Voice notes: Sofia Laursen Habel

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

I had the chance to speak to emerging soprano Sofia Laursen Habel, who staged a charity concert last year with help from a grant from the Ignite Lab program at Melbourne Conservatorium of Music. The Celebration of Spring concert took place in regional Victoria and raised funds for the Wimmera Healthcare Group.

At what point in primary school or high school did you realize you wanted to pursue music more seriously?

I think it was probably in high school, year seven. I remember we were doing a musical called Disco Inferno, made up of 70s hits… I was a bit shy, but I ended up singing Blame It on the Boogie by Michael Jackson. The concert was in a dingy little hall, but from that moment I was like, yep, I want be on stage, that’s what I want to do. That was the moment where I didn’t really consider another option. People would say, oh you should have a backup option, or you’re good at arts and languages, maybe you could study those…  but I knew I had to give performance a go, and that I would regret it if I didn’t.

What is your favourite part of the entire experience of being a show? From the rehearsals down to the last performances?

That’s a hard question! I think one of my favourite moments would be when you’re waiting side stage, about to go on for the first time. Just that feeling of anticipation and excitement, of getting into character.  

Can you tell me about the fundraising project you organised, the Celebration of Spring concert which took place in regional Victoria?

I’m originally from a grain farm in the Wimmera, which is in north-west Victoria. There isn’t lot of access to classical music out there. I ended up going to boarding school in year ten to study music, because otherwise I wouldn’t have had access to the subject.

I had been thinking of how I wanted to do a concert of classical musical or opera for a rural audience, to bridge the gap that exists for those communities. I started brainstorming where I could do that, and how the event could benefit the community. I wanted all of the funds raised to go to an organization that was doing really good work in the area.

I ended up teaming up with the Wimmera Healthcare Group who are based in Horsham and Dimboola. They were on board straight away, which was fantastic. I applied for funding for the project through the Ignite Lab program at Melbourne University.

[The Ignite Lab program at Melbourne Conservatorium of Music offers a ‘Creativity Fund’ grant program to current students, as well as career consulting and workshops relating to the business side of being a music professional. 2020 will be the fifth year the fund has run. The program has granted over $60,000 across more than thirty student projects. Applications are open to current MCM students for two more weeks, find out more here]

I was hoping that the funding would cover the cost of the event, so that way everything raised could go straight to the organisation. Luckily I was able to get a grant, and it did end up covering all the costs- and testing my budgeting skills! I had a wonderful team around me from the Wimmera Healthcare Group helping me to plan the event. Robyn Lardner was my mentor for the project.

Because the event for was for charity, we were able to benefit from radio interviews and other donated services such as printing.  

What kind of work is done by the Wimmera Healthcare Group?

The money received by the Wimmera Healthcare Group is used to accrue interest which is then used to provide new buildings, as well as to pay for doctors and medical programs in the country. The major regional hospital in the area has to cover a great distance.

We had seventy tickets to sell for the concert- I thought that number wasn’t too large, but if we didn’t sell out it wasn’t going to look too bad. We reached pretty far and wide trying to spread the word, and we ended up selling out two weeks before!

The concert was held at the Horsham Performing Arts Centre, which was only built a few years ago. The actual auditorium seats something like eight hundred people. But because I wanted to make the event a bit more accessible and take it out of the theatre, we performed the recital in the foyer area. It created more of an intimate salon feel, and it was nice that the bar was right next to the seats!

All up, with ticket sales and raffle ticket sales, we ended up raising $2,700. And the fact the event sold out really did reinforce for me that wider regional audiences are interested in classical music and opera. But it’s a challenge because of the lack of accessibility.

It’s interesting, because in the city centre of Melbourne, we can encounter the opposite problem- because there is so much going on, it’s hard to get people to come to your specific event. But it’s fantastic to hear that enthusiasm for live classical music is widespread throughout Australia and not only in the urban centres.

Exactly! Before the show started, my accompanist Karen came up to me backstage and said, I’m not going to give anything away, but there is so much love in this room for you. It was a very rewarding night. And it was lovely to get such a positive response to my first time running a concert event in the real world!

What did organising the event teach you in terms of time management skills, budgeting skills, etc?

It taught me to be very prepared very early on. We started planning the concert six or seven months beforehand. There were so many factors to take into consideration to even lock in a date. We knew if the event was taking place during footy season, it couldn’t be on a Saturday, because footy is very important in the country. And we knew if it was going to be on a Sunday, it should be in the early evening, and not so late that it would be hard for people to drive back home. I suppose that’s the who in the process of planning an event. Who is the event for and how are you going to cater to that demographic?  

Allison Butler from the board of the foundation ran me through a number of their past budgets, and the lists and templates she has used in organising events. That was incredibly helpful.

We had great photographer and videographer documenting the event. The videos are great for me to look back on and go, okay, did that work? It’s so different when it’s a live show. Coming from the Conservatorium, it’s easy to get caught up in the perfectionism of ‘I can’t sing, because I’m not perfect’, or ‘This isn’t ready because that note isn’t exactly right…’ Audiences don’t care about that! It’s about the performance. As long as I can communicate what I want to communicate, and help the audience feel what the music wants you to feel, then I’ve done my job. It was great to see audience members crying in the places I wanted them to cry in, and laughing in the moments I wanted them to laugh in! I knew the story I wanted to tell, and I could tell the audience was right there with me.

Who are some of your favourite composers of vocal music?

My niche in this area is actually Scandinavian art song. My mum’s Danish and I speak Danish. And as you know, it’s hard to sing opera as a young singer, you have to wait until your voice develops. So I branched into like looking at Scandinavian composers.  

I stumbled across three who I really love: Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg, Danish composer Carl Nielsen and Finnish composer Jean Sibelius. Sibelius would have to be my favourite art song composer at the moment, he’s written some really great stuff in Finnish and Swedish.

I’d love for my Honours recital in the future to be made up solely of Scandinavian art song… it can be fantastic to do a themed program, because that way you can take it and perform it as a concert outside of uni. It can be hard to do that when you have the usual student program of a mixed bag of repertoire!

Do you have any strategies for dealing with stress and nerves?

I go to yoga classes. It’s something I found last year that’s really helped me with stress. It’s also a place to escape- there’s a beautiful mantra on the wall of the studio I go to which says something like ‘Your practice is your time to feel alive and free. There’s no stress or pressure. If you can’t touch your toes, don’t force it, you’re on your own path’. Which is also very relatable to singing!

Also, to go home to the country more often. If I’m feeling stressed or claustrophobic, it helps even to get out of the city for a night, feel that space.

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