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IN SONG BIOS

IN SONG
BIOGRAPHIES

Jane Sheldon is an Australian-American soprano and composer. Praised by the New York Times for singing “sublimely”, the Sydney Morning Herald for “a brilliant tour de force”, and The Washington Post for “a stunning performance”, Jane has established an international reputation for performing highly specialized contemporary chamber opera and art music for voice.

She has appeared with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, Pinchgut Opera, Ekmeles (USA), Talea Ensemble (USA), Sound Icon (USA), Ensemble Offspring, Halcyon, the Australian String Quartet, and Sydney Chamber Opera, where she is an Artistic Associate. She has appeared at numerous international arts festivals including Lincoln Centre Festival, Jerusalem Sacred Music Festival, Prototype Festival, Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, and Sydney Festival. Described as “riveting” (New York Times) and “gripping” (Limelight Magazine), Jane’s compositions focus on the body in altered or transformative states.

She is a 2021 Artist in Residence at the Sydney Observatory with Imara Savage and Elizabeth Gadsby. 

Anna Fraser has gained a reputation as a versatile soprano specialising predominantly in the interpretation of early and contemporary repertoire. Anna has had the pleasure of performing in a myriad of traditional and exploratory programming expertly demonstrating the versatility and virtuosity of a cappella singing. Anna is a graduate of the Sydney Conservatorium of Music and New England Conservatory (Boston) and furthered her studies in the Britten-Pears Young Artist Program featuring as a soloist at the Aldeburgh Festival (UK) under the direction of Richard Egarr and Antony Rolfe-Johnson. Equally at home as a dramatist on the stage presenting opera and historically informed chamber music, Anna is a strong exponent in music education, particularly with Moorambilla Voices, Gondwana Choirs, and NIDA as a guest lecturer.

Anna performs extensively with a number of Australia’s professional ensembles including Pinchgut Opera (since 2004 with notable roles in L’Orfeo, Dardanus, L’Ormindo, Castor et Pollux) and Cantillation, Sydney Chamber Opera (Dusapin’s Passion, Finsterer’s Biographica), Sydney Philharmonia Choirs, Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Ironwood, The Acacia Quartet, Ensemble Offspring, Halcyon, Taikoz; Bach Akadamie Australia, Australian Haydn Ensemble, Salut! Baroque, Sydney Consort and Thoroughbass.

Anna performed as a core ensemble member of the Song Company for over a decade and has collaborated with international ensembles such as period specialists The Wallfisch Band (Bach Unwrapped cantata programmes at Kings Place, London) and the New Zealand String Quartet (Adam Chamber Music Festival, NZ; Canberra International Music Festival).

With a career that has spanned 4 continents, 85 operatic roles from the baroque to the newly composed, high respect as a pedagogue, a Helpmann Award nomination and superlative press reviews, Simon Lobelson has established himself as one of the most versatile baritones of his generation. Born in Sydney of Egyptian parents and brought up in Brussels, Simon graduated with distinction from Royal College of Music on scholarship, then studied with Sir Donald McIntyre and has since worked extensively as a soloist in Australia, the Middle East, Asia, the UK and Europe.

Oratorio appearances have included almost all the mainstream oratorio repertoire at venues such as the Sydney Opera House, Queen Elizabeth Hall, St. Johns Smith Square, St. Martin-in-the-Fields, Birmingham Symphony Hall, Sydney Town Hall and with the London Mozart Players, Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Australian Haydn Ensemble, Sydney Philharmonia Choirs, English Chamber Orchestra, Israel Camerata and the Lucerne Festival, under such conductors as Pierre Boulez, Charles Dutoit, Daniel Reuss, Reinbert de Leeuw, Richard Bonynge, Simon Halsey and Paul McCreesh. 

Simon has performed with many opera companies including Royal Opera House Covent Garden, English National Opera, Opera Australia, Young Vic, Pinchgut Opera, Sydney Chamber Opera and Canberra International Music Festival, in roles such as Amfortas, Escamillo, Rigoletto, Alberich, Marcello, Ford, Germont, Figaro, Michele and Don Alfonso, under such directors as Jean-Claude Auvray, Patrick Nolan, Ian Judge, John Copley, Bruno Ravella, Melly Still, Cheryl Barker and Jude Kelly. A champion of contemporary music, and creator of copious world premiere operatic roles, his recent performances as the main role in Metamorphosis for Opera Australia attracted outstanding press reviews and a Helpmann Award nomination.

He has recorded for Chandos and ABC Classics and is a vocal professor, lecturer and coach at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, a judge for the Sydney Eisteddfod and has given masterclasses in Australia and China. He is also completing his doctorate on Vocalism in Contemporary Opera through Sydney University, on a RTP Commonwealth Government Scholarship Award.

Australian mezzo-soprano Emily Edmonds was a Jette Parker Young Artist at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 2015-2017. 

Most recently, Emily recorded the role of L’Enfant for an acclaimed virtual production of Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortilèges, produced by Vopera and the London Philharmonic Orchestra. In 2020, she performed the UK premiere of Venables’ acclaimed Denis & Katya, and toured the piece throughout the UK with Music Theatre Wales. 

In November 2019, Emily performed the role of Dorabella in Classical Opera Company’s Così fan tutte, in London. In September 2019, Emily made her US debut, performing Philip Venables’ Denis & Katya for Opera Philadelphia. Earlier in 2019, she sang the title role of L’enfant in Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortilèges at the Komische Oper Berlin. Emily also performed the role of Varvara in Richard Jones’ Olivier award-winning new production of Katya Kabanova, at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. In December 2018, Emily appeared as Semira in Pinchgut Opera’s award-winning Australian Premiere of Hasse’s Artaserse. Pinchgut Live label has now released their CD recording of this performance. 

In the 2016/17 season, Emily performed the roles of Madrigal Singer (Manon Lescaut), Kate Pinkerton (Madama Butterfly), and Tebaldo (Don Carlo) for the Royal Opera. She also performed the role of Agathe/Dargelos in Glass’ Les Enfants Terribles for the Royal Ballet, at the Barbican. In 2016/17 she covered the roles of Dorabella (Così fan tutte), Magdalene (Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg), and Emilia (Otello) for the Royal Opera. 

Her roles in the 2015/16 season included Aglaea/Atropos/Bacchus (Orpheus) at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Shakespeare’s Globe, and Alms Sister (Suor Angelica), Käthchen (Werther), for the Royal Opera. Emily was also one of the six cast members in the world premiere of Philip Venables’ critically acclaimed new opera 4.48 Psychosis at the Lyric Hammersmith.

Emily holds a First Class Honours degree in Vocal Performance from the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. She was the Dame Nellie Melba Scholar and Patrick & Vivian Gordon awardee for the Melba Opera Trust. In 2015, Emily was awarded an Australia Council for the Arts ArtStart grant, in support of her vocal and language development abroad. She is an awardee of the Australian Music Foundation and the Tait Memorial Trust. Emily is also a recipient of the Dame Heather Begg Memorial Award. 

Emily’s theatrical training background is extensive and has involved productions, national touring, and comprehensive acting study with the Australian Theatre for Young People, and the Fresh Ink project. Pursuing her passion for theatre-making, she was Staff Director on the revival of Richard Jones’ Der Rosenkavalier in the 2018 Glyndebourne Festival season. 

In July 2015 Emily performed the role of Asteria in Pinchgut Opera’s production of Vivaldi’s Bajazet. In 2014 she sang Elgar’s Sea Pictures with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, as part of the Discovery Series. She also sang the role of Dritte Magd for the SSO’s concert performance of Strauss’s Elektra. In the 2014 Sydney Festival she performed in the Australian premiere of George Benjamin’s Into the Little Hill for Sydney Chamber Opera. She also performed the role of Kate Julian in Britten’s Owen Wingrave, for Sydney Chamber Opera.

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We acknowledge the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation as the traditional custodians of the land on which we work and perform. We honour their elders both past and present, and extend that respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

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The Opera stripped bare

THE OPERA
STRIPPED BARE

Imara Savage on directing Fly Away Peter
By Annarosa Berman

It’s no secret that Sydney Chamber Opera, whose production of Elliott Gyger and Pierce Wilcox’s Fly Away Peter premieres at Carriageworks this May, operates on a tight budget. But this does not faze director Imara Savage:  “In stripping a piece to its essentials, you work out what it’s really about; you couldn’t at the last minute decide that you wanted an elephant on stage,” she says. “With the right creative team, you can realise a piece without doing a B-grade version of what you’d imagined.”

With or without elephants, Savage is clear about the attraction of opera. “It’s never set in a kitchen; opera doesn’t live in the world of naturalism,” she says, with a laugh. “Fly Away Peter is an epic piece with much that is ephemeral and unknown about it, and I love the challenge of that.”

For emerging directors, there are very few opportunities to direct opera in Sydney. Savage, who has directed Britten’s Owen Wingrave and Philip Glass’ In the Penal Colony for SCO, considers herself lucky to be able to work for the company

“SCO does innovative, exciting and super challenging work, musically and in terms of staging,” she says. As a director she learns from all the productions she directs, but she’s learned the most from working for SCO. “They pick such hard pieces! “ she says, laughing again. “In the Penal Colony and Owen Wingrave had not been staged in Australia for a reason; they’re really hard pieces to do. You look at a  project and you think, this is really challenging. But this company doesn’t seem to think like that; they think, ‘Wow! This is really difficult! We’ll do it!’”

In Fly Away Peter, not having a libretto or the full orchestration of the music to use in preparation was Savage’s biggest challenge. Usually, her process would involve taking the score, getting a recording of it and listening to it many times, so that when she walks into the rehearsal room she knows the opera backwards.

“This has been a different process. We received the opera in segments. I put my faith in [conductor] Jack [Symonds], who played each part for me and talked me through the instrumentation.” SCO has a history of staging new opera, so although Savage had not worked in this way before, the company had. “They took me through a process that they’d already experienced. “

Conceptualising the piece was, once again, a new experience. “We were creating the directorial concept before we had all the music, in conjunction with Elliott Gyger, the composer,” Savage says. “We knew what the shape of the piece would be, but usually you pick away at the music and libretto in great detail to find out what the concept is going to be.”

Savage had to rely on the novel instead.  “What struck me about it were the landscapes: the piece starts in a bird sanctuary in Queensland and ends in the trenches in Europe. [Designer] Elizabeth Gadsby and I had to decide how to create a space that would encompass the transformation of landscape from a place of sanctuary to a place of death.”

In picking a designer, Savage was guided by her instinct that the opera needed an elemental set that was almost like an installation. “Elizabeth comes from an installation background.  She had the right sensibility and aesthetic for this piece. “

David Malouf encouraged the Fly Away Peter creative team to find an expression of the novel’s themes suited to the new medium. One of the things they decided to do was not to be literal about their depiction of the horrors of war. Savage says: “The novel’s images have been condensed so that you are hit with them almost one after the other, in a fractured and fragmented kind of way. The opera is like an expressionistic nightmare rather than like a TV drama.”

Carriageworks offers SCO a small, intimate and atmospheric space with an acoustic suited to chamber music, even though it’s a box with no wings and none of the big theatre conventions.

Savage is unfazed. “You play to its strengths,” she says.

Breaking Glass, Photo by Dan Boud

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Lorem Ipsum,Carriageworks. Photo by Photographer

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We acknowledge the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation as the traditional custodians of the land on which we work and perform. We honour their elders both past and present, and extend that respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

© 2020 Sydney Chamber Opera | Site designed & built by Anderson Chang

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Current Productions

Book In Song

BOOK
IN SONG

Presented by Phoenix Central Park

June 12, 5:30pm

Jane Sheldon

June 12, 7:30pm

Anna Fraser

June 19, 5:30pm

Emily Edmonds

June 19, 7:30pm

Simon Lobelson

July 10, 5:30pm
(postponed from June 26)

Simon Lobelson

July 10, 7:30pm
(postponed from June 26)

Emily Edmonds

July 17, 5:30pm
(postponed from July 3)

Anna Fraser

July 17, 7:30pm
(postponed from July 3)

Jane Sheldon

Date & TIME

Sat June 12
5:30PM —  Jane Sheldon
7:30PM — Anna Fraser

Sat June 19
5:30PM — Emily Edmonds
7:30PM — Simon Lobelson

Postponed Performances:

Sat June 26 July 10
5:30PM — Simon Lobelson
7:30PM — Emily Edmonds

Sat July 3 July 17
5:30PM — Anna Fraser
7:30PM — Jane Sheldon

VENUE

‘The Church’
9 Mitchell Rd. Alexandria

duration
4x 60 minute long programs, each
presented twice
TICKET prices

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General Inquiries ​

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General Information

We acknowledge the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation as the traditional custodians of the land on which we work and perform. We honour their elders both past and present, and extend that respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

© 2020 Sydney Chamber Opera | Site designed & built by Anderson Chang

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Blog Posts

Florescence, Decay and the Body

Florescence, Decay
& The Body

By Jane Sheldon

One of the primary images woven into this month-long song installation is that of the garden, the setting for both Schoenberg’s Das Buch der hängenden Gärten (The Book of the Hanging Gardens), sung by Anna Fraser, and Fauré’s La Chanson d’Ève (The Song of Eve), sung by me. These cycles are old by SCO standards; both were premiered in 1910 (although fragments of the Fauré had been presented earlier.) Both are performed too rarely. Some of the works in our series address us very much from the perspective of the intellect, but in the Fauré and the Schoenberg the body is where everything registers.

In both cycles the garden is intoxicating, all-consuming, but the dispositions of each protagonist couldn’t be more different: Eve awakens in Eden, embarking on a day of sublime discovery, while Schoenberg’s protagonist stumbles through a garden in decay, lovesick and reeling. Both works are sung in the present in a sense; we’re witness to something unfolding in real time for a single psychology. In the Schoenberg we’re in a kind of Babylon, perhaps, and in the Fauré we’re in Eden, but where we really are is in the sensorium of each protagonist. La Chanson d’Ève sets poems by Charles van Lerberghe and it is worth noting how unusual they are. If you hadn’t heard of Adam and wanted a fully-furnished picture of Judeo-Christian cosmology, this cycle is not going to help you; refreshingly, Adam never shows. We only ever hear from Eve, apparently waking in the garden alone, discovering it alone. But it’s not only the care taken over the singularity of Eve’s experience that is special here. It’s also that the experience is one of the garden making itself known to Eve’s body. As in song five, L’aube blanche:

A ray of light touches

The pale flower of my blue eyes;

A flame awakens my mouth,

A breeze awakens my hair.

The music itself is revealed like a garden coming into being, unfolding from incredibly simple elements, single pitches emerging one by one, until we are suddenly aware that we are deep in rich harmony, the garden in full bloom. Eve’s body is foregrounded all the while. We know as early as the third song, Roses ardentes, that Eve has arrived at an ecstatic, sublime conflation of her self with the garden. By song seven, the eroticism of this merging is clear:

Are you awake, my fragrant sun,

Scent of blonde bees,

Do you float across the world,

My sweet scent of honey?

At night, when my steps

Prowl in the silence,

Do you, who perfume my lilacs,

And my vivid roses, proclaim me?

Am I like a bunch of fruit

Hidden in the foliage,

That nothing reveals

But whose fragrance is felt at night?

Does he know, at this hour,

That I am loosening my tresses

And that they are breathing?

Does he sense it on earth?

Does he sense that I reach out my arms,

And that my voice – which he cannot hear –

Is fragrant

With lilies from my valleys?

The ultimate disintegration of self into garden comes at song ten, O mort, poussières d’étoiles, an expression of desire for ecstatic self-annihilation:

…It is into you I want to be absorbed,

To be extinguished and dissolved,

Death, to which my soul aspires!

Come, break me like a flower of foam,

A flower of sun in the crest

Of the waves,

And as if from a golden amphora,

A wine of heavenly fragrance,

Pour my soul

Into your abyss, that it might perfume

The dark earth and the breath of the dead.

In contrast to the sublime ecstasy of the Fauré, Schoenberg’s Das Buch der hängenden Gärten is a dark and beautiful bruise, charting the torments of love in decay, and written at a time of great turmoil in Schoenberg’s marriage. The work was Schoenberg’s first entirely atonal work and it is heady and lush, quite gorgeously sickening at moments; for the protagonist it is a thoroughly arousing sort of pain. I’m going to quote repeatedly from Allen Shawn’s biography, Arnold Schoenberg’s Journey, because it’s a truly wonderful book, terrible title notwithstanding. To borrow a map from Shawn, the songs travel through “vague anticipation (1, 2) and longing (3,4,5) to obsession (6,7,8), frustration (9), reverie (10), brief consummation (11), and finally doomed resignation (12, 13, 14, 15).”

From the final song:

The pond’s glass fades and breaks

And I stumble lost in the rotting grass.

Palms prickle with their spiky fingers.

Crumbling leaves in a sibilant mass

Are driven by invisible hands

Around this Eden’s sallow walls…

What is foregrounded for the most part is not the personage of the beloved, not their features or their actions; rather, what is rendered in extremely fine detail is the slowly rotting garden and its contents, observed by the singer staggering lovesick through meadows of flowers. Through the metaphor of the garden, what is most salient to us is the way that heartbreak tastes, smells, and feels, the oppressive dis-ease of it.

Schoenberg took these fifteen poems from a much larger work by Stefan George, which charts a more explicit storyline, but the composer’s selections leave us only the emotional dimension. Structurally speaking, Stefan George’s poetry is full of classical order, but Schoenberg’s music pays no heed to whatever structural constraints might be found in the poems, somehow concealing the rigidity of meter to reveal the emotional dimension of the poem with greater clarity. On this, Shawn quotes H. H. Stuckenschmidt, another Schoenberg biographer: “George’s strict meters are as it were unmasked by Schoenberg… Schoenberg’s sounds and rhythms shine behind this order and disclose the spiritual organism which lies behind it.”

George’s poems, with their themes of exquisite disorientation, served to support some of Schoenberg’s most radical musical gestures. It is George who lends text to Schoenberg’s second string quartet, in which he announces that he is, before our very ears, going to gently and decisively snip the tether from the spacecraft to send us floating off into free atonality, seeding a musical language for Das Buch der hängenden Gärten and beyond.

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We acknowledge the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation as the traditional custodians of the land on which we work and perform. We honour their elders both past and present, and extend that respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

© 2020 Sydney Chamber Opera | Site designed & built by Anderson Chang

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The Art of Song

The Art of Song

By Jack Symonds

In curating the four hours of voice-and-piano music that make up IN SONG, Jane Sheldon and I hope to shed a bit of light on a body of work we’re fanatically passionate about: modern art song. This pretentious genre title is unfortunate: it smacks of fusty music lectures about, say, German word painting in Schubert (wonderful as it is!), and a certain privileged, intellectual arrogance that seems to bedevil this repertoire. This music is seen as the preserve of the few and inaccessible to the many. “Art” song, indeed. I suppose the title is only useful to mark an arbitrary division with ‘popular’ song – and thereby consign this music to UNpopularity!

However, tarnishing the staggering creative, musical and linguistic achievement of song composers firing on all cylinders with the stain of elitism surely misses the point. Just revel in the outrageous, transcendent level of invention; a riot of musical and poetic colour joined together in ever-surprising ways. Subjects and ideas you never thought you needed to experience through the music-poetry filter pop up where you least expect them. Who knew that Goethe had a thing for types of cloud, and that Pascal Dusapin would, almost 200 years later, find a staggeringly apposite musical language for this strange sidebar in German romantic poetry? This is modern artsong, and it needs no apology.

..."How could this genteel, moustachioed hanger-on from the French Romantic create something so deeply unstable, couched in a world of gently perfumed purity?"

Attempting to navigate a path through this bewildering and diverse musical landscape required some hard choices and inevitable omissions. I am devastated no place could be found for one of the grandest cycles of them all: Hindemith’s Das Marienleben, or one of the sparest and most withering expressions of anything, Shostakovich’s Michelangelo Suite. Henze’s Arabian Songs was likewise left, tragically, on the shelf, though it’s always good to leave oneself somewhere to go in the future…

Now, a little bit of an introduction to the choices we DID end up making.

PART ONE | Programs One & Two

Fauré and Schoenberg: this early 20th century pair both created visionary ‘gardens’ in their largest and most ambitious song cycles for voice and piano. And how different could they possibly be – on the surface, at least. Playing Fauré’s La chanson d’Ève (1910), I am struck by the hugely challenging paradox of having to maintain a perfectly unbroken surface of self-similar patterns while simultaneously illuminating the truly monumental and startling harmonic universe that whips by at an unpredictable orbit beneath. How could this genteel, moustachioed hanger-on from the French Romantic (whose middle name was indeed ‘Urbain’!) create something so deeply unstable, couched in a world of gently perfumed purity? He has created the rarest thing of all in music: a total and genuine reinvention of all our notions of tonality and consonance without ever puncturing its delicate skin. The performance style is utterly different from Schoenberg’s The Book of the Hanging Gardens (1909), which teeters on the brink between Romanticism and Expressionism, all its suppurating wounds exposed, demanding a constant, passionate representation of its depiction of a world and a language in a state of decadent decay. How could we not put these two great, polar opposite works on the same day and surround them with orbiting satellites from the more than hundred years since their composition?

The path from Schoenberg to the exquisite dodecaphonic miniatures of Luigi Dallapiccola is clear: Dallapiccola was the first Italian composer to embrace Schoenberg’s reinvention of pitch in twelve-tone serialism yet how utterly different from Schoenberg and his students this music sounds! The gossamer threads of these newly minted chords light up Machado’s gnomic reflections on the turning of the seasons, just as Pascal Dusapin’s Wolken on those Goethe poems about clouds seems the most natural aerial extension from Fauré’s rarefied garden.

SCO audiences may remember that we spent a summer with Dusapin in 2016’s Sydney Festival, presenting his large opera Passion and the song-cycle/stage work O Mensch! in the space of a week.

Both these programs have small, impactful cycles by the living master György Kurtág. These abutting opus numbers are spectacular examples of Kurtág’s art of seeming to compress the history of European music into hyper-dense miniatures of only a few minutes. To hear them sung by different singers will hopefully give a rounded view of this frighteningly intense music. These two cycles from the 1980s are like synecdoches for the whole 19th and 20th century art of voice and piano, and it is a joy to reconnect with his music after SCO staged the monumental song cycle …pas à pas – nulle part…. in 2014.

Of course, this being SCO, we couldn’t resist continuing the journey with new works by Australian composers. Along with Fauré, Dusapin and Kurtág, Jane Sheldon will premiere Mary Finsterer’s Nearing Circumpolar, a song cycle based on Mary’s upcoming opera Antarctica. SCO premiered Mary’s first opera Biographica in 2017 (which you can watch here) and has crafted another ‘nature’ work to complement Dusapin and Fauré: a world of ice, white silence and the billions of tiny creatures under the surface of the frozen sea. 

Anna Fraser, along with Schoenberg, Dallapiccola, Kurtág and Boulanger will sing David Evans’s In my brain, an extreme and disturbing setting of Emily Dickinson’s classic “I felt a funeral in my brain”. This long single song feels like a cycle, vacillating as it does between mechanistic, brutal and harsh streams of text and warm cushions of velvety tonality that could have brought a smile to a French Romantic’s face. This Dickinson setting is also the ‘apology’ for not including in the series Aaron Copland’s wide-eyed and perfect Dickinson cycle. 

PART TWO | Programs THREE & FOUR

Here we find a broader, more philosophical view of subject matter, and wilder swings of style. Simon Lobelson carries a heavy burden delivering both Benjamin Britten’s Songs and Proverbs of William Blake and Wolfgang Rihm’s Vermischter Traum. No survey of modern song cycles could omit Britten and this is perhaps my favourite: dark, late Britten shot through with the agony of existence. Written for Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, this stern yet remarkably well-contrasted piece attempts to embrace William Blake’s eccentric world vision with chiselled precision, economy and that classic Britten style of text setting where you simply can’t imagine the words being sung any other way. SCO has quite a history with Britten – Owen Wingrave in 2013, The Rape of Lucretia in 2017.

Will there be more this year? Watch this space…

The Rihm is a recent (2017) work by the hugely prolific living German composer and provides a vital link back to the Schoenberg from the previous program as well as casting an expressive net much further back to Schubert, Schumann and Brahms. This piece is about as serious, heavy and German as you can get. When your first line (setting the grumpy Baroque poet Andreas Gryphius) is “What is this life? What are we?” there’s only one way to go, and Rihm takes us straight into the heart of the big questions of life and death, meaning and purpose. This is German art painfully aware of its own history and deeply moving in the music’s acknowledgement that these threads remain unresolved, even in the second decade of the 21st century.

In between these two big works is a treat: Ravel’s Histoires naturelles – pure delight from start to finish – where the traits of four birds and a little cricket are lightly satirised and anthropomorphised to form a surprisingly profound portrait of inter-species folly.

Emily Edmonds will deliver a program rooted in the pleasures and ecstasies of life and religion. If the Rihm and the Britten are existential, doubting works pleading for meaning in a Godless universe, Samuel Barber’s Hermit Songs are the perfect riposte. Ten reflections from anonymous monks in pre-modern monasteries, they contain a cosmic pleasure in the simple acts of praise, worship and solitude from which we could all learn. Barber really rose to the occasion with this glorious cycle, capturing the text with alternately devotional wonder and sparkling joy. 

Barber adored the music of Francis Poulenc, who also could not be omitted from a survey of modern song. And Barber wasn’t the only one – it is hard music to resist. The ten minute song cycle Banalités is much, much more than its tongue-in-cheek title suggests. It is, in fact, a kaleidoscopic survey of Poulenc’s art, with each song reflecting a different side of his complex and winning personality. From breezy Parisian interwar insouciance to operatic drama, smoky eroticism and profound introspection, it seems to have it all.

If Poulenc’s sexy setting of the word ‘cigarette’ in “Hôtel” gets you going, then Kaija Saariaho’s Quatre instants (2002) is love-music on another level entirely. This is a 21st century song cycle saturated in the kind of ‘complex pleasure’ at which Saariaho is a true master. Written in the wake of her massively successful opera L’amour de loin and just before La Passion de Simone (which SCO performed in 2019) these four songs are vast in expression and imagination – an ocean of sound for just two performers. They are among the most complex things I’ve ever played – I can sense Saariaho’s imagination working overtime to make the piano into a huge resonating chamber seemingly capable of producing every pitch and rhythm simultaneously! These texts move from pure pleasure through pain and eventually reminiscence, culminating, at the end of more than 20 minutes of pulverising eroticism, in one of the most sheerly gorgeous codas written this century. By rights, here of course should be made mention of Messiaen’s ecstatically loopy Harawi (recently heard locally by The Song Company) which was too long for this program anyway, and the lovesick world of Janáček’s Diary of One Who Disappeared – presented just this January by SCO, staged in Sydney Festival.

Lastly – and one never likes to write too much about one’s own work – I had to pay tribute to both Emily Edmonds’s remarkable voice and the other music I have been thinking about all this time in my own small song cycle Nothing other than silence. A setting of an ecstatic, apocalyptic vision of the Flood myth from an oracle in The Epic of Gilgamesh (re-interpreted by SCO co-founder Louis Garrick) I have simply tried to capture some of the things I love about working with voice and piano: electric intimacy, and the seeming infinity of expression and colour that one can find in just two people on stage.

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INSONG

IN SONG

Presented by Phoenix Central Park

Watch performances of selected song cycles from IN SONG. 
New videos released weekly.

Text by Charles van Lerberghe

Jane Sheldon, soprano
Jack Symonds, piano

Eve awakens in Eden, embarking on a day of sublime discovery. Fauré’s music itself is revealed like a garden coming into being, unfolding from incredibly simple elements, single pitches emerging one by one, until we are suddenly aware that we are deep in rich harmony, the garden in full bloom. Eve’s body is foregrounded all the while, arriving at an ecstatic, sublime conflation of her self with the garden.

Completed in 1910, this song cycle represents Fauré’s extraordinary late style: a miraculous, radiant reimagining of harmony beneath an unbroken surface of subtlety and refinement.

Text by Louis Garrick
World premiere

Emily Edmonds, mezzo soprano
Jack Symonds, piano

An adaptation of lines from The Epic of Gilgamesh, the oracle Utanapishti tells Gilgamesh of the great flood, a cataclysm engulfing the whole world – how they survived, and what the world looked like in the aftermath. Three linked songs chart this fragment of a foundational myth, heard here in their world premiere.

Text by Stefan George 
 
Anna Fraser, soprano
Jack Symonds, piano
 

This revolutionary song cycle completed in 1909 teeters on the brink between Romanticism and Expressionism, all of its suppurating tonal wounds exposed. Schoenberg’s protagonist stumbles through a garden in decay, lovesick and reeling. The songs travel through vague anticipation (1, 2) and longing (3 – 5) to obsession (6 – 8), frustration (9), reverie (10), brief consummation (11), and finally doomed resignation (12 -15). George’s poems, with their themes of exquisite disorientation, serve to support some of the most radical musical gestures Schoenberg had yet made.

What is foregrounded for the most part is not the personage of the beloved, not their features or their actions; rather, what is rendered in extremely fine detail is the slowly rotting garden and its contents. Through the metaphor of the garden, what is most salient to us is the way that heartbreak tastes, smells, and feels, the oppressive dis-ease of it.

Text by Jules Renard

Simon Lobelson, baritone
Jack Symonds, piano

Completed in 1906, this song cycle sees the traits of four birds and a little cricket lightly satirised and anthropomorphised to form a surprisingly profound portrait of inter-species folly. Ravel’s piano and vocal writing here exhibits an inhibition and release from tradition which breathes the fresh air of fin-de-siècle French music, effortlessly pointing forward to the refined waterfalls of sound he was about to unleash in the first few decades of the century.

Text by Andreas Gryphius

Simon Lobelson, baritone
Jack Symonds, piano

Wolfgang Rihm is one of the leading living German composers and his vast, hugely varied output includes many song cycles. Vermischter Traum dates from 2017 and is a dark, anguished setting of Baroque poet Andreas Gryphius’s meditations on time and death. Uniquely, Rihm chooses a form that sets and re-sets the same text, as if the singer were turning over these weighty thoughts in his mind and coming to different conclusions. In an arch structure of seven songs, the 2nd, 4th and 6th all wonder about time, the 1st and 7th literally ask the question – ‘what is life?’ while the 3rd and 5th are extended death-bed meditations on the failing body. 

The musical language is a natural extension of the Lieder tradition. The harmony is thick with allusion and the weight of 200 years of German song, while the vocal line is cognisant of the history of Romanticism and Expressionism. Rihm has created a major addition to the art song repertoire in every respect.

Text by Bertha Galeron de Calonne

Anna Fraser, soprano
Jack Symonds, piano

This perfectly-formed song was composed in 1916 towards the end of Boulanger’s tragically short life. An extraordinary composer, she managed in her 24 years to create a unique body of work that combines the various threads in French music at the time and synthesise them in an uncommon originality. Direct, radiant and, at times cataclysmic, this song represents her art at its finest.

Presented in a re-purposed Gothic church in Alexandria, this recital-installation is a series of four artsong programs tracing a journey from the dawn of musical expressionism to a diverse clutch of Australian and world premieres, illustrating where the form has found itself in the 21st century.

SCO’s adventurous and virtuosic singers Emily Edmonds, Anna Fraser, Simon Lobelson and Jane Sheldon will find common threads between composers, eras, styles and continents to craft a rare and comprehensive overview of the scintillating art of modern song.

Inside an evocative installation by artist Elizabeth Gadsby, these singers will illuminate a body of work indispensable to the artistic story of the 20th and 21st centuries.

Think artsong begins and ends at Schubert? Let IN SONG show you its recent past, present and future.

Program One
Jane Sheldon, soprano
Jack Symonds, piano

Pascal Dusapin Wolken (AP)
Mary Finsterer Nearing Circumpolar (WP)
György Kurtág Three Old Inscriptions (AP)
Gabriel Fauré La chanson d’Ève

Program Two
Anna Fraser, soprano
Jack Symonds, piano

György Kurtág Requiem for a friend (AP)
Lili Boulanger Dans l’immense tristesse
Luigi Dallapiccola Four poems of Antonio Machado (AP)
David Evans In my brain (WP)
Arnold Schoenberg The Book of the Hanging Gardens

Program Three
Emily Edmonds, mezzo soprano
Jack Symonds, piano

Francis Poulenc Banalités
Jack Symonds Nothing other than silence (WP)
Samuel Barber Hermit Songs
Kaija Saariaho Quatre instants (AP)

Program Four
Simon Lobelson, baritone
Jack Symonds, piano

Wolfgang Rihm Vermischter Traum (AP)
Maurice Ravel Histoires naturelles
Benjamin Britten Songs and Proverbs of William Blake

Installation Artist
Elizabeth Gadsby

WP= world premiere
AP= Australian premiere

Gallery

VENUE

‘The Church’
9 Mitchell Rd. Alexandria

Singer Bios

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We acknowledge the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation as the traditional custodians of the land on which we work and perform. We honour their elders both past and present, and extend that respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

© 2020 Sydney Chamber Opera | Site designed & built by Anderson Chang

Underground Man is Raving Again

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The Rape of Lucretia Cast and Creatives

SCO BIOGRAPHIES

Creative Team

Jack Symonds

Jack Symonds is a composer, conductor and accompanist, and Artistic Director of Sydney Chamber Opera. He studied composition at the Royal College of Music, London under Kenneth Hesketh and at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music where he received the University Medal. Trained also as a pianist and trombonist, he continues to work regularly as an accompanist and pianist, giving the premiere of many new works as well as frequently conducting his own and others’ music, including Britten’s Owen Wingrave (2013- Australian premiere) & The Turn of the Screw (2010), Dusapin’s Passion & O Mensch! (2016 Sydney Festival- Australian premieres), Romitelli’s An Index of Metals with Ensemble Offspring (2015), Benjamin’s Into the Little Hill & Kurtág’s … pas à pas- nulle part… (2014 Sydney Festival), Maxwell Davies’s The Lighthouse (2012), Kancheli’s Exil(2013) and Jonathan Dove’s chamber version of Janacek’s The Cunning Little Vixen (2011- Australian premiere). He has also conducted the world premieres of Elliott Gyger’s Fly Away Peter and Michael Smetanin’s Mayakovsky.

Significant composition premieres include Climbing Toward Midnight, a chamber opera re-imagining the second act of Wagner’s Parsifal, a piece for New York’s JACK Quartet, the Dostoevsky opera Notes from Underground (2011, and re-written 2016 for Carriageworks), Decadent Purity, a double concerto for BIFEM, stage work Nunc Dimittis, (2011), the song cycle Time Unredeemed (2010), a large-scale work for viola and piano, Song Cycle, written for violist James Wannan (2011), Sunless Communion (2013) for the Composers Ensemble at Dartington where he studied with Detlev Glanert as well as new pieces for Timo-Veikko Valve, Jane Sheldon, two works for Australia Piano Quartet, the Streeton Trio, cellist Patrick Murphy, and a concert series curated around his music by Affinity Collective which included three premieres.

His first album of chamber music was released on Hospital Hill in August 2016.

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Board Members

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BRAND AMBASSADOR

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We acknowledge the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation as the traditional custodians of the land on which we work and perform. We honour their elders both past and present, and extend that respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

© 2020 Sydney Chamber Opera | Site designed & built by Anderson Chang

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In at the deep end

In at the deep end

Singers on the fearsome thrill of Britten’s Lucretia
by Annarosa Berman

Sydney Chamber Opera and Victorian Opera’s co-production of Benjamin Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia, showcases two of Australia’s brightest young opera stars, mezzo soprano Anna Dowsley as Lucretia, and soprano Celeste Lazarenko as Female Chorus. While both singers love the intimacy of chamber opera, they say that initially at least, they found their roles daunting.

Female Chorus has been described as the most challenging role in the opera, and Lazarenko, who while living in the UK has worked with ENO, Opera North and at Glyndebourne, says the difficulty lies in the role’s unusually wide vocal range. “Britten wanted female chorus to communicate in the range of a woman’s speaking voice, so the singing goes very low, but it also needs a lot of light and purity at the top.” The size of the role adds to its difficulty: in Greek tradition the chorus witnesses and describes the events, but in Lucretia, male and female chorus both become involved. And there’s diction. “In an English opera, the audience expects to understand what you’re singing. So you have to learn to finish your words – can’T; don’T.”

Dowsley, a former young artist and now principal artist at Opera Australia, faced a different kind of challenge. She says of the potentially career-defining role of Lucretia: “For someone without perfect pitch, the first hurdle was to learn some very difficult music. But [SCO Artistic Director] Jack Symonds teaches the music to you very patiently, and after a while, Britten becomes tuneful. Once you ‘get’ the music, it’s not difficult at all, and singing it feels great.”

The Rape of Lucretia,Carriageworks. Photo by Zan Wimberley

When rehearsals with director (and Sydney Theatre Company Artistic Director) Kip Williams start in mid-July, she imagines that for her, the real challenge will be the drama. “So far I’ve sung mostly comic roles like Dorabella and Cherubino. I’ve never died on stage, never killed myself on stage. And I’ve never been raped on stage.”

Williams has a reputation for throwing singers in at the deep end, and Lazarenko for one, relishes the prospect. “We’re all very excited to be working with Kip. I’m already thinking, if he asks me to do this, or that, I’m going to say yes!” To which Dowsley quips: “It’s on the record now.”

She worked with Williams in SCO’s staged version of Bach’s Ich Habe Genug, an experience she found exhilarating. “There was a lot of discussion and exploration. Generally in opera you don’t have that luxury; you’re boxed in by the time constraints of the rehearsal period.” That Williams, an acclaimed and sought-after theatre director, loves directing opera, is just delightful. “We feel privileged to be able to work with him. I can’t wait to see what he will make of Lucretia.”

Both singers are looking forward to discover Williams’ directorial take on Britten’s opera, and especially on its problematic ending. As Dowsley puts it: “The ending is tricky. I think it’s one of the reasons why Lucretia is not performed very often.”

When working on difficult repertoire, singers rely heavily on the musical instincts of the conductor. Says Dowsley: “When the music is demanding, you can’t always trust your own ears. Jack would play this very complicated chord, and you’d have to get your note from it. For him it’s like picking apples, but for me it’s difficult. He’s quite patient though.”

Lazarenko agrees. “Having someone with an ear as trustworthy as Jack’s; someone who is also trying to coax the best out of you, that’s very valuable. He can shock and intimidate you with his talent and ability (she laughs), but if you’ve made a mistake, or you’re out of tune, he will tell you in a courteous way.”

Both singers laugh when asked about their plans for the future. “A very small percentage of opera singers actually have control over their careers,” Dowsley points out. “You go where the voice and opportunities take you.” Lazarenko says, with a smile: “Dame Kiri Te Kanawa once asked me where I saw myself in five years. I said, ‘I see myself with a driver and a house in Covent Garden.’ I think she was a little shocked because I said it with a straight face.”

When she was studying at London’s Guildhall, her teachers didn’t think she’d be able to make a career of the roles that interested her – very early Mozart; a collection of obscure Handel pieces. “And yet, that’s exactly the repertoire I’m being booked for.” She’s glad that she followed her passion, “because now I get to do these unusual, fascinating pieces.”

Lucretia is the most dramatic role that Dowsley has sung so far, and she considers herself lucky that it’s in a small, chamber environment, which is less taxing on a young voice than an opera house auditorium. But when she reaches her thirties, she’d like to do some Massenet, perhaps a Carmen, and her dream role is Strauss’s Octavian. “The stage is about escaping. If you’re a girl, what better way to escape than to play a boy?”

Both singers consider themselves extraordinarily lucky to have careers as opera singers at all. Lazarenko is especially thrilled at the prospect of singing the title role in Cunning Little Vixen for Victorian Opera this winter, once again with Symonds conducting. “But,” says Dowsley, with a wink, “houses in Barcelona and Paris is definitely where we see ourselves in future.”

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We acknowledge the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation as the traditional custodians of the land on which we work and perform. We honour their elders both past and present, and extend that respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

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Opera wasn’t dying – it was being murdered

OPERA WASN’T DYING –
IT WAS BEING MURDERED

Singer Jessica O’Donoghue on her journey
to SCO and the future of opera.

I was always going to be a singer ­­– I’ve known this from as long as I can remember. I had a colourful childhood growing up in a family full of eclectic musicians and artists: my great grandparents were painters, my grandparents were principal artists in the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, and my father (the late Rory O’Donoghue) was a composer, musician, actor, comedian and Cleo centrefold. Dad wrote jingles for loads of TV and radio ads back in the day and he often used his four children to sing any jingles that required young voices, so from the age of three I was in the recording studio and loving it. I had found my calling early, feeling at home and in my element.

By the time it came to leave high school I was lucky to have already gained extensive performance experience in a wide range of genres. There was no doubt in my mind that I would continue to pursue music and singing as my career and I wanted to develop my craft to the extreme. Opera ­– and the demanding vocal technique required – sparked my interest. I was always up for a challenge, and operatic technique for me was the ultimate. Impressive voices ringing out over full orchestras, filling huge theatres and concert halls with no amplification ­– what could be more extreme than that? But for me it was never just about singing. I always felt a duty and responsibility as an artist and performer to move my audience in some way: challenging them, inspiring them, bringing them joy and happiness, or moving them to tears. I loved being on stage and I loved telling stories, taking my audience on some kind of journey. I felt opera had all the right ingredients: music, drama, text and design. Not only that – it was on a grand scale. Surely through opera I could achieve my artistic goals in the most exciting way.

I embarked on the stock-standard operatic training of Bachelor of Music, Diploma of Opera, followed by Young Artist Programs and into the beginnings of my operatic career. But as I went through these motions I became more and more at odds with the artform. Things weren’t as grand as they first seemed and my initial dreams and expectations were shattered. Instead of being part of a thriving scene that was wowing audiences around the globe with this thrilling artform, I found myself stuck in an industry that was hell-bent on clinging to the past. It was like the industry was in a coma, barely breathing, with opera companies by its side refusing to flick the switch, clinging to snippets of past glory; to memories and experiences that were long gone. It wasn’t dead yet, but there was barely a pulse.

Feeling flat, underwhelmed, and a little sad, I turned my back on opera and went back to my musical roots where my artistic passions had first begun. I started to reconnect with my old networks in theatre, cabaret, pop, contemporary (new music), Renaissance and early music, art music and the festivals scene. An eclectic bunch, I know, but I was always a lover of multi-genre creativity and enjoyed collaborating with artists who were inspiring and doing new and exciting projects regardless of the style. It was during this time that my career took an unexpected u-turn of sorts. I was approached by a young Jack Symonds who had founded a little company called Sydney Chamber Opera with Louis Garrick back in 2010 and which was now run by Jack and the company’s Principal Artistic Associate Huw Belling.

Fumeblind Oracle, Carriageworks. Photo by Lisa Tomasetti

"Opera should be a living, breathing artform, not a museum that reveres a small handful of ancient works from a distance."

After one show with this company I knew I had found my people. People who championed creativity, who saw each work – be it a new commission or an existing opera – as a blank sheet to on which to make a fresh and unique mark. Never bogged down by expectations or traditions. Always questioning and reinventing, they made artistic decisions in a hugely collaborative process that involved the entire creative team. Working with composers who were still alive was thrilling. No more did I hear phrases like “you can’t make that sound in opera”, or “that ornament is stylistically incorrect” or “that’s not what the composer would have wanted”. I felt creatively and artistically liberated, challenged, inspired and fulfilled and it made me realise something: opera wasn’t dying, it was being murdered.

Opera should be a living, breathing artform, not a museum that reveres a small handful of ancient works from a distance. The argument that new works don’t attract an audience is only valid to a point. Companies like Sydney Chamber Opera are an excellent example of what this future opera can and should look like as they continue to pave the way to a new version of this thrilling art form. It’s edge-of-your-seat opera where audiences flock to see what will be presented next, knowing it is always a new, exciting and engaging experience. Of course it’s infinitely easier for a young, small and nimble opera company like Sydney Chamber Opera to push boundaries, to take risks and explore unchartered territories. However the opera industry at large could do more to break the widely held belief that opera basically peaked in the 19th century and that there is no point trying to improve on past masterpieces. Other artforms have managed a balance between honouring and celebrating the past while progressing into a more relevant future, and they have brought audiences along for the ride.

In 2018 Michelle Hartney staged a Performance/Call to Action at The Metropolitan Museum of Art which zoned in on the abusive behaviour of several male artists that lined the galleries walls. She produced her own wall texts to accompany paintings by the likes of Balthus, Gauguin and Picasso to highlight misogyny. Hartney stressed that she was not advocating censorship, but she argued that museums had to do more to educate the public about the darker side of the artists that they venerate. So too, in opera.

As a major sector in our arts scene, it is important that opera as an industry not only rethink and reframe these old stories, but look beyond them to newer, more relevant works. This is not, of course, to suggest that we do away with historic repertoire altogether, just as the NGA is hardly advocating the destruction of paintings by Picasso or Caravaggio. But it is concerning when the opera world leans so heavily on old classics that they begin to define the very genre itself. Surely dramatising contemporary ideas has far more potential to inspire contemporary audiences.

It was performing in Sydney Chamber Opera’s 2017 production of The Rape of Lucretia where I had another pivotal realisation. I was performing (via lip-synch) the role of Tarquinius, Prince of Rome. In this production by Kip Williams, male and female roles had been reversed to question the gender stereotypes inherent in the piece and to shine a light on the damaging nature of the storyline. It was so thrilling to embody that character: complex, deep, troubled, potent. I was also seven and a half months pregnant, so I was feeling particularly powerful with a strong belly, full of life. But this moment of exhilaration was combined with a broader sense of unease. Here I was, a heavily pregnant woman playing a role written for a man, yet this was the first time I could really relate to one of my characters in an opera. As an artist I always thought opera wasn’t for me simply because it failed to feed my yearning for new and innovative sources of creativity. But I realised in that moment that opera has never been a welcoming or fulfilling place for me as a female.

O’Donoghue as Tarquinius in The Rape of Lucretia, photo by Zan Wimberley

I am far from the first artist to feel pained by how badly women have been represented in opera. In Opera: Or the Undoing of Women, Catherine Clément explores the idea that the violated woman is such a cliché that it has almost become an essential element. Australian critic Alison Croggon writes that “the glamourised murder, suicide, rape or mutilation of women, and the ‘beautiful suffering’ that follows, is widely considered to be synonymous with opera itself”. Charlotte Higgins says it was “as if the genre itself seems to devour women.”

This debate reached a tipping point of sorts in 2019 when the New Opera Workshop conference in Queensland triggered a call to action by leading and emerging female composers for ‘cultural leadership and systemic change in opera’. This resulted in the Australia Council’s Opera and Gender Equity Summit in partnership with the Australian Music Centre and APRA/AMCOS. A similar momentum is occurring across other genres and artforms too: the National Gallery of Australia describes its Know My Name initiative as “a new chapter that addresses historical gender bias to reconsider the stories of art and elevate the voices of all women.”

In today’s climate there are growing numbers of not only artists, but audiences who no longer wish to validate or reinforce outdated attitudes towards women. While I’ve found Sydney Chamber Opera’s general approach to opera refreshing right from the outset, it was in their recent production of Breaking Glass where I found a whole new level of artistic satisfaction. A collaboration with the Sydney Conservatorium of Music’s ‘Composing Women’ program led by Liza Lim, Breaking Glass was a quadruple bill of short one act operas written by female composers Bree van Reyk, Georgia Scott, Josephine Macken and Peggy Polias. The joy of enacting characters that were created by women, presenting experiences and journeys from a woman’s perspective, and being guided by two incredible female directors, Danielle Maas and Clemence Williams was a profoundly fulfilling experience. I felt excited and relieved that these critical and urgently important stories were being told, that finally there was an opportunity for women to make a meaningful contribution to the art form and at last I could relate to the works we were presenting and feel proud of the issues we were raising.

Similarly, I am extremely thrilled that in Sydney Chamber Opera’s upcoming Fumeblind Oracle I have been given the chance to not only play a character that I can relate to as a modern woman, but one that comments directly on the decades of misrepresentation of women in opera, and indeed in art generally. This work gives a voice and a face to the voiceless and faceless women across hundreds of years of Western canon. It’s also a rare opportunity to dismantle the tired concept of the silent muse. In this work, she rages.

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