Debbie Kruger
Lyndon Terracini and Donk
••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••Photo by Suzanna Clarke
September 25-26, 1998


Lyndon Terracini lives an alternative kind of life for an opera singer. Debbie Kruger reports.

He resembles an ageing rock star more than an opera singer, with long, straight, jet-black hair streaked gently with grey, customary black T-shirt and leather jacket. His charming, rustic weather-board Queenslander on stilts, set on 2.5ha of lush northern NSW pasture, is hardly convenient to the great opera centres of the world.

The northern rivers, alternative-thinking centre of Australia, is nevertheless where you find internationally renowned baritone Lyndon Terracini.

He has just learned Transcendental Mediation from Byron Bay’s foremost TM mentor, Helen Patterson. Energy levels are up, the mid is crystal clear. And, probably not coincidentally, the performing arts in this most laid-back of regions are getting a much needed shot in the arm with the establishment of a broad-based organization, Northern Rivers Performing Arts Inc (NORPA), of which Terracini is artistic director.

It might seem odd that a performer who has appeared with the Australian Opera and other companies and festivals around the country, and who has graced stages in Copenhagen, London, Frankfurt and Zurich, would choose to take up residence in provincial Lismore.

His menagerie of animals — including a donkey named Donk, a goose named Honk and a fawn-like whippet named Stronzo (Italian for turd) – might suggest he has, in fact, forsaken the wider world, but this is definitely not so.

Terracini is lucid about his broader vision — his contribution to Australian culture – and says Lismore is as appropriate a home as anywhere. “I don’t think it matters where you live now,” he says. “When we lived in Italy we lived on top of a mountain, and people said, ‘Oh no, you’ve got to live in Milan or London or wherever you work.’ Well, it hasn’t been the case for me.”

Before settling in Lismore five years ago, Terracini and his wife Liz lived at Lake Como, in a 15th-centure house they still own. They were in Italy for eight years, and their two daughters were born there.

But despite his distinctly Italian name and the fact he affectionately refers to himself as a “wog,” Terracini is a fourth-generation Australian who did not set foot in Italy until he was in his late 20s.

He first went there at the invitation of composer Hans Werner Henze, to create the role of Sancio Panza in the world premiere of the Henze-Paisiello opera Don Quischotte at the first Montepulciano Festival. Henze had seen Terracini in his El Cimarron at the 1976 Adelaide Festival, the culmination of an impressive Australian operatic debut season which also included Sid in Albert Herring for the AO.

Terracini moved to Italy in 1979, and in the ensuing years performed select character pieces or solo engagements, always resisting the security of a contract with one company. He returned to Australia at least once a year to work, and his engagements included the world premiere of Richard Meale’s opera about Frankenstein writer Mary Shelley and her friends, Mer de Glace.

“Ever since I left Australia in ’79 I’ve wanted to do the pieces that I’ve wanted to do,” he says. I didn’t want to do things that would just keep me working in particular opera houses.

I just find that I’m not being creative if I’m in an ensemble situation and they’re telling me what I’ll be singing for the next three years. I will decide what I want to sing, and as a freelance I can do that. Also, in the repertoire that I do, I have a lot of say in the pieces.”

This thinking was behind his refusal to play Javert in the Australian production of Les Miserables, a character he would have no doubt relished. It is also this desire to have at least a stake in creative control in his projects which has motivated him to set up NORPA.

Lismore was never part of Terracini’s life plan. He brought his family back to Australia because of his wife’s ill health. Driving through the area they decided they liked it, and the University of New England – Northern Rivers offered Terracini a lecturing position in music and theatre, which he held for a year.

There were family links with the area, too. Both sets of his grandparents were Salvation Army officers in Lismore and Casino. Terracini’s parents were members in Sydney, and Terracini grew up frolicking on the beach in Manly while learning to play brass instruments with the Salvos.

Terracini’s affinity with country people and the bush goes back to his earliest career days when he toured for the State Opera of South Australia, performing to culturally deprived “rednecks” in the Northern territory and on the edge of the Nullarbor. Terracini is still moved by the honest, unaffected responses of the people he encountered.

Nearly 20 years later, that feeling relates quite specifically to his present project. “For me, the really special and honest people in Australia are the people who live in the country.”

NORPA is an umbrella body incorporating theatre, dance and music production arms, as well as entrepreneurial, venue-management and fund-raising divisions. Terracini believes it is the only organization of its kind in Australia.

Created just this year, it has been funded so far by the NSW Ministry for the Arts to produce two Australian plays, which feature in a diverse subscription series offered to people in the regio this year.

One is a stage adaptation of Peter Weir’s film The Cars that Ate Paris, to be performed outside Lismore City Hall with real stock cars crashing behind the audience. Terracini was inspired by the recent Chambermade Opera production based on the film, but is grounding his adaptation on the screenplay rather than the opera. He will also direct the production, to be staged in December.

The other Australian work is a play by Andrea Lemon, Lilies of the Paddock, which toured the northern rivers extensively last month. It is about the problems that beset modern women on the land — those who are born into a farming family and must face the continuing patriarchal system of the farm passing down through the sons, and those who marry into such families, often moving from the city and facing dramatic changes.

Terracini describes his area as the fastest growing in Australia, and sees this as a sing that Australia is beginning to decentralise. “So many people are moving here, and they are people who’ve decided to do so for a whole range of reasons,” he says.

“But they’re also extremely contemporary people, they’re very well educated and although hey may want to go back on the farm, live on the land, or whatever, they want to do it in a totally different way, and they want to have a spirit, they want to have an artistic life as well as being close to the earth.”

Terracini felt it was important that people who might not often have the opportunity of going to the theatre could see Lilies of the Paddock. “I thought, well, if we’re doing a play that works best in community halls and it’s about them, why don’t we take it out there, rather than doing a few performances in Lismore.

The entire budget for the tour was $18,000 — “the cost of two costumes in an opera.”

The feeling among arts heavies in Lismore is that NORPA could be the key to bringing funding back to northern NSW. Terracini is only cautiously optimistic at this stage. As a member of the Australia Council’s music committee of the Performing Arts Board, he is all too aware of constraints in arts funding, particularly in the regions.

Until recently the northern rivers was regarded “as a complete joke — far too much in-fighting and squabbling”, although he believes change has come. It is a sign of the regard for Terracini that Kerry Dwyer directed Lilies and John Rayment designed the lighting.

The northern rivers subscription series was devised by Terracini and his wife, who manages Lismore City Hall, with the Arts Council’s far north coast regional development officer, Laurence Bendle.

“Look, if you’re sitting in Lismore, or for that matter in Tenterfield, the last thing you want to do is see the same theatre company six times a year. Why would you? It’s boring! But if you have Circus Oz and Bran Nue Dae and Doppio Teatro and Paul Mecurio — wow!” says Terracini.

“And in the same series you have plays and dance pieces and various other performances by companies that are from the region. Well, it’s a completely different perspective because suddenly you have the performing arts of Australia playing here.”

Terracini hasn’t forsaken his singing career, and insists that NORPA only takes up one-third of his time. Straight after the opening of Lilies he flew to Berlin to perform a work in which he is much acclaimed, Peter Maxwell Davies’s Eight Songs for a Mad King, and he is working on various projects, including a work based on Kafka’s unfinished novella The Burrow for next year’s Perth Festival.

“I believe we can do something special here, and for an arts organization to survive in the 21st century, it has to have a completely different sort of structure.

“It’s not enough to have a theatre company in the northern rivers — it’s been tried before and it hasn’t worked, and it will never work. A dance company on its own won’t work and a music company on its own won’t work. But having all of them, well then you can do something, because they can all work in their various areas, but they can also work together.”

And come the 21st century, will Terracini still be comfortably ensconced in rural tranquillity with Donk, Honk and co? “I’m be sitting in that tree doing TM, probably,” he relies, a cosmic glint in his eyes.

Lyndon Terracini performs Barry Conyngham’s Bony Anderson (October 8) and Eight Songs for a Mad King (October 10) at the 1993 International Barossa Music Festival.

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