attended by about 70,000 people. The year was 1922. The singer was Australian born Helen Porter Mitchell who adopted the stage name Nellie Melba to honour the city of her birth. At that time, 70,000 comprised roughly 3% to 4% of the combined population of the two cities. So it looks as if cricket has overtaken opera in popularity. Perhaps Sachin Tendulkar has more appeal now than Dame Nellie Melba.

Melba sang in some of the great opera houses of the world, often with Enrico Caruso at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. In 1920 she sang the lead role in Verdi's 'La Traviata' at the Prague State Opera Theatre. That beautiful theatre was built in 1888 which, by the way, was 34 years after the first grandstand of the MCG was built in Melbourne. We all have our priorities, eh?

But why am I prattling away about Dame Nellie Melba and Prague, the day after Boxing Day? Well, I know a bit more about opera than I do about cricket and yesterday two old friends were telling me fascinating yarns about their recent holiday overseas. They spent time in some wonderful cities including Edinburgh, Vienna, Budapest and Prague. They went to a performance of Verdi's 'La Traviata' at... you guessed... the State Opera Theatre in Prague. I drooled — with joy and just a little envy — when they told me about that.

Mind you, I did go to an opera and a ballet at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, about 50 years ago, so I have been to one of the great opera houses of the world. Just to be in the building was a thrill. True, I've seen many operas performed at the lovely State Theatre in the Melbourne Arts Centre, which claims to have one of the largest stages in the world. Going by the specifications on the Arts Centre website, the claim seems to be justified. But that doesn't make it one of the world's 'great' opera houses.

In my daydreams, I long to visit Teatro alla Scala — La Scala Opera House, Milan — the greatest of them all... and Palais Garnier, the home of Opιra National de Paris... and the National Theatre, Munich, home of the Bayerische Staatsoper. Not only to see the splendid auditoriums and the performances but also to be shown the stage machinery: the flies, wings, revolving stages, lifts, platforms, lighting equipment, all of which help to create magic on the stage.

In contrast to those glorious places, there's the Drottningholm Court Theatre at Stockholm. Built in the 1700s, it fell into a state of neglect and disrepair until it was refurbished in the 1920s. All the old stage machinery, hand operated, was restored. The only compromise with the 20th century was the installation of electric lighting, for obvious safety reasons. It is a tiny, noisy theatre where musicians as well as singers wear 18th century costume and the audience applauds when the old machinery is used, for example, to lower the three boys down from the sky in Mozart's 'The Magic Flute'.

My friends' story of visiting the opera house in Prague rekindled this line of thought. The Boxing Day test match got me thinking about how many people attend events. And somehow Dame Nellie Melba brought it all together. But, if you'll excuse me, I must go now and leave you to sort it out. I have to check something else — did Sachin Tendulkar score his 100th international century?

© Copyright Brian Barratt 2011


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