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A Ukulele Opera: Act #1

Introduction to a “Reading opera” …

I have written this “opera” as a reading experience … I would have liked to do a “real” opera, with music and libretto etc, but was not able to find someone with both music composing capability or instrument playing skills to assist myself to that end … hence; Plan C  … a setting with some songs both localised Italian folk and a touch of known Neapolitan arias and symphonic music with re-written words.

I know that time is of the essence these days and skimming of text is the usual habit of reading, but if you could take the time to play the pieces linked for the words and those songs that accompany a moment, it would be a better read for it and much appreciated by the author.

Thanking you in advance …

An opera in three acts: One; Introduction and setting … Two: The friendship and tragedy of Artini and Tess … Three; The finale with Enrico and Rosaline …

You may desire, but you may not “want”.

If you Google these coordinates … it will take you to a place in the Murray Mallee where you will see several long rows of what look like little squares … these squares are in fact charcoal burning pits dug and lined with stone in the years of the second world war … The pits were to produce charcoal in lieu of the lack of petrol for trucks and cars in the war years … the charcoal was used in “gas-converter engines” in those trucks etc … Many Italians were held here and other camps in the Mallee for the duration of the war, some as “enemy aliens” others as lesser risk aliens … some as young as seventeen.

This is their story

It is 1942, the Japanese have bombed Darwin and petroleum products have been rationed so that charcoal is in demand for the gas-converters used on cars and trucks instead of petrol. Many Italians, Germans and other nationals considered as “enemy aliens” have been rounded up and sent to camps in the Riverland for the duration of the war.

Act #1

Introduction and setting

The stage is in darkness, only the faint but increasing depth of music of Puccini’s “O mio babbino caro” wafts out … and then a spotlight illuminates a youngish man sitting on and amongst a heap of sacks bundled and tied and some loose around him … He is fiddling with the tuning of a musical instrument … a ukulele … as he does so, he absently-minded sings bits and pieces of the above words to the music played …

We watch him for some time as he sings and fiddles with the tuning of the instrument .. then another spotlight falls onto a man standing to the side of the stage … he is Giuseppe (Joe), the narrator of the story … He looks at the man with the ukulele and then turns to the audience …

“He’s a sight, isn’t he? … there fiddling with his project while the world around him burns” … He calls to the man … “Hey, Gemano! … when are you going to make a finish to that thing?”

“When it plays a tune for me” … the man calls back without looking up.

Joe laughs softly … then addresses the audience ..

“He’s been making that dammed ukulele for more than three months .. He used to play in a band back in the old country … up in the Dolamites … there, we would be house-bound by snow for the deep winter so that there was little anyone could do outside … every source of water was frozen over including the communal clothes-washing troughs, so that even the washing had to be piled in a corner as the clothes would freeze solid on the line if placed outside … the houses had three levels: The larger animals stabled under the house so their warmth rose to the middle level where the people lived and the top floor was the store for the food for the animals which acted as a insulator above and the feed would be tossed down from an open door to the animals below.

So all they did besides the house chores and feeding of the animals, was to create and sing songs and tell stories … rest and recreation .. and it was good … But now, in this new country, with the war, we are trapped and alone … and out here the Sun seems always to be shining! … so no rest for the wicked …

They’re all like that here … lost souls sent to this lonely place as enemy aliens in another country … They’re out here in the Murray Mallee cutting wood to “cook” in the charcoal pits to make fuel for the gas-converter units for the trucks and cars during this war … Petrol being unavailable to the average citizen, charcoal is used and we are here making the charcoal out of cut mallee wood and us Italian internees are held here to do the cutting and burning … I am in charge of keeping them in line … well … just keeping them in some sort of loose contentment … as much as I am able that is … while we get the job done … I work for Mr Fox … he is contracted by the government to produce so much charcoal per month for the war effort … Mr Fox lives in the city and comes here on occasion to inspect the operation. We all know when Mr Fox is coming, as those cutting near the main road can see his car coming from a distance and they then call out in a relay one to another to all in the camp: “Foxee! … Foxee!” … so we hurry and get things in order before he turns up.

We sing this little ditty as we hurry:

“The Fox, the fox, he’s out on the track!
The fox, the fox, he’ll soon be on our backs!
Hurry! Hurry! … the camp it must be clean.
All the chickens scurry, scurry,
For the Fox he can be mean!
Some men take the bagging,
Some men stack the racks,
Hurry, hurry, for the fox is on our backs!”

Not all the men are content to be here … some are just thankful to have escaped Mussolini’s wrath, but some came to this country for a better life and are not interested in the politics of the thing … I myself came here in 1927 on the invitation of an old friend who was here … Come over, he said … you’ll like it … Is there food there I asked … yes, he replied … plenty … so I came and I am fed rabbit! … they call it underground mutton … I just ate and ate … we were starving to death back home … Buono!”

[Just at this point, Gemano strums his ukulele for the first time … it sounds pleasant to him].

The Narrator jerks his head toward Gemano and continues:

“Take Gemano there … he left the mountains of the Dolomites to start a new life here in a new country … He left his fiancé back there while he intended to set himself up in this new land, then he intended to go back and marry her and bring her here to Australia .. but the war broke out … and now he hasn’t heard of his beloved Sofia for many a month and he is stuck here in this camp broken hearted … he has a picture of her and he accosts every new man that comes here from the Dolomites and begs them if they have heard anything of his love … it’s painfully sad to hear him lament …

Look! … see there, a couple of new chaps now … see how keen he is to ask them … ”

[ Gemano stops the two men and produces a photograph from his inside pocket and shows it to them … we do not hear their words, but we can see them shake their heads in regret … Gemano lets them go and stands alone on the stage … his head bowed .. the music of “O’ mio babbino caro” begins … he sings his lament to the audience as he holds out the photograph]:

“Has anyone seen my Sophia …

Here is her picture … I hold it so dear …

We kissed on the steps at the station,

And I put a white rose in her hair,

There behind her right ear …

look, you can see it there! (he points to the picture)

And now she is gone I miss her …

And at night’s end I can’t kiss her.

Has anyone at all seen my Sophia? (Gemano pleads)

I can’t believe she’s not here …

I so want her near me …

Has anyone seen Sophia …

Has anyone seen my fidanza …

We kissed at the station and

I put a rose in her hair …

Now I can’t believe she’s not here ..

I so want her near me …

Have you seen my Sophia?

My darling … my love … my dear.

Has anyone seen my Sophia?

My darling … my love … my dear …

Gemano then silently turns and returns to the heap of bags and once again attends to the ukulele … Guiseppe, the narrator nods his head in sympathy … he continues:

“Ah! … Still he makes the best of his situation … Everyone here has lost someone or something in this blasted war … You wonder why these men have to be tortured some more by being isolated out here in the Mallee … ”

Gemano Filosi turned the tuning peg to adjust the last string on his hand-made ukulele. Satisfied on the tension, he tapped the conical, wedge-shaped peg tight into its allotted hole and placed the small hammer on the ground next to himself … this was the moment … now was the testing time to see if all his skills as a joiner that he pulled together to make this musical instrument out of old tea-chest plywood, mallee-wood neck and fretboard with some old piano wire begged from the Blanchetown Hotel owner for strings would pay off …

Gemano settled himself gingerly amongst the bags with the ukulele cradled in his arm and strummed the first notes …

“Whallyo!” he cried in joy when the notes played out clear as a bell into the evening air … and he then strummed some more …

The spotlight on Joe fades and the stage lights up to reveal a group of men nearby sitting around a table playing cards … they stop their game and look to Gemano … some men there turned their heads to the sound of the music … and they smiled .. and some call out felicitations and congratulations to Gemano, whom many though a little more than silly in trying to make a musical instrument out of such inglorious materials …

“Can you play a tune, Gemano?” they cry … several men gathered around him …

“Of course I can!“ Gemano responded “Was I not in a band before I was sent here? … what shall I play?” he asked the now small gathering of internees and outcasts …

“Play us some Verdi” … a wit suggested with a laugh … ”Rossini!” another followed … Gemano thought for a moment then responded …

“I know … I will play a bit of Opera .. a song I picked up just before I came here … are you ready?” … and he smiled his big, bright, broad smile for which he was nicknamed “The Bay of Naples” … or just “Naples” for short …

The men all clamour; “Yes … play, play!”

So Gemano struck up the ukulele to the tune of George Formby’s; “When I’m cleaning windows” … He sings in a broken Italo/English manner …

“Now I go a cleanin’ windows to earn an honesta bob
Fora the nosy parker it’s an intrestin’ job

Now it’s a job that just suits me
A window cleaner you woulda be
If you can see what I canna see
When I’m cleanin’ windows” … Gemano stands and walks around the group of men singing some more of the silly song as he does so …

The men let out a raucous laugh at the cheek of Gemano and the ludicrous song … the first song they had shared to played music for such a long time … and just through that simple sound of music and singing a sense of joy and happiness spread over the camp for the first time in ages.

There follows several favourite folk songs … like ”La Paganella”:

One of the young men; Artini, was angry at his situation … he berates the men for their lack of anger at their situation.

“Why do we all just sit and accept our situation? … Why are we stuck in this lonely scrub working for nothing but food and thankfulness to our captors? … And all we do is sing silly songs … I didn’t come all this way to waste my young years as a mule to these Englandi delinquents! … Look at us … they call US enemy aliens and lock us away … and there also are those aborigine people, the first natives of the land … they call them “enemy aliens“ too and lock THEM away in reserves across the river! … so now both of us peoples are captives to those bloody Englandi colonists who think they own the bloody place even over the first peoples!! They lock everyone away who is not English … what are these people … bastardi? … and us, do you not remember the vow we made to our loved ones back home? .. that we will make a life for ourselves and send help back to them?”

Artini then goes to each man in turn as he encourages them to join in and sing a song about it … ”

To be continued into Act #2

 

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6 comments

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  1. Anne Byam

    Hi Joseph ~

    I had read the 3 acts of your proposed stage production “Ukulele Opera” … and had decided after a fair bit of thought and some googling of this and that – to write back – but you have beaten me to it, by offering it here for others to read.

    First, I really like the story, especially the connection of displaced and unfairly treated persons – the Italian ‘prisoners’ and the Aboriginal community, and of course the love stories in it – both tragic and happy.

    I had a few points – however there is not a lot I can say.

    ** While this uses operatic pieces, it is more of a theatrical stage play than an opera ( I think you realise that )

    ** Any stage play like this would take a great deal of production – and editing of the narrative.

    ** To use something like ” La Paganella ” would most likely require permission from Coro Della Sat … and permission to use any other music that is held under licence.

    While I was intent on answering your request for comments, I came across a couple of things that may interest you for later thought.

    ** An Italian Amateur Theatre company ? Google this : italian amateur theatre in australia – there is quite a lot on offer, multi-cultural etc.

    ** Some years back, the BBC had a series called “Talking Heads” which were all monologues ( something you have written into your production from a narrator ) … and they used excellent actors, male and female to tell the stories. They were superb – wonderful. Mostly written ( I think ) by Allan Bennett who also takes part in several of them. Here are two links I hope you enjoy as story telling – and after all that is what you would have wanted your narrator to do –

    ~ Talking Heads Monologues https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0uNEEfQKfwk = Dame Patricia Routledge

    ~ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ozEAkq3qSi0 = Allan Bennett.

    All the best with your endeavours …. I do think you should write a book.

    Cheers ~~

  2. Joseph Carli

    Hello, Anne and thank you for going to the effort of giving sincere and thoughtful feedback…Yes, I accept your reccomendations and I have offered it to people as a “reading opera”…not a serious production piece..and yes..it would take a huge effort of editing and re-writing to go onto a staged piece…
    Yes..I am aware of Alan Bennet’s “Talking Heads”…I particularly enjoy “Miss Fozzard finds her feet” series…a fantastic effort and acting…
    And again ; yes…I have stolen the use of several pieces of folk musicthat if used for profit, I certainly would be seeking permission..in this case, however, I seek only their understanding. . .
    Again…thanking you..

  3. Joseph Carli

    Hello again, Anne…Your late night comment caught me just as I was about to ascend to that “closest thing to heaven” here on Earth..: A warm bed cuddled up next to a warm wife….and as such, my reply was somewhat truncated…priorities…you know…

    I wrote a short introduction to the first act that I put up here..you can read it to see what my original intentions were..However, coming from a long career as a tradesman in the building industry, you would appreciate that the majority of “artists” one meets in THAT occupation are of the bullshitting genre….and any “real” artists one meets in the line of duty..so to speak..generally are so squeezed for money that there is little time or inclination on their part to stand around discussing the finer points of ..say..: “inner-spectrum spatiality”..to the lumpen prole’ hammering away at their walls…

    But then, I thought of the idea of “reader inclusion” where as in those “Talking Heads” pieces (for example), the reader is a passive viewer who relies upon the skills of the actor to deliver those exquisive lines…for THAT is the hinge-pin that stage production hangs its reputation upon…but here, on these blogging sites, the reader is active, cautious to commit, invisible and impatient..so there are several “rules” that apply when delivering a piece to their attention to seek that “inclusion”…the first is brevity…the attention span of the average “peruser” of blog pieces could be measurable in the realms of so many “goldfishes”..ie ; a good political piece could be said to measure..: “1000 goldfishes” in attention..whereas a bad piece may glean…oh…say fifty of the same..so it is imperative when presenting a piece for the public that the story-line move along rather steamily…if you know what I mean..

    The second rule of blogging is “correct speak”…because each and every social media platform has at its base a cabal of like minded regulars, who pars and discect those pieces looking for cracks and dissentions from the unwritten but well-known status quo of agreed respectability..things like….oh..mansplaining…or..double-entendre meanings…perhaps a hint of sexual activity can be misconstrued to demand a degree of “wymin-splaining” to the offending author..and of course..there is the cardinal sin of all educated purists who seem to hover over social media sites like the veritable sword of D..and one I have to admit that ..I..am more guilty of than any other crime on the grammar-nazi books..yes..: The erronious ellipses misuse…guilty as charged!..but I have always found the comma a tad twee for a good pause and intake of breath…and the semi-colan or the dash as feeling superior and demanding…so I opt for the non-confronting dot, dot, dot…

    But there..a few thoughts before I have to go attend to the washing up..as for a book..I dunno…I wonder if there is really enough room for another “writer of fiction” on that remainder table outside Woolies…and besides…I think when one has to wade through the plethora of ‘therapy authors”, “Competition authors”, and career commentator authors, the remaining measures of “goldfishes” in the attention spans of the general public may be reduced to a minus…

    I think I’ll leave the books to the more intense personalities..

  4. Joseph Carli

    One thing I will say about Alan Bennett…marvelous and viciously insightful writer that he is…you can tell he is a “camp writer”…like Patrick White, he uses “his women” as a kind of “Mother vengeance” pieces…

  5. Pingback: A Ukulele Opera: Act #2 - » The Australian Independent Media Network

  6. Pingback: A Ukulele Opera: Act #3 - » The Australian Independent Media Network

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