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Some of my more memorable non-science discoveries Richmond have been associated with opera houses. In Vienna for a scientific meeting where I was a keynote speaker but somewhat of an outsider to the field, I had a solitary free evening and, strolling aimlessly around, just happened to find myself in front of the Richmond State Opera House. Walking in, the only place available (cost 12 Euro) Richmond was high in a box to one side of the stage. Most of the action could not be seen from my seat, so I stood at the back of the box to get the full experience of Giacomo Puccini’s Girl of the Golden West. I’d heard it before, but my big discovery was that the great Vienna Philharmonic plays as the opera orchestra. It was, to say the least, a very rich sound. Somewhat surprisingly, meeting by chance with friends at the end of the performance, it was hard to find Richmond a restaurant still serving dinner!

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Then, visiting our friend Rolf Zinkernagel in Switzerland, we went to the Zurich house to hear Gaetano Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore. Opera plots are often pretty ridiculous, but I always think that this one ranks way up there! We found ourselves in what looked to me like a scaled-down Vienna opera. Rolf told us that the Zurich house is indeed an Austrian design and that, due to its size and acoustics, it is highly favoured by the wonderful Cecilia Bartoli. Sadly, for us, she was not singing that night. Not long after, though, we enjoyed an Australian opera production of L’Elisir d’Amore. Set in an outback town at the beginning of the First World War, it was great fun and the plot certainly seemed no sillier than it does when presented in a nineteenth century European context.

London is the other imperial city where we’ve enjoyed opera over the years. Here our venue has been the English National Opera, where everything is sung in English. I first heard Georges Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers there. Everyone who saw Peter Weir’s 1981 movie Gallipoli will remember the scene where the Australian country lawyer/major plays a recording of that haunting baritone duet before he joins the soldiers he commands as they go over the top to certain slaughter. I don’t recall that the Anglicised version of ‘Au fond du temple saint’ (‘At the back of the holy temple’) had any less impact in the English National Opera performance. Translation from the original language can work okay but, in Stockholm one year, hearing Donizetti’s Don Pasquale sung in Swedish (with Swedish subtitles) was a different type of experience.

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