Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Tegel to Tripou

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So here I am in Paris, France, after my second splendid Air Berlin flight of the month. For one who dislikes flying (and especially airports) so much, I have to say this was almost fun. Taxi to Tegel (12 euros), swift check-in, no hassle – just an agreeable bodysearch -- at the no-queues security block, delightful flight of 1h30, luggage in 5 minutes at Orly, and a delightful very black taxi driver (with a broader accent in French than mine!) who zoomed me to the Café Chineur, Paris 14eme – for a measly 23 euros – in spite of a busy motorway. Four hours from door to door.

I am not a tourist in Paris. Just a visitor. I don’t have to go out frantically looking at things, because I’ve seen them all before, as recently as 12 months ago. I just live my ordinary life here, writing, reading and particularly – since this is France – eating.
So, Day One, I curled up amongst the stacks of music and books at the Paris equivalent of the Operetta Research Centre, Berlin, with this little machine, and whilst Christophe devoted himself to composing the last of the music for his new show (which goes into rehearsal any day now!), I wi-fied happily away at all the work I hadn’t been able to do on the ship.



Come eventide, however, the serious business of the day begins. Food. I’d been saving myself up for my first night in Paris … for a certain little bistro not more than a couple of hundred metres from here where they serve the kind of Real French Food than I adore. Tripoux, andouilettes, saucisse d’auvergne… Tragedy! It was Sunday and La Chopotte with its ‘cuisine du terroir’ was closed. I had to wait a whole 24 hours. But it was worth the wait.
I dined last night on the most delicious tripou (and I am a conoisseur) with crisp green beans and snow peas, I nibbled at Pierre’s andouilette and at Christophe’s Saucisse … and somehow two bottles of an interesting Beaujolais of which I failed to note the name went from full to empty. I’ve had some good meals since I left New Zealand, from Santo to Noro to Maastricht and Kevin’s kitchen, but I can tell you, this was my FAVOURITE meal of the past three and a bit months.




If you are in the 14eme arrondissement of Paris, and you want to eat French food made the way it was when French food was the most famous in the world, try La Chopotte, 168 Rue Alésia, right by the Plaisance metro station. You'll thank me!

Its 11.30am. Christophe and Pierre are at work, and Jean-Baptiste is on the otherside of town making himself uninfectious, after a hellish bout of flu, in preparation for my arrival tomorrow. So I’m solo. And, though I don’t normally do lunch, its too much for any man to sit here when at 200 metres … dammit, I’m off back to La Chopotte.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Typische Berliner...?

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A committe of blogreaders has cast doubt on my motorscootering exploits. We had intended to get an action photo to include here, but its kind of difficult when you are both on board at the same time. So this was the best we could manage. The bike couldn't get up the five flights of stairs to the Operetta Research Centre, so we just brought the Helmet, for what I'm assured is a typischer Berliner foto. You are allowed to comment.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Schneller und schneller

Höchste Eisenbahn was sandwiched between dinner en famille with Cédric, Sandra and the children, and a very enjoyable post-show beer in a ‘gentlemen’s bar’, Heile Welt, just off the Nollendorfplatz. I don’t think I have ever spent more than five minutes in a so-called gay bar. ‘Not my scene’ I always insisted. Well, there are bars and bars and this one is an elegant and comfortable winner. Made to order for a reserved gentleman like me. Even the background (?) music was at a penetratable level. You should have seen me – sixty-three and 1 metre 78 – perched on a bar stool surrounded by Horst, Carl and Kevin – all decades younger, fifteen to twenty centimetres taller, and dishy and delightful to boot ... well, who wouldn’t feel that life was pretty agreeable? The beer was good too.

The Producers was prefaced by my debut on the U-Bahn. I am a tragic traveller. ‘Unaccustomed as I am to public transport’ should be my devise. Or ‘World champion of misorienteering’. Given two options I will inevitably go the wrong way. Or get off at the wrong stop. But I did it. On my ear. Bus-change-tube-change-tube. Because it’s all so brilliantly labelled and announced (and clean and punctual and etc) that even I couldn’t go wrong.
My reason for daring bus and underground train was a morning tea date with … yes! no less a vedette than Montmorensy: Earl Grey and (excellent) carrot cake on a shabby square called the Rosenthaler Platz, at the selfsame Café Sankt Oberholz immortalised by the said star in song the other night. It was like sipping coffee with Edith Piaf at Pigalle. Well, maybe not quite … perhaps Jacques Brel in the Port of Amsterdam?

The Producers didn’t come down until after 11pm (I said it was too long, didn’t I? ), but of course here one doesn’t go home after the theatre. Kevin, Geerd and I adjourned to the Schiffbauerdamm where wrapped in blankets (them) under the blaze of a gas lantern, we sipped black beer and nibbled bruschetta, and gossiped about opera and musicals and the other things gentlemen chat about, until 1am was only a memory.

I’ve certainly got around in Berlin, haven’t I? From opera and Operette to basement revue and the Broadway musical, from fashionable night spots to riverside cafés, via motor-scooter pillion, chauffered limo and even the U-Bahn…
But best of all, what a grand bunch of people I‘ve met …
Until next year, Berlin?

Lauter und lauter

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Friday’s show was all theatre, and wholly professional: a German version of the American musical The Producers. Years ago, I saw the original non-musical movie, which I found hilarious, and more recently the film of the musical which I thought dumbed-down and even distasteful. The stage musical is much better than the film musical but it’s a different shower of sequins to the Mostel/Wilder version. The very special humour of that original has been replaced by a concoction of all that is traditionally, or rather was, an undefined number of years ago, thought of as ‘Broadway’, flung together colourfully, busily, obviously, loudly (oh, so excruciatingly loudly), sometimes funnily, occasionally very funnily, eschewing any attempt at subtlety in what I would call a photofit ‘coach party musical’.
Its too long, too talky in act one, too drawn out in act two, it has several ‘dead’ numbers which should have been cut years ago, and one of the worst routines I’ve ever seen (‘Mach’ es warm’ aka ‘Keep it gay’) on the musical stage. It is also – at the Admiralspalast – far, far, far too loud, but it is impossible to dislike it. It bounces brashly along, doing its thing – sometimes a burlesque of ‘Broadway’, sometimes one of those shows that professes to burlesque in order to imitate – and it bounces you along with it.
All this brash bouncing was thoroughly aided by a decidedly well-chosen cast, headed by the ebullient Cornelius Obonya as Zero Mostel. It’s a superb piece of casting. He can sing, he can dance and he can pratfall, he is enormously Jewishly-funny, and he captures the admittedly not very three-dimensional character of producer Bialystock to the tee. I can’t imagine anyone playing the part, as here written, better. He actually pushed my Mostel memories out the back of my head for two hours, something I didn’t think was possible.



Andreas Bieber in the overwritten-up role of Bloom has a harder job and although he, too, sings, dances and acts vigorously and capably, he can’t start to exorcise Gene Wilder, nor to shine with the special originality shown by Herbert Steinböck as the crazed Nazi author, Franz. Franz’s rooftop paean to Adolf Elizabeth Hitler, with inspired pigeon accompaniment, was to me the best moment of the evening, and I desperately wanted it to be he who went on the play the role of Hitler in the show within the show. Alas (and I say no more), it wasn’t.



The stock Swedish sexbomb (the show’s only female) was played to perfection by Bettina Mönch, whose best attribute (even including her legs) was that she seemed to be the only person on stage not shouting. And was all the funnier for it.
The production numbers are a bundle of glittering ‘Broadway’ clichés and, much to my surprise, my favourite was the ‘ballet’ of Little Old Ladies with Zimmer-frames (and the Parcae!) which I had found so repulsive in the movie. Here it was athletic and witty and not at all offensive. None of which could be said for ‘Keep it gay’.



So, all in all, a long, loud, colourful, lively evening. If they have coach parties in Germany, I’m sure it will be a hit. Slightly deaf coach parties for preference.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Höchste und höchste

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My time in Berlin is coming to an end, but I reckon I’m winding it up rather than down. A show on Thursday, a show on Friday, pre-show dinner and post-show drinks on Thursday, morning tea with my star of the moment on Friday, the whole punctuated by midnight motor-scooter rides across Berlin and my daring discovery of the Berlin U-Bahn.

Thursday’s show was a little gem. It was also mightily frustrating. For the first time in my German-language theatre-going I really missed not being able to understand properly. For this was a show which very much needs all of its words heard. Höchste Eisenbahn (‘It’s high time ..’) is a genuine 1932 satirical and comical Berlin Kabarettrevue (forget Liza Minelli, this is the real thing), written and composed by Friedrich Holländer of Blue Angel (etc) fame. It has been reassembled from the original material, is recreated here by a group of just six un-miked performers (instead of the original 14) who make up a semi-professional group called artdeshauses and, thanks to a Maecenas, it is being played in a fifty-seater room in the basement of an Unter den Linden bookshop. It deserves a much more prominent (if not too much larger) venue.



The performers sketched and sang a variegated collection of odd, to say the least, train-travellers with great gusto and although none of them could be called a singer, they (and a hard-working pianist plus two) put across Hollander’s tuneful and pointed ditties to fine if occasionally aurally shocking effect. I particularly liked the group numbers – a sketch in which a lovey-dovey pair of Just Married travellers drive their worldly-wise compartment mates to distraction and finally suicide, a song-and-dance routine about all the things that are ‘verboten’ on the railway, a trio of ditsy grass widows (‘Strohwitwe’) debating the merits of virtue during their husbands’ entrained absence, the on-the-platform attempt on the virtue of innocent out-of-town Agathe (with a top Q sharp which should have been a Z flat) by a fake Russian countess, and a splendid closer in which a group of caricatured English tourists and another of Saxon travellers find an entente cordiale, and the word Anglo-Saxon, in a hopeful and positive finale to the show. You see? I got the gist, but I missed the words and I wanted very much to get the words. Which is probably why the pointed solo numbers (including ‘Notbremse’, the song of the lady with an irresistible urge to pull the emergency cord) worked less well for me. Which was frustrating.




Anyway – just as in the case of the 1920s revue revived with Diana Martin and Graham Hoadly 20 odd years ago at London’s King’s Head -- I found the whole enterprise a delicious success, and wonder why we can’t have more revivals of material from this era and this style of semi-theatre.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

I'll take that poodle, please ...

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My Berliner cavalcade continues, and I’m still standing (when I’m not zooming around the city on the back of Kevin’s moto) thanks to a brief but now ended reduction in activity. Last night it was all stops out again, as I was plunged back into the city bright lights and theatrical life with a first night at Tipi, the larger and unmirrored tent-sister of the Bar jeder Venunft.



The show was Die Geschwister Pfister in the Clinic, and all I knew about it was that it was comical, musical and that Kevin has been talking enthusiastically to me about this group of players for years. I think I was vaguely expecting some kind of a musical play, but that’s not what the Geschwister Pfister is all about. The company are three -- one male (Toni), one female (Frln Schneider) and one androgynous (Ursli) – and they are less a company than an act. A singing act (and a very agreeable one) and a comic act, in the purest 20th century music-hall tradition. The ‘Clinic’ bit of the title is irrelevant: there is no story, just a little bit of intermittent characterisation on which to hang a selection of almost all English-language songs, well-known and unknown, and regular slices of banter, dressed up in some delightfully silly costumes and props, and punctuated by some simple but effective dance steps. Russ Abbott meets Abba.
The banter was often outside my comprehension, but when you have jokes about Boris Becker, the Schumacher brothers, Britney Spears, Sarah Ferguson (still!) and the like, you know what sort of country you are in. Actually, I was amazed just how much I did understand. Toni is extremely comprehensible and I could follow him more than half the time. Ursli speaks in a concatenation of tongues, mostly German and American, and of accents, and I could follow him a little less than half the time.
But it’s all immaterial. The Geschwister Pfister, whatever they do, exist to be their uncomplicatedly madcap selves -- three distinct personalities, three distinct talents, sometimes separate, sometimes a well-practised and well-oiled team – and how much you enjoy their act depends solely on how much you enjoy each and all of those personalities and talents.
Did I enjoy them? Yes. Some bits more than others. Toni – who you think is going to be the straight man, but who is far more multi-talented than that – is my kind of performer. A really smashing singing voice, warm personality, great timing and the ability to melt into a third of a trio when necessary. Frln Schneider also sings well, though I thought her jazzy repertoire didn’t show her off to best advantage, and she is evidently a grand comic talent. She got the biggest audience reaction of the night for her stand-up piece of which, alas, I only took in the physical side. And then there is Ursli. And here I got a bit stuck. He sings well enough, and he looks like a jolly lad, but having lived through (and/or worked with) Michael Aspinall, Danny LaRue, Charles Pierce, Hinge and Brackett and the like, I’m a wee bit tired of blokes in frocks doing a very broad Hedy Lamarr cum Lucille Ball act. And if you are going to do it, you have to do it better or with more originality than anyone else. But this is just me: this young man is a well-known and celebrated performer with heaps of enthusiastic fans (including Kevin), and I and the man who sat next to me last night may very well be the only people in Berlin who don’t care a lot for the on-stage persona he wears.
The evening wound to its climax with Frln Schneider svelte in a natty kitten suit, Toni bouffed up as a comical black poodle and Ursli metamorphosed into some hilariously imagined feline or canine with a vast tail and naked thighs, joining merrily in three-part mid-20th-century harmony. It was all good fun, good silly fun, good musical fun and all around me everyone (except my neighbour) was having a rousingly good time. It was like being back in a friendlier and more intimate version of the London Palladium or the Blackpool Winter Gardens of my heyday …
and if I were still a talent agent/casting director, I’d be hotfoot after that poodle.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Full tilt up the Venusberg

Monday 11 May, and I’m getting my Berliner breath back.
Pheeeeeeeew!
You know all that talk about ‘how did I ever leave all this behind?’ Well, I’ll tell you how. Because I’m not 20, nor 30 nor even 60 years old any more, and the pace! The pace of big-city highlife, bright-life and theatre-life is a ten-carat killer. Last night, by 11pm I was (not literally, of course) on my knees.
Mind you it had been a simply enormous day. A lovely, green morning walk in the northern Berlin parks (Fliessthal, Tegeler Fliess) and woods (Tegeler Forst), a first-class lunch by the canal at Wedding where I tasted Sülze – with Czech beer! -- for the first (and definitely not the last) time, an hour wandering through the colourful Tiergarten fleamarket on the Strasse des 17 Juni which reminded me so much of the Nice Monday markets of my French years, and then … the opera. My ‘re-entry’ into the world of opera which once, for a few years, was my world too, with a production of Tannhäuser at the Deutsche Oper. My first visit to the opera in Germany, and also one of the few major Wagner operas I have never seen. I was a little apprehensive. Something ‘easier’, I thought, might have made a better pipe-reopener, but I worried unnecessarily. I enjoyed it enormously.
I liked the sparse, well-focused 1960s auditorium, I liked the theatre in fact altogether, I liked the fact that the ‘production’ was not one of those banal ‘look-at-me-mummy’ ones set in a gentleman’s lavatory on the moon, but more or less retained the author’s period and setting, and neither it nor the design intruded too much or too often on the actual and all-important dramatic and musical business of the evening. I also – the nitty gritty for me -- liked most of the singers, most particularly a glorious baritone by the name of Markus Brück in the role of Wolfram. After listening to his delicately beautiful Song to the Evening Star, I wondered how once, forty years ago, I had dared broadcast my own fortissimo rendering of the same piece. Kevin and I both howled our bass-baritone 'bravo's in his direction at the final curtain.



The Tannhäuser (Norwegian Ivar Gilhuus) was – if I understood the operatically inevitable pre-curtain cast-change announcement -- a replacement. I wonder whom he replaced, because I liked him a lot. He played the role on a 3-act crescendo of sound, saving his richest and ringingest moments for the dénouement. It is a shame that the designer condemned him to play his whole role in a grey pajama suit which looked particularly funny when he climbed out of ‘bed’ with the ‘naked’ Venus (a new kind of contraception perhaps?).
The roles of Venus and Elizabeth were both played by Nadja Michael. It is an understandable double, if the director succeeds in making the ‘two faces of woman’ point involved. This lady is attractive, slim, a fine actress and has a grand soprano voice. The others liked her Venus (hair down) better than her Elizabeth (hair up); I having no idea how either role is usually played, preferred her Elizabeth (she died magnificently), but somehow neither the Greeting nor the Prayer produced the big shiver I wanted.
In fact, my favourite musical moments came in the ensemble music, and most especially in the first-part male sextet (or is it officially a septet?), in spite of the fact that the evening’s principal bass sported a violent and woofy wobble, seemingly a good tone wide, that needed to be drowned in ten tons of gelatine.
But, for me, the singing was mostly splendid, and the choruses were simply superb.
So, on the whole, I came out of my operatic re-baptism decidedly pleased and happy. If there were more ‘uncampy’ stagings like this about, casts full of Markus Brücks and always choral and ensemble singing of such beauty, I could even be inveigled back into the opera house on a regular basis.
Three hours of opera (and an hour of intervals) took us through to 9pm and my biorhythms were starting to tremble. But it was Bert-Jan’s last night in town for the moment, so a post-opera dinner at the Café Florian was a sine qua non. I’m afraid I rather limped through my boulettes d’agneau and Pouilly-fusé (not cold enough) and was rather relieved to curl up in the back seat of Bert-Jan’s Chrysler and let myself be chauffeured sleepily back to Alt-Wittenau.
Next time I come to Berlin, I shall go into training for six months first.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Birthdays and Bullshit

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Well, my lively time in Berlin continues, and I’m trotting to keep with the pace as I whirl from one group of delightful new people to the next…
This week has featured two ‘family’ birthdays. On Tuesday it was Kevin’s sister, Sandra, and we celebrated with dinner at the luxurious headquarters of the Operetta Research Center, Berlin ... Sandra, husband Cédric, Maxime 11 and Leonie 7 and friend Silke .. and today, all over again, with a picnic for twenty-seven at the Tiergarten.








Thursday was, of course, Ian’s birthday. Were he still here, he would have been ninety. I don’t think he would have liked that much. But I think that he would have liked the fact that Kevin, Bert-Jan and I toasted his ninetieth at the Grill Royale, on the Banks of the Spree, in the sort of good white wine he always loved.
He might have been a wee bit cross to see me there solo, two and a half years on, but hey, my love, you are a pretty hard act to follow. And there are worse things than lonely.



On the ‘events’ side can be counted a visit to the Jewish Museum for an exhibition on the Nazi euthanasia programme, and another to the smaller theatre at the Admiralspalast for the first performance (here) of a piece called Ganz oder gar nicht. The former was by far the more pleasant experience. If those who had complained about ‘provincialism’ the other night at the Komische Oper had been at this premiere, they would have expired. Well, they would have walked out. I myself only stayed for the second half to keep Kevin (there officially) company and I squirmed every minute to the final curtain which is the only reason for the show’s existence. The thing pretends to be related to the film The Full Monty, but it lacks every ounce of the humanity and quality of the film, preferring instead to go for a crude, low, end-of-the-pier kind of 1950s ‘humour’ in what is simply a tacky ‘get-em-off’ relative of Ladies’ Night or Stepping Out. The performances and particularly the direction were on the level of the piece. Vulgar, unfunny, amateurish, and when – like I – you have a limited command of the language being spoken, you notice this all the more. I started counting the number of times ‘Scheisse’ was said, but gave up from boredom.
From the heights of the Bar jeder Vernunft, to the utter pits of this rubbish was a long way to fall. Ah well, heigh ho, it's Tannhäuser on Sunday. Whatever one thinks of Wagner, one knows where one is with him. At least not at the end of a mucky pier.

Between the birthdays and this ‘bullshit’, I’ve done the café and bar routine quite a bit. My German, alas, is not improving as it might have 30-40 years ago, so I’ve had plenty of time deafly to mull the quality of the local beer. The Grottebier of the Belgian-Dutch border is still in the lead, so my research will have to continue. My favourite foodie moment has come in a little restaurant named Weinstein, with a delicate dish of roasted rabbit washed down by German Riesling.
I’ve also fitted in a little bit of strolling: down the Kurfürstendamm to the Nollendorfplatz (Chris Isherwood territory), past several theatres of the present (the Theater des Westens has a new musical, a stage version of the hit film spoof Schuh des Manitu) and the past, to the Café Berio, alongside the late lamented Theater am Nollendorfplatz, and I am starting to get the feel of Berlin just a little. There’s no hurry …
I have the rest of my life.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

An attention-deficient goldfish in Berlin



‘Ah! quelle nuit’ as the famous French song went, à propos of something completely different…
My second night out in Berlin, and it rendered absolutely nothing to the first.
In fact, it was a direct consequence of the first.
At sometime during our small-hours revelry, Hannes suggested that we all come on the morrow to the tent (!!?) where he had recently been working, to look at a terrific new act. Yay! I am ready to say ‘yes’ to anything here. What was the act? An Australian singer-songwriter, by name Montmorensy, accompanied by a string quintet. Oh. yay. I come all the way from New Zealand to hear an Australian? yay. But I am ready to say ‘yes’ to anything here.
So, come the evening, we rolled up to the ‘tent’ in question. It is called the Bar jeder Vernunft (it took half an hour for me to understand the double meaning of this name, so I wont try to explain) and to call it a tent is like calling Michael Schumacher a motorist. It’s the sort of pleasure pavilion that one imagines in the Babylonian or the French empire, lined with endless warmly glowing mirrors and a bevy of reflections of reflected lights, stuffed with small tables and intimate chairs: a 220-seater bar-restaurant-venue of splendidly tongue-in-cheek outrageousness which has in its time (1994) famously hosted a production of White Horse Inn.
We were led to a front table (my knees were touching the platform), rolled out the soave and waited…





Two violins, a viola, a ‘cello and ... a horn. Not quite a string quintet, but a real proper-instrumental quintet. Fascinating. A laddie with frizzy hair. Surely that’s not him. No, he’s Damian, the back-up, along with a handsome dark lady. Fiora.
Here he is. Little, bespectacled, cherubic, cuddly-looking, a shy and maybe diffident smile. You have an urge to ruffle his hair. Seriously cute, even though it’s apparently Damian who was voted the sexiest backup singer in town in the gay press.
But, hey, I’m not here for that sort of appreciation. I’m hear to listen to words and music, to enjoy, and of course, from the force of more than thirty years of habit, to deliver my thoroughly serious and practical professional opinion.
A deep breath. Because my seriously professional past tells me that, for 99 out of 100
acts seen, that opinion is at best mitigated.
You know after less than half a song that Montmorensy belongs unchallengedly to the favoured one percent. This man with the endearing, come-into-my-confidence personality is, in the nicest meaning of the word, exceedingly clever. He’s a proper musician, not a key thwacker, unlike so many ‘entertainers’ he sings perfectly and effortlessly in tune, and his songwords and subjects are imaginative, zany, smart, and I have to use the word again, endearing, with a little special Montmorensian flavour all of their own. A sort of mixture of passion fruit, lychee and lime. With bubbles.
As one song follows another – a ‘Little Cloud’ song dedicated to Julie Andrews, the tragic cantata ‘Grass in Antarctica’, the delicious Nana waltz, a paean to a dishy German filmstar – you think, ‘oh I like that one best’ only to come round after the following one with ‘oh no, I like that one best…’
‘Wait’, whispers Hannes, ‘wait for the Goldfish’.
Goldfish? I’m like a goldfish, sitting at my ringside seat literally staring out the star of the evening with my mouth, at least figuratively, gaping. I can’t remember seeing an act as delicious as this since.. since .. well, since forever. I and my unreliable ears don’t want to miss a word. English, German or Australian.



We don’t get the Goldfish until part two. But Hannes is right. It is a perfect gem, this plaint of a little poisson rouge with an attention span of just three seconds which leads him into a serious identity crisis, a crisis which even pasting polaroid pictures of himself around the inside of his bowl (or is it a dish?) does nothing to dissolve. I filched the lyric sheet for the song, which was momentarily left close to the edge of the platform, so that I could quote it here. But I don’t need to. Montmorensy is not by any means unknown. Under his stage name and his real name (Paul Hankinson) he can be found on dozens of You tube items. The Goldfish in all its frenetically gurgling glory can be heard at:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hFCN4VlKA_I&feature=related

I think it’s the funniest new song I’ve hear since… since… but seeing Montmorensy deliver it live adds the finishing touch.
Complaints? Ummmm. Come on Kurt, there have to be some. There are always some. Well, one song was apparently a parody, but since I didn’t know the original on which it was a parody, I missed the joke. But the others didn’t. Another piece I wasn’t wholly sure if it were parody or serious. But serious isn’t Montmorensy’s speciality, so… Come on Kurt, something that’s his fault, not your own. OK. One number too many. Never take an umpteenth encore when the bladderful audience are on their ways to the door. Even when you’ve earned it. Encores are a serious art. But when you have as much art and as many arts as this young man, what’s one less? Phew. I thought I was getting seriously soft.
The evening ended, 220 bladders were duly emptied, and we curled up at our table with a little more soave. Vera-Ellen didn’t get a look in tonight, for our star joined us. And the evening which was now the night flowed on. Oliver and I had almost finished exchanging life stories when one o’clock struck (again! what am I doing?) and our carriage awaited in the spring drizzle…



Montmorensy. Someone needs to take him up. Make a society star of him. There has to be a sophisticated night-spot somewhere in the most highly civilised part of the world where he and his material could become all the rage. I wish I were still in a position to set a wheel in motion, but my day is past … come on you young fellows with a few million to invest. Make a star. There’s a very special potential one waiting here in Berlin.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Lustiger Mai!

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Berlin. It’s hard to realise I’m here. But I’m getting used to the idea. And enjoying myself decidedly!
Saturday, Kevin gave me my introduction to the city: a splendid tour partly on foot, but largely on the back of his motor-scooter. Now, I’m not very experienced on machines. When I was 16, a handsome young man who was playing Prince Hal to my Prince John in Henry IV Part I took me for a ride on his motor-bike in the quiet back streets of Christchurch, and then last year Ricky in Dumaguete rode me gently back along the buzzing coast road from my Most Memorable Massage to the Gazellebank: but my record with Kevin was not so hot. Two years ago he put me on a pushbike in Amsterdam and I fell of in the middle of the main road. This time, however, I seem to have got the knack (look, mum one hand!) and I must say seeing a city from a pillion rather than from inside a vehicle is a wonderful improvement.
We zoomed through the heteroclite areas of the city – the wonderful, well-restored buildings of ancient days, the Brandenburg Gate and all, the ghastly ‘Plattenbau’ apartment blocks of East Berlin, the ‘new’ post-war buildings of West Berlin, and the infinitely more recent and infinitely more glamorous new and renewed buildings of the former east. Amongst a welter of famous place names – Unter den Linden, the Potsdamer Platz --you pass the famous ‘traffic light’, once the hub of 1920s Berlin (and so often seen in the films of the era), you pass the fragment of wall remaining – it looks such an insignificant bit of stuff to have caused such a terrible piece of history. You are reminded of that history by the crosses to the memory of those 1960s folk who died in their attempts to scale it. The Wall will, like Adolf Hitler, always be there in German minds and German history, but the new Berlin is springing up everywhere. I feel I’m getting worryingly converted to modern architecture, but I was hugely impressed by the new swirling Sony Centre in particular, and I foresee more of the same swiftly taking over the area that was once the no-man’s land of Berlin, as well as the rest of the city.

No photos here. Taking photos from a pillion is not yet in my repertoire.

Sunday was a day bubbling over with action. Bert-Jan having arrived from Amsterdam the previous eve, the three of us started off with a visit to a large city fleamarket in ‘hip and hot’ Prenzlauerberg This, in the old days, was always the first thing Ian and I did in a new city, hunting for old records and sheet music for what became the British Musical Theatre Collection (now at Harvard). Doing it again, all these years later, wasn’t the only thing about the day that brought back feelings of the old me.
At afternoon tea time we visited opera guru Geerd Heinsen at his ‘country home’ – what the Germans call a ‘Laube’ in a ‘Laubenkolonie’ in the southern district of Friedenau. In the heart of Berlin are reserved areas of what we would call ‘allotments’. But no-one grows too many vegetables on these prized bits of real estate: they house cottages with lawns and gardens and trees: a bit of countryside for city dwellers who do not even need, thus, to leave town! We sat on the lawn with tea (and later a little chardonnay) and I revelled in the conversation of a man who can talk about Ricci and Pacini, Don Bucefalo and Il re Lear, and so many minor composers and works I’m meeting while writing Victorian Vocalists, from first-hand knowledge.



From tea and tipple on the lawn we moved on to a very different festivity: a lively first-communion party with a Polish flavour (and food) where I ended up speaking – French!
And then: to the opera. A premiere at the Komische Oper (ex-Metropoltheater).
I can’t think how many years it is since I was an opera house regular. Or, let’s face it, a theatre regular. Its 20 years, anyway, since I was active worker in the theatre and on hand with my notebook for every West End musical first night. It’s amazing how all the old instincts come back. Although, of course, on this night everything and everyone was in German.
The piece was Eduard Künneke’s 1921 Berlin Operette hit Der Vetter aus dingsda. Nine characters, one set, and – I would have thought – an ideal small-theatre piece. The Komische Oper is a fairly large (and very beautifully restored) theatre, but then again so was the original home of the piece, the Theater am Nollendorfplatz.
I sunk happily into what I found a charming, gently fanciful evening back in Operette-land after too long away.



The music is wholly delightful, and I knew enough about the story and libretto that my mini-comprehension of the German dialogue didn’t hurt overmuch, so I was quite taken aback when, at half-time, I heard serious grumbling going on around us. The production was labelled ‘provincial’, the singers ‘inadequate’. I was puzzled. Who did they want their Operette sung by? Is a ‘metropolitan’ production one staged on roller-skates, set in the stone age and with a chorus line clad in one spangle apiece? If so, I’m provincial. I thought the production, with its shy if geographically wobbly wink to Bollywood, was totally suitable to the piece. As for the singers … well, there certainly was a sound problem. A violent imbalance between orchestra and voices. But I refuse to believe that any casting director could cast nine out of nine singers with ‘insufficient’ voices, and prefer to lay any blame there was on the sound department and whoever didn’t sit out front in row 11 at the dress rehearsal and spot the problem. In fact, I found the three principals: Julia Kamenik (a nicely natural Julia), Anna Borchers (a deliciously young and un-soubretty Hännchen) and Christoph Späth (a smilingly sexy tenor Fremde) ideal for their roles. And everybody loved the po-faced comic maid (Verena Unbehaun) and her quaint dance steps.



Am I being old-fashioned? I was always known as a very critical critic in my day. Have I gone soft? I don’t think so. I think that, whereas I actually wanted to see this endearing, unpretentious 1920s small musical, the 2009 Berliners around me would have truthfully preferred something else altogether. But, then, the sound problem did mess up everything for everybody. Maybe they will fix it by tomorrow night.




The evening didn’t end with the Operette. Far from it! We headed from the theatre (where I was introduced to a real, live Tannhäuser on the steps: Paul McNamara. Watch that name!) for the hot-spot-of-the-moment, Borchardt on Gendarmenmarkt, and there, in the handsome, youthful and joyous company of entertainer and TV-man Thomas, lighting designer Oliver and producer-of-the-future Hannes, we gossiped and laughed our way, on a glitter of pink champagne, into the small hours of the morning. At some stage Vera-Ellen was toasted. Ricci, Pacini, Künneke and Vera-Ellen in one day. And this is the world I gave up? I love my horses, but … I gave this up? Maybe I should think again…
I am thinking again…

Monday, May 4, 2009

My marvellous Mayday

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May Day. Hi-jacked for some reason in the C20th by ‘the workers of the world’ when they were trying to unite, rather than by the less egoistic May Queen ceremonies of yore, and not a day that I’ve ever paid much attention to. But I was made to this year.

1 May was, of course, the date on which I was finally to end up heading for Berlin. An event in itself, but..
It was also a day where – after a fairly long time of not having any of my horses make it to the races – two were to run on opposite sides of the world..

Little ‘Fritzl’ (The Soldier Fritz) is the first horse I have bred who actually made it to the races. He is also the first foal of my first homebred mare, Duchess, so he’s very special to me. I have leased him to my dear friends Mike and Sue, who are actually racing him, and he is being trained by Murray Edmonds who is i/c all the trotters from Gerolstein these days.
Anyway Fritzl made his debut in a top two year-old trot class a couple of weeks back and finished a very dignified sixth, in a nice time against good horses, and as a result he was launched to the heights of the Group 3 New Zealand Trotting Stakes, against the best young horses around.

In the Northern Hemisphere, it was the day when ‘Rosy’ (Rosy des Baux) who won for me at Domfront last year at her first time of asking, but who had since been largely resting to allow her to grow fully, was scheduled – now a four year-old -- to make her re-appearance on the race track. She was in a race at Evreux, a rather more upmarket track than those here she ran on last year, with sixteen starters among whom she was rated – on the measure of money won and times run .. 16th out of the 16.



All of which to say, had I ended up with two lasts, the pundits who set Fritzl out at 117-1 and Rosy probably at something similar) would not have been surprised.

The day started at 10am, when – thanks to world time zones – Fritzl was running his 9pm race in New Zealand. He ran a model race, always in the first five or six after a good, safe, beginning, third behind the redhot favourite on the home turn, and only giving best to one other and very fine young horse in the home straight. The big outsider, our little, inexperienced Fritzl, had run fourth in a major classic race!






Soon after, we – John, Margo, Dukky and I, set of for Düsseldorf and, after the odd fright amongst motorway traffic jams, made it to the airport and our hugs of goodbye. I flew the short trip by Air Berlin (splendid), and while I was in the sky, Rosy took her turn on the track. I ran the race a hundred ties in my head whilst thousands of feet above the groud, but I knew I wouldn’t know what had happened for ages. France, unlike New Zealand, doesn’t have its race results up on the web till days after the event.

Off the plane, out to the luggage collect. And guess what, MY bag rolled out first! How many times has that happened to YOU in your life? And as I picked it up, Kevin hove to outside the window .. we didn’t even have to pay for parking. May 1 was getting better and better..

Back chez Clarke, I leaped for the Internet, and there was the hoped for message from Jack: ROSY SECOND! Well, I haven’t seen the race, but trainer-driver Marion sent me a wee description and it seems she came home strongly after a good run and … and, well, I’ll see eventually. But she, like Fritzl, clearly has a future as a racehorse. And that makes me very very happy indeed.


(click to read the result)


Kevin had a dinner date that evening. I decided that I would not spend the evening at work or at play. 1 May had better finish as soon as possible, so as to remain a wonderful memory. I luxuriated in a hot bath, nibbled at cheese and pickles and some good German bread, and at 9pm I crawled under my duvet and slid off to sweet dreams of my best horsy day (not to mention the suitcase) in years.

PS the above picture of Frizl is not new. Since he became a racehorse, I’ve been on the ocean wave. This snap was taken the day when, at one year of age, Mike and Sue became his ‘parents’. The one of Rosy is new, snapped by Jack on a recent visit to Les Baux. I’ll be taking plenty more when I get there in a few weeks.

I'm in Europe...

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I’m in Europe.
Antwerp, Maastricht, Berlin…

I know, last time you heard from me I was in the Red Sea with the Easter Bunny, but not a great deal bloggable has happened since then, until the last few days (if you don’t count a few minor internal and dermal malaises caused by a selection of tropical buglets). Now it has, so here I go again.
The Suez Canal was the Suez Canal as before, and not exactly fascinating the umpteenth time through, and the Med was not at its bluest nor its least (cool) breezy, so a lot of Victorian Vocalists got written in the comfort of my little cabin.
Then the disastrous news came. The company had cancelled the stop at Hamburg, where I was to get off the ship, and Kevin – for the second year in succession – had arranged abortively to meet me. For a moment, it seemed as if I would be dumped at Hull, but in the end Antwerp was settled upon. And disaster turned to delight.
Big John’s hurried aerial exit from the ship at Singapore meant that he had left behind the bulk of his luggage, so on our arrival he drove up from Maastricht to collect it … and me. And I have just had two really lovely days in Maastricht.
It’s a delightful place, made all the more delightful for me by the fact that John’s flat is bang in the middle of the town, and that one can walk therefrom to any of the seemingly hundreds of squares, cafes and restaurants that throng the leafy and lively streets of the city centre. Which, on night one, we did – John, Margo and I, and latterly Dukky the dog -- dinner and drinks at an atmospheric little place named Schijk (I do not guarantee my Dutch spelling), a stroll into the nearby square with its cosy bars and Belgian beers…
Day two, Margo had to work, so John and I and Dukky set out on one of those walks that we prefer: through the city suburbs and, in no time, out into the country and some glorious forestland. Forestland with humps and hills – not a Dutch speciality – thick green and brown smells and splendidly maintained tracks.





The forest led us past some charming views of the French and, eventually the Belgian countryside, before we crossed into Belgium at the little village of ?Keern. I know that spelling is wrong. But that little village will stay long in my memory. We sat down at a cosy café-bar which called itself ‘Between the Jaeger and the Meuse’ (in Belgian) and ordered a cold local beer. It turned out to be a Grottebier or La Biere des Grottes, and I think – and I don’t think it was just the occasion and the ambiance -- it was the best glass of beer I have tasted in my life!



Dukky was quite put out that our glasses got emptied.



Soon (well, soon after a second glass) we were en route again, back through the throbbingly green, soft-footed forests, past the looming and labyrinthine underground stone-quarries, until we reached the banks of the Meuse. I got just a slight tweak at the heart as I watched the cargo ships going by… but we steamed on, back towards town and the festivities that filled the streets. For today was the Queen’s Birthday, a vast festival all round Holland and the excuse for the biggest street parties of the year. Alas, the day was spoiled for Holland that afternoon when a madman anxious to get on TV killed six people in Apeldoorn, by driving his car through the assembled crowds in what he pretended was an assassination attempt on the Queen. If Maastricht were thus not quite as much in fete as it might have been otherwise, things were still pretty lively as we set out for our own evening’s entertainment: an aperitif at a delicious bar specialising in the roasting of peanuts, a marvellous dinner at the most splendid Italian restaurant I can remember, Gio’s, and the obligatory post-prandial visit to what had already become my favourite little bar where – in a mixture of English and French (people here speak so many languages), Dutch and German being outside by abilitites – we chatted to all manner of folk, into the night…
The real world does have its advantages. I could just about re-enter the real world…
And then, already, too soon, it was May 1 and time to move on. And, little did I know I, but 1 May was to turn out to be something of a red letter day for me.

Wildlife en route

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I can’t say that our wildlife sightings en route have been enormous – a surprising (to me) shortage of birds, especially interesting ones ..
but we did have a few encounters, and there were cameras at hand t record the event. Here’s one of Horst’s best, a snap of a flying fish



And here’s Trevor’s picture of a dolphin, sporting around the bow



Here’s a second one, to prove they were round the bow. Those are Trevor’s toes, hanging over the ship’s edge, in the foreground..



And lastly, a whale. I know it’s not a very photogenic whale. It didn’t dive for us or fling itself in the air, but it did blow, and Horst caught the moment on film. So ust to prove we did see a whale, here it is.