A Visual Artist
Voyen Koreis: King and His Jester ─ an oil on canvas ─ in collection of the Ipswich Art Gallery.
I don’t remember ever having any particular leanings towards visual arts. When in the primary school we had the painting and drawing lessens, I had not displayed any great talent, if anything, then to the contrary. Painting some flowers with water colours onto paper, which was what our teacher mostly wanted us to do, didn’t interest me at all. A little later, at the Grammar School, I remember drawing an occasional caricature for the amusement of schoolmates, but that was about all. However, I must admit that soon I was to be fully immersed in the singing and acting activities, which had claimed practically all my time and creative energies. That intensity had begun to ebb slightly after I moved to London and started to go to galleries more often, which were so numerous in that amazing city. Still, it would never have occurred to me to try some art on my own.
Soon after moving to Australia, we had become acquainted with a Czech visual artist Miroslav Uttl, who had been living in Brisbane at the time. Uttl had studied the ceramics at the Prague Academy, though it might have been the equally prestigious VUT in Brno, I’m not sure now. He was quite versatile in his art, he occasionally did some painting, mainly abstract pictures, but most of the time he concentrated on ceramic sculpture. By the time we came to know them, the Uttls, Mirek and Nada, who was a useful artist and designer on her own, had been living in Brisbane for about four tears. He was nearly fifty, she was a little younger; they had a daughter of about thirteen. Practically all of us Czechs or Slovaks, who had left after the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia, fell into the category of illegal emigrants. As such, we were all sentenced in absentia, and given some prison terms that varied between about 6 months and several years. I had never found out what sort of criteria the courts there had used in deciding the length of prison term, and I don’t even remember how much I was given; something tells me that it was two and a half years.
After several years, an amnesty was declared by the Czechoslovak authorities, targeting those who had left by the way that was termed as “illegal”, provided they return before the end of 1973. Those deciding to take it up could return without having to go to prison. I doubt that many people had taken it up, but there are always some in whom homesickness prevails, and the Uttls were such people. For them, Australia was not the place to be in, they decided; they’d been missing too much the intellectual debates so common amongst the European artists, and the general atmosphere more conductive to creativity, which can be found there. By then it was also getting obvious that Uttl wasn’t headed for the top in his profession in Australia; he had got himself a bit of a name, but the number of commission, which in his type of work are necessary, was not growing fast enough. Often they must have relied on the pay Nada brought home from driving a taxi, which even in those relatively peaceful times wasn’t the best and easiest way for a woman to make a living.
The Uttls lived at Balmoral, which is nowadays a very desirable place to be. We tried to buy the house from them, but the bank would not lend us the money. If they had done so, I would have probably come to the arts, particularly the ceramics much earlier. Uttl had under the house an electric kiln, which would have been a part of the deal. As it was, the agent found them another buyer, and they had gone to the place from which I was by now only getting the “migrant dreams”.
Everyone I know who came here under similar circumstances has had migrant dreams. In them, typically one found oneself back where he came from; the problem was that one didn’t know if he would be allowed to return, or if he is to stay there permanently. There was no immediate danger, just the ever-present feeling that one is imprisoned there, uncertainty if one would be able to get anywhere else. Therefore, no horror, only psychological drama. The dream, early on very frequent, was getting less and less often onto the nightly film screen, eventually disappearing altogether. Now when one could go to the old country any time, there is no need for it.
Uttl had formed a working partnership with Pavel Forman, who was an altogether different type of artist. While Uttl was the cerebral type, used to theorising a lot, Forman was the practical, intuitive type, who just went and did things. Forming theories about his or someone else’s art would be a waste of time to him. Nowadays I know that what had held Uttl and Forman together must have been mainly their ability to communicate in the same language, because otherwise their personalities were altogether different. Well, perhaps also being of approximately the same age, about fifty. The partnership worked for a while, as they received commissions for decorating several government buildings (such as the plastic above in court building at Ipswich), but it was doomed, and by the time I got to know these men, it was already non-existent. There was simply too much difference in their characters. Forman later told me that, in his opinion, Uttl was a “fízl“, meaning that he was a stooge planted by the communist regime on people like us, who came to Australia with clean intentions, as political refugees. He might have been right, at least to a degree, because after his return Uttl did indeed make a public statement, and on the TV he denounced the Western society, and generally ate the humble pie. I had not seen the programme, naturally, I only have it second hand. But at the same time I would have expected something like this to happen, knowing that this was the only thing he had to do, if he wanted to get any kind of decent job after his return. Which, apparently he did. Return of a Czech artist from the capitalist Hell into the embrace of his socialistic Motherland, must have been a most welcome tool to those who engaged in creation of state propaganda!
Pavel Forman (1920-2008, right) I got to know a little later, after Uttl’s departure. Forman, who was the older brother of the famous movie director Milos Forman by about twelve years, came to live in Brisbane in 1968. It was just meant to happen, he told me. During his studies in Prague, he got to know a Yugoslav couple who both studied medicine there. They married, eventually left for Australia, where they established a private practice in Brisbane. Bosco Maxim wrote years later a letter to Forman, letting him know they were doing fine, that they lack only one thing ─ Pavel’s paintings. They had made a deal: they would invite Forman to Brisbane, pay for his stay and journey, and he would repay them with paintings he would paint here. That was a good chance for Forman to get out, officially on an educational trip, which was duly approved to him. He liked it here in Brisbane very much. Soon after his return came the tumultuous year 1968, the invasion of the Warsaw Pact Armies, etc. His brother Milos, who had by then directed a few successful movies in Europe, had been offered a contract in Hollywood and decided to stay in America. He let Pavel know, and his brother decided to make a similar move. He knew that he would otherwise become a target of the secret service agents, had he stayed in the country. Only, America held no great attraction to him, but Australia, and particularly Brisbane, did. With his wife and young son they moved and stayed here until Pavel’s death forty years later. His brother meanwhile made it big in Hollywood with swag of Oscars. Pavel didn’t make it big; he just lived a productive, artistically satisfying life.
When I got into painting and ceramics myself, I found in Pavel Forman someone who understood and supported me. After we got over the initial existential problems, and when it became clear to me that thinking about theatre or singing was not realistic, I had moved in a different direction. One day I bought myself some acrylic paints, brushes and canvas, and began to paint. It was an experiment, but gradually I became more absorbed in these new activities. I bought myself oil paints, more canvas, more brushes. I also had begun to play with the clay, making some sculptures, which Pavel Forman had been kind enough to fire up in his kiln for me, before I decided to get one of my own. Later I even bought a gas kiln, which offered more opportunities for experimenting with different types of glazing than an electric kiln, which tends to bring more predictable results. Forman also taught me some basics of ceramic sculpture, which he probably got from Uttl, as I suspect. But such is art; there is always some movement, and always some succession. When I eventually began to exhibit my art, Pavel came to the first one-man-show I held, and told me that I was “very bold”, as he had put it. To this day I haven’t quite worked out if it was meant as a compliment or if he simply expressed his opinion that as an artist I was still a bit raw. Perhaps both…
We too had Flown Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
While all this went on, we were both trying to figure out how to best make a living. For a couple of years we had a bread run. This I was able to get free, when a bakery had problems, and some of the vendors associated with it walked away, which had left some runs available and free for taking. All I needed was to b e at the right place at the right time, and being able to buy a type of van suitable for the work. Soon we were running two vans, as the bakery was taken over by a larger company, and business had improved greatly, so that Dáša could join me. We made good money, but the hours were the killer. To deliver all the bread for the weekend to the large retailers, like Woolworth, we had to start loading our vans before midnight on Thursday. True, by about noon on Friday we were finished, but rather exhausted! On other days it was easier, getting up “only” at about 2am, and home by about 10am. When the opportunity came, we had sold the business, and bought an industrial snack bar. That was opening at 6am, and closed by about 3pm, so the hours were a bit easier. However, it was quite labour intensive and not really satisfying. We sold it about a year later, having made no profit, but no loss on the deal.
In 1976 Pavel Forman’s brother Miloš made his big breakthrough in Hollywood, with all the main Oscars for the movie he directed, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the awards going for the best picture, actor and actress, director and screenplay. Not long after that we had taken a sightseeing trip over such a nest of our own. We both found ourselves jobs as “residential care workers” as we were called, at the institution for mentally disabled people. After some month, during which I had to endure being moved from one ward to another, I had landed permanently in one of the villas, that were scattered in small clusters in a pleasant bush environment. Four of us carerers took turns in supervising a group of six young men, aged between about 17 to 25. One could communicate with any of them, though in a very basic way, because their IQ barely reached 50, if it is measurable at all on such low levels. The mental age of the one, who was most highly developed amongst them, was about 3-4 years. One could hold an almost normal conversation with him and a couple of others, like one would with a child, but naturally, they couldn’t be relied upon in doing anything right consistently. There was also a discernible tendency towards delinquency amongst them, and having early on received a rather solid punch in the stomach, I knew that having one’s eyes at the back of the head was one of the fundamentals in the job description.
The basic salary wasn’t particularly high, but with various allowances for weekend or night work, it added up quite nicely. Also, there was one big advantage for us. Having both been classified as holders of government jobs, we found no problem borrowing money from financial institutions, only too keen to lend it to us. We could now borrow and speculate a bit with the real estate. Before long we had three houses in our portfolio. In a job like this, once a person got over the initial trial period and became a permanent employee, it was hard for the government to even get rid of him or her. There were some who abused this in a big way. They would only go to work when they felt like it, selecting the best shifts, etc. In an extreme case, one cynical and most of the time highly drugged up man of about thirty, was defying the authorities, who were trying to dismiss him, for several years. Each time he received the note stating that he should show the case why he shouldn’t be dismissed, he would wait till the last possible moment, before sending in an appeal through the Unions, on some technicality. It would then take many months before the review was completed and another letter went to him, after which he would send in yet another cleverly constructed appeal. We were long gone, when we learnt about the sad end that came when the rubber boot of the inexorably working system had finally connected with Colin’s backside. Still, he could have lasted longer. His final dismissal came only because he forgot to pay his union fees…
We stayed for about four years. In a job like this one is constantly exposed to a kind of vampirism on part of the residents, and after a while it begins to tell. There were two types of people one mostly met there with in this institution. Firstly, young people, often women, who initially saw this kind of work as a lifelong mission. When their energies began to run low, they had to make a hard decision. They either resigned and found themselves another mission, or moved to the other category. In it you would find people who saw this purely as a job, a means to make a living. It meant curbing severely the output of energy, ceasing to see oneself as the Saviour of Mankind, becoming pragmatic, even cynical. This happened after about three to four years, and it came to most people, regardless of how dedicated they were initially. We chose the first way and left. After this experience I’m convinced of one thing, though. All people should be given the chance of working in a similar position, if only for a few months. If not more, this would at least make them grateful for having been born healthy and without a handicap.
Dáša went back to an office job, and I had got myself a franchise selling to retailers nuts in various form, as snacks or for cooking. I started from scratch, calling on snack bars and small grocery shops, and within a few months I had built up a run that was bringing in a decent little profit. I had to force myself into becoming a salesman once again, and I made a reasonably good one, nevertheless, my heart was never entirely in this venture. It yearned for something else, it wanted something more creative.
The house in Ipswich we had bought and restored about the time our son Darius was born.
In the old colonial house we had bought in Ipswich I made myself a studio, and had begun to increase my painting activities. Eventually I sold the franchise at a decent profit, and felt ready to holding my first one-man-show. I found a gallery in West End, a place that used to be a corner shop, and in it in May 1984 I exhibited about twenty pictures, mostly abstract, and also some ceramic sculptures. The first night went quite well, I had sold about six paintings, if I remember well, enough to cover the expenses. The show went on for three weeks; the number of visitors dropped down gradually, but there were a few more sales. More importantly, in about a week I had got an invitation to appear on the prestigious ABC radio show called The Music Lover’s Choice, a 90 minute programme of classical music and talk, moderated by the iconic Howard Ainsworth. And even more importantly for my painting career, an elderly lady came to the gallery, who had turned out to be the Queensland main art critic, working for the Brisbane daily, Courier Mail.
She was an imposing figure. That portrait on right is by Nan Paterson, and it can be found in the Australian National Library in Canberra. The artist painted her in the style of Gustav Klimt, with a lot of colour and gilt. The real thing was just as impressive. She walked up and down the gallery a couple of times, inspecting the two lines of paintings, occasionally stopping for a while. Eventually she introduced herself to me. I had already suspected who she might be; Gertrude Langer, the art critic of the local paper, Courier Mail. It was immediately obvious that she liked what she saw. So, what did she see?
I had displayed about two dozen very colourful mostly abstract paintings, ranging in size from between about 60x90 cm to 120x160 cm. Most, but not all, were painted on canvas stretched over wooden frames and primed, all by myself. The main influence radiating through the entire collection was that of German/American painter and teacher Hans Hoffmann. I had not told anyone about this, but Gertrude Langer picked it up immediately. After all, she was an experienced art critic. In fact, she was probably the only real art critic Queensland has up to that point had. I strongly suspected that having been born in Vienna, like many an Austrian she almost certainly would have had some Czech/Jewish heritage, even though like most Austrians she preferred not to talk about it. Langer studied in Vienna and later at the Sorbonne in Paris; with her architect husband they escaped the Fascist regime in Austria by moving to Australia. Karl Langer became a leading architect in Queensland, and several important government buildings, especially those from the 1950s and 60s, are amongst the best to be seen in this state. However, Langer died relatively young, only 66 years old, in 1969.
Gertrude Langer was 76 when I met her, and still very active. After seeing my exhibition she asked me if I would like to come with her the next day on her round of galleries and exhibitions she intends to write about. I was very happy to offer myself as her “chauffeur”, because I knew I could learn a lot from her. The old lady took us to a couple of exhibitions in the top Galleries, one of them at the Museum of modern Art, the founding of which a couple of years earlier she had very much supported. (A Gertrude Langer Memorial Lecture is an annual event now traditionally held at the Museum.) Afterwards we went to the Community Arts Centre, which was also opened due mainly to her efforts not long before this. The Centre was in George Street, at the centre of Brisbane. She introduced me to Edwin, the Centre Manager, whose full name unfortunately I forgot, and asked him if he had any date available for exhibition of my paintings in the upcoming months. Lo and behold! There was a cancellation. Edwin came up with one in August, only three months away. Would I have enough paintings to be able to fill the entire gallery, they asked me. I assured them that I would. Somewhat boldly, as I knew I would need to paint quite a few more. But I had about 3 months to paint (and allow to dry…) about twenty large canvases, and probably more, as I did not want to show some of the currently displayed pictures again. But as it turned out, having a deadline to work against proved just the stimulus I needed, and I managed fine, even with some time to spare.
My second one-man-show in about three months, which I had named “The Colour of Music”, opened on Friday night, and it was a reasonable success. Gertrude Langer came into the gallery on Tuesday, and had spent more than an hour to formulate the article, parts of which she discussed with me even while still in the gallery. Thus I could tell even then that it was going to be a kind write-up, of the sort that lifts you up, especially if you happen to be the subject. Afterwards, I walked her to the elevator and outside to the street. After saying goodbye, she began to walk towards the taxi stand; when halfway there she turned back and gave me a small wave of her hand. I stood at the entrance, thinking what a wonderful woman!
The article came out in the weekend Courier Mail, together with the announcement of its author's death. Apparently, a day after she came to see me, she went together with several friends to Leamington Park, a nature reserve about 100 km south of Brisbane. When she did not turn up for lunch, someone went to check on her, and found her dead, apparently of a heart attack, in her chalet. The article about my exhibition was the last one amongst hundreds, more likely thousands, Gertrude Langer wrote in her busy life.
In the 1980s I had several more one-man-shows. The Colour of Music was followed by Paradise of the Heart about a year later. In it I continued to exhibit rather colourful works, in which I had the abstract images often arested or at least restricted within dark geometrical objects. I received a rather good write-up in the Courier Mail, by Kate Collins, who filled the position of art critic left vacant by Gertrude Langer’s death.
Ipswich Municipal Gallery exhibition.
The Ipswich Municipal Art Gallery had organised an exhibition to which I gave the name A Concentric Universe. It had in it some of the paintings I had shown recently in Brisbane, but also some new, as well as much older works. The reason for this was that the exhibition had its curator, Stephen Rainbird, who later became the main curator of the Queensland University Gallery. He went through all my works and selected those to be exhibited. They looked good in the modern and spacious gallery.
There followed exhibitions on the Sunshine Coast and in Toowoomba, both reasonably succesful, without setting the world on fire. But not much that originates in Queensland actually does, as I have been able to determine. Which brings me to my great stage comeback!
UBU the King
It was 1983, I had been living in Australia for the full ten years, I had already recently turned forty. All that time I had ventured onto the stage only a few times, mostly when singing in choir with the Welsh miners from Ipswich or, on one occasion, letting myself be talked into singing the evergreen Ol’ Man River in a black and white minstrel show. The radio broadcasts, of which I talk elsewhere, would not count, because you could never know who is listening, if anyone.
I had met Emmanuel Meshers (left) several years before that and we used to meet up regularly, mostly in his house, where a group of people interested in mythology, hermetism, modern psychology, and related subjects used to regularly gather. We also did together some radio programmes on cultural themes. One day the two of us had got together for the purpose of preparing such a programme, when the subject of theatre of the absurd came up. Emmanuel had recently directed a couple of plays by Ionesco, produced by the local branch of Alliance Française and staged in the French language. From then on our conversation was solely focused on the absurd theatre and when I mentioned the “pataphysical machine” that I had seen in Prague during the performance of Ubu the King, Emmanuel nearly fell of his chair!
Though essentially being Jewish, his early education was French. In any case, to a non-French observer it would probably appear that Emmanuel must be thoroughly soaked up by the kind of arrogance that often leads members of the French nation believe that only those speaking with rhotic accent could understand such esoteric subjects as pataphysics. We talked some more, and as my friend had known about my acting past, he had begun to sound out the possibility of staging the grandfather of all plays of the theatre of the absurd, Ubu the King, by Alfred Jarry, here in Brisbane. It had not been produced in Australia yet at that point. I was to take on the title role and also be a co-director, with Emmanuel as the director/producer. To our next meeting Emmanuel had brought an English translation of Ubu Roy, for me to read. Wasting little time, he told me that he had already secured preliminary booking at two venues – the Cement Box at the QLD University – now known as Geoffrey Rush Drama Studio, and La Boite, now at QUT at Kelvin Grove, then still at its original building at Milton.
The play has a tumultuous history. When at its premiére in 1896 the actor Firmin Gérmier rumbled for the first time the first word of the text and Ubu’s favourite expression – merdre – a riot ensued. Our task was finding the translation that would give this word justice in modern English, we had several choices. At first we considered “turrd”, which offered plenty of rattle, but lacked the necessary dash of vulgarity. Eventually we settled on “pshit”. In present times we would have to reconsider even this, as the unfortified version of this four letter word could in unguarded moment cross even the lips of the members of Royal Family, but in 1983 it sufficed. I had a special way of pronouncing this word so characteristic of Ubu and his attitude towards pretty much everything, particularly the “phynances”, an area he doesn’t understand much and therefore abhors, with a kind of “blowing a raspberry” sound. I had pre-warned my colleague actors that on occasions I might inadvertently spit over them a bit.
The stage design was a simple one. We had used a largish square platform and several wooden chairs. The platform represented the bed, rostrum, grandstand, hill, anything. For the kind of pataphysical machine such as they had in Prague, we would have needed a genius the type of Ivan Havel (brother of the former Czech President Václav Havel), who had designed and manufactured an impressive one. We had to settle for “disembraining machine for cooking up of brains”, which looked like a guillotine. It was functional too, producing rag-made heads, which rolled down obediently on Ubu’s orders. The scene of war called for some participation on account of the audience – a number of small cushions were distributed amongst its members, and one side of the auditorium fought against the other. Sometimes we needed afterwards to firmly interfere, to regain attention of members of the audience, as they tended to become too much absorbed in their warring activities. For such purposes, Ubu however had two props that looked most threatening, called the “pshit hook” and “enema stick”.
We had held auditions, and found a decent set of actors, as well as some musicians from the Conservatorium, with a young composer offering to compose the music for us. Two French mimes/dancers found themselves in Brisbane; we had found a use for them as well. We had some problems trying to get the actor who played the Russian Tzar to employ an appropriate accent. Then we found out that he was very good when speaking with the American accent, so we settled for that. The play had thus gained an entirely new dimension. A bear costume we substituted with that of a gorilla. The October premiere had turned out fine, so did the season that followed. The attendances were not great but reasonable; the feeling was that Brisbane wasn’t quite yet ready yet for an experiment of such a magnitude. But it was a close thing.
I have a vivid recollection of the last performance at the La Boite theatre. The venue has changed since, but it still is the arena-like, with audience on all sides as it was then. It was always unique, but it has now gained reputation nationally as a true experimental theatre – one of the best in Australia. We played a late night show, the so-called La Bamba, which traditionally begins at midnight. It was a hot pre-Christmas Brisbane night, very humid even in the small hours of the morning, and the air-conditioning in the building did not work very well. Perhaps it wasn’t yet properly adjusted for the summer that had arrived with a bang. Playing Ubu means being on stage for almost three hours, with only short interruptions. When I proclaimed the profound last line:
“Without Poland, there would be no Poles!”
I was near exhausted and thoroughly dehydrated. An angel descended onto the stage, in the form of young man, offering me a stubby of beer. He knew why he was doing this. He turned out to be Eugene Gilfedder, now not so young any more, but one of the best Australian stage actors. Our paths had crossed occasionally ─ on the set of TV drama Medivac, or during the play Kafka Dances at La Boite again, where Eugene played Kafka, while I was an expert adviser. Eugene suggested to the author Timothy Daly, who was present, that I translate his play into Czech. That was subsequently agreed upon and duly done; the play is nevertheless to be found in the archives of the Czech National Library, where it remains, unproduced as yet. Upon inquiry I was told by an expert that the Prague scene was far too much “overkafkaised” to give it a chance. If only the producers over there knew that its Sydney production saw a hitherto unknown actress in her first major stage role. Her name? Kate Blanchett.
A duet with the singing star
To play Ubu was a dream that I had since I was about twenty-four, and had seen the Prague production of the play with the reputation of being the “Mother of all plays of the Theatre of the Absurd”, Ubu the King. Lo and behold! That dream was fulfilled, even though that came many years later. But that’s how it often is; the dreams of our young days might become fulfilled, be it in some unexpected ways. I had another similar dream, since I was even younger, and ever since I had begun to sing. It was singing a duet with Eva Pilarová. I had been singing some popular songs in duet with my regular singing partner, Eva Fišarová, and she was as good as I could have hoped for. But she couldn’t help it ─ Eva she was, but Pilarová she was not.
There is only one Pilarová, and had she been born in the USA or UK, she would by now be a household name. She had burst onto the stage, radio and television screens at about twenty, after having studied at the Janacek Academy in Brno. Her voice had, and I believe still has, an unbelievable range of three and a half octaves. Because of this, if she wanted to, she could sing in practically any operatic role, from alto to soprano. But Pilarová is above all a jazz singer, though when I mentioned this while interviewing her she corrected me, saying that she sees herself as a swing singer. And though she could sing some very high notes, she prefers the low or middle heights, where her very distinct voice sounds the best. But let’s leave such technicalities aside: to me, and many others I know, she has always been the best singer!
Despite her huge popularity, under the Communist regime Eva Pilarová had the bad luck of having been practically from the beginning hopelessly at odds with the regime and its authorities. It started with her first husband, a double bass player of some note, who after a couple of years of marriage had left her with a child and the name that she kept, when he managed to slip out of the country, and went to America. That was in 1962, and it meant that she had a big stain in the file the secret service was keeping on her. For instance, when several years later she was offered a rather lucrative contract to sing in Las Vegas, they would not let her go. She was nevertheless allowed to tour the Soviet Union, and its states like Chechnya, Dagestan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan or Kirgizia. Which of the international singing stars has this in her curriculum?
In 1996, several years after the collapse of Communist regime, Eva Pilarová was to tour the Czech communities in Australia. She was also going to appear at the Czechoslovakian Club in Brisbane, which was already arranged. As I was doing the radio programmes in Czech here in Brisbane, her agent, otherwise an owner of a successful manufacturing business in Sydney, had contacted me beforehand to arrange for an interview. He also asked me if I could arrange any other performance, so I had been in contact with the Brisbane Jazz Club, where they had been very keen on having her sing, after hearing some of her recordings I gave them. However, when Pilarová arrived a day before the show due at the Czechoslovak Club, she insisted on a proper rehearsal before any such performance, and the way she described it to me, she meant it to be a very thorough one. There was no time for that, unfortunately.
I understood her completely, though. I too had had something to do with the entertainment industry, and had performed “alive” a number of times, even on the Czech television. I had described elsewhere the recurring dream that I was having about immigration. Here is another such dream, that of an entertainer:
Everything is moving inexorably towards beginning of a show. It could be any kind of show, but in my case it is often an opera. I don’t know why, because I have not sung in operas much, but maybe that’s the snag, because the role I’m to appear in has been grossly under rehearsed. And the moment of truth is coming nearer and nearer … Time to wake up, hot and sweaty!
Perhaps every singer would have encountered the following nightmarish situation. It happens to actors too, but there it is much easier to talk your way out of trouble, provided you can improvise even a bit. But singers are tied by the lyrics of the song, and therefore can’t do anything like that. In real life you find yourself on the stage and half way through a song, when suddenly a feeling creeps up on you, nay, it is a certainty, that you don’t remember the words of the next stanza. It’s coming nearer, but there is nothing, just emptiness. The trick is not to panic, because nearly always when reaching that particular spot, the text just automatically comes to mind, something clicks and you continue, without fail. Only rarely it ends in a pratfall.
In case of Pilarová there was also her reputation that had to be taken into account. She had worked hard to gain it and now she had to guard it. Thus I fully understood her when she refused to do a show without a thorough rehearsal, particularly as in this case she would have been required to say at least something in English. Her agent should have discussed this with her, before he talked to me. But when he rang me, not forgetting to stress up that he was finding himself on the slope of a mountain on a Alpine skiing trip, he was far too confident ─ “Eva will do what I would tell her”, such were his words to me. The reality was different when he brought his Eva to Australia.
The interview was one of the most interesting ones that I have conducted. I had managed to catch Pilarová off guard a bit, when I asked her how she felt about being the obvious model to the singer Suzi Kajetanova, which the author Josef Škvorecký (who also figures in this book) has in his novels and stories. She said that she had come to terms with it, more or less. But I felt that there was a bit of tension in her voice, so I better moved onto another subject. The rest of the interview was relaxed, mostly about the Czech musical scene, where we had quite a few common friends and acquaintances, as it turned out. By then Pilarová, having found out about my singing past, was calling me “my colleague”.
The Saturday show was a good one, with very nice attendance. At one stage, having gone through a mixture of songs that made her so popular in the sixties and seventies, Eva Pilarová said:
“I would now like to sing a duet with someone from the audience … However, I have one condition. He has to have a beard!”
That was something everybody in the audience understood ─ her most popular singing partner Waldemar Matuška had a prominent dark beard. The beard I had too, though by no means black, nevertheless it was still reasonably dark. Ostentatiously reluctant and pretending disinclination, I had taken myself to the stage. If you have a feeling that this might have been pre-arranged, then you are right. We had previously agreed on one of the most popular songs from the sixties, which we had quickly gone through before the show. Being the singing colleague, she would have trusted me, but still, rehearsing is the thing professionals do, isn’t it so?
Yes, and it was I who had put Eva Pilarová onto that thing about insisting on her singing partner having the beard.
TO THE RADIO STATION