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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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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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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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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