Sunday, November 29, 2009

A life unexamined

Time for questions; time to ask some serious curlies and I don't mean short
and curlies I mean the big questions.

Why do some people who work in music feel the need to bully, intimidate and
threaten their colleagues?

Why do people in authority feel that their authority is enhanced when they
bully, intimidate or threaten?

Why does bullying attract a sycophantic cohort of supporters who are clearly
lulled into a false sense of security, believing that the bully is their

How insecure is the bully and what makes the bully the way he/she is?

Why do bullies threaten those who take them on with vile consequences for
questioning the bully?

Was Hitler a bully? Yes, I believe so. Was Al Capone a bully? Yes, I believe

Were Hitler and Al Capone pathological liars? Yes, I believe so.

Thus, dear friends in music, why do we need bullies in our lives?

We don't. We need to stand up to them and tell them that their behaviour is
completely unacceptable.

We need to be united against the pretenders and the fakers who only care
about themselves and not about music.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

We have almost lost the joy of singing. Opera can bring it back.

In 2006, when I took on the reins of the newly established Victorian Opera, I asked myself several questions some of which were: how will this company be different from the other opera companies in this country and city; how will we be distinctive; and how will we make the company truly part of wider Australian community?

These questions are obliquely implied in Marcus Westbury’s closing remarks in Monday’s Canvas essentially dealing with Lyndon Terracini’s appointment to Opera Australia. He writes: ‘We should perhaps ask the unaskable about the cultural traditions Australians actually value and how we might best support and resource them.’

Marcus Westbury is a voice of conscience. It is fortunate for us that he is prepared to say what he says. Apart from an oblique reference to education, I believe Westbury has hit the mark. My considered view in response to Westbury, is that Victorian Opera is establishing itself as a part of the culture which Australians value by virtue of the ways in which it addresses the problems Westbury so succinctly describes.

Victorian Opera has numbers of strands within its artistic program each one of which, I believe, has an impact on changing the ways in which opera is perceived by responding to the community in fresh ways.

In 2006 I had a very inspiring conversation with Bangarra’s Stephen Page which led subsequently to his role as the director of Victorian Opera’s production of Orpheus in 2007, using aspects of indigenous culture within the production. I believe this was the first time an indigenous director had been used to direct an opera of this nature. More of this work is in the pipeline.

VO’s contribution to the creative influence within Australia is manifest in the number of Australian works it has performed and commissioned. At the end of 2010 it will have commissioned and performed five new chamber operas and one existing Australian work. The concept of commissioning new work is vital to the lifeblood of opera. Audiences respond to the new work in a variety of ways but our research tells us that audiences are happy to see new work in balance with other repertoire. Thirteen sell-out performances of Through the Looking Glass, a Victorian Opera/Malthouse Theatre collaboration tells a powerful story.

Our community outreach program involves the establishment of regional hubs in Victoria where the needs of a particular community or region are assessed, followed up by visits and support activity from Victorian Opera. We also run an event called Sing Your Own Opera at which 500 people from all over the state sing an opera. This has become a highlight of our calendar. What is the cultural significance of this event you might ask? I would respond by saying that communities are on the verge of losing the joy of singing. Schools are on the verge of losing the joy of singing. Opera is about singing. Unless we restore this concept of singing as a way to music education we can seriously think about closing opera companies within ten years.

Victorian Opera has two Youth Opera companies; one for children aged between 7 and 18 and one for 18 to 25 year-olds. Unless children experience music in the making, that is by doing, they remain forever passive and soon lose interest. This is where I take issue with Marcus Westbury. In Canvas earlier this month, he wrote about the Federal Government’s call for information which might be used to form a cultural policy, applauding the government for this action. I will also join the applause if this quest for cultural policies is under-pinned by serious education in the arts. Most people are aware that the Arts are to be included in the National Curriculum. How are they to be included? How are they to be taught? These two vital questions are the product of Westbury’s unaskable question referred to earlier. If, as far as music goes, it ends up that it is perceived as children lip-synching to the transient noise of an ephemeral pop star coming from a backing-track, then we are lost.

As far as Lyndon Terracini’s appointment to Opera Australia goes I welcome him warmly. It is refreshing to have a colleague who understands opera and who is prepared to tackle some serious issues. Victorian Opera has a special and distinctive mission. Our size enables us to be fleet of foot whilst developing the art form through strong performances, artist and audience development especially in the fields of community outreach, commissioning new work here and abroad and our education program.

Thank you Marcus Westbury for your vigilance and for keeping us honest.
I would, however, like to take you on head-to-head on education. Our education program is opera education for its own sake. If it translates into attendances in the short, medium or long-term then that is a happy result but it is not a principal aim.

In other words, children learn science for its own sake not necessarily to become scientists. But education in this country is another story for another day.

As Published in the Age on 25 November 2009

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Go for gold!

Read Marcus Westbury’s column in today’s Age(Monday, November 23rd)in the arts section where he makes comments on Lyndon Terracini’s views vis-à-vis the directions he, Lyndon, will take as the new Artistic Director of Opera Australia to which I say ‘well done Lyndon and more power to you’.

Much have I travelled in the realms of gold and as a result have found golden opportunities. Westbury is perceptive and incisive. I like it.

There are winds of change blowing and I’d like to tell you that we are part of making that change and causing some new interest in the way in which opera is perceived. By ‘we’ I mean Victorian Opera, for although my principal position at the moment is to write a blog I do have a day job which keeps me very busy, namely Music Director at Victorian Opera.

How are we contributing to cultural change? I assessed the operatic scene here in Victoria in 2005 and decided that a new company had a golden opportunity to present a variety of work rarely or previously unseen and unheard work in this part of the world; a golden opportunity to build a youth opera company as part of our education and outreach; a golden opportunity to go into venues outside the usual venues; a golden opportunity to tour to regional Victoria; a golden opportunity to include special events in our program; a golden opportunity to use talent in a new way and try some new talent and so on.

We at Victorian Opera commission a new work from an Australian composer and librettist every year and by the end of 2010 will have performed six Australian works. We have just begun a liaison with Chambermade Opera centred on the development of new work and have received an encouraging response from a huge number of composers and librettists. We now have two youth opera companies; Company X and Company Y. X is the unknown factor – young singers from the age of 7 to 18 who are interested in singing and Company Y – Why do you want to do this? - let’s find out why – a company for 18 year olds to 25 year olds.
We have had two tours to outer-urban and regional Victoria with terrific response from the punters.

We work in lots of venues and we will present our edgiest season so far next year and the punters are telling us that they like it. How do we know?
Subscriptions are up hugely; like seriously hugely.

Tomorrow night, Tuesday 24th November, I’ll go the Dandenongs a golden opportunity, and conduct a choral festival with over 300 primary-school children who will sing their own freshly composed music together with some folk songs and other material. Guess what? Lots of parents will be there! Guess what? Guess who is comparing the show? You guessed. Guess what he’ll be talking about. Golden song, golden voices and golden opportunities for parents and children

We are strongly supported by the enlightened Victorian Government and some equally enlightened and wonderful sponsors and golden patrons – all these people are gold. Go make a golden opportunity for yourself and see our website. We are making changes to the way this country perceives opera. Slowly, steadily surely and goldenly. You can shout GLORIA for opera in Victoria especially with this golden company.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Tom, Dick and Someone

Just read an article, drawn to it as I was by the headlines, in The Sydney Morning Herald about classical music by someone called Tim Dick. Headlines of this nature attract attention and can make people very angry. I was not angry because, as a wise person once said, ”when we get angry we close our eyes.” I would love to be assured that it was either Aristotle or Socrates and would happily know the author of this thought.

What I deduced from the article was that Mr Dick has had a bad experience with classical music. This can happen; most people I know who play this so-called classical music have had a bad experience somewhere, sometime, somehow with music.

Nonetheless, I’d like to invite Mr Dick and his guest, to attend, as my guests, the Sydney Sinfonia’s first Discovery concert in march 2010 in which we Discover Gustav Mahler. I want to have the chance to demonstrate that classical music has the power to change lives in a positive way. I don’t want necessarily to change Mr Dick because that presumes arrogance on my part, but I want him to know the other side of the coin.

It is good to have people such as Mr Dick out there as it helps to keep us honest and think about the way we play music. While I do not agree with a single thing he said I do defend his right to say it and I hope he will take me up on my offer.




Someone’s being paid a teacher’s salary for that clap-trap, for that outrageous, unmusical, unmitigated mind destroying rubbish. Then when I calmed down a little I thought about the possible advantages of lip-synching and came up with the idea that at least the kids had to listen to something and concentrate and possibly memorise something from which some good might have come. But it is tragic to think that this is probably not an isolated example.

I will keep saying it until the governments do something about it, but we are a musically bereft nation and until every child in this country is receiving proper music instruction from a fully-qualified music teacher we will remain forever a cultural back-water. Why do some people believe that a serious music education is too hard for children? That sort of belief is a type of cringe. We say implicitly to the child: “a serious music education is too hard for you, you poor dumb little Australian mis-fit of a child, so we’ll give you some clap-trap from an imported no-talent, lack-lustre, unmusical personage so you can lip-synch?????” Tragic beyond belief.

Cultural back-waters seem to hold little interest for Mr Garrett and there are calls from him for thoughts about a new cultural policy. Great idea and thank you Mr Garrett. However, to underpin a cultural policy we need outstanding school-based education in all cultural endeavours if the country is to become serious about these matters. I can’t imagine lip-synching is high on Mr Garrett’s agenda.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Singing will save you!

Only a desperado would try to catch a train in Melbourne during a heat-wave. Boarding a train each day as I do, with thoughts about next year’s repertoire always on my mind, I consider myself lucky to find a seat. Seats are at a premium on trains but not in Hamer Hall where we will be bringing something Faust-like next year. Even though this work we bring you has Faust in its title, it really is only loosely based on the Faust of Goethe, but it is truly special. Special in the sense that Hector Berlioz is truly one of the world’s special composers and The Damnation of Faust one of the world’s special works. Some of you might think that I’m becoming obsessed with the word special and well you might; it’s a free world. I, for one am not concerned about a little bit of mania; after I all I work with people who have the greatest musical instrument of all – the human voice. Voices are all unique; like finger-prints. Each voice has a quality which is special and unique.

Consider the numbers of animals which identify their young by calls, cries, chirps, peeps and the like. On seeing the movie about the emperor penguins I was gob-smacked by the way the mother penguin could distinguish her off-spring’s cry. Millions of baby penguins all shrieking and the mother heading unerringly to her own baby because of sound. Please be tolerant with me when I refer to that as a type of singing. Unless we sing our lives are incomplete. Let me explain! ‘Since singing is so good a thing I wish all men would learn to sing,’ said William Byrd. I know that sounds sexist because it says ‘men’, but it does refer to all humankind. Very few people would disagree that singing is fundamental to our health and well-being. Education, therefore becomes crucial ( I mean music education ) to our health and well-being.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that because children are listening to pop music at school they are receiving a music education. Indeed, just listening to music of any kind is not music education. Singing is the one true road towards music: singing songs of all sorts from all over the world. Obviously we have millions of songs from which to choose and from which we can teach children musical concepts. Rounds, canons and the like can be great fun and incredibly stimulating. Dancing such as we did during our production of The Little Sweep here at Victorian Opera this year was huge hit along with the singing. Everybody took part willingly and had tremendous fun singing and dancing at the same time. Recommended on the Insight Show on SBS as a way to maintain the brain’s activity, dancing featured strongly – I sound my barbaric Yawp.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Blog for Lachie

Lachlan, our assistant intern has encouraged me to write a blog.

As if I don’t have enough to do!

Coping with Victorian Opera on a day-to-day basis is really a full-time gig.

Taking time out, therefore to write a blog, whilst it may seem to be an imposition, is actually very refreshing.

On the other hand what do I say?

Straight after the most amazing week-end in Morundah in southern New South Wales, performing Hans Krasa’s opera Brundibar, with 68 children from all over that region.

Entartete Musik, the Nazis called it; debased music from the prison camp of Terezin.

In Germany during the 1930s there was a race of brain-dead, low-life Nazis who classified music as debased.

Naturally it was music composed by Jews.

The children of the Terezin prison camp, the camp which fooled the Red Cross and became the GREAT GERMAN LIE, performed Brundibar approximately opera fifty times.

Only a very few children survived; the Nazis made sure that they gassed as much culture as they could.

Lately this opera has been performed often to remind us of how inhuman human beings can be towards each other and my mate Bill says ‘blow, blow thou winter wind, thou art no so unkind as man’s ingratitude’

Even though we call ourselves civilized, human beings are still capable of hating and detesting each other.

Remembering that this is a blog I shouldn’t get too carried away with pet hobby-horses.

Auntie Josie, a favourite aunt of mine (she would be 109 this year had not her maker called her prematurely) loved singing and said if we all sang the world would be a better place.

Naturally, when I was a child I thought that this was a strange idea; now I think she was right.

The children of Terezin sang; they triumphed with song: this is an opera blog – we’ll be singing.