'Epiphany: The education of an operamane' by Ian Dickson

It is a truth, maybe not universally acknowledged but a truth nonetheless, that epiphanies tend to happen earlier rather than later in one’s life. Soul-shattering, life-changing experiences occur more regularly when the soul is tender enough to be shattered and the life malleable enough to be changed.

I am an excited seven-year-old. Today I am going to what I have been informed is London’s grandest theatre to witness the World’s Greatest Dancer in the ballet Cinderella. I am no theatre-going virgin. I have seen Peter Pan and clapped furiously to bring Tinker Bell back to life and have been to a children’s matinee at Doris Fitton’s Independent Theatre on a return to Australia, but it has been made clear to me that today’s experience will be of a different standard altogether.

Lunch is at the Trocadero in Piccadilly Circus, long since turned into a sort of pinball parlour but then a bastion of rather faded Edwardian grandeur. We walk to the theatre. I am a little surprised that it is right next to a vegetable market, but the building itself lives up to expectations. The uniformed doormen loom majestically over the entrance, the lobby is imposing with its grand staircase, and then there is the auditorium. Rudolf Nureyev, fresh from the grandeur of the Mariinsky and the Paris Opéra was apparently unimpressed by Covent Garden’s décor, but for this seven-year-old, the tiers stretching up into the heavens, the royal box, and the vast red curtain make it the epitome of glamour.

I am given the aisle seat so that I can lean out and not have a view impeded by the adult in front of me. The lights dim, the music starts, the curtain rises, the ballet begins – but the earth does not move. I am not bored or disappointed. The scene changes are magic. I enjoy the Ugly Sisters, they’re funny and I’m pleased that one of them is an Australian like me. I like the World’s Greatest Dancer. She has a nice smile and makes it clear that she is sad to be bullied by her family, excited to be going to the ball and, finally, happy to be with her prince. But she is so old. I do find it rather annoying that just as the story is heating up everything stops and somebody I’ve never seen before and who has no connection to what has been happening dances and then disappears, never to be seen again.

The ballet finishes, the curtain descends, there is a pause, and then it rises to reveal the corps de ballet in formation advancing to the front. The applause begins. This is when I realise that there is a difference between clapping for Tinker Bell and really clapping. This is exciting. The curtain descends again and I’m outraged. Aren’t we going to see the soloists? But a gap in the curtain opens and out they come, some solo, some in pairs. Here come the Ugly Sisters. The audience really like them. The prince arrives, regally acknowledging his reception. Now there is another pause and I am getting worried. Has the World’s Greatest Dancer had an accident? Has she gone home already? At last she appears and now I really hear applause. The house explodes. Adults are standing and shouting. Through the commotion she smiles and curtsies, coolly accepting the adulation. So this is what performers can reduce their audience to. I am vaguely beginning to understand the power of live performance.

As we leave, I am wondering if perhaps next time we could have less ballet and more applause.


I am twelve and going to my second opera. The first was not a success. If you are trying to encourage an eleven-year-old to appreciate opera, perhaps a static, poorly acted, if well-sung, performance of The Flying Dutchman is not the best choice. The second will be Rigoletto, and my dauntless mother is determined not to make the same mistake. For my birthday I am given a recording, the Callas, Gobbi, di Stefano version with the La Scala façade on the cover. My older brother has the score and cajoles me into singing one of the heroine Gilda’s arias, ‘Tutte le Feste’, to his accompaniment. Many years later he tells me it was chosen because the piano reduction was easy, but at the time it didn’t occur to us or our parents that an aria in which the heroine describes her abduction and rape to her father was not perhaps the most suitable vehicle for my boy soprano voice.

This performance is at the much less grand Sadler’s Wells theatre, but the cast is first grade. Rigoletto and his daughter, Gilda, are sung by two young performers who will go on to distinguished international careers: Peter Glossop and Elizabeth Harwood. Because I know the opera, I enjoy the first two acts, but something special happens in the third.

Rigoletto has come to the duke’s palace in search of his daughter. The courtiers try to fob him off, but suddenly the distraught Gilda appears from the duke’s chambers. Rounding on them in fury, Rigoletto drives them off and turns to comfort his daughter. Harwood begins ‘Tutte le Feste’ and I realise the oceans of distance between my amateur warblings and the emotional anguish this wonderful singer can put into the aria without breaking the line. The two singers launch into the passionate ‘vendetta’ duet that ends the act, and I am beginning to understand the combination of technical control and emotional abandon that makes the best opera so powerful. I have become an opera addict for life.

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Sep 13, Grand Remembrances

Today is Grandparents Day in the United States. Being a Grand is a special honor. I feel very blessed that my wife and I have two grandchildren. We were able to visit them today. Yes, we are still being cautious with the coronavirus, but we also find it very difficult to not see them when they live so close. So today we did drop by to visit Jacob (age 10) and Sophia (age 7) along with their parents. We brought donuts and caught up with them. Our grandchildren are still pretty young and this is a precious time in their lives – and ours!

I wish I had known my grandparents better. We never lived in the same place. Dad was a career Air Force pilot, so we moved around a lot. But we did get to see them once in a while when they would visit us, or we them.

A Plague of Giants

There are five known magical ‘kennings’ or types: air, water, fire, earth, and plants. Each nation specializes in of these kennings, and the magic influences the society. There’s a big pitfall with this diversity of ability and locale–not everyone gets along.

Enter the Hathrim giants, or ‘lavaborn’ whose kenning is fire. Where they live the trees that fuel their fire are long gone, but the giants are definitely not welcome anywhere else. They’re big, they’re violent, and they’re ruthless. When a volcano erupts and they are forced to evacuate, they take the opportunity to relocate. They don’t care that it’s in a place where they aren’t wanted.

I first read Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid books and loved them (also the quirky The Tales of Pell), so was curious about this new venture, starting with A PLAGUE OF GIANTS. Think Avatar: The Last Airbender meets Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera series. Elemental magic, a variety of races, different lands. And it’s all thrown at you from page one.

But this story is told a little differently. It starts at the end of the war, after a difficult victory, and a bard with earth kenning uses his magic to re-tell the story of the war to a city of refugees. And it’s this movement back and forth in time and between key players in this war that we get a singularly grand view of the war as a whole. Hearne uses this method to great effect.

There are so many interesting characters in this book that I can’t cover them all here. Often in books like this such a large cast of ‘main’ character can make the storytelling suffer, especially since they don’t have a lot of interaction with each other for the first 3/4 of the book–but it doesn’t suffer, thankfully. And the characterization is good enough, despite these short bursts, that by the end we understand these people and care about what happens to them.

If there were a main character it would be Dervan, a historian who is assigned to record (also spy on?) the bard’s stories. He finds himself caught up in machinations he feels unfit to survive. Fintan is the bard from another country, who at first is rather mysterious and his true personality is hidden by the stories he tells; it takes a while to understand him. Gorin Mogen is the leader of the Hathrim giants who decide to find a new land to settle. He’s hard to like, but as far as villains go, you understand his motivations and he can be even a little convincing. There’s Abhi, the son of hunters, who decides hunting isn’t the life for him–and unexpectedly finds himself on a quest for the sixth kenning. And Gondel Vedd, a scholar of linguistics who finds himself tasked with finding a way to communicate with a race of giants never seen before (definitely not Hathrim) and stumbles onto a mystery no one could have guessed: there may be a seventh kenning.

There are other characters, but what makes them all interesting is that they’re regular people (well, maybe not Gorin Mogen or the viceroy–he’s a piece of work) who become heroes in their own little ways, whether it’s the teenage girl who isn’t afraid to share vital information, to the scholars who suddenly find how crucial their minds are to the survival of a nation, to the humble public servants who find bravery when they need it most. This is a story of loss, love, redemption, courage, unity, and overcoming despair to not give up. All very human experiences by simple people who do extraordinary things.

Hearne’s worldbuilding is engaging. He doesn’t bottle feed you, at first it feels like drinking from a hydrant, but then you settle in and pick up things along the way. Then he shows you stuff with a punch to the gut. This is no fluffy world with simple magic without price. All the magic has a price, and more often than not it leads you straight to death’s door. For most people just the seeking of the magic will kill you. I particularly enjoyed the scenes with Ahbi and his discovery of the sixth kenning and everything associated with it. But giants? I mean, really? It isn’t bad enough fighting people who can control fire that you have to add that they’re twice the size of normal people? For Hearne if it’s war, the stakes are pretty high, and it gets ugly.

The benefit of the storytelling style is that the book, despite its length, moves along steadily (Hearne is no novice, here). The bits of story lead you along without annoying cliffhangers (mostly), and I never got bored with the switch between characters. It was easy to move between them, and they were recognizable enough that I got lost or confused. The end of the novel felt a little abrupt, but I guess that has more to do with I was ready for the story to continue, despite the exiting climax.

If you’re looking for epic fantasy with fun storytelling and clever worldbuilding, check out A PLAGUE OF GIANTS.

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The Artwork Of Gary Choo

Gary Choo is a concept artist/illustrator based in Singapore. I’ve know Gary for a good many years ( 17, actually ), working together in animation studios in Singapore like Silicon Illusions and Lucasfilm. Gary currently runs an art team at Mighty Bear Games, but when time allows he also draws covers for Marvel comics, and they’re amazing –

The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo

To see more of Gary’s work or to engage him for freelance work, head down to his ArtStation.

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