Kamalarella: An Operatic Battle Cry

By Stella Joseph-Jarecki (Enquiries: stellamusicwriter.wordpress.com)

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 the editor (Stella Joseph-Jarecki) or guest contributors.

Can an opera bring together influences as diverse as a cult film from the 60s, a David Attenborough documentary, a US Vice-President, and the music of Karlheinz Stockhausen? Read on to find out.

If you have read anything I have written on the topic of opera (you can find a couple of pieces here and here) you will know that I believe the art form can be brought into the 21st century. But I don’t think that is something that can happen overnight.

To distil it down to the simplest terms, two things are needed: funding, and fresh blood. The two interact in unsatisfying ways: creatives need capital to get their projects off the ground, but applying for grants is an exhaustive and highly competitive process. Without that first package of funding to funnel into a showcase or preview, it becomes even harder to put together compelling applications for future opportunities.

Whether or not it is fair, emerging creatives often have to invest countless hours of their own time and funds from their own savings to turn their concepts into a reality.

All of this to say, the independent project we are featuring below is a particularly exciting one.

Image supplied

Kamalarella is a newly-composed chamber opera written by composer/ producer Michael Folmer Hansen and soprano/ composer Sofia Laursen Habel. It is available for streaming and purchase from Bandcamp, Spotify, and Apple Music.

There’s no doubt that the COVID-19 global pandemic created incredibly challenging conditions for artists. But in Hansen and Habel’s case, it provided the impetus behind two new operas. The pair first collaborated on Repudiating Oran, which was written entirely over Zoom during the Stage Four lockdown in Victoria. Hansen and Habel were joined by singer Luke Belle and New-York based composer and producer Emilio Guarino. The team took inspiration from the real-life ‘Ring of Steel’ between metropolitan Melbourne and regional Victoria, and elements of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

Kamalarella follows protagonist Mi, as she tries to survive in the aftermath of events of Repudiating Oran. Emilio Guarino returns to the creative fold, supplying the opera’s lush orchestral overture and finale.

I had the chance to speak to soprano Sofia Laursen Habel about the inspirations behind the project.

SJJ: Can you tell us about the main ideas driving the opera, and what makes it unique?

SLH: Our newly-composed opera is called Kamalarella – a name created from two sources – the 60’s cult classic film Barbarella starring Jane Fonda, and Kamala Harris, newly elected Vice President of the United States. The opera follows the main character Mi, as she navigates a new world post-novel virus. The central ideas explored through this opera are feminism (or female oppression) and the climate emergency.

Musically, Kamalarella merges classical with electronic music. Michael has named Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Helikopter-Streichquartett and Phillip Glass’ minimalist opera Einstein on the Beach as his main musical inspirations. He wasn’t intending for the piece to sound like them, exactly, but that was where he was coming from.

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A vocoder is also used in the storytelling to incorporate a robotic sound at various points of the opera. A vocoder is an instrument that distorts the voice – it consists of a mini keyboard and a microphone, and as you press the keys and speak into the microphone, it distorts your voice! It is super cool…

You have taken a musical format many see as dusty and old-fashioned, and used it to explore contemporary issues with a sense of urgency. Can you tell us a bit more about the passion and advocacy element behind this project?

I am extremely passionate about this project – while writing the libretto, I wanted to take from personal experience and keep it relevant to the issues I feel are critical to not only talk about, but act upon.

I particularly enjoyed researching and writing the advertisements that roll in the background in Act 3, and Mi’s three arias. Mi’s arias are written to inspire, to revolutionise the people to revolt against their oppressors. I wanted to connect feminism and climate change, because I believe there are parallels between both issues, as seen in this example from Act 3:

“What is this world? Dying… where are the birds? The forests? The wilderness? The wild? Where is the wild? Where is the wild in me?

Just like the ocean, my mind has been poisoned. Just like the forests, my ideas cut down. Just like this planet, I am empty of life – yet I am living. I must heal my soul, and the soul of the planet. We are one, joined together in this fate.”

As a queer, feminist, environmentalist, and composer and singer, I wrote the libretto as a way of expressing my fears on the current and future state of our planet.

This is my way of screaming at the top of lungs for something to change. I want people to listen, think and act.

Image supplied

How did the compositional process work between the two of you?

First, Michael composed the soundscapes for the 5 Acts. Once they were complete, I wrote the libretto and melody.

Michael and I spent a week in his studio down by the coast once the soundscapes were complete, to create a structure around what the opera should be about, and sound like from a vocal perspective. We spent a few months writing back and forth before going into the studio in Melbourne to record!

Then I completed the libretto, taking inspiration from a variety of sources. In addition to the two I already mentioned: David Attenborough’s TV series Life on Our Planet and Glennon Doyle’s biography Untamed.

The film and cartoon Barbarella – although it is quite problematic by today’s standards due to the sexist nature of the work – was an inspiration at the beginning of the process. Michael introduced me the film. We were inspired by the storyline, the idea of a strong female character living in a dystopian world, as well as the sci-fi aesthetic. Barbarella is an extremely polite and well-mannered character, so we took inspiration from that for when Mi is ‘tamed’ to become the perfect woman.

Untamed is a fantastic book – it is a biography and self-help book which details Doyle’s own experience of losing her ‘wild’ when she ‘tamed’ by society for being a woman, and then to finding her own voice and inner ‘wild’ again later in life.

The book begins with an analogy of a leopard they visit in the zoo. This leopard has been tamed and has lived in the zoo her whole life. After the entertainment, Glennon continues to watch the leopard, and sees that she still has wild instincts – the wild is still within her even though she has been tamed. I used this as inspiration when writing sections of the libretto regarding feminism and climate change: we need a return to the wild.

1968 movie poster for ‘Barbarella: Queen of the Galaxy’. Property of Paramount Pictures.

As for Kamala Harris, both Michael and I are so excited that she is Vice President of the United States. As the first woman, and woman of colour, to be VP, we were so inspired by her speeches, her white suffragette outfit and her as a person. For Mi’s Act 4 aria I specifically tried to emulate the syntax from her inaugural speech as VP. It is so uplifting! Hopefully I have been able to capture some of the same vibe.

Combining ‘Barbarella’ with ‘Kamala’ was a wordplay, to show the progress of female representation on screen, in our society and in politics.

Once the recording was finished, we sent off the opera to Emilio Guarino in the US to compose the overture and finale.

The Living Music Report

Cover page of 2019 Edition of Living Music Report. Design by Thought & Found

By Stella Joseph-Jarecki (Enquiries: stellamusicwriter.wordpress.com)

Sometime late last year, I was scrolling through Instagram and came across a post by Declassify Podcast (a project which bears the fabulous tag line of ‘Challenging classical music through conversation’). The post was promoting an episode featuring composer Ciaran Frame and something called the ‘Living Music Report’. Twenty minutes later, I had gone down an investigation spiral and was trawling through the report itself.

What exactly is The Living Music Report? The report presents a cross-section of statistics relating to the programming decisions of eight Australian orchestras and one performing arts organisation. The data behind the report is comprehensive: Ciaran assembled complete records of the pieces programmed by these organisations in their 2019 and 2020 seasons.

In his own words: “The Living Music Report was prepared as independent quantitative analysis of MPA musical programming in Australia, with a focus on the extent to which it reflects the 21st Century’s cultural landscape of diverse and emerging musical experiences.” The MPAs in question: SSO, MSO, TSO, QSO, WASO, ASO, ACO (Australian Chamber Orchestra), ABO (Australian Brandenburg Orchestra), and Musica Viva.  

I was thrilled to see this kind of disciplined research applied to the arts industry. It can be easy to fall into the habit of describing cultural trends with broad, sweeping statements (I include myself in this). But by examining the data, we can draw factual conclusions on where the major players in the Australian performing arts industry are going.

I had the chance to speak to Ciaran on the impetus behind this project, and what he hopes it will achieve in the coming years.

You can download the 2019 edition of the Living Music Report here, and the 2020 edition here. If you would like to download the open data set compiled in the report, you can do so here. You can follow Ciaran’s composition work here.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are warned that the following piece may contain images of deceased persons.

Infographic from 2019 Edition of Living Music Report. Design by Thought & Found. Graphic reads: Sydney Symphony Orchestra. 8 living Australian works programmed across 148 works. 100% of Australian works were written by living composers. Out of 148 total works: 81% were written by dead composers, 19% by living composers. 5% of works were written by Australian composers, 95% were written by composers from a country other than Australia. 99% of works were written by male composers, 1% by female composers.

SJJ: To start us off with context, can you tell us a bit about your background as a composer?

CF: I studied at the Sydney Conservatorium and I had a great time there. It was quite traditional in some ways, but I feel like I got a broad sense of music- but perhaps not the way music functions in real life and the industry.

In terms of a composition background, I am really interested in collaboration and working with people. I guess I don’t see myself as a composer, in the sense that my role as someone who makes music is more someone who works with other musicians, creates musical systems and has a good time!

I think that is a healthy outlook, to want to collaborate and bounce off other people.

I think the role of the composer is disappearing in some ways… in a formal sense at least! Putting notes on a piece of paper and sending it off to a higher entity, is becoming rarer and rarer. Not just for orchestras. That goes for all walks of life: film music, game music, even the concert hall. As we saw during 2020, the concert hall alone is struggling! I think the role of the composer has to adapt.

Particularly with so many online platforms and methods of self-publishing out there.

Gone are the days where an orchestra is your sole employer.

Fragment of Orazio Gentileschi’s ‘The Lute Player’. 1612-1620, National Gallery of Art.

When did you realise you wanted to put together the Living Music Report, to survey the programming decisions of major orchestras?

My initial motivation came from the annual report put together by composer and teacher Ian Whitney. This report looks at Australian music and how often it is programmed.

I thought that was so inspiring. It was that, combined with the fact that there was no evidence base or data out there to support claims I was making. It is very easy to say, ‘Orchestras are playing XYZ’ and it’s very hard to prove it. So that’s where it all started!

Infographic from 2020 Edition of Living Music Report. Design by Thought & Found. Graphic reads: 12 out of 915 performed works were written by a First Nations composer. There were 3 First Nations composers represented across this number. There were 11 composers with the first name Johann represented across this number.

What was the process behind putting a report like that together? I can imagine there was a lot of trawling through program notes…  

It was a combination of sources; program notes were a massive one. I used composer websites and blogs to keep track of any news with the orchestras. I also made sure to contact the orchestras themselves. I had varying levels of success in terms of response rate, but I think it’s important nonetheless. I’ll definitely continue to contact the orchestras every time I publish the data. Because I am human and I make mistakes!

It’s all open data– anyone can contact me with corrections. I would love to fix up anything I have missed. I want things to be as accurate as possible.

Fragment of Félix Armand Heullant’s ‘In gedanken’ (In contemplation). 1905, private collection.

The first edition of the Living Music Report is a full summary of the 2019 seasons. I know it wasn’t planned- but in hindsight you couldn’t have timed that better! With the events of 2020, 2019 is the most standard or “normal” year we have had in recent memory.

When it came to compiling the data for the 2020 edition of the report, did you run into any particular challenges due to the unique online environment created by the pandemic?

Surprisingly, it’s very difficult to keep track of digital concerts. You’d think it would be easier when they are online! I am planning to release a Living Music Report every year, and I have no plans to stop!

The 2020 edition was obviously extremely different, with half the number of concerts from 2019 and wildly different presentations, but I still think it’s important to keep a record every year, no matter how strange a year it is!

Cover page of 2020 Edition of Living Music Report. Design by Thought & Found

What would you love this report to do, if you had to summarise it in a few sentences?

I see the report as a tool for change, but it’s not the report itself that is creating that change. The report is creating the dialogue, the conversations, and a resource for people to look at.

If it is continuing into the future, I’d love for it to be used to document trends, maybe even improvements in the sector. Keeping the conversation going. If we can talk about this every year, I think that is a massive win.

The core purpose of the report is to capture diversity data in the form of lots of different metrics, that reflect who we are. Obviously, it is called the Living Music Report- living composers is a massive one. People think of diversity as this idea of ticking boxes, but there is such a diverse range of music experiences and lived experiences out there. I’m trying to capture that as much as possible.

This is also a massive issue within the opera sector. I knew it was an issue faced by orchestras, but perhaps it is less in-your-face with instrumental music, as there is no accompanying narrative or characters (most of the time, at least). When you listen to a Beethoven symphony, it’s not as blatantly obvious that you’re listening to “a white man’s music”… But when you sit back and look at the data that you’ve drawn up, some of the statistics are pretty laughable.

I totally agree- it is almost comically bad at times. I like telling stories through the data. It’s an objective fact that figures like Bach, Beethoven, were played more than all the female composers combined. That’s not an attack on any orchestras, that’s an objective fact.

Infographic from 2019 Edition of Living Music Report. Design by Thought & Found.
Top graphic: female composers 3%, male composers 97%.
Bottom graphic, left to right: female composers, Johann Sebastian Bach, Ludwig van Beethoven, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Out of every performed work around the country in 2019:

19% were written by living composers

9% were written by Australian composers

3% were written by female composers

0.45% written by CALD Australian composers (CALD = culturally and linguistically diverse)

0.05% were written by First Nations composers

The Living Music Report, 2019

For these major arts organisations who are sitting on this big cushy pad of guaranteed funding- I think it’s irresponsible and almost immoral to not use that opportunity. It’s a waste of the resources they have, to not take some risks.

The government is giving these organisations funding. And I have no problem with that! But in my opinion, that funding is giving them permission to take bigger risks. It is not giving them permission to subsidise ticket holders for a program that doesn’t inspire, doesn’t deal with diverse experiences…

I’m of the somewhat controversial opinion that the lack of diverse musical experiences is mismanagement of the organisation. Not only morally, but from a purely business perspective! I think people forget that is a legitimate argument.

George Winunguj plays his didgeridoo with David Cubbin, Jiri Tancibudek, Thomas Wightman, Patrick Brislan, Gabor Reeves and the Adelaide Wind Quintet, 1972. Photo credit: Michael Jensen, National Library of Australia.

Did you get a noticeable reaction to the release of the 2019 report?

In some senses! The reaction that I wanted to see the most from was from the orchestras, and that was the response I saw the least. I think it is very easy for orchestras to not respond to these things. It’s not in their interests, necessarily, to acknowledge this report exists. And that’s absolutely fine.

The heartening responses I received were from people I really look up to, who are driving the scene in Australia: Deborah Cheetham, Cat Hope… It was so lovely to see engagement on that level and conversations on that level. In my mind, that means it the report was a success. Not to toot my own horn!

It absolutely is a success. Anything that is the result of that much hard work is a success, and it doesn’t really matter how far a reach it has, because that is something independent of the hard work.

A final quote from the Living Music Report:

“While MPAs are guided by well-established musical traditions and audience preferences, a bigger conversation is needed about what role our Major Performing Arts Organisations play in advocating for and providing diverse experiences.

The Living Music Report was created to spark dialogue and provide quantitative evidence for future discussions. It is the start of a conversation that continues with artists, performers, audience and communities. Where will these conversations take music next?”

Ciaran Frame


Ciaran Frame is a composer, media artist and researcher currently based in Melbourne. Having completed his honours at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, Ciaran is passionate about cross-disciplinary collaboration and education, seeking a place in the world of data, technology and music. He has found a home in interactive and generative computer music, creating everything from sonification toolboxes to make music out of plants, to performance works where players must purchase their musical material.

Ciaran is currently undertaking a PhD at Monash University’s SensiLab under the supervision of Prof Jon McCormack and Dr Alon Ilsar. His research explores autonomy and agency within musical systems, pursuing meaningful music creation regardless of musical experience.

Ciaran was born on the lands of the Eora Nation and lives and works on the lands of the Kulin Nation.

Macbeth: Melbourne Opera

Photo credit: Robin Halls

By Stella Joseph-Jarecki (Enquiries: stellamusicwriter.wordpress.com)

A big thank you to ClassikON, where this review was originally published.

On an appropriately dark and wintery night, Melbourne Opera partnered with Melbourne Digital Concert Hall to present a livestream of Giuseppe Verdi’s Macbeth at Her Majesty’s Theatre. 

This particular piece has a chequered history. The first version of the opera was written when Verdi was only thirty-three years old, premiering in 1947. The composer collaborated with two librettists in adapting Shakespeare’s work, anxious for the text to retain its power and urgency. Almost twenty years later, he made a number of alterations when the opera was mounted in Paris. Melbourne Opera’s original production, directed by Bruce Beresford, is predominantly made up of the first version. 

William Shakespeare’s Macbeth has to be one of the most atmospheric and fantastically creepy pieces of theatre ever written – all the more terrifying for the fact the violent acts mostly take place off-stage. So how do you sustain that level of tension on the operatic stage, where the action is frequently pausing for an aria or two? 

The answer: with difficulty. Macbeth is the kind of source text where pacing is integral, and this libretto chops the story into uneven chunks. It should also be noted that in 1847 Verdi was writing luscious, beautiful music first and foremost, and building drama and suspense second. 

Photo credit: Robin Halls

Musically, the cast easily rose to the challenge. Helena Dix supplied a powerful and deftly controlled soprano throughout and reveled in the eeriness of Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking aria. Simon Meadows gave a solid, stoic turn as Macbeth, and in role of Banquo, Adrian Tamburini’s rich, resonant bass was a scene-stealer. The orchestra handled Verdi’s colossal score with skill and dexterity under the guidance of Raymond Lawrence. 

While I am familiar with the concept of suspended disbelief, particularly in the larger-than-life art form of opera, there are moments in Macbeth where Verdi’s musical decisions actively undermine the horror of the events taking place on stage. A sizeable coven of witches could have been an unsettling sight, if they weren’t given such jaunty music to work with. At one point, a thirty-strong band of mercenaries assemble in the centre of the stage – one half of the group loudly asks the other what they are there to do, and they answer back in thundering chorus that they are there to murder Banquo and his young son. Despite this strength in numbers, little Fleance still manages to escape! 

A no-frills but remarkably effective piece of staging took place during Macbeth’s banquet, after he has had Banquo killed. Tamburini appeared on stage in blood-stained clothes, lit by a harsh white spotlight – not approaching or gesticulating, but simply gazing at Macbeth. 

Under difficult and uncertain circumstances, Melbourne Opera is determined to bring large-scale opera productions to the Victorian public. This is a worthwhile and commendable goal.

Hidden Curiosities: Memento

By Stella Joseph-Jarecki (Enquiries: stellamusicwriter.wordpress.com)

There are many challenges inherent in the life of a freelance composer: being commissioned to write works in the first place, reaching out to potential audiences, connecting with like-minded performers. But a challenge that is less commonly discussed is the life cycle of pieces, once the score is written and the applause from the premiere has faded away.

Once a musical work has come into the world, what then?

A concert series in Melbourne and Sydney is hoping to answer that question.

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 the editor (Stella Joseph-Jarecki) or guest writers.

I was recently contacted by Cameron Lam, a producer, composer and arts administrator who has been interviewed here at Fever Pitch Magazine. Alongside his artistic associate Alicia Crossley, Lam is the artistic director of Kammerklang, a production company based in Sydney and Melbourne.

Their latest endeavour is Hidden Curiosities, a two-concert event performed by a pianist/ soprano duo in each state.

Hidden Curiosities was born out a gap in the offerings for Australian composers: the one that exists when it comes to their back catalogue. Lam elaborates that the company “wanted to create a platform to highlight the many hidden gems in existing Australian repertoire. This series aims to champion existing, under-performed, Australian compositions with interstate performances by some of Australia’s leading performers.

A piece of music doesn’t need to be brand new, to be new to an audience. We want to support these works to have a long and varied life after their premieres.”

Last month, soprano Anna Fraser and pianist Jack Symonds presented their Vestige program at Sydney Conservatorium, drawing a glowing review from Limelight Magazine.  

This weekend, Stefan Cassomenos and Amelia Jones will bringing their Memento concert to Melbourne Recital Centre. (Tickets are still available here) While the mission behind the Hidden Curiosities series is to give new life to existing repertoire, it should also be pointed out that the program is entirely made up of works by living composers. This would be barely rate a mention in many other musical contexts, but is sadly all too rare in the world of chamber music and related classical genres.

Both concert programs were drawn from an open call for scores which attracted over 390 minutes of music. The performers took charge of the curation process- guided by instinct rather than the specifications of a particular theme.

“It was a nearly impossible task to narrow down the works submitted to a shortlist- there was so much wonderful music”, Cassomenos concedes.

Stefan Cassomenos

“I was drawn to works that affected me deeply, and there wasn’t a particular style for this program in my mind. The only real theme I noticed emerging was that they were all really well-written and heartfelt works, and the composers all have an inspiring level of craft.”

It is makes sense then that the program is a diverse one, both musically and artistically, with composers in varying stages of their careers. Those in the audience on Saturday night will hear works by Anne Cawrse, Connor D’Netto, Robert McIntyre and Caerwen Martin among many others.

Cassomenos and Jones are known for their versatility as performers. Jones regularly appears alongside early music ensembles across Melbourne, and has supplied vocals for multiple video game soundtracks. Cassomenos can be seen performing concert pianist repertoire, and is also an active figure in the world chamber music.

“It has always been a great pleasure to feature Australian compositions in my solo recitals, particularly overseas, and also to premiere Australian piano concertos”, he elaborates. “I also feel very fortunate to have premiered and recorded several new Australian art songs. My chamber ensemble PLEXUS has commissioned and premiered over 110 new works, including many art songs – and I’ve also written a few, as it’s a genre which is very dear to my heart.”

Amelia Jones

I also had a chance to speak to Lam about the link which exists between the dual programs in the project, and how this was represented in the original poster designs. “Sydney’s Vestige refers to ‘that which remains’, in contrast to Melbourne’s Memento– ‘that which is taken’. Both focus on the context these programs were created in, sorting through a trove of treasures to curate something new. The artwork follows that visual theme of something hidden or obscured being found.

The moth motif is depicted in both posters. In the poster for Memento is appears in silhouette, drawing attention to its absence in the landscape. It has been pinned and preserved outside of its original context. The contrast between dull peaches and indigos highlight the final sunset on this original meaning. However, mementos can have a second life. They can serve a new purpose beyond merely preserving the shadow of a memory.”

Tickets to Memento can be purchased here

Facebook event can be found here

1,000 Kinds of Listening (pt. 1)

Photo credit: Cem Ersozlu on Unsplash

By Stella Joseph-Jarecki (Enquiries: stellamusicwriter.wordpress.com)

There is a famous quote on the importance of music, commonly attributed to Ancient Greek philosopher Plato:

“Music is a moral law. It gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, a charm to sadness, and life to everything. It is the essence of order, and leads to all that is good, just and beautiful, of which it is the invisible, but nevertheless dazzling, passionate, and eternal form.”

Whether or not Plato actually said this, I think it’s right on the money. The quote describes music as an invisible, dazzling eternal form; I think of it as being like ‘the force’ from Star Wars.

Music is essential to our wellbeing as a species and as individuals- but unlike other essential elements such as water and oxygen, music is not consumed in one way by all people.

It’s limiting, and inaccurate, to see musical consumption as a one-way street or a process that happens in a straight line.

If you buy a ticket to a live concert, you are paying to experience transient, non-replicable soundwaves bouncing around a precise location at a particular point in time.

If you buy a ticket to a musical theatre production, you are paying to be transported aurally and visually to another place- a world where the inhabitants are dressed in costumes and interact with props, against the backdrop of a set. You are paying for an experience, but also a product, brought into existence through the collective effort of hundreds of people.

If you download or stream an album, you are paying for a produced recording, patchworked together from multiple takes, which you could listen to on repeat forever if you wanted to.

And these are just three common examples!

After mulling this over, I’ve begun to visualise musical consumption as a layered, shifting, landscape- one where there is a constant overlap between the roles of ‘performer’ and ‘listener’.

At one of the first concerts I attended this year, the headline performer addressed the audience. She reflected that the events of 2020 reminded her that a certain level of musical meaning is only unlocked when music is shared. Audience members are a huge part of the equation- not just because of the obvious financial reason, but so performers can feel there are people receiving the work they poured so much energy, thought and time into.

Does this mean that what takes place in a practice room is an entirely insular process? If we wanted to get philosophical, we could repurpose the famous question of a tree falling in an empty forest. If someone plays a piece of music in practice room and no one else is around, is there still a two-way exchange taking place? I think the answer is yes.

Let’s say there was a classically-trained pianist inside the practice room, playing through a composition by Johann Sebastian Bach. While this sounds like a simple solo exercise, there is still a push and pull between two forces occurring.

In playing through the piece, the pianist is actively engaging with a composer who lived over 300 years ago- both in a tactile sense, with their hands, and in an intellectual sense. J. S. Bach is a particularly good example, as in his lifetime he perfected a number of structural forms which went on to influence the ‘Western’ or ‘European’ musical tradition for hundreds of years. Learning Bach’s music without trying to understand the structures within it, would be like studying physics without reading the works of Albert Einstein.

Let’s say there was jazz pianist in the practice room instead, looking at the chords of a famous jazz standard. From the 1920s to the 1950s, the landscape of jazz was molded by virtuosic composer/ performers: Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Ella Fitzgerald…

In playing through the standard, the pianist is interacting with the framework left behind by the composer, while using their own musical mind to improvise on top of that structure. Improvised phrases come from within a performer’s brain- they are the product of both conscious and subconscious impressions. I’m sure you’ve had a song ‘stuck in your head’ before, even if it wasn’t one you particularly liked. In the same way, a musician’s mind will contain fragments of every piece of music that has ever left an impression on them. They may be alone in the practice room, but the pianist is still taking part in a dialogue as they play. When they leave the room and join other performers on stage, the energy and stimuli shaping their improvisations will be different.

The final scenario I will offer is a classical singer learning an aria from an opera. If they are taking a sophisticated approach to memorising the piece, they will have a long list of considerations. These could include: the phrasing and dynamic markings made by the composer, renditions by other singers, the relationship between the text and the musical character of the piece, and their own personal interpretation of what the character is trying to achieve in the scene.

Like the jazz pianist, their interpretation will become more detailed when their surroundings change. Phrasing, inflection, and tone colour can all be affected by the physical act of portraying a character on stage.

So the next time you attend a live musical performance, whether it’s in a crowded bar or a concert hall, I encourage you to think beyond the ideas of ‘active performer’ and ‘passive listener’. I believe it’s rarely that simple.

Hidden Curiosities: Vestige

By Stella Joseph-Jarecki (Enquiries: stellamusicwriter.wordpress.com)

There are many challenges inherent in the life of a freelance composer: being commissioned to write works in the first place, reaching out to potential audiences, connecting with like-minded performers. But a challenge that is less commonly talked about is the life cycle of pieces, once the score is written and the applause from the premiere has faded away.

Once a musical work has come into the world, what then?

An upcoming concert series in Sydney and Melbourne is hoping to answer that question.

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 the editor (Stella Joseph-Jarecki) or guest contributors.

I was recently contacted by Cameron Lam, a producer, composer and arts administrator who was recently interviewed by Fever Pitch Magazine. Alongside his artistic associate Alicia Crossley, Lam is the artistic director of Kammerklang, a production company based in Sydney and Melbourne.

Their latest endeavour is Hidden Curiosities, a two-concert event performed by a piano/ singer duo from each state.

In Lam’s words, Kammerklang aims to “create, curate, and recontextualise Australian artistic creation, to instil wonder, awe and a sense of play. We present this work in formats that are inquisitive, detailed, and accessible; while still fostering exploration and communication between the arts.”

Hidden Curiosities was born out a gap in the offerings for Australian composers: the one that exists when it comes to their back catalogue. Lam elaborates that the company “wanted to create a platform to highlight the many hidden gems in existing Australian repertoire. This series aims to champion existing, under-performed, Australian compositions with interstate performances by some of Australia’s leading performers.

A piece of music doesn’t need to be brand new, to be new to an audience. We want to support these works to have a long and varied life after their premieres.”

Audiences in Sydney will be hearing a varied program of Australian art song brought to life by soprano Anna Fraser and pianist/ composer Jack Symonds. If you find yourself in Sydney this weekend, you still have time to grab a ticket– the concert is taking place at Sydney Conservatorium of Music on Saturday afternoon.

While the Sydney and Melbourne concerts are linked, they are also discrete. The programs were curated by their respective performer duos from the same open call for scores, which was met with over 390 minutes of music.

Soprano Anna Fraser took a moment to answer a few questions on how she and Symonds tackled the selection process.

How did you find the process of curating a program from a “call-for-scores” of Australian repertoire?

I was delighted to have such a large collection of submissions to consider – over 40 compositions! I am always up for a vocal challenge and the process of reading and singing through all the works engaged my artistic appetite instantly. I’ve enjoyed the process and am very pleased with the balanced qualities of the selected works for the Vestige program – lyrical, textural, virtuosic – showcasing stunning new Australian art song.

What drew you to the art songs you selected for Vestige: A Hidden Curiosity? Were you looking to build a program around a particular theme or style of music?

Text is key to devising one’s own story in performance. I love to take the listener on a journey, perhaps over textural landscapes or across wild open seas, yet often it is the inner emotional journeys that can lead us to moments of realisation.

Every piece in the program is linked by a thread – some connections more obvious than others. It was intriguing that many of the compositions submitted had common themes with works written during a joint time of isolation in 2020.

I do tend to lean towards settings of better-known poets. I engage well with dramatic subjects and am intrigued how a composer can find inventive ways to interpret text through a new musical idea – we all have our roles to play!

Having worked across a wide range of genres and performance contexts in your career, can you tell us a bit about your experience studying Australian art song?

I can honestly say I have been singing Australian art songs all my life! I believe all singers should engage with art song as it is such a versatile genre. Whether it’s a simple Australian Christmas carol or an expressive virtuosic setting of prose- through art song we can discover nuances of our collective artistic and poetic voice as a people, influenced by our heritage and unique location on this planet.

Whilst studying in Boston (now almost two decades ago- yikes!) I shared many Australian art songs with local repetiteurs. And on the other side of the coin, I wanted to leave Boston having experienced the art songs of a different culture.

I have continued to collect and perform art songs from all over the world throughout my career. I place a great importance on historical performance practices (approach to style, affectations, ornaments, language and pronunciation).

In a recent project associated with Sydney Living Museums’ Rouse Hill House collection, I was lucky enough to visit a physical space frozen in time to better understand the tone of the collection. This helped me learn how I could best represent a somewhat archaic, yet charmingly fashionable, collection of Australian art songs from the Victorian era.

I always like to return to original poetic texts in my performance preparation to find emotional and timbral detail. I find this helps me as I try to lift these miniatures off their pages.

Tickets to Vestige can be purchased here

Facebook event can be found here

Divisi Chamber Singers: Compose Queer

By Stella Joseph-Jarecki (Enquiries: stellamusicwriter.wordpress.com)

I was recently asked if I would like to review Compose Queer, a concert mounted by Divisi Chamber Singers. The vocal octet was founded by Bailey Montgomerie and Alex Gorbatov (baritone and tenor respectively), while they were students at Melbourne Conservatorium of Music. Bailey and Alex were interviewed on this blog back in November 2019; you can find that piece here.

A big thank you to ClassikON, where this review was originally published.

Compose Queer is an initiative created by Divisi Chamber Singers, funded through a donation campaign and a grant from the Australian Cultural Fund. This initiative went beyond a single concert: four emerging queer composers were commissioned to write a work for eight voices, and had the opportunity to be mentored by composer Sally Whitwell. These four pieces would be premiered alongside a new multi-movement work by Whitwell.

Compose Queer marks the ensemble’s first foray into commissioning new works. Empowering young artists is a commendable goal, and the fact Divisi were able to successfully deliver this project during an incredibly destabilising year is cause for admiration enough. The flip side of this emphasis on learning, was that Compose Queer situated itself somewhere between a professional engagement and a young artist program. Considering this, it made sense that the four composers came from varying levels of experience and comfort in writing for eight voices.

As an octet, Divisi sang with the confidence and precision you would expect of experienced chamber singers. The ensemble was well-balanced, but I will single out the soprano section for handling their top notes with delicacy throughout the program.

The six movements of Whitwell’s new work, ‘Spectrum’, showcased her prowess in balancing sophisticated layers of sound and texture, with each movement functioning as an individual song. Movement 1 (Red) was playful and agile, utilising syncopation and the percussive nature of the words ‘zip zap zoom’. Movement 2 (Orange/ Torch Song) was a sultry descent down winding, dissonant passages. The finale, Movement 6 (Purple/ All Hail the Aubergine Queen), was a satirical takedown of those who blindly follow morally questionable leaders; and appropriately enough, featured the most rousing vocal crescendo of the night on the words ‘All Hail!’.  

The four commissioned works had distinct styles. Here is a Safe Place by Lore Burns had a pastoral quality, with bright consonant harmonies- it emerged out of Burns’ desire to write something ‘gentle and enveloping for the queer community’. It certainly crafted a serene atmosphere- though it might have had more of an impact with a greater degree of dynamic light and shade.

Ariel Bonnell’s Are You the New Person Drawn Towards Me? examined the supposed ‘physical markers’ of a queer person, tongue planted firmly in cheek. It began with mellow, jazzy piano. The ensemble delivered doo-wop vocal stylings reminiscent of the 1950s and 60s, vamping on the clichéd characteristics of a queer person (‘Flannel! Rainbow hair! Floppy wrists!’).

Robert McIntyre’s Syrup and Silicone was inspired by the experience of ‘internal marginalisation’, of being told to conform to particular criteria within the queer community. The original text was written by McIntyre’s friend and collaborator Savanna Wegman. I was struck by the introspective mood and dramatic tension McIntyre was able to build.

Lastly, Meta Cohen pushed Divisi to their dynamic limits with a structurally dense and at times frenetic piece, (i)dentity. Cohen played with the sound and meaning of the word ‘I’, with layers of vocal and piano texture which threatened to become overwhelming. It certainly made a rollicking finale.

Theatre Reawakens: The Sleeping Beauty

Left to right- the Blue Fairy (Kathryn Radcliffe) and the Royal Ambassador (Michael Lampard). Photo credit: Jeff Busby.

By Stella Joseph-Jarecki (Enquiries: stellamusicwriter.wordpress.com)

Victorian Opera’s The Sleeping Beauty. 23 – 26 February, Palais Theatre.

Director: Nancy Black

Conductor: Phoebe Briggs

Puppet design and construction: Joe Blanck

Composer: Ottorino Respighi

Libretto: Gian Bistolfi

Full cast listed here

Fairy tales are so overly familiar, that we can forget how magical and whimsical they can be when done with a light touch.  

Victorian Opera’s 2021 production of Ottorino Respighi’s The Sleeping Beauty is a reprise from 2017. The characters were portrayed by singers, dressed in simple theatre blacks, and a skilled team of puppeteers. The puppets were brought to life with such animation it feels rude to not refer to them as living beings. Throughout the night, Orchestra Victoria delivered a lush kaleidoscope of instrumental colour and dynamics.

The Blue Fairy (Kathryn Radcliffe, centre). Photo credit: Jeff Busby.

The vocal performances were strong across the board. Kathryn Radcliffe shone as the incandescent Blue Fairy, with her crystal-clear soprano and appropriately sparkly coloratura. Baritones Michael Lampard and Raphael Wong both delivered commanding and resonant turns as the Royal Ambassador and King respectively. Liane Keegan brought a rich tone and unforced resonance to the role of the Old Woman. The chorus supplied some sublime harmonies, particularly those singing as fairies.

I couldn’t review this production without describing the puppets in greater detail. Many of them translated very well to the back row of the circle. The Royal Ambassador was a striking presence in his stylish uniform, the King had a delightful beard which rippled and shivered when emotions were high, and a host of supporting characters added to the charm of the magical kingdom. (Honourable mentions go to a gorgeously detailed tree puppet and a horse with comedic timing). I was entranced by the miniature fairies, which had a mystical quality as they glided through the air. This was despite, or perhaps because of, the simplicity of their design: a featureless, glowing orb for a face encircled by a trailing cloak.

Sleeping Beauty (dancer Nadine Dimitrievitch) and the Old Woman. Photo credit: Jeff Busby..

The characters of Sleeping Beauty and the Prince were portrayed by a singer and dancer each, who would interact with each other and occasionally mirror gestures. This efficiently set the star-crossed lovers apart from other characters on stage.

The production was peppered with deft touches by set designer Morwenna Schenck and lighting designer Philip Lethlean. As the King and Queen cradled their baby daughter during the festivities, they were surrounded by supporters carrying bouquets with glittering fairy lights sprinkled among the flowers. As the crowd performed a sequence of dance steps, holding the bouquets aloft, it created a visually striking image.

The set itself was versatile, shifting with lighting and projection changes. A great example was when the Prince was scrambling across a rugged landscape to reach the castle and Sleeping Beauty inside it. After gingerly edging around cliff faces and ducking between trees, he had to cross a stream. This was deftly represented by a blue light shone onto the stage, while the Prince was propelled across on a float.

The King and Queen, surrounded by supporters and the Blue Fairy. Photo credit: Jeff Busby.

One moment which fell flat compared to the rest of the staging, was immediately after Sleeping Beauty fell into her slumber. After being pricked by the spindle, dancer Nadine Dimitrievitch unsteadily made her way across the stage. She cast off a layer of her costume and set it down, exiting the stage along with her soprano counterpart Georgia Wilkinson. The royal household directed their distress at the Princess’ fate towards the pile of fabric, which felt like a missed opportunity.

Victorian Opera’s motto is to make ‘creative, accessible and affordable work for everyone, while adventurously evolving our art form’. In my opinion, they deliver on this in spades.

A Night at the Theatre: Melbourne Opera’s Das Rheingold

Bottom row, left to right: the Rheinemaidens (Louise Keast, Karen van Spall, Rebecca Rashleigh). Top row: way pole performers Emily Ryan and Lily Paskas Goodfellow. Photo credit: Robin Halls

By Aidan McGartland

Guest contributor Aidan McGartland recently attended Melbourne Opera’s Das Rheingold, presented at the Regent Theatre. He has kindly put together a review of the production for Fever Pitch readers.

Composer: Richard Wagner

Director: Suzanne Chaundy

Conductor: Maestro Anthony Negus, David Kram (alternate nights)

Melbourne Opera’s Das Rheingold was a triumph, especially after the horrors of 2020. Das Rheingold would be an ambitious undertaking under normal circumstances, requiring a 90-piece orchestra with mature singers, and an expert conductor. Melbourne Opera will be presenting each of the ‘music-dramas’ from Richard Wagner’s epic tetralogy, Der Ring das Nibelungen (“The Ring of the Nibelungen”), over the next few years, eventually culminating in the entire cycle in 2023.

Melbourne Opera’s production marks the fourth time The Ring Cycle has been mounted in Melbourne, as well as the first independent performance in more than 100 years. Thomas Quinlan’s touring opera company premiered The Ring in bel époque Melbourne in 1913, the centenary of Wagner’s birth. This production was sung in English, suiting Wagner’s desire for his works to be performed in English to English-speaking audiences. (He had objected to a 1877 production of Lohengrin in Melbourne which had been performed in Italian). After 1913, Wagner was rarely performed in Melbourne and The Ring was not heard again for another century, until Opera Australia’s Australian-themed production in 2013. The announcement of 2013 Ring Cycle reignited an enduring Wagner craze, with every major opera being performed in Melbourne in the following years.

From left to right: James Egglestone (bottom left), Darcy Carroll, Jason Wasley, Eddie Muliaumaseali’i, Sarah Sweeting, Lee Abrahmsen. Photo credit: Robin Halls

Das Rheingold famously opens with a gradual build-up of E♭ major chords symbolising the creation of the world (E♭ major also symbolising gold) over the first four minutes of the opera. This appropriately grand beginning felt like a post-pandemic re-emergence of the arts. The orchestra continued to impress by clearly portraying Wagner’s intricate web of leitmotifs and propelling the drama, most notably with pounding timpani and foreboding brass at the entry of the giants, and the triumphant finale as the gods move their new home of Valhalla. This orchestral mastery is attributed to the work of world-class Wagnerian, Maestro Anthony Negus, known for pragmatic approach to Wagner, allowing the music to have space so it can speak for itself.

The all-Australian cast did not fail to impress. Of particular note was Alberich (Simon Meadows) and Loge (James Egglestone). Meadows’s Alberich not only captured the greedy, creepy, repulsive gnome groping around the depths of the Rhine, but also a certain quirkiness expressed by his almost slapstick gestures. His voice captured the declamatory nature of Wagner’s writing, with clear German diction and the richness of his tone effortlessly resonating over the supersized orchestra. Egglestone’s Loge followed suit, dressed as a cunning, almost goofy magician, carrying Suzanne Chaundy’s vision of Loge as a cross between “Puck and Lear’s fool.”

From left to right: Alberich (Simon Meadows), and the Rheinemaidens (Karen van Spall, Louise Keast, Rebecca Rashleigh). Photo credit: Robin Halls

Wotan (Eddie Muliaumaseali’i) had a powerful presence and sense of majesty, and clearly identified by his eye patch and spear. Unfortunately, he was occasionally overpowered by the orchestra. Darcy Carroll, a Melbourne Opera Young Artist, was very impressive in his Wagnerian debut as Donner, especially considering the richness of his voice while being in his late twenties.

The giants, Fasolt (Adrian Tamburini) and Fafner (Steven Gallop), commanded their bass-baritone voices with a sense of gravitas, aided by their distinctive rag-like costumes. Melbourne Opera stalwart, Michael Lapiña, was perfectly cast as the distressed nibelung (dwarf) Mime. Lapiña’s strong voice carried well, but at the same time created a sense of innocence and pain as he is tortured by Alberich.

One of the most memorable moments in the production was the appearance of Erda (Roxane Hislop), the personification of Mother Earth. Erda urges Wotan to give up the ring, as it will bring about the end of the gods. Hislop elegantly glided through the stage, her mellifluous voice filling the theatre with ease. Her performance not only captured the authority, but also the radiating warmth of Erda.

From left to right: Fasolt (Adrian Tamburini), Loge (James Egglestone), and Fafner (Steven Gallop). Photo credit: Robin Halls

Das Rheingold is Melbourne Opera’s most lavish production to date, upholding Wagner’s revolutionary practice of gesamptkunstwerk, or total work of art, where the drama, visuals, and music are given equal importance. The set struck a balance, avoiding the pitfalls of being too minimal or too cluttered. The idiosyncratic costumes, from Donner’s glittery silver suit, to the rags worn by the giants, helped identify characters with ease and realised Chaundy’s vision of the gods as “normal recognisable people” in our contemporary world. Each scene was clearly illustrated from the mysterious aquatic realm of the Rhinemaidens, to the world of light inhabited by the gods and the shadowy caves of the Nibelheim.

The production also carried an important metaphor for our current times with Chaundy comparing “The Twilight of the Gods” to “The Twilight of Humanity” due to the current dual crises of the pandemic and climate-change. In addition, this is supported by Wagner’s grave environmental metaphor of the plundering and exploitation of the Rheingold.

From left to right: Wotan (Eddie Muliaumaseali’i), Frika (Sarah Sweeting). Photo credit: Robin Halls

Das Rheingold was a huge success, especially considering that it was performed between lockdowns in the current pandemic. A number of COVID-safe measures were adopted, with the orchestra spaced out throughout the pit and the stalls, and the regular deep cleaning and daily sanitisation of the stage and rehearsal spaces. It also proved to be an apt choice in its lack of large chorus scenes, allowing singers to be naturally spaced around the stage.

Das Rheingold also marks a highpoint in the development of Melbourne Opera. The company, established in 2003, has been dubbed ‘the people’s opera’ because of its accessibility and community spirit. The progression of Melbourne Opera from a small opera company to one of Wagner, is largely due to the work of Producer and Resident Conductor, Greg Hocking, and Company Manager, Robbie McPhee. Unlike other opera companies, Melbourne Opera rarely receives government funding, and is instead supported by a number of generous philanthropists, making this achievement even more remarkable.