By Britta Kuhlenbeck
In July 2012 my mother visited Australia for the first time.
She spent some time with my sister and her husband in South Australia and then a couple of weeks with my partner and me in Western Australia. When I still lived in Germany, I traveled with my mother to opera performances in Hamburg and Amsterdam – often following the General Musical Director of the Hamburg Opera around like groupies. It was my PhD supervisor who told me when we met for a drink one evening that his favourite opera was Lucia, especially the performance with Joan Sutherland.
It took me a few years before I understood why he would say that. When I found out Lucia would be performed in Perth during my mother’s visit I booked tickets straight away. When she arrived, we spent a few days down south. One day we visited a friend in Augusta who happened to have a recording of Lucia and copied the music for us. My partner has a bush block near Cowaramup. One night we thought of a special experience for my mother. We played the Lucia recording and turned the volume of the outside speakers on full. We stepped out into the night and put a match to a Balga tree. My mother was intimidated and fascinated at the same time when she saw the grass tree exploding into flames that reached for the night sky. It was mesmerising to watch the different sections of the grass tree catching fire, leaving a core from which new leaves would shoot.
Having heard so many stories about Australian bushfires on German television, my mother was afraid that we might have started one. The night was so still, however, that the fire erupted only from the tree we lit—an isolated spectacle. We stood near the tree and watched. The music of Lucia di Lammermoor filled the bush, the brilliant night sky, our very selves. The next morning my mother checked whether the tree was still burning. We drove back to Perth in the afternoon to see Lucia at her Majesty’s that evening. The performance drew us in more and more from one Act to the next. During the first intermission we had a glass of champagne, read the synopsis of Act Two and went back into the theatre.
During the second intermission the music in our heads took us back into the bush and the sparkling grass tree. We read the synopsis of Act Three and went back into the theatre. At this stage we were totally drawn into Lucia’s life drama. After the performance we stood outside her Majesty’s for a while observing the traffic and the people leaving the theatre. I took a photo of my mum outside the theatre.
Two days later she was on a plane back to Germany. A few weeks later I received a letter from her telling me how much she enjoyed her time in Australia. She said she listened to the Lucia recording while she was doing some ironing and imagined herself standing in the bush down south watching a Balga tree going up in flames.