Whenever the Australian Chamber Orchestra gives Barry Humphries the chance to curate a programme he picks some of the most obscure and outrageous repertoire ever performed in an Australian concert hall – witness his concert with the ACO in May. Why the fascination with the louche cabaret songs of 1920s Germany? Clues appear in his second autobiography, My Life as Me (2002). A precocious teenager in 1950, Humphries would raid the second-hand record shops of Melbourne for little-known treasures by Kurt Weil and Friedrich Holländer, then play them on the family gramophone late at night. Like the parents of many bedroom DJs today, his mother opposed the majority of his vinyl collection: "Barry, must you listen to so much Continental music? It wasn't so very long ago that we were at war with these people." When Time Out phoned Humphries in Switzerland recently and asked how he would justify his adoration of the largely forgotten music of the Weimar Republic to his mother today, he replied simply: "I would take her to this concert."
Humphries clearly intends to both delight and shock his audience. In addition to his role of conférencier (the title then given to cabaret MCs, respected and sometimes reviled for their political and social commentary) Humphries will join cabaret artist Meow Meow for an "extremely infectious" laughing song. Another work never before performed in an Australian concert hall will be a precisely scripted faked orgasm [see boxout], for which Humphries invites audience participation. Meow Meow will also sing a sapphic duet with ACO violinist Satu Vänskä. When told the organisers were pondering an adult content warning, Humphries was highly supportive of the idea, and yet encouraged children to come along. He remains true to the Dadaist spirit of the time.
That kind of cheery and irreverent entertainment in the Weimar Republic ended with the Nazi's seizure of power in 1933. "It's art on the brink of cataclysm," Humphries says. "We are playing a lot of music that was not just banned, but led to the persecution and death of many of the composers." Some continued working in exile in film studios in London or Hollywood; many artists simply turned disheartened to other work. After the war, Humphries says "survivors left Europe for the furthest and safest destination they could find on the map: Melbourne." Some of these refugees sold him the records and schnitzel and coffee and that he found so very exotic and desirable as a teenager. He still recalls something one of those fascinating New Australians told him: "Hitler gave Melbourne good chocolate and chamber music."