Together, Apart was available for streaming between the 23rd-24th October, as part of Gertrude Opera’s online Yarra Valley Opera Festival. (Although I recently interviewed soprano Morgan Carter who was involved in the festival, I was not asked to write this review. I purchased my own ticket.)
The work was composed by Nicholas Gentile, with libretto by Lincoln Hall. I’m always keen to learn the backstory of newly composed operatic/ music theatre/ cabaret works, so I was disappointed by the lack of accompanying material on the Gertrude Opera website. Program notes and and a track listing could easily have been made available to ticket holders after purchase. I think it’s an important element for organisations to consider in this new frontier of online offerings, as a festival atmosphere cannot be created physically (for now). Accompanying material can help bridge this gap and build audience anticipation and understanding.
Together, Apart was presented in a direct-to-camera format, and featured the talents of four singers, accompanied by Glenn Amer (piano) and Flora Carbo (saxophone). As the work was pieced together during Melbourne Stage 4 lockdown, the singers filmed their portions during individual time slots, with the backing track playing in their ear. Unsurprisingly there were a handful of moments where the synching of multiple vocal parts was a bit off-centre, but overall the sound and video quality was high. I must commend Gertrude Opera on managing to create content safely during this time.
While described as a cabaret opera on the Gertrude Opera website, Together, Apart could also be described as a music theatre song cycle, sung by four classically-trained performers. The diction and clarity displayed by the entire ensemble was impressive, not always an easy thing to achieve when singing in English with a heavier classical voice. Soprano Georgia Wilkinson especially impressed on this front, with an unforced emotional presence while limited to performing while seated.
The piece consisted of an hour of songs strung together in an unbroken sequence (with no distinct ‘story’, rather a series of fragmented moments). As the singers were seated for the entire hour with no variation on the black background with visual effects, sets or props, it was hard to maintain steely focus. The piece may have benefitted from being trimmed to forty minutes, with a greater focus on the ensemble pieces and more engaging solo numbers.
Highlights included the very sweet and nuanced duet written for two female voices, sung by sopranos Georgia Wilkinson and Morgan Carter. The characters meet in a café where one works, and the other sits and writes. The two voices were well paired, with the brightness and clarity of Wilkinson’s voice contrasting satisfyingly with the darker, supple strength of Carter’s. It was a refreshingly understated romantic moment. (And LGBTQI representation is always a nice thing to see!)
Another lighthearted moment was the interplay between Wilkinson and tenor Nigel Huckle. Huckle was given multiple ballads over the course of the hour, but displayed a deft comedic touch as the two characters playfully discussed whether he would bring her to a desert island if he could only bring three things (food and water excepted, of course). Instead of a direct proclamation of love, the man decides to name sunscreen as one of his three things- he doesn’t burn in the sun, but she does.
Lastly, I greatly enjoyed the sung conversation between two friends, performed by Huckle and baritone Sam Ward. I felt that Ward was under-utilised during the hour. Baritone stereotyping must’ve reared its head when the piece was being written, as Ward was cast as a sleazy figure in a song heavy on baseball/ sex metaphors (first base, second base, homerun, scorecards, etc), and as a terrible housemate receiving a lecture for being a slob and having noisy sex.
During this duet he was an engaging on-screen presence, in the more serious role of a friend who is running out of patience. On the other end of the phone is his old friend, seeking advice on how to proceed with a problem; he is ‘equally’ in love with two women, one of them the baritone’s ex-girlfriend. Golly.
An online opera festival which programs three recently composed works is certainly an exciting step in the right direction. I’m looking forward to seeing how arts organisations continue to evolve with the increased focus on digital platforms.
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 emerging composer Alex Olijnyk. Alex is an old friend of Fever Pitch magazine, having first been featured alongside her collaborator and co-director of Hyper Dynamic Studio, Hamish Keen (you can find that interview here).
That was back in April, which feels like centuries ago now. As Melbourne begins thaw out of Stage 4 lockdown, it’s no longer quite so impractical to contemplate what 2021 might look like for the arts.
Can you tell us a few sentences about yourself, what your musical practice is, and how you’re currently working on it.
I’m a screen composer with a background in contemporary classical and chamber music, currently based in Melbourne. I specialise in multimedia/sensory works and have collaborated with extraordinary creators from abstract painters, to filmmakers, graphic designers, and even chefs! I love blending orchestral elements with electronic textures, strong melodies, and improvisation.
Along with fellow composer and sound designer Hamish Keen, I have a firm called Hyperdynamic. We handle sound and score for film and other media, and currently have multiple short films in the pipeline which is very exciting! I am also in the process of composing several commissions, but these are solo projects.
What have you found to be most challenging aspects of this time of COVID-19, as a composer/ orchestrator and more generally day to day?
I think one of the hardest things was the grief I felt for a year that I was looking forward to personally and professionally. Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about a party that I went to in December last year. It was a warm night and I was having a drink in the backyard of a mate’s place. We spent hours and hours talking about what we were going to do this year – what we would learn, what we would make, who we would meet… It seemed so exciting at the time.
Looking back, the plan we made is so completely different to how life turned out. I still want the things that I hoped for in that alternate universe 2020, but they have been put on hold. It’s interesting to think there is music that I would have written, projects that I would have worked on in that other time that will never exist now. The reverse is also true. I’ve had opportunities that I wouldn’t otherwise have had- chief among them, the chance to get to know every nook and cranny of my apartment! Still, sometimes I feel a sort of sadness for the music that I’ll never write or hear because of how this year has progressed. Additionally, I feel a lot of anger for the music the world will never hear because artists didn’t have the government support they needed during this time and have essentially been forced out of the industry.
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?
Oh definitely. The main thing has been learning how to collaborate with other creatives over the internet. Before 2020, I had these amazing workflows set up that have since been completely trashed by the pandemic.
For example, in August Hamish and I were working on a short film called ‘Glasshouse’. We had to learn how to compose together remotely. Pre-Covid we would’ve been sitting in a room together bickering about chord progressions, or whose first draft of a track has an appropriately judicious serving of “ooft”. Now we’re sending each other files back and forth every few hours, while neither of us has full access to the other’s hardware, plug-ins, or instruments.
At the end of that project we realised we had sent each other over 250GB of music all up. My computer was very mad at me, and I was very mad at the NBN. Despite this, it was great to get a lesson in collaborating remotely. It’s fairly common in the film industry for the director to live in one country, the composer to live in another, the orchestrator in another and so on. They may meet face to face only a handful of times. So it’s good to have that practice and develop ways of working efficiently and creatively over distance. I’m not sure I would have had the reason to do that so soon in more normal times.
Do you have any projects in the works you’d like to share?
The film ‘Glasshouse’ that I mentioned earlier recently premiered at Adelaide Film Festival. If you want to listen to our music from that (or anything else we’ve written) it is on our website.
Hamish and I are also (frighteningly) busy from November through to April next year as we are working on some really cool new films. I’m also personally working on a commission for the Victorian Youth Symphony Orchestra for which I am super excited. As a composer, it’s not often that you get to have a full orchestra at your disposal!
Lastly, for those who didn’t make it to my collaboration with the restaurant Matilda late last year, the recordings (featuring the extremely talented Invictus Quartet) are finally up on my own website.
How do you sustain hope for the future, or overcome periods where you feel less motivated?
It goes without saying that this year has been challenging for pretty much everyone. That is particularly true for those working in the arts. Not only has the pandemic struck at the very core of the industry – i.e. people sharing musical/artistic experiences face to face – many creatives have insecure or contract-based work and therefore haven’t received the kind of support they deserve. Personally I’ve been relatively OK, and for that I’m very grateful.
As for motivation, I am a natural procrastinator and work in fits and starts. How much a blank page terrifies me depends on the weather, the COVID numbers, what I had for breakfast, etc, but what I have found to be both a source of motivation and hope is collaboration. It’s hard to believe that everything will always be awful forever-and-ever when you’re deep in a three-hour conversation about music, about beauty, about stories. When you have somebody else to bounce ideas off, to inspire you, and yes, to make sure you make deadlines, everything seems more possible.
Back in February I published a piece called Sometimes Pessimism Is All You Will Feel. The title says it all. I’d like to think I am a naturally hard-working person who is capable of using a positive mindset to get things done. But shit, sometimes pessimism is all I feel. The piece was predominantly focused on many reasons the performing arts industry in Australia can be a hard place to thrive (scarcity of jobs, funding, etc, etc).
Unsurprisingly I’ve found it hard to shake that feeling lately, to the point where I find myself experiencing bouts of frustration and anger where I feel like I could scream. After all, there’s a lot to be angry about. For the sake of thematic cohesion, I will be limiting my discussion to the performing arts industry (rather than the countless disasters- economic, environmental, racial, cultural- plaguing the world in 2020).
Sometimes I truly feel like giving the middle finger to those who post relentlessly optimistic statements on social media, talking about their hope that the performing arts will emerge out of this global pandemic more valued than ever before. I really want to entertain those fantasies, but I don’t. I think if you’re posting something like that you must either be intentionally putting blinkers on for the sake of promotional cheeriness, or completely deluded.
On one hand, we have the systematic undermining and unconscionable price-hiking of arts degrees by universities and the government. After years of being told that humanities and performing arts-based careers aren’t legitimate contributions to society, we’re also being told that we’ll have to plunge ourselves in thousands of dollars of debt in order to pursue them. This doesn’t square well with universities pocketing this money while simultaneously paying lecturers peanuts and hacking away at student resources. Monash University recently announced plans to cut over 100 subjects, including its entire Musicology and Ethnomusicology specialisations.
On the other hand, we have the questionable behaviour of directors of major arts organisations such as Opera Australia. OA has historically received a lion’s share of government subsidy, but in recent years has drawn criticism for consistently out-sourcing lead roles to international singers. This became so flagrant that in 2017 there was a government review of OA’s finances and practices (along with Opera Queensland, State Opera of South Australia and West Australian Opera). The review found that this hiring practice resulted in a significant reduction in opportunities for Australian singers, and proposed a $200,000 fine if these national opera companies could not “produce an appropriate balance in the employment of Australian versus non-Australian artists”. That’s embarrassing.
Over the past month it has been revealed that OA is being taken to Fair Work commission by a number of former employees, after making 40% of its permanent and contract staff redundant. This happened despite OA receiving Job Keeper, a government payment with the express purpose of preventing staff cuts during the pandemic.
This pattern of profit-driven, short-sighted behaviour has been contributing to the atrophy of the Australian performing arts industry for years.
For the record, I’m not completely disdainful of an optimistic approach. I think there is a real time and place for it. Just like there is a time and place for the ‘uglier’ emotions on the spectrum. Feeling anger or even fury at the state of the world is not only valid, but it can teach you something. Obviously, it’s not healthy if it begins to overwhelm your life. That’s the balancing act.
In this age of buzz words, one has emerged that touches on this concept. ‘Toxic Positivity’. Like all buzzwords designed with attention-grabbing in mind, it’s a tad heavy-handed but the behaviour it refers to definitely exists.
‘Toxic Positivity’ is the idea that a positive attitude is a shield you can never take down; it takes ‘good vibes only’ to its most extreme conclusion. There comes a point where this approach is not only unhelpful, but actively counter-productive. Studies have shown that emotions are like inflatable pool toys; trying to suppress them will only make them pop up again even stronger.
If you’ve gone through something distressing or painful, you might have noticed that people can become incredibly uncomfortable when they don’t know what to say. Many revert to the default setting of trying to be as upbeat as possible. Perhaps it’s a sentiment about ‘moving on’ or ‘needing to look on the bright side’, or reminding someone that bigger problems exist. While this can be well-intentioned, minimising or dismissing someone’s pain is harmful.
The response that angers me the most is ‘Everything happens for a reason’. This motto neatly sidesteps the fact that shitty things happen to good people who work hard and do all the ‘right things’.
I suppose what I’m getting at is, as sensible, tough-minded and hard-working as you want to be, there is nothing wrong with letting yourself feel the full range of ‘icky’ human emotions. It’s completely normal and often the quickest path to getting through it and moving on. Wallowing sometimes is a great idea! (Ice cream and pajamas optional)
In regards to my newly persistent pessimism condition, I’m trying to remember that moments of anger can help you work out the things you really care about, and give you the kick up the butt to try and make those things happen.
I’ll leave you with an excerpt I stumbled across recently from Madelene L’Engle’s novel The Wind in the Door:
“With my intellect I see cause for nothing but pessimism and even despair. But I can’t settle for what my intellect tells me. That’s not all of it.”
“What else is there?” Mrs Murray’s voice was low and anguished.
“There are still stars which move in ordered and beautiful rhythm. There are still people in this world who keep promises… That’s enough to keep my heart optimistic, no matter how pessimistic my mind.”
I was recently approached by Morgan Carter (they/ them), an emerging soprano who will be taking part in Gertrude Opera’s online iteration of their annual Yarra Valley Opera festival. The festival is now in its third year and like the entire performing arts industry, has been forced to re-invent itself over the past few months.
Gertrude Opera is a not-for-profit opera studio which uses “earned income from events and concerts to pay professional repetiteurs, directors and industry professionals, and give financial support to selected Young Artists”. Morgan is one such Young Artist with the company in 2020, and over the last six months has experienced coachings, rehearsals and collaborations virtually.
I am always excited to see small and medium-sized companies mount new works, and the Yarra Valley Opera festival has an intriguing program on offer. The line-up features three newly composed chamber operas: Kate Kelly, based on the life of Ned Kelly’s sister, written for five singers, clarinet, violin and cello; Together, Apart, which sees characters navigate dating and relationships in a cabaret format; and Love Fail, a multi-media homage to the tale of Tristian and Isolde. The festival will take place from October 16th -25th, with performances being available to watch for 28 hours from the advertised start time.
I had the chance to ask Morgan how they have adapted to Melbourne’s ongoing lockdown as a developing artist. You can follow Morgan’s singing adventures further through their website and Instagram. The full program of the Yarra Valley Opera festival and links to tickets can be found on the Gertrude Opera website and Facebook page.
Can you tell us a few sentences about yourself, what your musical practice is, and how you’re currently working on it?
I’m a twenty-four-year-old soprano currently based in Melbourne. I knew from a young age I wanted to become a performer, and when I was fourteen I performed my first role, Glinda from the Wizard of Oz. During my secondary education I sang with the Australian Youth Choir, The Arts Unit Senior Singers, and the Sydney Philharmonia Choir.
My interest in opera grew exponentially when I saw my first opera, Giasone by Francesco Cavalli in 2013, a rarely performed pre-baroque opera. The production I saw was funny, tragic, and beautiful… After that night I knew I wanted to do what they did for a living: get on stage in funny and amazing costumes and make people laugh and cry.
Since graduating from Sydney Conservatorium of Music I have been performing non-stop around Australia, Italy, Germany, and China. In November 2019 I moved to Melbourne from Adelaide, where I had been an Emerging Artist with State Opera South Australia. Melbourne always seemed like the place to be for the arts. And then COVID happened! Since lockdown I’ve been having zoom coachings with fabulous singers all over the world, making the most of my time at home.
What have you found to be most challenging aspects of this time of COVID-19, as a performing artist and more generally day to day?
As an artist, it’s been extremely difficult to find the motivation to practice and work on new repertoire, especially knowing full well that I won’t be performing for a live audience anytime soon. When there’s nothing to work towards, it’s very easy not to work…
During the first lockdown I barely sang, because all of my performances for the year had been postponed and the whole situation was a lot to deal with. In terms of day-to-day, the most challenging thing would have to be finding a schedule. It’s very easy to lie in bed all day when you live alone and have nowhere to be (and nobody to hold you accountable)!
You are a recipient of a scholarship with Gertrude Opera as a young artist. Later this month you will be participating in the company’s Yarra Valley Opera festival, which has been taken online. How have you navigated the rehearsal process in this socially-distanced time in Melbourne?
I am very grateful to be a Gertrude Opera young artist for my second year and to be the recipient of the prestigious Gertrude Johnson Fellowship for 2020. Before the lockdown, it allowed me the opportunity to work with some amazing artists face-to-face; and now, during lockdown, via zoom!
We have used this platform for many of our rehearsals for the festival, with readthroughs and coachings. Just the other day we met with our musical director, Patrick Burns, and artistic director, Linda Thompson, to discuss the remaining pieces we need to record and get answers to any musical questions.
During the festival you are performing in ‘Together, Apart’, a newly composed chamber opera. Can you tell us a bit about this piece?
Together, Apart is a series of fourteen individual pieces by Nicholas Gentile and Lincoln Hall. The work as a whole follows four young adults as they navigate their way through life, relationships, and living together. There are two male characters and two female characters, and the piece features an interesting love triangle, an aria about Tinder, and an intervention!
Do you think it’s important that the artform of opera adapts in the 21st century? If so, what would you love to see more (or less) of?
Definitely. Opera has been around for centuries, and anything that has been around that long is bound to need dusting off and refurbishing every now and again. The advances in technology in the 21st century has allowed the artform to adopt a much needed new medium and depth to performances.
I’ve seen productions that utilise video backdrops, LED screens as props and set, iPhones as a lighting technique, and even emojis inserted into surtitles! It’s these sorts of directorial choices that are going to draw new audiences to a show, perhaps even people who have never seen opera before.
The Yarra Valley Opera Festival this year is a prime example of utilising technology to our advantage. We couldn’t have the festival in person, so we’re taking it online! Making it more accessible to larger audiences and appealing to a different demographic.
How do you sustain hope for the future, or overcome periods where you feel less motivated?
During lockdown, I’ve come close to throwing in the towel more times than I can count. It’s definitely hard to be a young artist (or any artist) during this time, seeing your entire industry be brought to the brink of collapse in the blink of an eye.
Whenever I mull over these thoughts, I remind myself why I sing in the first place. I love it! I love sharing a story and an experience, with total strangers in such an intimate way. Nothing beats the feeling of walking on stage, and any worries you’ve had throughout the day about life, finances, how you’re going to make a career out of all this, just vanish. That feeling when an audience laughs with you, cries with you, and breathes with you is something so special. There’s nothing else like it in the world.
And of course, the standing ovation! Every time I’ve experienced one it’s been monumental. It’s like having every emotion at once take over your body; you’re smiling but you feel like crying, and your heart is rushing and warm. That’s why I sing. To have that feeling every time I perform. It has taken a lockdown to realise I wouldn’t trade that for anything in the world.
Morgan Carter is an award winning British/Australian Soprano. They are currently a Gertrude Opera Young Artist and hold the prestigious Gertrude Johnson Fellowship for 2020. In 2019, Morgan was a participant in the State Opera South Australia James and Diana Ramsay Developing Artist Programme. They hold a Bachelor of Music from the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, where they were the recipient of two scholarships for performance excellence. Morgan is looking forward to returning to the Yarra Valley Opera Festival for 2020 and performing in; Together, Apart (Gentile), Kate Kelly (Carey), Ari-archi-tecture, and the opening Gala – At Home.
Morgan was excited to be performing the role of Sophie in Werther (Massenet) for BK Opera, however due to the COVID-19 global pandemic, this performance has been postposed indefinitely.
Their roles include Carmen (Carmen), Hannah After (As One*), Edith (Boojum!), Cherubino (Le Nozze Di Figaro), Suzuki (Madama Butterfly), Third Witch (Macbeth), Mrs Northwind (The Enchanted Pig*), Ottavia (The Coronation Of Poppea), Tessa (The Gondoliers), and Jefferson (Space Encounters). They have covered Amneris (Aïda), and Larina/Olga (Eugene Onegin). Morgan has numerous chorus credits, including; Fidelio, Le Nozze di Figaro, Madama Butterfly, Peer Gynt, Carmen, Orpheus in the Underworld, La Sonnambula, Aida, Tosca, Cunning Little Vixen, the Bartered Bride, Eugene Onegin, Hamlet (Brett Dean), and The Enchanted Pig* (Jonathan Dove).
Morgan is a principal artist with Gertrude Opera (2020, 2019), BK Opera (2020), State Opera South Australia (2019), Elephant in the Room Productions (2021, 2018), Australian International Productions (2018), the Mediterranean Opera Festival (2018), Co-Opera (2020, 2017), Emma Knights Productions (2018, 2017), and Rockdale Opera Company (2017). Morgan has been in the chorus for productions with Melbourne Opera (2020, 2019), and State Opera South Australia (2019, 2018).
Back in July, I put out a call to my immediate musical network to see 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. Our subject today is young mezzo-soprano Syrah Torii. Syrah is currently undertaking her Masters of Music online, and has seen firsthand how institutions have been forced to shift their approach in this changing landscape.
Firstly as an intro- can you tell us a few sentences about yourself, what your musical practice is, and how you’re currently working on it.
I’m a young mezzo-soprano currently studying my Master of Music in Opera Performance at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music. I studied Linguistics and Spanish for my undergrad, I love languages. I also completed a Diploma in Music in Classical Voice, which I initially began to learn about vocal technique so I could be a speech pathologist who worked with singers. Instead, my passion for voice and classical music blossomed! I love singing music from different countries and time periods, and in different languages.
What have you found to be the most challenging aspects of this time of COVID-19, as a performing artist and more generally day to day? Can you tell us a little bit about the experience of having your course converted from necessity to online-only education?
Due to COVID-19, two of my favourite parts of being a performing artist – rehearsing in-person and performing live – have been put on pause. All of my coaching sessions, lessons, assessments, competitions, and Eisteddfods are now held in the virtual world. While I am easily adaptable to change, nothing compares to the energy of a live performance. I still miss working in a rehearsal room with other people. In lockdown day-to-day, there is that blurred line between when I am ‘at university’ and when I am ‘at home’, but I’ve got a daily routine that I follow to keep things balanced.
My course has been through a lot of changes this year – from moving online in first semester, to a few weeks of in-person rehearsals for Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte back in June, to back online for second semester – but my cohort and the staff have been very resilient through these changes! It’s tough that you don’t get the full experience of working with people in person, and singing over zoom doesn’t capture the richness of sound. Despite these challenges, I think we’ve managed really well and made the most of these unique circumstances. We also made a film clip of the Brindisi from La traviata which was shared on The University of Melbourne’s Facebook page (https://bit.ly/3lggp1l), and it was received very positively by friends and strangers alike. I’m glad we could bring joy to people in these uncertain times!
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?
Since live performances are on hold at the moment, the only way we can ‘perform’ is through video, so out of necessity I’ve delved into the world of self-taping, video editing, and sound recording and mixing. It’s been fun to get to know the tech side of performing, and it’s a skill that will definitely be useful in the future.
Do you have any projects in the works you’d like to share?
Our Masters course is currently working on Die Zauberflöte, and we’ll soon be meeting in person to record and film the scenes. I’m playing Third Lady and Third Boy – which involves quite a lot of German! It has been a few months since we were originally meant to perform the roles, so I’m excited to bring a fresh perspective to my interpretation. I’m also looking forward to singing with other people again!
How do you sustain hope for the future, or overcome periods where you feel less motivated?
I engage with other artists’ work for inspiration. Recently, the Met Opera Nightly Opera Streams helped me get out of a slump, and earlier I was listening to a lot of Jacob Collier. I also love watching movies as I learn about ways of expressing that can be applied to my work. Hope and motivation can so easily be buried beneath pandemic related anxiety, sadness, and frustration, but lifting my head and witnessing other people’s work reminds me of why I love music and makes me hopeful again.
Syrah Torii is a vibrant and committed performer with a passion for languages.
Currently studying a Master of Music in Opera Performance at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, her operatic roles have included La Zelatrice in Puccini’s Suor Angelica and Maestra Spinelloccia in Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi, both under the direction of internationally renowned opera stage director Andrew Sinclair. Soon she will portray both Third Lady and Third Boy for a filmed production of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte at the Conservatorium. In her undergraduate degree she studied a Bachelor of Arts (Linguistics, Spanish), and a Diploma in Music (Classical Voice), while also performing in various productions such as Vivaldi’s Gloria (featured dancer), Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites (Sœur Gérald), and Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld. Syrah was a proud recipient of the Bessie Robson Music Scholarship while at Ormond College.
Why is the study of musicology and ethnomusicology important? Monash University recently announced its plans to cut over 100 subjects, including its musicology and ethnomusicology specialisations. Academic Peter Tregear published an insightful and succinct response to these cuts on The Conversation, explaining why these areas of study are far from superfluous extras. (If you wish to support the campaign for Monash University to halt these plans, you can find more information here).
Speaking candidly, the words ‘cuts to music programs’ and ‘lack of funding for musical education’ spark feelings of red-hot fury within me. Ever since I can remember, I’ve had to defend my interest in music, and the validity of my desire to pursue a portfolio career in the arts. (Thankfully not from anyone close to me).
And why do we even ask that question? There are many academic fields that I personally know next to nothing about, yet I’m not walking around questioning the legitimacy of the study of medicine, the study of mathematics, the study of science, the study of physics, the study of botany, the study of dinosaurs… the list goes on. These disciplines have led to a better understanding of our world, a number of practical ways to improve our quality of life, even life-saving breakthroughs. But so has the study of music.
I object to the idea that everything has to be reduced to numbers, or judged by its potential to lead to a high-paying position at a board table. But if you want to talk about purely practical applications such as aiding recovery from brain injuries, improving psychological wellbeing, and assisting with literacy and numeracy levels in children; music satisfies every requirement.
The evidence is far from anecdotal: the health benefits of music could sustain several PhDs. Music Therapy is a field which has gradually gained recognition over the last few decades. Music therapists can help improve the quality of life of people with physical and intellectual disabilities, severe mental illness, brain injuries, and degenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s. It is not uncommon to hear of completely non-verbal people with Autism finding a way to communicate purely through singing and playing instruments. The dignity and independence music therapy can restore to these people cannot be overstated. Hospitals are beginning to establish dedicated music therapy and art therapy programs, as medical professionals have long since accepted that psychological wellbeing and physical health are inextricably linked.
Music therapy is its own field, distinct from musicology and ethnomusicology. But music therapy would not even have been conceived as a discipline without the research done by ethnomusicologists over the last one hundred years. Ethnomusicology emerged as a separate stream from musicology as it approached the analysis of music from a social and cultural perspective. This field of study helped to build the academic understanding that musical performance is not purely a method of entertainment. Many cultures around the world use musical performance during important rites of passage or as an expression of identity. Ethnomusicology is often concerned with (but not limited to) the study of indigenous and non-Western cultures.
These areas of study go far beyond staring at manuscript paper. Tregear notes that Prof. George Marshall-Hall (founder of the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music in 1913) wanted graduates to not only become “performers, but also historians, analysers, critics, and explorers of the musical culture they inhabited”. Learning music fires up the left and right regions of the brain. By the same token, the disciplines of musicology and ethnomusicology encompass history, anthropology, politics, mathematical pattern analysis… the list goes on!
I’ll leave you with an infographic completely disproving Monash University’s claim that enrollments in these specialisations were flagging. I hope you’re as incensed as I am.
A note from the editor- I was recently contacted by George Cox, a young writer who wanted to put together a piece on a creative venture by his two musical housemates, born out of lockdown necessity.
Balcony Opera is a Facebook and Instagram community which was created when young sopranos Lisette Bolton and Teresa Ingrilli began holding miniature recitals for their neighbours from their second storey balcony.
If you would like to see more of Balcony Opera’s events, you can join their community Facebook group here or follow them on Instagram. In addition to pre-recorded events, they have begun live streaming. – Stella Joseph-Jarecki (Enquiries: stellamusicwriter.wordpress.com)
What follows are a few thoughts on the plight of classically-trained singers during and post-pandemic. The occasion for these thoughts may be flippantly explained by the following six-word horror story: “Spending lockdown with two opera singers.”
Less flippantly, it is obvious that pandemics are bad for capitalism, and that living in capitalism is bad for music. What’s bad for our captors is bad for us, if it does not kill them.
There are deep structural problems with the industry that produces music in Australia that have always made it difficult to make a living therein. These problems have been addressed and written about at length, as has their magnification by current circumstances. What I want to introduce here is a plan – a kind of venture – currently being undertaken by the two aforementioned opera singers, whose craft occupies the ambient background sound of every one of my Zoom seminars.
Classical musicians are caught in something of a contradiction. Under lockdown, they must wring an income out of their passion more desperately than ever before, and yet like everyone else they must continue to seek solace (and sate their entertainment consumption needs) through the things they love. To be pricked by the horns of this dilemma is to fall into emotional dysregulation, to be unable to participate in our social and cultural communities in the ways we have before. Can we balance our ongoing self-commodification with our love of the craft?
Teresa and Lisette’s project, Balcony Opera, approaches this dilemma with a set of ideals that balances the caring with the practical. When you’re trapped in lockdown, it is easy to annoy your neighbours and your roommates with your frequent practice: not so good. Often the only realistic way to resolve this problem is to talk to your neighbours, to share your schedules and to commiserate over the different shapes that your lockdown challenges are taking. Much better!
Self-conscious lockdown practice therefore encourages us to be kinder to the people in our immediate physical community, as well as to ourselves and to our fellow musicians. But we also have to think a little selfishly – if not descend into profit-seeking beasts – about what new revenue streams are available to musicians under lockdown, in addition to the broader question of how to break opera back into the main stream(ing platforms) of cultural consumption.
Teresa and Lisette hope to create a space which attends to the pressing and self-interested need to preserve the viability of the classical voice economy for all its members. They also want to share their music-making more widely than they are currently able to from their literal balcony, partly through digital content distribution and partly through creating a dedicated Balcony Opera community.
More specifically, they hope that this space, or platform, might eventually serve to connect singers, audiences, and distributors. Thus, to arrive at specifics, they record themselves singing from their balcony and share it on Facebook, via Zoom, and over a mailing list, inviting other singers and performers to do the same, taking the opportunity to break down the usual stratification of musical audiences through digital means. This is not to say that Teresa and Lisette are aiming to enter the already-crowded music distribution market. This project is an attempt to supplement the sharing and networking systems that used to work, in the before times.
‘Balcony Opera’ is a fairly figurative phrase. The balcony itself is a kind of metaphor for connection: a part of the home which is both inside and outside. They are always raised, on a second story or higher: they open onto a rarefied dimension of urban space, where birds and telephone lines live. This rarefied dimension perhaps corresponds, if I may mix a metaphor, to the space in which music lives.
Let’s not kid ourselves: music is not so low down on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, a hierarchy which has become a little bit more sharply defined recently. We can think of the operatic balcony as opening onto some of our higher-order needs: ‘self-actualisation’ and ‘esteem.’ But perhaps also ‘belonging,’ the third storey of the pyramid.
In this context, we can think of a balcony as much more than its physical properties. It is a platform for singing, which is to say, a stage, which Teresa and Lisette, and other singers around the world, have extracted from the institutionalised spaces of commercial musical performance and inserted into their own homes.
They have brought the opera house home, in a sense, but only so they may effectively (re)export it to other homes, and thus the balcony is metonymically linked to the operatic stages of the world. It is a metonym for the home itself, to which it is architecturally linked, and to every other home in its immediate vicinity, to which it is linked by the propagation of sound waves. To sing from one’s balcony is always to sing from home, from the border of a private space. Teresa and Lisette thus effect a metonymic decentralisation of the operatic apparatus (‘operapparatus’).
This decentralisation sounds like a bad thing: how can you continue to make opera without the support of large institutions and central gathering places, without the regulated flow of bodies into ticketed spaces? The pandemic has forced exactly this problematic upon us, a problematic which was always latent in our fragile economy, and substituted a different form of bodily regulation. This new operapparatus takes these protective measures and adapts them into a revenue stream, and possibly a new normal for cultural consumption.
The only answer to a biological virus – besides medicine, paid sick leave, rent and mortgage freezes, and voting for the Victorian Socialists – is a digital one. The networked connections between consumers of live classical music have been severed; it was precisely those connections along which the coronavirus travelled from airway to airway. These connections can be electronically supplemented. The opera industry is rapidly being microbiologically balkanised, and must therefore be macrolocally balconised.
Teresa and Lisette would be the first to admit that their consumption of opera has been in many ways saved from complete destruction by the inventive and generous action of established musical institutions such as The Royal Opera House, with their series of streamed past performances, and newly-constructed platforms such as Melbourne Digital Concert Hall.
Some of these innovations represent predictable and reasonable moves by institutions to protect their audience and revenue base (two ways of saying the same thing?) against a temporary disaster. Others suggest more experimental approaches that might endure for longer than we expect. Balcony Opera as an initiative leans towards the latter approach, but also adds a new angle.
Teresa and Lisette are interested in devising a new set of horizontalising connections between opera institutions, singing communities, and choral associations in Melbourne and Victoria, potentially enfolding them into this new operapparatus that they might share their work and attract audiences and singers through a more accessible space. Accessibility here denotes not just a space that can operate under lockdown, but also a space that explicitly refuses, as far as it can, the material and prestige-based gatekeeping that filters emerging artists out of the networks of established venues and opera producers.
More specifically, these stakeholders could share, on a rotating and hopefully regular basis, and alongside struggling and emerging performers, in the proceeds from charity and recovery concerts run from all manner of balconies.
I say ‘horizontalising’ because the fear that afflicts emerging operatic performers often stems from their distance (figurative and literal) from the established institutions of quite a vertical industry. Recovery concerts and shared virtual performances can serve to materially support and advertise emerging performers, as well as reach out to audiences whose cultural consumption needs must be inventively sated.
At the moment these are general suggestions only. What I hope to have outlined here are the principles and the general contours of a venture which has emerged somewhat spontaneously from the material and aesthetic consequences of Victoria’s continuing lockdown. If this sounds interesting to you, feel free to follow Balcony Opera on Facebook and Instagram, or get in touch with its organisers if you would like to be involved somehow.
To take a step back from the reorganisation of flows of money and prestige (the bottom and the top of Maslow’s pyramid, respectively) that characterise any significant intervention into Victoria’s classical music economy, I’d conclude by suggesting that the balcony is also now increasingly the place where we belong-together without directly entering the virtual. It is the most ‘together’ of the places where we can be together-apart. Musicians I think are especially well-placed to make the balcony the locus of a new practice. As we haltingly emerge from our collective state of disaster we may be inclined to forget everything about the experience as quickly as possible; the things we did on our balconies may be worth remembering.
George is an undergraduate student of English, philosophy, and musicology at the University of Melbourne and sometimes passes for a pianist and composer. In 2021 he will hopefully complete an honours thesis on Deleuze and materialist aesthetics. He edits an online magazine, secretaries a choir, privately teaches music theory, and shelves books in Southbank. He has written over 25 reviews on Goodreads this year.