By Stella Joseph-Jarecki (Enquiries: stellamusicwriter.wordpress.com)
I had the chance to speak to emerging tenor Louis Hurley, whose varied study experiences include degrees from Western Australian Academy Of Performing Arts and Guildhall School of Music and Drama. This year, Louis is one of seven scholars participating in the Melba Opera Trust program. I first saw Louis perform when he sang the titular role in Melbourne Conservatorium of Music’s production of Albert Herring, and the vivacious and witty Pluto, Master of the Underworld in Orpheus in the Underworld. If you would like to keep up with Louis’ musical adventures, you can follow him on his Facebook page and Instagram.
When did you realise you wanted pursue music performance more seriously?
My family isn’t musical at all, everyone else is tone-deaf!
I grew up in the country town of Horsham. One day I came home from school and asked my parents if I could start learning the flute, I must have seen it on TV or something… I was really lucky that there was a private music academy in town.
So I started in little group classes playing the xylophone and simple percussion instruments, then I moved to piano, and then I started singing. My family moved to Western Australia, and at that point music was a huge part of my life, but more as a hobby. I started boarding at Perth Modern School on a music scholarship for the flute, and I had given up singing at that point.
I remember I had a moment in year twelve where I realised I hated practicing my instruments. I was like, why did I ever quit singing? I loved it so much. Before the decision to change from flute and piano back to singing, I was going to pursue psychology or something similar at university… But once I started singing again, I was like, no, I love this.
My singing teacher at the time also worked at WAAPA. She encouraged me to audition for the Bachelor of Music there. And I kind of fell into the right hands! My whole musical life is a series of accidents. It was absolute luck that I was living in a small country town that happened to have a fantastic private music school. And ever since then I fell into the hands of some of the best musical mentors I could have ever asked for.
After I completed my Bachelor of Music I was lucky enough to do a Graduate Diploma of Music at WAAPA, which was an intensive and primarily practical year. We got to do two full productions during that year, Britten’s Albert Herring and a new work written for us by Guy Noble, called Opera the Opera! It was a pastiche work about a person falling into the opera world and meeting all these characters…
So I was able to have this amazing year that was entirely devoted to vocal and professional development as a young singer. At the end of that year, I went overseas to audition for the colleges there, and ended up accepting an offer at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London.
I was at Guildhall for one year, I did my Masters of Music there. When I finished, I thought I could either stay there and live and work on minimum wage (I’m lucky to have an Irish passport), barely affording rent and singing lessons, or I could come back to Australia where the lifestyle is a more relaxed and focus on development a bit more. So I thought, let’s give Melbourne a crack!
What do you reckon was one of the most challenging moments, and one of the most rewarding moments from those experiences?
I guess the biggest challenge and question that I came across was, “Am I doing the right thing?” That’s something that we can never really know the answer to. As young singers we never really know what the ‘correct’ path is. When I was in Perth I used to run a music blog with my friend, and that was one of our main reasons for doing it. We realised we knew so many people who had moved overseas to study in New York, or in the UK, and we had all these connections with professionals. We thought, if we were able to interview them about their pathways, we could educate other young up-and-coming students on all the different pathways that are possible.
So I guess more than anything else, I’ve become skilled at recognising if a situation requires a bold decision. If I’ve needed to reconsider my pathway, or I’ve have too much on my plate, I’ve learnt to not shy away from a bold decision every now and then. If you think a decision is too bold, it’s probably not. As long as you’re not affecting anyone in an awful way, you really can just do the things you want to do. You can make the most of any decision you make, it’s just about your attitude after you make it.
For example, there is an awkward eight-month gap for Australians between accepting a place in a course overseas, and actually starting your first semester. So you have eight months to just save up money and try to get everything in order. During those eight months before I started at the Guildhall, I was saving money, fundraising, and doing all of the right things. But I was also thinking, am I really going to spend all of my money on this incredible opportunity? The answer was always yes, but there were certainly moments where I thought, am I insane?
You have been in Benjamin Britten’s opera Albert Herring twice and you sung the titular role in both productions. For the Royal Melbourne Philharmonic Aria competition in August 2019, you sang Canticle One, a Britten piece which is a setting of a religious text. (And you won!) What are some of your thoughts on Britten?
It’s no news to anyone who knows me that I love Benjamin Britten and his music. Similar to my musical upbringing, I’ve kind of fallen into performing Britten works by accident, and haven’t been able to escape him!
My singing teacher in year twelve gave me one of his folk songs, The Ploughboy. I just thought it was fascinating. It was a folk song, but the way he had set the text was just fascinating to me. I went and listened to all of Britten’s other folk songs, and I just fell in love with his brain and how he interprets harmony.
When I started at WAAPA the following year, it was 2013 and it was the centenary of his birth. There was an incredible concert celebrating Britten. My teacher at WAAPA Patricia Price, who was Head of Classical Voice at the time, is a huge appreciator of Britten’s work, so naturally I was always singing Britten. In my second year, I played Puck in scenes from Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The following year we did a fully-staged production and I sang the role of Starveling. The way Britten writes for character… dramatically, he was a genius!
In terms of Canticle One, I fell in love with the piece years ago. I remember hearing it for the first time and thinking, what is this music? It’s so beautiful. I took the score with me to London. It was the first piece I listened to on the Tube on my way to my new home!
At the Guildhall they have a process for casting the projects for the year, called the ‘Meat Market’. Everyone has five minutes to sing for all the most important figures at the Guildhall who will be organising the concerts. It’s very nerve-wracking! A few weeks later I received an email saying that Graham Johnson had chosen me to be in his Song Guild, and that he was planning to program all five of Britten’s Canticles. And I was given Canticle One! It really was fate.
Back in Australia, when I saw the Royal Melbourne Philharmonic Aria Competition was coming up, I thought, well I could sing Messiah or Elijah, but every tenor is going to do that. So I looked up the fine print, and you are able to sing any piece that is generally religious in nature, not exclusively oratorio repertoire. So thought, I’m going to go for it!
What is your opinion on the future of opera in the 21st century? Do you think there is anything that could be done to make that future more promising?
That’s a great question, and one all of us within the community think about all the time. I think there needs to be more openness in the opera community towards outsiders… to people who have never been to an opera. Breaking down the barrier of, ‘opera is for the upper-class’.
We’ve all had the experience of hearing from someone who came to an opera for the first time with reactions like, “Oh, I didn’t know opera could be funny!” There are people who have their minds blown by the experience. Have you ever met a person who has said, “Oh I don’t like movies”, if they’ve never seen a movie? Who would say “I don’t like comedies”, if they’ve only seen one comedy and not particularly enjoyed it?
I think there needs to be more education, and not in a patronising way, towards how vast and diverse opera can be. If you’re bringing a child to the opera, don’t bring them to Tosca or Carmen, bring them to Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel, or Rossini’s La Cenerentola (Cinderella) or Mozart’s The Magic Flute! They’ll understand those shows.
Yes! Those are fantastic first operas, because those are essentially vocally-trumped up musicals with fun stories.
I’m a huge advocate for giving things a go. It’s such a heightened art form, that when it’s done right, it’s done right. But if one little cog in the opera machine isn’t doing its job then the whole thing can collapse. We need to be more forgiving, and in turn, more hopeful.
In terms of Australia specifically, that’s unfortunately where I feel like we are behind, because we adopted Western culture. We still think opera is this precious and sometimes untouchable thing. Whereas you go to Italy or Germany, and the audiences there are regularly booing new productions and performances. They are more than happy to let people know what they think! And that’s okay.
So I would say, be open to new experiences, and let’s embrace exposure to arts as a country! Let’s support the arts.