In Conversation with Phoebe Deklerk: soprano, concert producer, educator

By Stella Joseph-Jarecki

During the last week of September, I had the chance to pick the energetic brain of soprano Phoebe Deklerk. Phoebe is a singer and educator who has organised many concert series, and we discussed the many challenges and rewards of juggling multiple musical careers.

Phoebe’s latest concert is coming up- The Cats Ninth- A Homage to Cats in Song

Sunday 10th November at Newland Community Centre, Coburg.

Facebook event link here

Friday 15th and Sunday 17th November, St Georges Anglican Church, Travancore.

Facebook event here

A portion of each concert ticket will be donated to Maneki Neko Cat Rescue.

Eventbrite link for tickets here

Phoebe’s professional Facebook page here

In regards to becoming a portfolio musician with many projects in the works, pursuing a career in music education as well as a music performance career… Was that something you planned from the outset, or something that gradually evolved for you?

That’s a really big question particularly for me because I decided I wanted to be an opera singer when I was 12. So when I was 12, I didn’t know that there would be multi-facets that I could pursue, or that I was even interested in passing on my love of music. It was through a series of events and circumstances, with my family also being involved in music, and my own experience with amateur and community-based singing groups, that I discovered that there was more that could be done educationally. Singing is what got me through my high school years emotionally and expression wise, and I wanted to be able to share that. Teenagers will forever be forced to become adults, and music can help with that transition!

As for cabaret and concerts and the more performance side of things… It was only the realization that there wasn’t much going on, and that I couldn’t just wait for experiences to come to me. I never really expected things to be brought to me on a platter but there’s just so little out there, and the people that run those concerts often don’t advertise for auditions or don’t sort of seek people with different abilities, they like what they’re comfortable with.

So then came my desire to produce my own concerts and help other young artists gain performance opportunities. And importantly, have some say in the works that they perform. As young artists we do have some limitations, we’re still developing our technique and our ranges are smaller than what they might be in future… We have to really pick our music well. So everyone I work with picks their own solo music and we collaborate when choosing ensemble repertoire.

Cabarets were something I’d always been intrigued by and after I saw a good handful, I just realised that I could do it. It’s not rocket science, it’s just performance and it’s storytelling. So I chose a topic that I was really passionate about to start with, which is funeral music. I’m passionate about that because I think not enough thought goes into it before people pass away. So when their family are taking care of that process, they don’t even have time to think properly. They just pick, you know, from the top 20 songs.

So after my first cabaret I was told that it was a skill that I had, and I am now under the wing of a cabaret club owner who wants to help me experiment and bring as much as I can to the stage through the form of cabaret. Which is really exciting! But had you asked me five years ago, if I would be doing all these things including the workshops and the online singing courses, I would probably have said pick two out of the five or six.

Phoebe performing her first cabaret show, Funerals with Phoebe, at The Butterfly Club. Staged as part of The Melbourne Fringe Festival, 2018.

In having so many projects at different stages of development, how do you approach time management?

That’s a great question, time management is something I’m really passionate about. You can often find me rewriting my ideal schedule or timetable. I get all colour-coordinated with a planner that sits above my desk.

So what I do is I calculate how much time a project will take. So for example a concert takes 50 hours of my time for admin, social media, getting people, meeting people, hassling them to send me their music, blah blah blah. So I separated the divisions for that and came up with a formula. Putting singing practise aside, practice is just assumed, I need 6-8 hours of work a week, on projects that were performance-based.

Then for the things that are more business-related, they fit into the time I spend on my business. So the workshops, the teaching, the choirs, the online courses, they fit into my business and therefore my business time. With that side of things, the focus is more about the bottom line and getting leads, etc. So the focus is a very different for both those times, the business time and the performance or project time… but it seems to work well!

I work using a project management application online which is really helpful for the process. It’s called Trello, and on it you create boards for different projects. And on each board I have different categories: ideas, to do, doing, done and potential obstacles… They have dates and checklists within each of categories and it’s really handy. I also use doodle poll for arranging rehearsals, and various other things for collating information including Google Documents.

As a freelance artist who has to use, as you said before, your business brain, how do you find social media helps with this?

Social media is imperative. It’s how everyone shares everything and I had no trouble with it initially. What I guess I still struggle with, is sharing on my personal page. I have a business page for everything that I do, but I’m still a little bit uncomfortable with sharing even some selected things on my personal Facebook page. So my Facebook friends can see it rather than just the people that have liked my business page. I also agree with the author of Beyond Talent, Angela Myles Beeching, that a mailing list is an artist’s best friend. A mailing list is one of the most valuable tools that we can have as performers and teachers and just musicians in general. As artists it is sort of assumed that we are going to have multi-facets to what we do.

That being said, Facebook ads do take a little while to get used to. It took me several projects to actually get some return to the money I was spending on Facebook ads. It’s all about trial and error, honestly. I was lucky enough to have my friend Teresa Ingrilli give me some training in branding and social media and values. How your personal values spread into the business side of things.

So I set up a social media schedule, and each week I try and post daily, or schedule posts to release daily. I share about myself, and the heart and the mind and the soul behind the ideas and projects I have.

The thing with social media nowadays that is somewhat troublesome, is that it always seems to portray only the good things. That’s something I actively try to work against. So I like to show the vulnerable aspects of being a musician, because we are so vulnerable and we have to feel to be artists. That vulnerability lets people know that we are human and people can relate to that, and they are more likely to trust me and what I produce.

Photo credit: MR Photography

So you mentioned before that as musicians, we’re sort of assumed to just branch out and diversify and have multifaceted career. As someone who is doing that at the moment, what do you think are the most important qualities that are essential for someone who is crafting a portfolio career and wants to continue to diversify? What are the qualities that they really need, besides the musical ability?

I would say joy and passion. But that really depends on the situation. This is going to sound so weird, but you wouldn’t catch me in a music school teaching singing. Because the niche that I like to teach in my singing teaching, is really different to sort of the typical singing teacher stuff that you would expect. I mean, of course, I do warm-ups and technique but it’s not about becoming better. For me it’s all about empowering students to feel more comfortable using their voice, playing around with it, learning about themselves and their abilities and the little aspects of the soul they might not have discovered without singing. That’s something I’m really passionate about and I use my music to help achieve that.

And then it’s having the drive. For example, do you have the drive and persistent motivation to produce a concert? I don’t even look at the music that I’m going to be performing until 20, 30 hours in. So I put in 20-30 hours of admin, of my own time, just trying to get this baby off the ground before I even get to do the juicy bits.

You have to like working with people and be good at managing people. Communication is just so freaking important. We need to be able to communicate what we want, whether it’s you know, a little speech before a concert or a workshop or a behind-the-scenes video about the meaning of a song… You need to be able to present eloquently and in a way that doesn’t make us look silly.

And then I guess the big one which increases impact and reach is networking. We need to know how to communicate things and then actually tell people about it. So I go to business networking events quite regularly and it has been great practice. I’ve come up with a little title for what I do, I call myself a ‘singing empowerment teacher’. So people know that I look at the empowerment side of singing and use that, rather than just assume it is the usual teaching stuff.  

Also, sharing. A desire to share what we love makes the admin and business side of stuff so much more meaningful.

That’s fabulous. There is so much solid science emerging which completely backs up your perspective on how singing allows people to grow in confidence and literally embrace their voice.

It lights me up when I do work with students like that. It’s so beautiful.

How do you find the experience of shifting gears between different vocal styles? I know you do a lot of classical repertoire but also operetta, cabaret, music theatre. How have you found that experience as a singer?

I think I haven’t had too much trouble with that just because I’ve been doing it from this a younger age. I remember when I was first doing performances for family and friends, I was never very good at choosing songs, so I’d say do you want a jazz or classical or music theatre song? And then they’d say they wanted one of each. What I normally do in that situation, is sing three songs, one of each sort of genre. And nowadays, I singe at aged care homes and I do the same thing. I sing an hour of music that ranges from jazz, to musical theatre, operetta, opera, art song. And it’s great practice, but it is hard work.

I find it a lot easier in performance. So in cabaret sort of style, where it follows that very musical theatre aspect of singing… what you’re saying comes to an emotional peak, so it has to be sung. And then that song is well chosen and that makes it easy to sort of launch into song, and it doesn’t really matter what style that song is. When we’re performing technique isn’t something we’re always thinking about, but I suppose some aspect of our mind is always mindful of it.

I also find that thinking about the storytelling, sort of makes the genre irrelevant if that makes sense. Music isn’t broken up, it’s not chunked, music is music. It’s just one big blob of goopy stuff. So I really don’t feel that there should be any gear shifts and but I can understand how people would perceive that.

So can you tell me about the thought process behind the concert coming up? [At the time of interviewing, Phoebe was preparing for a concert of predominantly French sacred music, entitled Contemplation and Harmonie: The Divine in French Music. It was held at St. Mary’s Church in Ascot Vale, in late October]  

Well the concept of this concert was born from a parishioner at the parish that I sing at, St. Mary’s Church, taking me out to lunch and saying that she wanted me to produce more concerts. So I think this happened in April and I was like, okay, because it’s in a church, it’s got to be about 70-80 percent religious music. I also have this weird thing with Ave Marias, where I just want to sing all of them, share all of them, to make people realize that there’s more than two!

So I got baritone André Sasalu and organist Zac Hamilton-Russell on board and I was like, okay, what sort of rep do you want to do? Andre is a French speaker and I really like the composer Saint Saëns so that’s what we went with. And Andre has introduced me to Jean-Philippe Rameau, the French Baroque composer, and it’s very exciting!

Photo credit: MR Photography

Can you name some of your favourite vocal composers of the moment?

It’s hard to sort of consciously give you my favourite vocal composers without having like thought about it for a really long time. But off the top of my head Maurice Ravel is coming to mind. Ravel’s weird, but he’s beautiful. I love his intricacies and his music is just epic. We’re doing some Ravel at the in the cat concert, which is in November. We’re doing his cat duet from his one-act opera L’enfant et les sortilèges. At the moment I’m falling in love with the Bel Canto composers… the expression, the romance, the drama… the drama is musical, not necessarily just the text. It’s so rich. I really like romantic music. But I also do enjoy some more modern composers like Samuel Barber and Hugo Wolf, and Richard Strauss, you know, and there’s more!

Fantastic, so we have come to the final question. So what do you believe is the future of opera in the 21st century? It’s a huge question, but I’m making point of asking pretty much everyone this question because I’m so passionate about opera, but I do believe that for it to have a future in Australia there really needs to be a huge shift in the way that it’s supplied to people. Very affordable student tickets would be a really good place to start! But that’s one of many things that I believe could be done. So I’d love to hear your thoughts on that.

Yes a good question. And it’s very valid.  

Well with my business mind, I think well where does it work? Who’s got a good structure and a good system going? So, you know, let’s look at Vienna. I’ve never been to a Viennese opera. People that don’t go to the opera here, go to the opera when they travel over there. And there’s definitely lots of contributing factors to that, one of which being that’s where that type of opera was born.

But it’s also because, there’s a beauty to those opera houses, it’s rich in culture, the architecture is really beautiful. And also ticket prices, you’re so right. We need cheap student tickets. I don’t even understand why some companies won’t allow emerging opera singers to get cheap tickets. And even if we had to prove that we were a singer or perhaps flash them our Bachelor of Music sort of thing… Because it’s us! We’re passionate about it! We can bring friends, we can say, oh my goodness the staging was amazing, you’ll have to check it out, I know you’ll like this particular part of it…

Introducing my ex to opera, he didn’t like Wagner, but he loved Victorian Opera’s The Sleeping Beauty a couple of years ago, which had puppets. [Ottorino Respighi’s 1922 opera, staged by Victorian Opera in 2017] He was an animator himself, it inspired him! So I think sharing opera and getting opera in front of people who hadn’t thought about it because no one does. As a way of inspiring, because all artists know (fine artists, graphic artists, musical artists), we all know that we get inspiration from other art.

Victorian Opera’s 2017 production of The Sleeping Beauty. Photo credit: Charlie Kinross

And then accessibility…. The reason I am doing a cat concert in November is to help cat lovers discover classical music! It’s almost as simple as that. Bringing a topic that everyone loves, no one is scared of, and everyone has like small-girl-cute-excitement about, and introducing them to something that’s a little bit different, a little bit alien, through that… I think is one of the best ways to do it.

I mean, I don’t think we need to start having opera busked on the street, but if it was heard a bit more on the streets, I think that would make it much more accessible. People will be like, oh yeah, I heard that last week, oh yeah, I saw an opera singer busk at Christmas time. It’s not so alien and it’s not so detached.

Also, I think people pull away from classical music and opera in particular when it’s performed in venues that are religious. Not everyone is going to pull away from it because of that, but I certainly know that my dad won’t enter a church unless I’m singing at it, and there’s no Mass. So we could stage operas more frequently in venues that have no religious attachment, modern sorts of venues, refurbished factories, warehouses, natural amphitheatres, outdoor amphitheatres, Botanical gardens… places that people feel comfortable and don’t feel like there’s an expectation of behaviour. I think that’s a good start.

And I think having more of an online presence will also help. The only problem, from someone who has thought about doing it, is the cost of getting things filmed professionally. That would have to be absorbed into something, I don’t know what that something would be, because we can’t you can’t necessarily sell that 5, 10, 15 minute opera online for however much it’s going to cost to make. And so it’s got to be sort of treated as promotion, but I do believe it is necessary.

I also think there are other ways that we can lighten the mood of operas. I remember being shushed and I know that friends of mine have been shushed while at the opera when something funny actually happens. Why can’t we laugh? It’s just a bit ridiculous! So I think there are so many little things that would help to sort of lighten the mood and make opera less serious. Even though the themes are dramatic, the whole air around it doesn’t have to be as serious as it currently is.

I would love to see classical music and opera being performed in wine bars, in cheese shops, in places where there the mood is slightly more sophisticated than a pub, as long as the venue thought it was appropriate. I’m looking into this myself! But bringing opera and classical singing to the everyday person, where they go.

The Cats Ninth- A Homage to Cats in Song


Sunday 10th November at Newland Community Centre, Coburg.

Facebook event link here

Friday 15th and Sunday 17th November, St Georges Anglican Church, Travancore.

Facebook event here

Eventbrite link for tickets here

A portion of each concert ticket will be donated to Maneki Neko Cat Rescue.

Phoebe’s professional Facebook page here

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