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.

Aidan McGartland

Baritone, conductor, musicologist

Aidan McGartland is an aspiring opera singer (baritone) and musicologist. He is currently in his Honours year at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, under the supervision of A/Prof. Elliott Gyger for musicology and Ms Linda Barcan for voice. Aidan’s musicological interests include the analysis and reception of 20th century musical modernism (especially Elisabeth Lutyens and Igor Stravinsky), the operas of Wagner, the study of counterpoint and French music at the fin-de-siècle.

Aidan is a keen performer of vocal music and has performed with a wide range of choirs and opera choruses, as well as solo recitals, in the vibrant Melbourne music scene. In 2018, Aidan co-founded a new music student-run choir at the Conservatorium, called Candlelight VOX. In 2019, he received a scholarship to study at McGill University in Montréal for six months. Languages are a related area of study, receiving a Diploma of Italian from the University of Melbourne in 2020. Aidan also learns French and Irish Gaelic. Beyond music, Aidan is also a passionate environmentalist, bushwalker and gardener.

Seven questions with… Cameron Lam, composer

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

Wilkommen, bienvenue, welcome!

I have dusted the cobwebs off my keyboard (and out of my brain) to bring you Fever Pitch’s first published post of 2021! I’d be lying if I said I felt utterly refreshed and raring to go after the year that was 2020, but I can say I am feeling optimistic.

But enough about me.

Today’s interview is with Cameron Lam. Cameron is an artistic director, composer, and a great supporter of other composers- over the past two years he has curated and shared a monthly new music playlist on Spotify, showcasing newly composed Australian Art music. Cameron is currently working at APRA AMCOS as their Art Music Specialist. I had the chance to speak to Cameron about the Art Music Fund grant program, his work as a composer, and the upcoming Art Music Awards.

You can follow Cameron’s work through his website, Soundcloud, and Bandcamp. Cameron is the Artistic Director of production company Kammerklang, and you can follow their projects through their website and Facebook page. Links throughout to further information on the Art Music Fund.

Would you be able to briefly describe yourself and your musical background for those reading?

I’m a freelance art music composer whose music sits somewhere between classical and video game music. Now based in Melbourne, I’m the Artistic Director of cross-artform production company Kammerklang, curator of the Australian Art Music playlist on Spotify and the Art Music Specialist at APRA AMCOS (the Australasian Performing Right Association and Australasian Mechanical Copyright Owners Society).

APRA AMCOS is the music rights organisation that licenses businesses and organisations in Australia and New Zealand to play, perform, copy or record our members’ music. They then collect money from those licensees and pay it to the music creators, whose songs add meaningful content, lovely ambience, and, of course, joy to the lives of music fans. We also collect royalties from international sources for our members.

APRA AMCOS also coordinates heaps of programs and initiatives that support more than 108,000 members with grants, song craft, networking, skills development and more. So, if you’re composing music and it’s being performed or available online, I strongly encourage you to join. It’s free and easy to do.

Cover art for Cameron’s 2019 Song Cycle, ‘The Art of Disappearing’.

Can you tell us a little about your monthly Australian Art Music playlist on Spotify?

I started the playlist as way to diversify my listening, and actively seek out new pieces and composers. Over the past two years, it’s been a wonderful way to connect with composers, performers and other listeners. Now published alongside an article in Limelight each month, the playlist normally features three hours of music (about 30 or so pieces) from different composers. The archive of all tracks previously featured now stands at 63 hours – containing 622 pieces by more than 300 composers.

February 2021 playlist and Limelight article can be found here

You are currently working at APRA AMCOS as their Art Music Specialist. Can you give us an idea of what this role entails?

As Art Music Specialist I’m the main contact for APRA AMCOS’s Australian art music composer members (broadly defined as classical, jazz, experimental electronic and sound art).

This entails both explaining to composers how APRA AMCOS supports its members and what information about their music they need to provide to us, to ensure they get paid. I also advise APRA AMCOS at large on the needs and concerns of the art music community.

Part of that includes administering grant programs and initiatives such as Art Music Fund to support the industry.

The SCM Wind Symphony, conducted by Dr. John P. Lynch and featuring Sue Newsome (contrabass clarinet), perform the world premiere of Cameron Lam’s Yggdrasil: The World Tree. August 24, 2017.

APRA AMCOS, in collaboration with the Australian Music Centre, is currently taking applications for the Art Music Fund. This is a grant program offering ten grants of $5000 to go towards commissioning and staging newly-composed works. What excites you the most about this program?

The diversity of projects is the most exciting element for me. It’s heartening that the art music world produces such an array of different music and collaborative projects. I’m also really happy our recipients have reflected the diversity of submissions, and am keen to see what new works will be added the list of 48 previously of funded projects.

The second thing that excites is what this program seeks to fund: new works to be presented multiple times, creating a long artistic life to support the composer. I really strongly stand behind the idea that our back catalogue of repertoire can and should be supporting us while continue to write. And the more time we can spend creating pathways for that work, the better.

For those reading who are less experienced with grant applications, do you have any pieces of advice, as a composer who has gone through the grant process yourself?

Take your time, talk to your peers and collaborators, and be clear in what you’re trying to say.

The panel wants to understand your ideas and goals, so make sure you spend enough time refining how you articulate your answers, not just coming up with them. Clearly address the question being asked, and make sure your answer makes sense without your own knowledge of your project (get a friend to read it if you’re not sure).

Also, ask questions. I really like to hear from applicants during the process so I can help them to submit the best possible application and help minimise any stress around something that might be confusing. We like to have applicants on our radar, so please drop me a line with questions big and small.

Cover art from Cameron’s 2017 composition ‘Dream’, a musical setting of Puck’s closing monologue from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

How do you sustain hope for the future, or overcome periods where you feel less motivated?

Focusing on small concrete things, ticking them off and celebrating any progress on matter how small. Big picture thinking and goal setting is very important, but when faced with incredible uncertainty or lack of motivation the big things just feel insurmountable.

Achieving one small step towards a larger goal, seems much more manageable.

Can you tell us a bit about the upcoming Art Music Awards?

The Art Music Awards honour members of the art music community for works, projects and performances in the prior calendar year (the Annual Awards), as well as sustained contribution to the sector (the Luminary Awards). You can see all of the different categories here.

You can nominate others for these awards as long as you are either an APRA member or a financial member of the Australian Music Centre. Nominations will open later this month!

Cameron Lam

Composer, Creative Director, Arts Administrator

Cameron Lam is an Australian Music Centre represented composer, the Artistic Director of Australian hybrid-art production company, Kammerklang, and the Art Music Specialist at the Australasian Performing Rights Association (APRA AMCOS).

Named in 2020 as one of The Music Network’s 30 under 30 future leaders of the music industry, Cameron’s career has focused on collaboration, interdisciplinary practice, and entrepreneurship. Inspired by game designer, Mark Rosewater and theatre director, Anne Bogart, his music advocates the role and experience of the player in artistic expression.  Choice, interaction and agency feature heavily in his work, leading to music that grows and changes with each performance.

He has had the pleasure of collaborating with and writing for many of Australia’s leading musicians such as acclaimed percussionist Claire Edwardes, vocal ensemble Halcyon, the Nexas Saxophone Quartet, contrabass clarinettist Sue Newsome, and YouTuber and EWI player Peter Smith. These partnerships have led to multiple commissions, premieres and four portrait albums – including ‘The Art of Disappearing’ in collaboration with poet Sarah Holland-Batt.

The Financial Barrier Keeping New Audiences Away

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

Photo by Alexander Naglestad on Unsplash

This article is based on opinions I have held for years on the cost of attending operatic and classical performances in Australia. As COVID-19 has halted all live performances since March (and they are yet to resume in Melbourne), some people may not see the point in discussing specifics like ticket prices in the ‘before times’. But I’m of the opinion that the performing arts industry in Australia was facing massive challenges before COVID-19. Factors such as ticket pricing played a role in this, and the pandemic has simply pushed problems that already existed to a breaking point.

To answer the question, “Why aren’t the younger generation consuming classical music?”, we need to ask the young people who are already part of the classical world. Whether they have grown up playing in youth symphonies or singing in choirs, or stumbled into musical training in their teens and twenties, young people within the arts industry can tell you the answer. They know why their friends don’t want to experience their first opera or symphonic concert.

Why do young people largely feel like classical music has no relevance to them? Because arts organisations are putting absolutely no effort into showing young people that it is relevant to them. (I use the words ‘young people’ to refer to the elusive patron demographic of 18-30).

Okay, when I say ‘absolutely no effort’, I mean ‘very little effort’. A handful of organisations have clearly had this on their radar over the last few years- a good example is Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s film score concerts, where the orchestra accompanied projections of crowd-pleasing films such as Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and James Bond’s Skyfall. I think that’s a fantastic way to introduce new audiences to the richness and kaleidoscopic colour of live orchestras.

But I want to turn the spotlight onto opera.

Why don’t young people go to see live opera?

Well what are they supposed to do? Fork out $200 dollars for something that looks like a snooze fest and is predominantly marketed towards patrons 60+ years of age?

I decided to do the calculations. When I started writing this piece, Opera Australia’s 2020 season with ticket pricing was still accessible online (briefly transporting me into an alternate universe where that thing never happened).

Photo by Tom Arrowsmith on Unsplash

Using the most discounted rate, a booking of seven productions with A reserve tickets (no pension card) would come to about $990. This averages out to $140 per show. The same seven shows booked with C reserve tickets would come to $560, with about $60 off if you were younger than 30, and chose Tuesday performances instead of Saturday ones.

But bear in mind this is the bulk price, and to get this, you’d have to book at least five shows in the one transaction (at the beginning of the season). What 24-year-old is going to pay $500 for seven operas in one go, even if they’re working full time? I am both of those things and I still wouldn’t pay that. The inflexible timing and monetary commitment itself is enough to put you off.

OA also offered $68 tickets for patrons under 30- but only if you booked two tickets in one transaction, and only out of a choice of four specific productions. And you’re kidding yourself if you think $136 is an easy bet for someone to make if they’re sitting on the fence, or perhaps even assuming they’re going to hate the experience (many people I’ve talked to outside of the classical world do).

I don’t understand why organisations can’t offer actual discounts in limited runs, rather than faffing around and still asking patrons to commit to $136 in one go. For example, you could slash the seats of the entire dress circle to $40, for two performance dates only (out of a full run of ten, perhaps). The company and venue could market the crap out of it, and if there were only two dates to pick from, it would be similar to a student-rush deal in principle.

And on that topic, whatever happened to student rush tickets? During the four years of my Bachelor of Music, I never heard of any student rush tickets offered by Australia’s national opera company. The Arts Centre (aka the venue, not the company itself), offered Tix At Six, which was when you could line up in front of the box office before 6pm, to claim $30 tickets (max two per person) available for two separate shows currently on at the Arts Centre or Hamer Hall. On one occasion I was able to purchase an OA ticket through this (and it was a really good seat).

It’s as if Opera Australia, consciously or unconsciously, is making it as hard as possible for young people to take a risk on something new.

Photo by Alessia Cocconi on Unsplash

Is ticket pricing the sole reason I have a low opinion of this national opera company? Nope. Another would be its repetitive programming. I’m surprised OA hasn’t changed its name to the Puccini Repertory Company™ over the last few years.

Between 2014 and 2019, Opera Australia mounted 67 productions in Sydney (including 5 musicals). Operas composed by Puccini accounted for 25% of this number, and operas by Verdi accounted for 13%. In total, works by six composers (Puccini, Verdi, Mozart, Bizet, Rossini and Donizetti) accounted for 65% of Sydney’s season during this time, and 60% of Melbourne’s season during the same period.

I think there are three main reasons why the vast majority of young people don’t take a chance on live opera productions. I’ve outlined two: the prohibitive prices and repetitive programming mired in dusty old clichés and outdated values.

The third factor would be the length and scale of most canonical operas. Those who have never attended an opera often assume they would be bored shitless for three hours. That’s a valid concern. Concentrating on a staged show for three acts can be a big ask, particularly if the story moves slowly.

I propose a great way to counteract this would be for opera companies to incorporate lighter fare into their seasons more often. It’s a fabulous way to get a taste for what live opera sounds and feels like, without being overwhelmed. One act-operas, comedic operas, chamber operas which run for an hour straight through- these are far more enticing to beginners. (And you could commission living composers to write them!)

This would ease the minds of prospective ticket-buyers- if you don’t end up enjoying it, you’ve only dedicated an hour to the experiment. Staging operas in a variety of smaller and more casual venues (and letting people bring in their drinks) would also sweeten the deal and help break down the intimidating cloud that can hover above the art form.

I hope the tumultuous year that was 2020 will bring about a more open-minded 2021. It’d be fantastic if the out-of-the-box thinking necessitated by a global pandemic is permanently adopted by arts organisations. We’ve used all kinds of creative mediums to connect in a time of physical and mental distancing. Why not use this mindset to develop expansive approaches to bring classical music (and the genres adjacent) to as many people as possible?

If you are interested in further reading on Opera Australia and how it has responded to COVID-19, I recommend these pieces: The Guardian, The Conversation, The Sydney Morning Herald.

A Brave New World and A Delicate Fire

Mezzo-soprano Anna Dowsley. Image credit: Pinchgut Opera

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

A Delicate Fire

An opera film produced by Pinchgut Opera featuring the music of Barbara Strozzi
Co-created by Erin Helyard, Constantine Costi and Charlotte Mungomery
Available for $30 here, unlimited streaming until 13th December

Cast and Creatives:

Erin Helyard – Musical Director, Conductor and Keyboards
Constantine Costi – Director
Charlotte Mungomery – Production Designer
Dimitri Zaunders – Director of Photography
James Vaughan – Editor
Shannon Burns – Choreographer
Ella Butler – Art Director


Anna Dowsley – Mezzo soprano
Taryn Fiebig – Soprano
Chloe Lankshear – Soprano
Keara Donohoe – Mezzo soprano
Nicholas Jones – Tenor
David Greco – Baritone
Andrew O’Connor – Bass
Simon Martyn-Ellis – Theorbo and Baroque Guitar
Hannah Lane – Baroque Harp
Anthea Cottee – Cello, Viola da Gamba and Lirone
Matthew Greco – Violin
Karina Schmitz – Violin
Allie Graham – Dancer
Neale Whittaker – Dancer

During a pandemic which emptied theatres around the world, many arts organisations have provided content to watch online. Some have uploaded past concerts for free to a YouTube channel, others have live-streamed concerts. This is a new space to move in; online content is notoriously hard to monetise because there’s simply so much available for free, or for minimal monthly subscriptions.

Pinchgut Opera’s A Delicate Fire is the first staged opera film I have seen emerge out of this wave of online offerings. At sixty minutes long, it’s a lovely compact concept: a series of staged vignettes, each one set to a madrigal composed by Barbara Strozzi. Strozzi sounds like an impressive figure. Born out of wedlock in Venice in the 17th century, she became an accomplished singer and published 125 pieces of vocal music under her own name.

Mezzo-soprano Anna Dowsley weaves between the various fragments, acting as the intermediary between the viewers at home and the set-pieces on screen (at times literally walking from one to another across a production area). She symbolises Strozzi, who was only twenty-five when she published her first collection of madrigals.

Unsurprisingly the vocal performances are impressive across the board. Throughout the hour the busy, melismatic textures typical of Baroque music are handled with dexterity and delicacy by the ensemble. This nuanced phrasing was a highlight. It was also a pleasure to see the instrumental ensemble actively woven into the staging, with close-ups of the musicians as they performed. Their unforced animation was engaging to watch.

Dramatically, A Delicate Fire gets off to a slow start. The first few madrigals are staged in a languid and contemplative fashion- Dowsley gets into a car, drives, and arrives at a house. The madrigal Silentio nocivo (Harmful Silence) is paired with a continuous panning shot inside the house. The singers are poised in various positions: sitting at a table, inside a bath filled with bubbles, standing next to a car with headlights illuminating a fallen deer.

From an audience standpoint this symbolic, abstract staging was not particularly engaging so early in the piece. The following duet, Sonetto Proemio dell’opera, sung by Dowsley and Taryn Fiebig, sees the two singers shot separately, staring straight into the camera. During this moment I found myself missing the interaction which naturally emerges when two singers inhabit the same space.

The cast of A Delicate Fire. Image Credit: Pinchgut Opera

The energy picks up from this point onwards. As the instrumental ensemble perform Tarquinio Merula’s Ballo detto Eccardo, Op. 12, the animated character of the piece is matched by the action on screen. Behind the musicians the singers bustle around the warehouse, rolling out patches of grass, sweeping the stage, rolling wooden crates across the floor, even vacuuming…

I particularly enjoyed the staging of the next few vignettes, which possessed a light touch of humour and originality. L’Humano Affetto (Human Affections) begins with a truck backing into shot, the rear trailer doors opening to reveal four singers and two dancers. The singers disembark, flanking the truck as the two dancers (Allie Graham and Neale Whittaker) create moving tableaus, shifting within the confined space along with the words of the madrigal.

Il contrasto de’ cinque sensi (The Quarrel of the Five Senses) is given a wry treatment. As the ensemble sing through the senses (‘I see, I hear, I taste, I smell’) we’re shown a sea of faces mirroring the words: holding up magnifying glasses, bobbing their heads while plugged into 80s Walkmans, posing with ice creams, and inhaling the scent of red roses. It’s very cute.

Still from A Delicate Fire. Image Credit: Pinchgut Opera

There are moments where the creative team clearly let themselves have fun and experiment with the medium of film. I particularly enjoyed the recurring use of mirrors to reveal members of the ensemble in different dimensions. A stylish and unexpected transition between vignettes saw two singers retrieve black garments from underneath a thick layer of black dust.

While I don’t have a background in dance, I found the performances by Graham and Whittaker stunningly evocative (and complementary to the chosen pieces). They united the graceful lines of ballet with the fluid contortions of contemporary dance.

As the arts industry marches into a brave new world, one which hopefully brings with it fresh ideas, it’s lovely to see smaller arts organisations embracing the unconventional. Pinchgut Opera is to be commended on producing a fresh and unpretentious work in this destabilising climate. I look forward to witnessing what they produce next.

Pause that Existential Crisis: Undergrad is Just the Beginning

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay 

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

If I was to give one piece of advice to aspiring arts professionals still immersed in their music degree, it would be this: care less.

Work hard and apply yourself, of course, but constantly remind yourself that it is a university degree, not your life. It is a chunk of tertiary education, consisting of a bunch of units that will be varying levels of interesting and instructive. But it is not your life.

There is little logic in expecting your university degree to supply your life with its central meaning and purpose. It probably won’t. But it may start the chain of events which will help you start to work out what that is (and change your mind several times, which is totally cool too).

University degrees are more than the sum of their parts. The overall experience of committing to something intensively for three or four years will probably teach you something. The people you come into contact with may change the course of your life. I talk shit about my degree pretty often, but I really don’t know who I would be or what I would be doing today if it wasn’t for my study experience. It set in motion a line of dominoes, each one triggered by trying something new. And all of it began in March 2014 when I showed up at Melbourne Conservatorium of Music as a baby voice major.

So as contradictory as it sounds, that’s why I think university degrees are never a ‘waste of time’, but that you shouldn’t rest all your hopes and dreams on to them either.

Bachelor of Music degrees are strange beasts. Unlike many others (law degrees, medical degrees, accounting degrees) they do not, and cannot, prepare you for a specific job or niche in the industry. After thinking it over, I don’t think one ever could, no matter how many times it was restructured.

Almost all begin as performance degrees, from which there are composition or musicology streams available to move into. The basic breakdown of musical careers you may want to head into is: soloist, orchestral or chamber musician, composer, music academic, and music teacher (classroom or instrumental).

I’ve refrained from mentioning a notable one: music therapist. Music therapy is an emerging field in the crosshairs of medicine, psychology, rehabilitation and music. It’s rapidly gaining respect as a discipline and as such, to be appointed a resident music therapist in a hospital or health facility would require a minimum of a Masters degree. So let’s set that aside as an incredible career choice that is usually not discussed in detail during an undergraduate degree.

But you take your average nineteen-year-old at an Australian Conservatorium, and those are the options bouncing around their head. When I attended MCM there was a yearly intake of about a hundred musicians; in my cohort there were roughly twenty singers, twenty pianists, and fifty assorted instrumentalists.

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay 

I found it invigorating to suddenly be surrounded by a crowd of people my age who were just as passionate and driven about music performance as I was. There was no need to ever filter out obsessive rants about composers or musicals or symphonies; everyone got it.

Conservatoriums are filled with perfectionists, the hard workers who grew up being the ‘musical one’, the ‘creative one’, the ‘talented one’. Getting accepted into an institution which only takes a small percentage of auditionees is an impressive feat which shouldn’t be understated.

So it’s only natural that students throw themselves into their training. You lock yourself in a practice room and let your degree surround you with comforting layers of bubble wrap: friends, mentors, a social scene, assignments to churn out. You delay thinking about the future because you zero in on memorising your recital repertoire or drilling your exercises.

But the ironic thing about this ultra-laser-focused approach is that after a fourteen week semester, your only performing experience will be thirty minutes of art song, sung straight through one afternoon. And then it will be over.

While you had your blinkers on, you were missing out on opportunities to try new things. Whether you want to become a performer, a teacher, a composer, or a writer, the absolute best thing you can do for yourself is try new things and gain experience. There is no downside- you build a variety of skills, move away from the dangerous slippery slope of funneling all your self worth into how well you do in your performance exam, and start to understand what you might want to spend your time after university doing.

To the singers reading this: you have the rest of your life to learn a Rachmaninov song cycle and work your way through hundreds of Mozart arias. Your twenties is an excellent time to break out of your comfort zone, fail, take a sharp left, double-back, rotate in a circle, rinse and repeat.

The arts industry is an incredibly fragmented place. To find work you have to diversify and adapt, and get used to being in the workforce (an entirely different dynamic from being a student in a tutorial).

This is starkly true in my experience. I managed to get a full time arts admin position after doing some casual admin work for an arts organisation, which lead to further ongoing shifts assisting a particular person who was overloaded, which led to another organisation asking me to cover their admin assistant which she was on holiday- all of which meant I could list two fabulous referees on my resume after an instructive six months of sporadic work. None of which I could have planned in advance, particularly because I had no prior desire to try arts admin in the first place. But I tried it, and I liked it! And even the most basic admin position has the fantastic upside of teaching you about how things practically get done from the inside of an organisation.

If you experience success, it may not look like what you’re expecting. You’ll have to be your own agent, manager, promoter, and life coach while your career is in its infancy. Being commissioned to write new music, being cast in shows, those are fantastic victories but you are still likely to need a ‘day job’ while you juggle freelancing- and that is by no means ‘giving up’.

An undergraduate degree is the definition of a first step. I can almost guarantee that after a year, you will barely remember the recitals which caused you so much stress. So if you’re scared at the thought of your degree ending, don’t be. It’s where the real (messy) fun begins.