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Mozart, Markham and Napoleonic Mayham

July 23, 2012

Photo by John Hoerner
The Marriage of Figaro

The Victorian Opera Company gave us an unforgettable performance of The marriage of Figaro. under Jean Pierre Mignon’s direction. This scintillating adaption of Mozarts splendid opera will also be the swansong of Richard Gill’s time with Victorian Opera – Gill we will see reincarnated in his new role as freelance conductor.

The marriage of FigaroThe marriage of Figaro is based on French playright Beaumarchais’s (1732-1799) controversial political satire which mocked the aristocracy of the time exposing their failings and cravings to the derision of the populance. The play was not only banned in France, but also” proscribed by Emperor Joseph II, who ruled The Holy Roman Empire from Vienna, where Mozart and Pierre Da Ponte’s operatic adaptation premiered”. The irreverent theme of this opera still has resonance even in equalitarian Australia.

The cast included Brett Carter as Count Almaviva and Tiffany Speight as Countess Almaiviva. The power of Jacqueline Porter’s voice as Susanna seemed not quite reconcilable to her tiny frame. Porter added a dramatic quality to the role – it was a stellar performance.


I have just finished reading Straight On Til Morning Mary Lovell’s authorized Biography of the beautiful, impetuous controversial, thrice married Beryl Markham (26 October 1902 – 3 August 1986) an English born Kenyan Aviatrix , adventurer, and racehorse trainer. During the pioneer days of aviation, she became the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic from east to west. She wrote West with the Night a superb memoir that even Ernest Hemingway raved about. Hemingway put it simply – “this is a bloody good book”.

Beryl’s family moved to Kenya when she was four. Her mother quickly returned to England. Beryl became a rather wild child, raised by her adored father a firm patriarchal race horse trainer who became her role model for the men in her life. Beryl became the first licensed female horse trainer in Kenya- as well as displaying magnificent horsemanship she spoke four African native languages and often swore colorfully in Swahili.

Beryl had an affair with the intriguing Denys Finch Hatton after his romance with Karen Blixen author of Out of Africa was fading. He invited Beryl to tour game lands on what turned out to be his fatal flight, but Markham declined because of a premonition from her flight instructor, Tom Campbell Black. Blcak was probably one of the best pilots in the world at the time. “A modest man, with a delightful puckish sense of humour, he was precise, well educated” and as opposed to the happy valley set unbelievably kind. He believed implicitly in the future of civil avaition.

Campbell Black was interesting as he was the son of an Australian from Melbourne. Since a child he had had a passion for flight. When war broke out when he was 17 he enrolled with the Royal Naval Air Force and later transferred to the Royal Flying Corp. In the early 20s he went to Kenya and after a unsuccessful stint as a coffee grower, got his commercial license and started freelance flying work in extremely primitive conditions. He set many records that have become aviation history and became the founder of commercial aviation in Kenya. He taught Beryl how to fly, how to meticulously maintain her aircraft and even to dismantle and reassemble an engine – they became lovers. Beryl was as much at home in the saddle as she was in the air.

Beryl never boasted about her aviation exploits and in that way was surprisingly modest. Like Napoleon she treated her horses well. Her horses lived in the lap of luxury – each had a horse box 18ft by 18ft lined with teak and had a banana leaf roof dotting the boxes in a circle like an African village – she thought horses should be able to see each other. For herself and her horses it was nothing but the best – all on credit “we may die tomorrow”. Her fortunes fluctuated with the wind often destitute and living on her wits she was always immaculately turned out and looking glamorous.

The International Astronomical Union has named the impact crater Markham on the planet Venus after her.

Napoleon Takes a Tumble
Unlike Beryl Markham Napoleon Bonaparte displayed no horsemanship despite propaganda in painting where he appears master of his horse. In Corsica son of a minor aristocrat he learnt to ride on donkeys. In the Memoirs of Constant, the Emperor Napoleon’s Head Valet which you can read online he describes Napoleon’s lack of grace as a horseman – “like a butcher sliding around sideways backwards and forwards”.

On Saturday I attended the Symposium at the NGV called Circumnavigating Napoleon. I was just in time to listen to an interesting lecture by The Duchess Of Hamilton on Napoleon and his Horses. We learnt that although Napoleon was a tireless rider the paparazzi now days would have had a field day. The headlines would probably have read Nap Flat On His Back for he took numerous tumbles. During the Occupation of Egypt and Syria (1798–1801) his French calvery men in 110 degree heat had to share their biscuit and water ration with their horses. In Egypt Napoleon admired the Marmalukes fluid style of riding totally at ease with their Arabian horses.


Napoleon built up the horse studs in France badly depleted after revolution. If Napoleon was alive today I would feel sure that his prancing horse would have been a Ferrari, besides Ferrari have just won the German Grand prix at Hockenheim.

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