Monthly Archives: September 2010

Oh so beautiful

I went to see the South Australian State Opera’s production of The Pearl Fishers on Saturday night. It was beautiful, and very moving.

The story in the original libretto is, well, trite and hackneyed. The opera is set in Ceylon – oriental and romantic. Zurga is elected to lead the Pearl Fishers on their dangerous fishing voyage. As he does so, a stranger comes upon the scene – he is Nadir, Zurga’s long lost friend. Zurga and Nadir pledge their eternal friendship again, in what is surely the most beautiful duet ever written for two men. But then, the priestess who is to guard the pearl fishers voyage comes to their camp. She is veiled, but Nadir recognises her voice – it is Leila, whom he loves. And Leila recognises him! But… she is sworn to chastity, and virginity, on pain of death. In the second act, Leila is left alone for the night, but Nadir makes his way to her, and despite her pleading, he declares his love for her. Eventually, she says that she loves him too, but just as he is fleeing, they are discovered. Zurga must pass judgement – he condemns them both to be executed at dawn the next day. In the third act, Leila visits Zurga to plead for Nadir’s life. “Kill me,” she says, “but spare him.” Zurga in a fit of hideous jealousy refuses mercy. In the traditional version, he is jealous because he too loves Leila. She leaves him, asking him to give her necklace to her mother. She passes it to him, and he recognises it: it is the necklace he gave to a small girl many many years ago, who saved his life. In shock, he decides to spare her and Nadir, but by then, the pearl fishers are enraged. He must find a way for them to escape. So he sets the camp on fire. In the confusion, Nadir and Leila escape, but Zurga dies.

So much for the original libretto. It’s very thin, even for an opera. And annoying. The second act had all my feminist sensibilities irritated: every single man there was policing Leila. She must be virgin, she must love Nadir, she must keep her face veiled. I had no sympathy for Nadir’s pleadings of love: if he loved her so much, why on earth did he place her in danger by trying to be with her? He knew that it would mean death for her, yet he wouldn’t leave. A callow youth, I decided, and I couldn’t see why Leila loved him.

But the SA State Opera’s version of the story was much more compelling, and it moved me to tears. Several times. ‘Though not for Nadir.

As the overture played, we saw an elderly gentleman, Zurga, seated in his comfortable home, reflective, pensive, sore at heart, pouring himself another glass of spirits, restless. He is remembering the time when he was a colonial administrator in Ceylon. As the chorus started singing, a younger Zurga appeared, in his white colonial suit. He was stiff, but in command. And then, Nadir appeared. In the duet, Nadir pledged friendship, but Zurga pledged love. He was a man in love with a younger man, but perhaps not even aware of his love, or if he was aware of it, he knew he could not speak of it. But he and Zurga could be friends.

The duet which Zurga and Nadir sing in the first act is so beautiful that I think I would have cried no matter what, for the sheer joy of hearing it. On Satruday night, it was more than just a lovely song. I could see Zurga’s love for Nadir, and his longing. Hence his terrible anger when he is betrayed, and his jealously of Leila. In the final moments of the opera, as Nadir and Leila flee, he at last voices his love. “Nadir, je t’aimais!”

In the standard libretto, the words are, “Léïla, je t’aimais.”

The love and longing that Zurga had for Nadir was stunningly portrayed. The part was sung by Grant Doyle, and he was compelling. In the initial scenes, he was very much a stiff British administrator, in command, tense, yet somehow singing beautifully.* In the final act, I could see his torment: his entire being was in agony. It was a moment of gut wrenching truth when he was finally able to say, “Nadir, I love you!”

I have seen very little opera, despite my love of singing, so I am in no real position to assess the merits of the production. I thought that Leanne Kenneally and James Egglestone as Leila and Nadir were lovely, with beautiful voices. The sets were evocative – neither so bare nor so adorned that they distracted from the singing. But I find it hard to make those judgements, because for the most part, I was simply caught up in the music and the drama. I think I have been bitten by the opera bug: I will be going back for more. And I will be watching out for Grant Doyle. His performance was wonderful, and I would like to see and hear him again.

*How on earth can he do that? I know that when I sing, if I am too tense, my voice seizes up and all I produce is an agonised squawk. But he produced beautiful tones.

Suffrage Day!

Cross posted

On this day, 117 years ago, women in the New Zealand got the right to vote. On 19 September, 1893, the Governor, Lord Glasgow, signed the Electoral Act giving all New Zealand women the right to vote. New Zealand was one of the earliest self-governing territories in the world to enfranchise women, and the earliest nation to do so. It’s a proud moment in our history. Alas, it took another 26 years before women were entitled to stand for Parliament, and another 14 years after that before Elizabeth McCombs became the first woman to win a seat.

The suffragists fought a long battle to gain the vote, presenting three massive petitions to Parliament. The third and final petition had 32,000 signatures on it. The petition is on display in the National Archives in Wellington, and you can walk in there and take a look, just like that.

When I looked at the 1893 suffrage petition, what struck me was the street addresses of the people who had signed it. There was signature after signature from the same street. It is a record of a woman, or perhaps a man, going from door to door, up and down the streets, knocking and asking for signatures.

Signatures on the suffrage petition

Signatures on the suffrage petition

There’s a lovely story about one signature on the petition. It comes from Mrs Perryman’s account of the suffrage campaign and voting for the first time on the elections.org.nz site.

It meant hard work to collect those signatures, and we met many women who told us quite emphatically they wanted nothing to do with politics. Mrs T. E. Taylor, wife of a very prominent independent member [of Parliament], used to tell a good tale about one of these reluctant women. The lady firmly declined to sign the petition, and firmly shut the door in Mrs Taylor’s face. But before Mrs Taylor could reach the front gate she was called back. ‘Yes’, said the lady, ‘I will sign your petition, just to vote against that man Tommy Taylor’.

If you are in Wellington, do take a moment to have a look. The Archives are at 10 Mulgrave Street, just across the road from the Thistle, where Te Rauparaha is said to have had a drink from time to time, and one block over from Parliament.

Seen at the Royal Adelaide Show

Sign on a coffee stand, offering "grownd" coffee

Grownd coffee

“Grownd” coffee.

I didn’t have any.

Friday Activist – Jackie Huggins

Cross posted

The further notion that all women as a sex have more in common than do members of the same class is false. Upper-class women are not simply bedmates of their wealthy husbands. As a rule, they have more compelling ties that bind them together. They are economic, social, and political bedmates united in defence of private property, profiteering, militarism, racism – and the exploitation of other women. It would be quite another matter to expect any large number of wealthy women to endorse or support a revolutionary struggle which threatened their capitalist interests and privileges. Will the wives of bankers, generals, corporation lawyers, and big industrialists be firmer allies of women fighting for liberation than working-class men, black and white, who are fighting for theirs? The ruling powers breed and benefit from all forms of discrimination and oppression. Therefore, for a middle-class woman to compare her environmental situation with that of a black is totally naive. While white women are fighting to get out of the kitchen, black women are fighting to get into it.

For these reasons, many black women do not see the women’s movement as relevant to their own situation. Black women, who have worked from necessity are apt to view women’s liberation as a white middle-class battle irrelevant to their own, often bitter, struggle for survival. As Ida Lewis commented: “The women’s liberation movement is basically a family quarrel between white women and white men.” Similarly, Aboriginal women are aware of the divisiveness of feminism in terms of their own black movement. Women’s liberation has meant very little to both black American women and Aboriginal women who believe that the black woman has always been placed in a position of asserting herself.

Jackie Huggins, “Black Women and Women’s Liberation”, Hecate 13.1, 1987, pp. 77 – 82

Chocolate surprise muffins*

Oh yummy, yummy, yummy!

I’ve been making some lovely chocolate muffins for a few years now. It’s a quick and easy mix, and so plain that I usually dress it up a little, with some chocolate chips stirred through the mix, or perhaps a chocolate button in the middle. But a couple of weeks ago, I realised that I might be able to make them with a spoonful of caramel in the middle. So I did, with the assistance of my girls. They are truly divine. You should race out and buy the ingredients now, and have a go at them yourself. Actually, you’re likely to have most ingredients on hand already, but you may need to get some sweetened condensed milk.

Condensed milk, butter, brown sugar, in a small saucepan

Caramel ingredients

Start by making a small amount of caramel sauce. On our first attempt, the girls and I mixed together 1 tablespoon of butter, 2 tablespoons of brown sugar and 2 tablespoons of sweetened condensed milk. The result was so-so: nice enough, but not quite there. Next time, we tried 1 tablespoon butter, 1 tablespoon brown sugar, 1 large tablespoon of golden syrup, and 2 tablespoons of sweetened condensed milk. The flavour was better – there was a bit of an edge to the caramel, a fuller flavour. The measures are approximate, but the proportions are about right. Opt for more (well-rounded tablespoons) rather than less, so you get more caramel mix.

Thick golden brown caramel, pushed to one side of the saucepan and holding its shape

Thick caramel, pushed to one side of the saucepan and holding its shape

Put all the ingredients in a small saucepan. Use one with a heavy base, if possible. Stir over a low heat until all the ingredients have melted and combined, then bring them to a simmer. Reduce the heat, and let the mix cook for about four minutes, stirring every now and then, to make sure that it doesn’t catch. The mix should thicken up quite a bit. It will need to cool and thicken some more before you use it in the muffins, so once the four minutes is up, set the saucepan aside while you prepare the muffins.

Preheat your oven to 200 degrees Celsius (that’s about 390 – 400 Fahrenheit), and grease your muffin pans (I use spray on canola oil).

The muffin mix itself is a basic one. You can use it for almost any muffin, with variations.

First of all, melt 100gms of butter in a large bowl or jug, and set it aside to cool a little.

Next, sift into a large bowl, 1 and 1/2 cups of flour and 1 and 1/2 tsp of baking powder (or just use 1 and 1/2 cups of self-raising flour), and for chocolate muffins, 2 tablespoons of cocoa.

Stir in 3/4 cup of sugar, and mix well. At this stage, if you were making say, chocolate chip chocolate muffins, you would stir in the chocolate chips (plenty, of course), or the poppy seeds, or any chippy chunky dry ingredients that you thought might enhance the end product. But I’d go with the chocolate version, if I were you.

Butter-egg-milk mix in jug, dry ingredients in large bowl, cooked caramel in saucepan, muffin pan

Butter-egg-milk mix in jug, dry ingredients in large bowl, cooked caramel in saucepan, muffin pan

That’s the dry ingredients done. One of the tricks to successful muffin making is to minimise beating, so next, get all the wet ingredients ready, so you can mix them quickly.

Break one egg into the melted butter, and mix well with a fork. The mix will thicken up a bit. Then add 1 cup of milk to the butter and egg, and mix some more.

Make a well in the dry ingredients, pour in the butter-egg-milk mix, and stir until the dry ingredients are mixed through. (At this stage, you would add blueberries, or stewed apple, or chunks of peach, or whatever wet variation you fancied, if you were experimenting with the basic mix.)

12-cup muffin pan, each cup 1/2 filled with batter, small dot of caramel in middle of batter in each cup

12-cup muffin pan, each cup 1/2 filled with batter, small dot of caramel in middle of batter in each cup

Using a 12-cup muffin pan, fill each cup about 1/3 to 1/2 full with the mix. A rounded soupspoon is probably about right. Make sure you leave enough mix to cover up the caramel. Using a teaspoon, make a small hollow in the centre of each raw muffin. Then, get the caramel mix, and using a couple of spoons, one to scrape the mix off the other, put about 1/2 teaspoon, or maybe a bit more, of caramel in each hollow. Then use the remaining muffin mix to cover the caramel.

Put the muffins in the oven, and cook for about 12 minutes, until they feel springy to the touch. While they are cooking, scrape the remaining caramel mix onto teaspoons, summon the children, and give them one each. Use a dessertspoon for yourself.

Once the muffins are cooked, let them cool in the pan for a couple of minutes, then put them on a rack. Cool for a few more minutes, and then, enjoy!

Basket of chocolate muffins, one split open to show the gooey caramel inside

Basket of chocolate muffins, one split open to show the gooey caramel inside

It turns out that if you are under a certain age,** you can poke your finger into the caramel and lick it off, or just stick your tongue directly into it, which will definitely enhance the muffin eating experience.

Packet of Cadbury Caramel Buttons

If you are a busy parent, or just plain busy, you may not have time to make the caramel. It turns out that these Cadbury Caramel Buttons do very nicely. I put two into each muffin. Then I eat the rest, all by myself.

* Why, yes! These are inspired by Stef’s excellent Lemon Surprise Cupcakes.
** Probably about 120.