Sedate Melbourne has reinvented itself. Howard Jacobson finds a city where the
You know you're off to a fun place when you spot Placido Domingo on your plane. Not the same part of the plane, I grant you, but heading in the same direction.
The other two - Jose and Luciano - were already in Melbourne giving press conferences and answering questions of a highly-personal nature.
'I fall out of love with 'er,' Luciano was trying to explain. 'She falls out of love with me, I fall in love with someone else.' Watching the telecast of the interview, jet-lagged, in a hotel room 47 floors above the gridiron city, I feel I am being taken through the composite plot of all my favourite Italian operas.
Though in the operas I know, when he falls out of love with her, doesn't she put a knife in him? From my window I can see down into the great cantilevered coliseum bowl of the Melbourne Cricket Ground, where the Three Tenors have been somewhat controversially engaged to give their one and only Australian sob-fest.
MCG has always been an emotional place. It's an alchemical thing. The beer and the meat pies ferment in the heat and turn into tears. On a visit to Melbourne years ago, I happened to be at the MCG the day Dennis Lillee became, at that time, the highest-ever wicket-taker in Test cricket.
The band played Waltzing Matilda and Lillee stood in the middle and wept like a child. Once he started, there was no stopping the rest of us. The whole Australian team wept; 90,000 spectators wept. Even the outgoing West Indian batsman wept.
So the three bull prima donnas booked to belt out Nessun Dorma, which is now a football anthem anyway, had history on their side, whatever the knockers were saying about the dignity of the venue.
But then the knockers are nearly all from Sydney, put out that the tenors are not singing there, where they just happen to have an opera house.
You don't have to be back here long to see that in the ancient festive war between Melbourne and Sydney a tide is turning. Melbourne is no longer the staid old country cousin with long unbending roads and a mud-brown river. Oh, yes, and a good art gallery. And, of course, some interesting experimental theatre.
Today Melbourne is on the cultural snatch. The Three Tenors are just the start of it.
If you want to catch the first run of an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical in Australia - hard to understand why you would, but if you would - you have to come to Melbourne.
If you want to catch a Grand Prix - equally puzzling, but again I'm only iffing - you have to come to Melbourne.
If you want to blow your savings in a casino that has tennis courts on the roof, shoots fireballs into the sky, and will fly you in free from Singapore or Shanghai if you're a high-roller, Melbourne's the place.
It's not all that long ago that Victorians were prohibited from so much as tugging at the arm of a poker machine.
But then it's not all that long ago, either, that Victorians drove cars with eco-green number plates bearing the logo Victoria - the Garden State.
Now, in letters that incline to the right - stop us if you can - your car says Victoria - On the Move. Vroom, vroom! Stuff the ecology - who wants a garden when you can have a racetrack? The weather in Melbourne has turned balmy. Twenty-three degrees with a sportive wind coming in off the bay. Perfect for eating out.
The great dining boulevards, such as Lygon Street in Carlton, or Brunswick Street in Fitzroy, make no distinction now between restaurants and pavements.
If you're a pedestrian, you feel as though you're gate-crashing one private dinner party after another. One night on Brunswick Street I come close to being knocked flat by a flamenco dancer backing out of a Spanish restaurant in full frill; the restaurant itself is so crowded that it's only by retreating to the pavement that she can go back in again for her encore.
Brunswick Street is ethnically comprehensive, stylishly cheap and high-principled. The lacy workers' cottages along the alleys that run off it have not been tarted up. If anything, they have been tarted down. You want a rusting corrugated iron roof? We'll rust one for you. The artwork on the pavements is for sitting on or sitting at.
This is the new Melbourne, not the old. At every table the corks come out of the pinots noirs and the claws come out of the chilli crabs. Pop, snap, Ole! Lygon Street was once like this - not quite such a cultural mix, predominantly Italian in proprietorship, but feeding the multifarious appetites of the university crowd.
It's the middle of the week, not early, not a public holiday, just an ordinary working day coming to a close, yet the pavements on both sides of the street are thronged as though for carnival. If you're not sitting licking your lips over baccala di pasqua under a canvas umbrella, you're walking with your fingers in a bag of battered prawns, Thai style.
Yes, yes, the place is ponced up: the restaurants that were once cafes are lit like New Orleans brothels; the old wipe-me-down surfaces have stiff white tablecloths on them, as do the old wipe-you-down waiters.
Strolling back towards the city, I entertain the fancy that I hear Waltzing Matilda on the wind, coming roughly from the direction of the MCG. See what the combination of cooking smells and nostalgia can do on a hot heady night.
Then I remember that it's tonight Jose, Placido and Luciano are performing. Of course - Waltzing Matilda! They'd promised their Australian fans a surprise number. Some surprise. What else was it ever going to be? Rule Britannia? A cynic tells me that this is Luciano's personal revenge on the people of Melbourne for giving him a cool reception when Joan Sutherland first brought him here as an unknown chubby tenor who had not yet fallen out of love with his wife, 30 years ago or more.
But the cynic is an Adelaide man, and Adelaide, too, has been a recent victim of Melbourne's predacious party-throwing. It was from Adelaide that Melbourne nicked the Grand Prix.
For two days the noise of screaming engines - a sound even more inane than three tenors singing Waltzing Matilda - invades every corner of the city. Then, just as suddenly as it began, it's over. And will quiet now return to Melbourne? Of course not. Hard on the heels of the Grand Prix comes Moomba. Carnival proper only begins with Moomba, and a carnival proper in Melbourne is nothing if not a celebration of ethnic diversity. Does that sound a trifle worthy? Well, Grand Prix, Three Tenors, Andrew Lloyd Webber and the Crown Casino notwithstanding, Melbourne still is a worthy place.
There are murmurings of racism in Australia, but at Moomba everybody's ethnic manners are impeccable. In a camp by the river, white Australians of all ages are learning how to paint boomerangs.
At the end of an afternoon spent watching the dragon boats racing on the Yarra, I find myself listening to the Three Chinese Tenors - yes, the Three Chinese Tenors.
Ten days later, I think I see one of the Chinese tenors running in the rain that is falling on the Greek Antipodes Party in Lansdowne Street.
The sound of the bouzoukis and the spectacle of dancers, their arms on one another's shoulders, far from home but refusing to be washed out, stops him in his tracks. If I am not mistaken, there is moisture in his eyes. Though it could, of course, just be the rain.