The Financial Barrier Keeping New Audiences Away

By Stella Joseph-Jarecki (Enquiries:

Photo by Alexander Naglestad on Unsplash

This article is based on opinions I have held for years on the cost of attending operatic and classical performances in Australia. As COVID-19 has halted all live performances since March (and they are yet to resume in Melbourne), some people may not see the point in discussing specifics like ticket prices in the ‘before times’. But I’m of the opinion that the performing arts industry in Australia was facing massive challenges before COVID-19. Factors such as ticket pricing played a role in this, and the pandemic has simply pushed problems that already existed to a breaking point.

To answer the question, “Why aren’t the younger generation consuming classical music?”, we need to ask the young people who are already part of the classical world. Whether they have grown up playing in youth symphonies or singing in choirs, or stumbled into musical training in their teens and twenties, young people within the arts industry can tell you the answer. They know why their friends don’t want to experience their first opera or symphonic concert.

Why do young people largely feel like classical music has no relevance to them? Because arts organisations are putting absolutely no effort into showing young people that it is relevant to them. (I use the words ‘young people’ to refer to the elusive patron demographic of 18-30).

Okay, when I say ‘absolutely no effort’, I mean ‘very little effort’. A handful of organisations have clearly had this on their radar over the last few years- a good example is Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s film score concerts, where the orchestra accompanied projections of crowd-pleasing films such as Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and James Bond’s Skyfall. I think that’s a fantastic way to introduce new audiences to the richness and kaleidoscopic colour of live orchestras.

But I want to turn the spotlight onto opera.

Why don’t young people go to see live opera?

Well what are they supposed to do? Fork out $200 dollars for something that looks like a snooze fest and is predominantly marketed towards patrons 60+ years of age?

I decided to do the calculations. When I started writing this piece, Opera Australia’s 2020 season with ticket pricing was still accessible online (briefly transporting me into an alternate universe where that thing never happened).

Photo by Tom Arrowsmith on Unsplash

Using the most discounted rate, a booking of seven productions with A reserve tickets (no pension card) would come to about $990. This averages out to $140 per show. The same seven shows booked with C reserve tickets would come to $560, with about $60 off if you were younger than 30, and chose Tuesday performances instead of Saturday ones.

But bear in mind this is the bulk price, and to get this, you’d have to book at least five shows in the one transaction (at the beginning of the season). What 24-year-old is going to pay $500 for seven operas in one go, even if they’re working full time? I am both of those things and I still wouldn’t pay that. The inflexible timing and monetary commitment itself is enough to put you off.

OA also offered $68 tickets for patrons under 30- but only if you booked two tickets in one transaction, and only out of a choice of four specific productions. And you’re kidding yourself if you think $136 is an easy bet for someone to make if they’re sitting on the fence, or perhaps even assuming they’re going to hate the experience (many people I’ve talked to outside of the classical world do).

I don’t understand why organisations can’t offer actual discounts in limited runs, rather than faffing around and still asking patrons to commit to $136 in one go. For example, you could slash the seats of the entire dress circle to $40, for two performance dates only (out of a full run of ten, perhaps). The company and venue could market the crap out of it, and if there were only two dates to pick from, it would be similar to a student-rush deal in principle.

And on that topic, whatever happened to student rush tickets? During the four years of my Bachelor of Music, I never heard of any student rush tickets offered by Australia’s national opera company. The Arts Centre (aka the venue, not the company itself), offered Tix At Six, which was when you could line up in front of the box office before 6pm, to claim $30 tickets (max two per person) available for two separate shows currently on at the Arts Centre or Hamer Hall. On one occasion I was able to purchase an OA ticket through this (and it was a really good seat).

It’s as if Opera Australia, consciously or unconsciously, is making it as hard as possible for young people to take a risk on something new.

Photo by Alessia Cocconi on Unsplash

Is ticket pricing the sole reason I have a low opinion of this national opera company? Nope. Another would be its repetitive programming. I’m surprised OA hasn’t changed its name to the Puccini Repertory Company™ over the last few years.

Between 2014 and 2019, Opera Australia mounted 67 productions in Sydney (including 5 musicals). Operas composed by Puccini accounted for 25% of this number, and operas by Verdi accounted for 13%. In total, works by six composers (Puccini, Verdi, Mozart, Bizet, Rossini and Donizetti) accounted for 65% of Sydney’s season during this time, and 60% of Melbourne’s season during the same period.

I think there are three main reasons why the vast majority of young people don’t take a chance on live opera productions. I’ve outlined two: the prohibitive prices and repetitive programming mired in dusty old clichés and outdated values.

The third factor would be the length and scale of most canonical operas. Those who have never attended an opera often assume they would be bored shitless for three hours. That’s a valid concern. Concentrating on a staged show for three acts can be a big ask, particularly if the story moves slowly.

I propose a great way to counteract this would be for opera companies to incorporate lighter fare into their seasons more often. It’s a fabulous way to get a taste for what live opera sounds and feels like, without being overwhelmed. One act-operas, comedic operas, chamber operas which run for an hour straight through- these are far more enticing to beginners. (And you could commission living composers to write them!)

This would ease the minds of prospective ticket-buyers- if you don’t end up enjoying it, you’ve only dedicated an hour to the experiment. Staging operas in a variety of smaller and more casual venues (and letting people bring in their drinks) would also sweeten the deal and help break down the intimidating cloud that can hover above the art form.

I hope the tumultuous year that was 2020 will bring about a more open-minded 2021. It’d be fantastic if the out-of-the-box thinking necessitated by a global pandemic is permanently adopted by arts organisations. We’ve used all kinds of creative mediums to connect in a time of physical and mental distancing. Why not use this mindset to develop expansive approaches to bring classical music (and the genres adjacent) to as many people as possible?

If you are interested in further reading on Opera Australia and how it has responded to COVID-19, I recommend these pieces: The Guardian, The Conversation, The Sydney Morning Herald.

A Brave New World and A Delicate Fire

Mezzo-soprano Anna Dowsley. Image credit: Pinchgut Opera

By Stella Joseph-Jarecki (Enquiries:

A Delicate Fire

An opera film produced by Pinchgut Opera featuring the music of Barbara Strozzi
Co-created by Erin Helyard, Constantine Costi and Charlotte Mungomery
Available for $30 here, unlimited streaming until 13th December

Cast and Creatives:

Erin Helyard – Musical Director, Conductor and Keyboards
Constantine Costi – Director
Charlotte Mungomery – Production Designer
Dimitri Zaunders – Director of Photography
James Vaughan – Editor
Shannon Burns – Choreographer
Ella Butler – Art Director


Anna Dowsley – Mezzo soprano
Taryn Fiebig – Soprano
Chloe Lankshear – Soprano
Keara Donohoe – Mezzo soprano
Nicholas Jones – Tenor
David Greco – Baritone
Andrew O’Connor – Bass
Simon Martyn-Ellis – Theorbo and Baroque Guitar
Hannah Lane – Baroque Harp
Anthea Cottee – Cello, Viola da Gamba and Lirone
Matthew Greco – Violin
Karina Schmitz – Violin
Allie Graham – Dancer
Neale Whittaker – Dancer

During a pandemic which emptied theatres around the world, many arts organisations have provided content to watch online. Some have uploaded past concerts for free to a YouTube channel, others have live-streamed concerts. This is a new space to move in; online content is notoriously hard to monetise because there’s simply so much available for free, or for minimal monthly subscriptions.

Pinchgut Opera’s A Delicate Fire is the first staged opera film I have seen emerge out of this wave of online offerings. At sixty minutes long, it’s a lovely compact concept: a series of staged vignettes, each one set to a madrigal composed by Barbara Strozzi. Strozzi sounds like an impressive figure. Born out of wedlock in Venice in the 17th century, she became an accomplished singer and published 125 pieces of vocal music under her own name.

Mezzo-soprano Anna Dowsley weaves between the various fragments, acting as the intermediary between the viewers at home and the set-pieces on screen (at times literally walking from one to another across a production area). She symbolises Strozzi, who was only twenty-five when she published her first collection of madrigals.

Unsurprisingly the vocal performances are impressive across the board. Throughout the hour the busy, melismatic textures typical of Baroque music are handled with dexterity and delicacy by the ensemble. This nuanced phrasing was a highlight. It was also a pleasure to see the instrumental ensemble actively woven into the staging, with close-ups of the musicians as they performed. Their unforced animation was engaging to watch.

Dramatically, A Delicate Fire gets off to a slow start. The first few madrigals are staged in a languid and contemplative fashion- Dowsley gets into a car, drives, and arrives at a house. The madrigal Silentio nocivo (Harmful Silence) is paired with a continuous panning shot inside the house. The singers are poised in various positions: sitting at a table, inside a bath filled with bubbles, standing next to a car with headlights illuminating a fallen deer.

From an audience standpoint this symbolic, abstract staging was not particularly engaging so early in the piece. The following duet, Sonetto Proemio dell’opera, sung by Dowsley and Taryn Fiebig, sees the two singers shot separately, staring straight into the camera. During this moment I found myself missing the interaction which naturally emerges when two singers inhabit the same space.

The cast of A Delicate Fire. Image Credit: Pinchgut Opera

The energy picks up from this point onwards. As the instrumental ensemble perform Tarquinio Merula’s Ballo detto Eccardo, Op. 12, the animated character of the piece is matched by the action on screen. Behind the musicians the singers bustle around the warehouse, rolling out patches of grass, sweeping the stage, rolling wooden crates across the floor, even vacuuming…

I particularly enjoyed the staging of the next few vignettes, which possessed a light touch of humour and originality. L’Humano Affetto (Human Affections) begins with a truck backing into shot, the rear trailer doors opening to reveal four singers and two dancers. The singers disembark, flanking the truck as the two dancers (Allie Graham and Neale Whittaker) create moving tableaus, shifting within the confined space along with the words of the madrigal.

Il contrasto de’ cinque sensi (The Quarrel of the Five Senses) is given a wry treatment. As the ensemble sing through the senses (‘I see, I hear, I taste, I smell’) we’re shown a sea of faces mirroring the words: holding up magnifying glasses, bobbing their heads while plugged into 80s Walkmans, posing with ice creams, and inhaling the scent of red roses. It’s very cute.

Still from A Delicate Fire. Image Credit: Pinchgut Opera

There are moments where the creative team clearly let themselves have fun and experiment with the medium of film. I particularly enjoyed the recurring use of mirrors to reveal members of the ensemble in different dimensions. A stylish and unexpected transition between vignettes saw two singers retrieve black garments from underneath a thick layer of black dust.

While I don’t have a background in dance, I found the performances by Graham and Whittaker stunningly evocative (and complementary to the chosen pieces). They united the graceful lines of ballet with the fluid contortions of contemporary dance.

As the arts industry marches into a brave new world, one which hopefully brings with it fresh ideas, it’s lovely to see smaller arts organisations embracing the unconventional. Pinchgut Opera is to be commended on producing a fresh and unpretentious work in this destabilising climate. I look forward to witnessing what they produce next.

Pause that Existential Crisis: Undergrad is Just the Beginning

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay 

By Stella Joseph-Jarecki (Enquiries:

If I was to give one piece of advice to aspiring arts professionals still immersed in their music degree, it would be this: care less.

Work hard and apply yourself, of course, but constantly remind yourself that it is a university degree, not your life. It is a chunk of tertiary education, consisting of a bunch of units that will be varying levels of interesting and instructive. But it is not your life.

There is little logic in expecting your university degree to supply your life with its central meaning and purpose. It probably won’t. But it may start the chain of events which will help you start to work out what that is (and change your mind several times, which is totally cool too).

University degrees are more than the sum of their parts. The overall experience of committing to something intensively for three or four years will probably teach you something. The people you come into contact with may change the course of your life. I talk shit about my degree pretty often, but I really don’t know who I would be or what I would be doing today if it wasn’t for my study experience. It set in motion a line of dominoes, each one triggered by trying something new. And all of it began in March 2014 when I showed up at Melbourne Conservatorium of Music as a baby voice major.

So as contradictory as it sounds, that’s why I think university degrees are never a ‘waste of time’, but that you shouldn’t rest all your hopes and dreams on to them either.

Bachelor of Music degrees are strange beasts. Unlike many others (law degrees, medical degrees, accounting degrees) they do not, and cannot, prepare you for a specific job or niche in the industry. After thinking it over, I don’t think one ever could, no matter how many times it was restructured.

Almost all begin as performance degrees, from which there are composition or musicology streams available to move into. The basic breakdown of musical careers you may want to head into is: soloist, orchestral or chamber musician, composer, music academic, and music teacher (classroom or instrumental).

I’ve refrained from mentioning a notable one: music therapist. Music therapy is an emerging field in the crosshairs of medicine, psychology, rehabilitation and music. It’s rapidly gaining respect as a discipline and as such, to be appointed a resident music therapist in a hospital or health facility would require a minimum of a Masters degree. So let’s set that aside as an incredible career choice that is usually not discussed in detail during an undergraduate degree.

But you take your average nineteen-year-old at an Australian Conservatorium, and those are the options bouncing around their head. When I attended MCM there was a yearly intake of about a hundred musicians; in my cohort there were roughly twenty singers, twenty pianists, and fifty assorted instrumentalists.

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay 

I found it invigorating to suddenly be surrounded by a crowd of people my age who were just as passionate and driven about music performance as I was. There was no need to ever filter out obsessive rants about composers or musicals or symphonies; everyone got it.

Conservatoriums are filled with perfectionists, the hard workers who grew up being the ‘musical one’, the ‘creative one’, the ‘talented one’. Getting accepted into an institution which only takes a small percentage of auditionees is an impressive feat which shouldn’t be understated.

So it’s only natural that students throw themselves into their training. You lock yourself in a practice room and let your degree surround you with comforting layers of bubble wrap: friends, mentors, a social scene, assignments to churn out. You delay thinking about the future because you zero in on memorising your recital repertoire or drilling your exercises.

But the ironic thing about this ultra-laser-focused approach is that after a fourteen week semester, your only performing experience will be thirty minutes of art song, sung straight through one afternoon. And then it will be over.

While you had your blinkers on, you were missing out on opportunities to try new things. Whether you want to become a performer, a teacher, a composer, or a writer, the absolute best thing you can do for yourself is try new things and gain experience. There is no downside- you build a variety of skills, move away from the dangerous slippery slope of funneling all your self worth into how well you do in your performance exam, and start to understand what you might want to spend your time after university doing.

To the singers reading this: you have the rest of your life to learn a Rachmaninov song cycle and work your way through hundreds of Mozart arias. Your twenties is an excellent time to break out of your comfort zone, fail, take a sharp left, double-back, rotate in a circle, rinse and repeat.

The arts industry is an incredibly fragmented place. To find work you have to diversify and adapt, and get used to being in the workforce (an entirely different dynamic from being a student in a tutorial).

This is starkly true in my experience. I managed to get a full time arts admin position after doing some casual admin work for an arts organisation, which lead to further ongoing shifts assisting a particular person who was overloaded, which led to another organisation asking me to cover their admin assistant which she was on holiday- all of which meant I could list two fabulous referees on my resume after an instructive six months of sporadic work. None of which I could have planned in advance, particularly because I had no prior desire to try arts admin in the first place. But I tried it, and I liked it! And even the most basic admin position has the fantastic upside of teaching you about how things practically get done from the inside of an organisation.

If you experience success, it may not look like what you’re expecting. You’ll have to be your own agent, manager, promoter, and life coach while your career is in its infancy. Being commissioned to write new music, being cast in shows, those are fantastic victories but you are still likely to need a ‘day job’ while you juggle freelancing- and that is by no means ‘giving up’.

An undergraduate degree is the definition of a first step. I can almost guarantee that after a year, you will barely remember the recitals which caused you so much stress. So if you’re scared at the thought of your degree ending, don’t be. It’s where the real (messy) fun begins.

Opera rising out of the Ring of Steel: Repudiating Oran

By Stella Joseph-Jarecki (Enquiries:

When you hear the word ‘opera’, do you think of something created through international online collaboration, influenced by a pandemic, a painting of Hell, Béla Bartók, and Steve Reich? I’m guessing not.

But maybe after reading this article, you will.

This piece was written as part of a paid partnership. Unless otherwise stated, all material published on Fever Pitch Magazine is put together through voluntary contributions from me (Stella Joseph-Jarecki) and interview subjects.

Repudiating Oran

Music and libretto by Luke Belle, Emilio Guarino, Sofia Elisabeth Laursen Habel and Michael Folmer Hansen.

Sung by Luke Belle and Sofia Elisabeth Laursen Habel with The Chromatic Production Orchestra. Narrated by Mike Brady, AM.

Arranged, mixed and mastered by Emilio Guarino.

Produced by Michael Folmer Hansen.

Repudiating Oran is a chamber opera entirely conceived and composed during the COVID-19 pandemic. Running at thirty minutes long, it is the result of a collaboration between four individuals: composers Michael Hansen and Emilio Guarino, and classically trained singers Sofia Laursen Habel and Luke Belle. It is currently available to stream and download on Bandcamp, Spotify and Apple Music.

While Michael, Luke and Sofia all reside in Victoria, Emilio is based in the US. Due to Stage 4 lockdown in Melbourne, none of the group were able to meet in person. The global COVID-19 pandemic not only necessitated digitally-distanced collaboration, but provided the impetus for the story of the opera itself.

Repudiating Oran follows two lovers, Mi and Albert. Mi is under quarantine in Oran while Albert lives in freedom outside Oran’s Ring of Steel. Together they hatch a plan for Mi’s escape, and we follow their journey until its end. (Oran is also the name of the French Algerian city quarantined during the Bubonic Plague in Albert Camus’ novel The Plague.)

Michael was strongly inspired by the right panel of Hieronymus Bosch’s triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights. The far-right panel depicts a surreal and nightmarish iteration of Hell. “I first saw the picture when I was a kid… it has been in my dreams for more than forty years. It’s full of stories, of suffering, of hellish things like COVID.”

Right-hand panel in Hieronymus Bosch’s triptych ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’. Dated between 1490 and 1510.

Michael and Emilio have worked together on a number of projects before, but Repudiating Oran marks the pair’s first foray into opera. (Michael cites minimalist composers Phillip Glass and Steve Reich as musical influences, and Nick Cave when it comes to writing a libretto). Once Emilio received the initial musical sketches from Michael, he began the process of creating a thicker orchestral arrangement. The two singers then came on board, kickstarting an unorthodox but complementary composition process.

Emilio describes, “We found our own solutions. Rather than telling Sofia and Luke what to do and sending sheet music, I had them improvise and record ideas to my orchestral sketches. Then, they would send the recordings to me via Dropbox and I could chop them up and arrange their parts with the sound itself rather than using the tradition pencil and paper process.

We would then discuss over a zoom call and bounce things back and forth a few times until we found something that worked. It’s definitely more of a ‘producer’ approach than a ‘composer’ approach. The idea was that it helped get around the audio limitations of a Zoom call as well as build the vocal parts around ideas that were specific to Luke and Sofia. I wanted the whole thing to have their fingerprints all over it.”

A collaboration session over Zoom. From left to right, top row: Sofia Laursen Habel, Michael Hansen, Emilio Guarino. Bottom row: Mike Brady AM

And how does the finished product sound? Despite being put together without a recording studio, the sound quality is crisp. (Thanks to the compact technology of USB microphones). Those who baulk at the idea of three-hour-long operas can relax- this is a succinct and melodic piece filled with punchy percussion and hypnotic looping motifs on string and brass.

Although the well-worn trope of star-crossed-lovers drives the story, it’s accompanied by wry narrations which reposition fragments of Shakespeare, letting us know this opera can laugh at itself: “Two regions, both alike in dignity, separated by a Ring of Steel/ From ancient natural threat break new novel virus/ Where unclean hands- and breath- speaks civil death.” These narration segments were bought to life by Mike Brady AM.

Soprano Sofia believes Repudiating Oran is playing a part in “bridging the gap between traditional and modern opera, while opening up a space to what could be. We’ve taken parts of the traditional art form, such as an overture, recitative and aria, and then expanded them into the 21st century. We composed from a basis of “there are no rules”, while still knowing and appreciating the traditions of opera.”

It’s also nice to have an opera where the tenor dies at the end instead of the soprano.”

She has a point there.

Sofia Elisabeth Laursen Habel (left) and Luke Belle

Emilio Guarino

Emilio Guarino is a performer and producer with experience that ranges from orchestral performance to contemporary electronic music, modern improvisation, and multi-disciplinary collaborative works.

As a bassist, he has performed or collaborated with a wide variety of creative personalities that include conductors, composers, soloists, and producers. Highlights include performances with Sir Simon Rattle, Matthias Pintscher, Renée Fleming, Anne-Sophie Mutter, Todd Machover, The MIT Media Lab, and Glenn Kotche of Wilco.

Emilio has also been invited to appear at major festivals including the Stavanger Kammermusikk Festival (Norway), The Lucerne Festival (Switzerland), The International Society of Bassists biennial conference, and the Philadelphia Orchestra’s contemporary ensemble-in-residence, SoundLAB, at the Barnes/Stokowski Festival.

Ongoing projects include Emilio’s experimental electronic project, Hot Wobble, as well as playing bass with Lateef Dameer’s hip-hop band First Life, reggae artists CC Roots, and psychedelic visionaries BLUEOX.

Luke Belle

Luke Belle is a Melbourne based cabaret performer, comedian and classical singer. He is a regular cabaret host at Club Voltaire in North Melbourne and is set to perform his one man show ‘I’m Not Even Mad About It’ in the Melbourne International Comedy Festival in 2021. Luke is currently studying a Bachelor of Arts in Creative Writing.

Michael Hansen

Unit 7 Noise is the publisher of musical works by Michael Folmer Hansen a.k.a. folmR and collaborators. Folmer’s Roland SH-2 and MC-202 synths, Boss DR-55 drum machine and fretless Rickenbacker knock-off were stolen in 1984. The items were uninsured and folmR is still seeking revenge, making like Gauguin some thirty years later and dropping his suit for the life of an artist. He won’t be leaving his wife and marrying a 14-year old Tahitian girl (or getting syphilis and becoming famous after his death), but he is having fun and exacting revenge by creating noise and other things.

Owner of the Hong Kong studio Kwun Tong Noise Works from 2014-17 and now Unit Sep(t) Creek in Australia, coproducer of the Phillip Glass Buddha Machine and early supporter of Soundbrenner, The Chromatic Endpin and WORNG Electronics, FolmR’s interest in music goes beyond the desire to make it. folmR is also a life member of Melbourne Electronic Sound Studio.

After more than thirty albums on his own or with collaborators Christiaan Virant (FM3), James Banbury (Blood Wine or Honey, The Auteurs, Infantjoy, dadahack), Antony Ryan (Isan, Mugwood), Emilio Guarino (Hot Wobble), John Lee (Phaedra Studio, Mountain in the Sky) and many others, folmR’s output is equal parts prolific and eclectic. He calls it
Fretless Monophonic Post Krops Jazz – a kind of avant-garde-noisy-jazzy-sometimes-danceable music.

folmR sees music and has collaborated with video artist like Tina Douglas, remi freer, Tanglokto, Shahriar Shadab & Maxim Lewis to create a visualise his music.

“Folmer creates enigmatic, energetic and exaggerated soundscapes and song-noises that are vast in scope, yet intimately personal.” — James Banbury (Blood Wine or Honey, The Auteurs, Infantjoy, dadahack)

“… really feels like I’ve been at the centre of a fusion reaction” – Antony Ryan (Isan, Mugwood)

Creativity Amongst Crisis: Leonie Thompson

By Stella Joseph-Jarecki (Enquiries:

Back in July I put out a call to my immediate musical network, to ask who would be happy to be interviewed on how they have adapted during Melbourne’s lockdown. The last seven months have been disorientating and frequently exhausting. Prioritising your mental and physical wellbeing is more important than ever.

This prompted me to start an ongoing series called Creativity Amongst Crisis. Today’s subject is arts administrator Leonie Thompson, who I met when I started working at Melbourne Recital Centre early this year. Leonie is Philanthropy & Bequest Coordinator within the Development department at the Centre, and gets to witness firsthand the incredible programs which spring out of the generosity of private donors.

Leonie has a Masters of Music (Performance) in classical piano from Melbourne Conservatorium of Music. During her university days she established an ongoing concert series at St George’s Anglican Church in Travancore- you can find more information through the website and Facebook page. I was particularly interested in asking Leonie how she found herself in an arts administration career.

While Leonie and I are both employed at MRC, we both volunteered our time for this interview.

Can you give us an insight into your musical background?

Growing up in Wauchope, a small regional town in NSW, I wasn’t exactly surrounded by music. However, my mother happened to be one of the few music teachers in the area. She not only taught me piano, but encouraged me to see the value in music education and the doors it can open in life.

I was fortunate to gain scholarship support to move to Melbourne and study piano performance, under the wise guidance of Anna Goldsworthy, Ronald Farren-Price and Sonya Lifschitz. I met a circle of incredibly bright and beautiful people who are still close friends today, not least of which my husband Nick Slaney.

Leonie (right) pictured with Ronald Farren-Price (left).

During these years I formed an ensemble with violinist Nathan Juriansz and clarinetist Aaron Klein, and commissioned and performed new works around Melbourne. I also had the thrill of performing the Grieg concerto with the Maroondah Symphony Orchestra. But the most memorable experience was performing my two Masters recitals – truly a marathon – and something which gave me a newfound appreciation for the career musician and the investment before each concert that we as audiences sit down to enjoy.

How did you find yourself in the arts administration role you are in today?

I’ve always been business-minded and interested in the swirl of activity behind the scenes to get things done. So I suppose alongside my journey as a musician I was also drawn to leading and organising things, and gained a lot of voluntary experience along the way.

During my years at the Con, I ran a piano studio of private students and would organise student concerts at the end of each term. I was frustrated with the lack of affordable performance spaces with good instruments in my area and started a concert series to fundraise for a new grand piano and eventually set up Concerts at St. George’s (now the Friends of Music Series). When I moved to Germany the following year, I used the opportunity to explore this interest in development a bit more and landed a job in business development.

Eventually, these varied experiences and interests actually came together nicely in beginning work at Melbourne Recital Centre.

Performing Grieg’s Piano Concerto with the Maroondah Symphony Orchestra.

Any pieces of advice in terms of gaining experience, for those who would like to enter the arts admin field?

Take a moment to look back over everything you’ve done and note the demonstrable skills and strengths that would translate to arts administration. Too often we overlook these and assume we need other skills, when really we’re already more than capable. For example, I was teaching piano, but this also involved invoicing, receipting, scheduling, record keeping, marketing, liaising with clients, etc.

From there, you can gain experience in weaker areas by volunteering with community groups or at university, or undertaking an internship with a local ensemble or organisation. Or even start your own projects or programs where there’s a need, which would give you further opportunities to refine your skills or plug any skills gaps.

Other than that, I think it’s great to be confident to ask questions and talk about your goals. People care and are willing to help you.

What is your favourite aspect of working in the area of philanthropy and arts funding?

Helping to make good things happen! I get to witness the impact and outcome of a community’s generosity first hand, which is very rewarding. I’m working so closely to the joy of music.

Performing her Masters recital in Melba Hall, Melbourne Conservatorium of Music.

The people I get to meet are wonderful – the Melbourne Recital Centre donor community feels like a big extended music-loving family. I enjoy calling to say thank you for their gifts, learning their stories and facilitating a meaningful relationship between them and the programs they support.

It’s a creative industry, you’re working with creative people on all fronts, and this flexibility and fresh thinking is really energising to be around.

Have you learnt anything specific that you may not have been forced to learn, were it not for COVID-19 restrictions and the flow-on effects?

I learnt that Zoom backgrounds can be videos, and that you can in fact get motion sickness from watching someone ‘ride a rollercoaster’ backwards during a meeting…

I’ve had time (haven’t we all?) to reflect more on the arts industry too, and my role within it, whether that’s as a performer, teacher or fundraiser. Being surrounded by creative people is energising, and it nurtures a kind of infectious resilience. I think this will be vital as we move out of COVID-19 lockdowns and navigate the coming year, healing the wounds of 2020 and rebuilding connections across our community.

Leonie Thompson

Leonie joined the Melbourne Recital Centre after two years in Germany where she worked in business development. Her unique knowledge of the music industry results from the diversity of her professional engagement over the years, which includes experience as piano soloist, chamber musician, music teacher and fundraising coordinator.

Leonie has a Master of Music (Performance) from Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, and has studied with Prof. Ronald Farren-Price AM, Dr. Anna Goldsworthy and Dr. Sonya Lifschitz. As a recipient of several scholarships during her music studies, alongside her experience founding and directing the Friends of Music concert series at St. George’s Travancore, Leonie understands firsthand the value and impact of philanthropy in the music industry – whether it be by supporting a talented musician in their musical training, or by contributing to concert life and thereby enriching the community.

University composers undergo a Metamorphosis

Image credit: PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay 

Metamorphosis, University of Melbourne Honours composition concert

28th October 2020, streamed on YouTube

By George Cox

On the evening of 28th October, six Honours composition students from the University of Melbourne broadcast a YouTube premiere of their new works. The critical dimension of this review will be moderated by the fact that this was a free concert, consisting of works submitted for university assessments.

I’ve never been to a virtual composition concert, and they’ve stepped up to the pandemic challenge with great confidence. Several performances were conventionally recorded in the conservatorium concert hall, while others featured split-screen videos, home footage, multiple camera angles, and a particularly dramatic black silhouette of Lindsay Hicks performing against the Melbourne skyline as seen through a practice room. We were also treated to several films, live action and animated – which made it a lot easier to appreciate the film score techniques of John Li and Sue-Anne Tan – and some non-narrative animated visuals. In combination with spoken introductions and stylish title cards, this made the online format really come into its own.

Much of Metamorphosis could perhaps be described as post-minimalist, taking a cue from that other well-known “Metamorphosis,” those piano pieces by Philip Glass from 1989. Laura Abraham, Sue-Anne Tan, and John Li continue mining Glass, generating material through largely tonal means and familiar minimalist devices, such as open-ended movement structures that grow out of repeating phrases. They moved confidently between pop or jazz flavours and a more neutral, contemporary-classical feeling for consonance.

Robert McIntyre incorporated more explicitly polytonal devices. In Figure 1, from Intercept for oboe and piano, we see how the bold oboe part moves through harmonies based on fifths and fourths, rather than the familiar third. Rhythmically, a familiar 4-semiquaver unit predominated, subject to additive and syncopated repetition.

Figure 1. Excerpt from Intercept (2020) by Robert McIntyre, bars 23–24.

Lilijana Matičevska and Benjamin Drury both operate in more dissonant sound worlds. Matičevska veers towards New Complexity in her conventional but intricate notation, pushing expressive limits in three pieces that eschew, or even actively satirise, tonal forms (Palimpsest, for example, mockingly quotes Mozart in a non-tonal universe). Drury, conversely, approaches performance and noise art, electronically processing ‘found sound objects’ to blend the pitched and the unpitched.

Drury’s experimental electronic work Touch was one of this concert’s most dramatic and daring events. As the program note explains, “all the sounds heard come from contact microphones sewn into gloves worn by the performers.” This piece was performed split-screen, with piano on the left and suspended cymbal on the right, but Drury managed to be in two places at once.

The music of the begloved touch is pandemically topical, although ‘contact’ between foreground and background operates as an aesthetic figure throughout Metamorphosis. In order to bring us together, in Touch, Drury had to wear a barrier, a kind of PPE, or Personal Performance Equipment. Midas-like, everything that Drury touches turns to music. However, what’s interesting to me about this strange phenomenon is how oddly familiar it is: all instruments are played through touch, all musical discipline transforms the body into a sound-machine.

I particularly loved Abolish the Police, Matičevska’s work for solo garklein (tiny recorder) and pedal pad effects. This work is programmatic and yet specifies “nothing concrete:” as the program note explains, “it is a piece derived from [Matičevska’s] strong feelings against state-enforced violence against all civilians and [her] hope for a more peaceful future.”

This piece begins with deep inhalations and breathing ‘over’ rather than ‘into’ the recorder, as performer Ryan Williams rapidly moved his fingers along the instrument while producing no sound. It hesitates; it asks whether the police may be abolished, whether the garklein can even be played (it’s so tiny!). The unfamiliarity of the garklein’s sound is utopian, and we tremble before the possibility of abolition just as Williams trembles before the possibility of performance.

Figure 2. Excerpt from Abolish the Police (2020), bars 60–61.

There is a staged mimicry at work here: Williams plays, the microphone picks it up, Williams stops, but the pad continues, escaping the body. Given Matičevska’s political titles, we could interpret the pad, which picks up the solo garklein’s melody and then transforms it into accompaniment, as the translation of individual praxis into collective action. The pad produces the sonic/material background against which we make sense of melodies and of the gestures of the individual. Every piece in this program could perhaps be interpreted according to the politics that are implied by this figure/ground relationship. Do we fade away into the ground, or do we produce and reproduce it? How do we come to know our bodies as belonging to the earth?

Abraham acknowledges the inspiration and ecopolitical influence of Karen Tanaka’s 1998–1999 work Children of Light. Tanaka aimed to write a “message to children of the future;” Abraham identifies herself as one of these children and, through aesthetically reproducing Tanaka’s message, carries on that musical and ecological heritage. Light Years, like Abolish the Police, can be listened to politically, I suggest, because it insists on the possibility of hope under capitalism and the beauty of nature.

Tanaka’s work reflects, at times painfully, on the 1996 IUCN Red List of Threatened Animals. Listening to Abraham’s flute part touch and merge with its electro-acoustic backing makes me think not of how distant we are from the animals on this list, but rather, how close we are to them. We, too, are a part of nature, at risk of becoming Threatened in turn. This is what I took from the way Metamorphosis staged our relationships to our natural and social environments through sonic figures and sonic grounds.

This proximity to nature is, finally, made explicit in Sue-Anne Tan’s spectrally emergent electronic work The Insects Inside my Head, which included a video of a very scary-looking caterpillar. The music tracked a range of visuals, approaching an almost cyberpunk aesthetic of thermal imaging, nuclear sunset, and neural processors. Tan is a virtuoso of the Digital Audio Workstation: melodic figures and deep ostinatos shift from clean and cutting to washed-out and fuzzy depending on their electro-acoustic treatment. It was satisfying to conclude this program with her affectively-charged rendition of human anxiety as a kind of insectitude. I was jolted somewhat by the final appearance of the larval creature whose metamorphosis, political or otherwise, we have yet to encounter.