Monday, 24 July 2017

Serenade - a performance for someone you love

A Serenade is a performance for someone you love. It comes from the Latin word serenus and the music is typically calm and light. Or bubbly and beautiful, or even sumptuous, in the case of the Perth Symphony Orchestra's Serenades concert this weekend. The morning concert includes champagne and brunch in the elegant surrounds of Government House Ballroom, which is being decorated as a 1920's Parisian cafe. What's not to love?!

I have the inside goss on this concert because I have been asked to host it and I am super excited! Bourby Webster, Paul Wright, Jessica Gethin and team have put together a stunning sensory experience which will include dancers and painters responding to work by Elgar, Britten, Vaughan Williams, Glazunov, Tchaikovsky and Margaret Sutherland.

So pop on your best floral frock or Matisse tie and come join us on Sunday morning for a concert of lush string orchestral music with dancers, art, divine refreshments and wonderful company. This is a performance for you: the people we love. Book now, as it is likely to sell out!

Monday, 17 July 2017

Night out of the year at WA Opera's effervescent The Merry Widow

The diplomat Danilo’s motto is “Love quite a lot, promise rarely, marry never”. But it’s a hard standard to live up to when the whole of Pontevedro is vying for the attention of the love of his life, wealthy widow Hanna. Someone has to keep the immense fortune (and the person attached to it) in the country.

Yes it’s Lehar’s The Merry Widow, bubbling over with opulence and mirth in a new production by Graham Murphy. The Opera Conference production premiered in Perth on 15th July as part of WA Opera’s 50th Anniversary celebrations. Taryn Fiebig made her long-overdue company debut as Hanna under the baton of Vanessa Scammell, WA Opera’s first female conductor.

Taryn Fiebig as Hanna in The Merry Widow. Photos by James Rogers

If there was a lot of champagne overflowing at the interval celebrations there was just as much on stage. Michael Scott-Mitchell’s lavish Art Deco set, Justin Fleming’s new streamlined English translation and Jennifer Irwin’s dazzling costumes were the backdrop for a dance-infused show where every act was a party fizzing with romance and comedy.

Immense bronze latticework set the scene for the Embassy Ball, with sequined dresses and the gilded braiding of 1920’s Parisian high society shimmering under Damien Cooper’s creamy lights. The breathtaking Monet garden setting for Act Two’s Pontevedrian party drew spontaneous applause as the curtain lifted on a waterlilies backdrop, pastel frocks and dreamy lighting. Lehar’s ‘Love Unspoken’ wafted through this setting like an evening breeze and Fiebig and Alexander Lewis as Danilo delivered a heart melting waltz. But it was not enough to break Danilo’s scruples about money and Hanna becomes embroiled in the fledgling affair between the Baron’s wife Valencienne and a young Frenchman Camille. It was not until the Act 3 nightclub party where she joined the ‘Grisette’ girls that this high-kicking heroine revealed the details of her inheritance and steals back Danilo’s heart.

Fiebig and Lewis as Hanna and Danilo

Lehar’s score is infused with folk dances, waltzes and marches and Murphy drew on his vast background in choreography and his intimate knowledge of The Merry Widow (he danced in The Australian Ballet’s famous 1975 production) to produce an operetta brimming with movement. In fact the production was so busy there were moments where it only just held together. Fortunately the cast and creative team were well-picked to deliver the complex theatrics.

Lewis and Fiebig were youthful, full of life and constantly tripping over their love for each other. Their background in music theatre meant their dancing was as alluring as their singing. Lewis cut a rakish character from his drunken arrival looking for a desk so he could sleep (“Beds are for making love, desks are for sleeping; I only have to look at a desk and I’m out like a light.”) to his elegant dancing and delightful  light lyric tenor. Fiebig was entrancing with her clear-as-a-bell top notes offset by a growling cabaret showgirl routine all the while navigating four incredibly lavish gowns.

Taryn Fiebig and Alexander Lewis Act 3
Emma Pettemerides was big-eyed and sweet-voiced as the flirtatious Valencienne and John Longmuir sung the besotted Camille with a honey smooth gleam. Actor Michael Loney proved he could also sing and dance in a showstealing camp rendition of ‘Quite Parisian’ Baritone Andrew Foote’s comic excellence was put to good use as the foolish Baron Zeta while Sam Roberts-Smith and Jonathon Brain were quite ridiculous in their rivalry for Hanna’s fortune.

A 12-strong dance corps added feathered Grisette routines and Slavic folk dances. Murphy also put the WA Opera chorus through their paces with detailed choreography. “Women” became a Broadway-style male ensemble number complete with tuxedos, white gloves and slapstick moments such as a larrikin Mexican wave.  Throughout all the activity the chorus sound was warm hued and clean.

Fiebig and the male chorus.
There was great synergy between stage and pit. Scammell, who has built her career on stage shows, coordinated the masses with finely honed intuition. The WA Symphony Orchestra added spice to Lehar’s folk melodies, hazy romanticism to the instrumental solos and effortless lift to the dance numbers.

We rarely get operettas at WA Opera and the audience (younger than a usual opening night crowd) were captivated by the young, versatile cast and effervescent, truly beautiful production. Notwithstanding a few opening night jitters, this was an impressive launch for Murphy’s The Merry Widow. There’s still so much more to describe but instead go buy a ticket for your night out of the year; it doesn’t get much more fun than this!

Dancers during the Act 3 party

WA Opera’s The Merry Widow continues in Perth until 22nd July with an Opera Melbourne season in November and Opera Australia in December.

This review first published Limelight Magazine.

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Celebrity Soft Spot Harriet O'Shannessy

Harriet O'Shannessy is calm, unflappable,and the owner of a deliciously creamy soprano voice which you will hear in WA Opera's The Merry Widow this weekend. These days she has an irrepressible sparkle in her eyes and bubbling energy; her company Freeze Frame Opera is succeeding beyond her wildest dreams.

What music gets your heart racing?

Cavalleria Rusticana – the fight scene between Santuzza and Turridu: “No, no Turridu”  either watching it or singing it! It was the first opera I was in at WA Opera and it has a special place in my heart. I watched from the wings every night to see Dennis O’Neill and Nicole Youl singing this.

What music calms you down?

I listen to 101.7FM Capital Community Radio. Best station for golden oldies. I love it. I keep saying to anyone that’ll listen that it is not just a station for “the senior citizens of Perth”!

What do you sing along to?

I love singing along to Romeo and Juliet, (Dire Straits of course!)

Singing in the WA Opera chorus for Carmen
How are you preparing for your role as Sylviane in WA Opera's The Merry Widow which opens on July 15th?

We have had a wonderful rehearsal process with Graeme Murphy creating this show before our eyes. It is great to be involved in this original production. Sylviane is a little bit quirky and also quite naughty, so it is a lot of fun. I am a privileged Pontevedrian. I get to wear three amazing and glamorous costumes that have been designed by Jennifer Irwin. So much detail and thought has gone into every aspect of this show. This opera is going to look and sound amazing.

Mark Applebaum says music should above all else be interesting. What do you think is the most important role of music?  

I absolutely agree. Interesting, and it must affect my emotions. I like watching a show when I’m so involved emotionally that I want the inevitable sad to ending to change, or when I get goosebumps and the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, or when something makes me cry. Music should move emotions.

You have a soft spot for opera. What is the appeal of the art form for you?   

Opera has such power and passion.  It has the ability to speak straight to the soul, through the power of the human voice.  It is also just so impressive hearing a singer in full flight. It’s something primal and electric, and electrifying. I believe that the power to capture human emotion is the reason that opera can appeal to anyone. And, when you put that with a full orchestra…! Sensational.

How did Freeze Frame Opera come about?

I was inspired to start FFO to provide more opportunities for top quality Perth based singers to perform, and to increase opera audiences by making operas in a shortened format (like 20/20 is to test cricket, we are to grand opera), in a more intimate venue and in a more relaxed atmosphere. Camelot Theatre, where we performed La Boheme in May 2017, is perfect for that. The quality of the acting is as important as the singing.  Audiences have responded to that. Also, they can take their wine into the show, and come in their ugg boots if they like.  Always a good selling point.

Many would say you are mad starting FFO when opera companies around the world are going bankrupt. It is often an expensive and elite art form. What gives you hope?  

It is true - you have to be a bit mad! It consumes my waking (and sleeping) thoughts! Where there’s a will there’s a way I guess. I get lots of nice, encouraging feedback. And I get kids stopping me on the hockey field to ask “How I kept my eyes open?” when Mimi died  … so there’s hope there that the youngsters are getting interested!

O'Shannessy singing Mimi in La Boheme with Paul O'Neill as Rodolfo

Your debut opera La Boheme in May generated overwhelmingly enthusiastic responses from the Perth public. What is it that creates such a resonance with your audience, many of whom are opera virgins?  

I think they liked our 90’s grunge Boheme because the cast were so immersed in their roles, and so well suited to their roles, it wasn’t too long – (90 mins including interval), and it is such a good opera! I love it that people new to opera are coming and willing to give opera a go. I think they connected to Boheme with Rachel McDonald’s modern setting and surtitles. We hope we’ll get them hooked.

Where did you learn the skills to manage an opera company?

Definitely learning on the job! I’ve had great sounding boards in Bourby Webster (PSO), Rachel McDonald (director La Boheme) and my husband, Greg. I have collaborated with the some of the best in the business (Robbie Harrold, designer and Geoff Glencross, lighting). All have worked so hard. The singers are very much a part of the collaborative process at FFO. They even change the sets! Having produced Boheme, I feel more equipped to know what will or might come up next time.
What is the most important quality required for running a business in the arts sector?

The passion has to be there. Nothing would happen without that.

How do you go about putting together an opera such as Pagliacci from scratch? It is scheduled for mid next year and I know you have already started working toward it.   

I’ve locked down the dates at Camelot Theatre, the availability of the cast, and the director, musical director, designer and lighting designer. I will focus on obtaining funding, selling tickets and learning my role.  Boheme was pretty successful, and we all want to make sure our next show is even better!

Creative Partnerships Australia, through MATCH LAB 2017, will match up to $10,000 in donations that we receive between now and the end of September 2017.  Donations to FFO are tax deductible and details about how to donate can be found on our website: All donations are used towards furthering our aims of spreading the love of opera, and giving opportunities to talented singers

Rachel (director) and Robbie (designer) are already busy working on their vision for the show. FFO is very much a collaborative effort. And, being, FFO, there will be some unexpected things happening in this show…. All will soon be revealed!  

Children’s opera isn’t something we see a lot of in Perth but I know you have plans to change that. Is  opera an art form for kids?   

Yes! Thinking about this question made me think about my first experience of opera. I was in Year 7 and our wonderful, unforgettable music teacher, Miss Stevens, adapted Mozart’s The Magic Flute for us. I played Papagena. I would like to introduce more kids to the magic of opera. This December, we are planning to launch an opera designed to tour to primary schools. The opera we are working on is a shortened version of Dvorak's Rusalka (based on the Hans Christian Andersen) fairy tale. The launch will be at Camelot Theatre in Mosman Park and we'd love people to bring along their kids and grandkids, in the Christmas pantomime tradition. From 2018, we would love to offer the show as an incursion for primary school children in metropolitan and regional schools in WA.

At the opening night of La Boheme I met your greatest fan; your husband Greg is a very proud groupie! Is running Freeze Frame a whole family affair? How do you manage work/life balance with young children?  

Husband groupie. That’s cool. I like it when he’s in the audience cos he cheers as though he’s at the rugby! It is certainly a family affair. Not just my husband, but the kids get involved, dropping off flyers etc. They also come to the shows. They are the motivation, and part of the team. Robbie (our designer’s) kids were helping making props for Boheme. Maybe we can even use them on stage in the near future. Mine would like that…  if it meant pocket money!

What is your favourite place in Perth?  

The beach. Good for the soul.

Do you have a soft spot for anything else or is life all about the music?  

At the moment, outside of opera, it is all about the kids and their interests, and then there’s wine and coffee of course! I'm also a bit of a Dockers tragic.

Thank you Harriet O'Shannessy for sharing with us. You can get tickets to hear Harriet sing in The Merry Widow here, and go here to support Freeze Frame Opera and find out about future operas. 

Monday, 10 July 2017

An intuitive connection of 30 years

Every half decade the WA Symphony Orchestra celebrates their relationship with guest conductor laureate Vladimir Verbitsky with a gala concert. And why not; it’s a partnership of deep mutual respect and Verbitsky’s passionate conducting is much-beloved by audiences.

Since becoming guest conductor in 1987 Verbitsky has conducted the jewels of Russian repertoire, introduced countless Russian soloists and witnessed many changes at WASO including the tenures of four chief conductors. There has also been a huge growth in musicianship. For the 25th anniversary celebrations in 2012 Verbitsky described the orchestra as a ‘really fantastic orchestra, professional on the world stage’. In a recent interview he went one step further and declared them to be ‘the best orchestra in Australia at the moment.’

For the 30th anniversary gala concert Verbitsky programmed two large-scale Russians works: Rachmaninov’s The Bells and Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony. Both programmatic works were inspired by 19th century poetry and quote the Dies irae from the Catholic mass for the dead. The Bells also provided an opportunity to profile the WASO chorus who are currently in top form.

Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony depicts Byron’s tortured, guilt-stricken hero Manfred and is one of the great program symphonies of the 19th century. Verbitsky established a rugged foundation from the first appearance of Manfred’s restless wandering idée fixe. His immaculate precision as a conductor was balanced by idiosyncratic heart-on-sleeve entreaties; an imploring stare at the violins drew out raw intensity while a chopping gesture provoked an incisive attack from cellos and basses.

Tchaikovsky’s colourful caricature of the Witch and her waterfall in the second movement was reminiscent of The Nutcracker’s glittering magic. Verbitsky conducted without a baton and the woodwind players were receptive, responding to his relaxed contouring with bubbling, fluid sextuplets.

The expansive lyricism of the third movement built via a folk dance into a moment of throbbing passion and then the blistering aggression of the finale unfolded with the percussion section pounding a dark descent into the underworld.

The struggle of the individual versus the universe underpins much romantic ideology. Tchaikovsky doesn’t have the sarcasm of Mahler, the decadence of Wagner or the word painting of Berlioz; instead his Manfred Symphony has the gripping energy of a tempest with rare glimmers of light.

Rachmaninov dwells closer to the psyche of the hero; deep emotions pour from his pen. And this is where Verbitsky reached full stride, unleashing the humanity in the music. He extracted the essence of the sweetly naive The Silver Sleigh Bells, the troubled tranquility of The Mellow Wedding Bells and the terrifying energy of The Alarm Bells. The culmination was the deep lament of the final movement, lifted only at the very end by the hint of twinkling sleigh bells and a return to tonality with gentle clarinet arpeggios. And then the final testament where Verbitsky summed up the entire symphony in the last two bars, floating a lingering chord that swelled darkly and floated like an exhalation. A small contour from Verbitsky’s hands extracted a hint of brass chorale warmth, the last sound echoing through the hall.

The WASO Chorus sang with a dark, smoothly blended sonority. Credit to director Christopher van Tuinen and vocal coach Andrew Foote for the way the chorus navigated comfortably through the daring harmonies and tricky rhythms of The Alarm Bells. Paul O’Neill was a last minute replacement for Bradley Daley and his gleaming voice shone through as he navigated the tenor part. Antoinette Halloran captured the languorous soprano part and baritone Warwick Fyfe lamented The Mournful Iron Bells with impeccable Russian diction and utter conviction.

The concert was a revealing insight into the intuitive connection between the orchestra and Verbitsky, leaving a lingering impression of glittering, honeyed sound and impressive coherence.

This review first published in Limelight Magazine.

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Australia's feminist revival in the arts

You are about to hear a whole lot more from women in the creative arts.

When I was writing my book Women of Note I was surprised to discover that 25% of Australian composers are women. This is more than almost any other country - our best kept secret! However despite the statistics it became clear from my interviews and research that many women still struggle with visibility issues. The majority of commissions by far go to male composers, who also hold most of the positions in institutions and on boards.

Logo for the Women in the Creative Arts Conference

That is beginning to change. In August the Australian National University is holding a Women in the Creative Arts Conference. The key note speakers are Liza Lim and Cat Hope and the conference has already attracted over 100 delegates across a range of art forms. 

Conference director Natalie Williams hopes the conference will "provide an opportunity for research professionals to gather, present their methodologies, discuss the unique issues surrounding the creative arena, and propose strategies to enhance and enrich their working lives as strong members of an international cultural and artistic voice. The gathering will feature a rich exchange of research ideas, including round-table discussions and panels that develop and enhance practices for women in the creative fields."

The WICA conference is riding the crest of activist revival addressing the visibility issue for women composers. Other developments include Musica Viva's Hildegard Project established last year, the first national program designed to encourage and commission women composers. The appointments of Cat Hope as Head of Music at Monash University and Liza Lim at the University of Sydney are also significant. Lim will be involved with the National Women Composers' Development Program, another recent development tackling the issue of mentoring emerging women composers. Hope has been part of a research team collecting data on the working life of arts practitioners.

Some of these ideas are quite innovative and it is significant they are all happening at once - four years ago when I wrote Women of Note there was nothing like this occurring.

I am particularly excited about the ANU conference; I have been invited to present a paper on Women of Note and I am looking forward to catching up with east coast networks. I don't know of any other Australian conference like this for composers. The last women composers' conference was in the nineties when there were gatherings around Australia that were significant for galvanizing support for women in composition and contributing to an increase in the numbers of women composers. I have high expectations for this one. Especially given the current proactive climate around women in the arts. Could women composers be leading Australia's fourth wave feminist revival??

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

When the kids joined in

“Would you like to join the orchestra?” Stan and Mabel asked the rabbit.

“Yes!!!!” cried a voice from the front row.

The enraptured child was one of 6355 audience members (young and old) who attended performances and events last week as part of the WA Symphony Orchestra’s Education Week.

The Beat of Your Feet on Sunday was one of 15 concerts WASO performed during the week. It featured the enthusiastic educator and composer Paul Rissmann who introduced the orchestral instruments, taught the audience some songs and then narrated Jason Chapman’s book Stan and Mabel, a story of two animals who travel to Italy to audition for the orchestra. The illustrations were projected on screens, vocalist Libby Hammer helped with the songs  and Benjamin Northey conducted the 50 plus orchestra.


The child in the front row wasn’t the only person getting swept up with the excitement. Children and adults were singing, doing actions, delighting in the instrumental solos and completely enthralled. There’s something so decadent about having literature, art and music brought to life by such talented professionals!

The day before we attended a Cushion Concert where the story of The Lion of Loved was brought to life in a similar manner by Rissmann and the11-piece EChO ensemble.

Paul Rissmann and the EChO musicians

This smaller scale concert was held in the more intimate Wardle Room of the concert hall. Even in the back row we were close enough to feel the reverberations in our chests from Andrew Sinclair’s marvelous double bass evocation of an elephant. Again Rissmann’s warm welcome and lively interaction with the music had the children captivated. The advantage of the back row was that my four year old daughter could dance her heart out. Or snuggle up when things got a bit tense as the jungle animals tried to rescue Leo the lion from the raging river.

Libby Hammer’s bubbly personality and warm vocals were an asset to both shows. And the "have-a-go" on the instruments at the end is always popular. But the real success lay in Rissmann’s compositions, which captured the zesty energy of the picture books and also the moments of sweet pathos while featuring specific instruments and some very singable tunes.

A few nights later my children randomly began singing “We’re going to Italy to audition in a competition”.

It was a busy week for the orchestra who performed The Lion Who Loved and The Beat of Your Feet during the week to school children, along with Sir Scallywag and the Golden Underpants. There was also a conducting masterclass, the Rusty Orchestra concert, Harmony Music performances for children with special needs, the Hospital Orchestra Project at PMH and the Composition Project Final Showing.

 WASO's next children’s concerts is November 5th when ABC favourites Lah-Lah and Buzz join the orchestra.

Monday, 26 June 2017

July Gig Guide

The month kicks off with French/Canadian pianist Louis Lortie playing Chopin’s Piano Concerto No 1 with the WA Symphony Orchestra on June 30/July 1st. Dvorak’s Symphony No 7 is also on the program.

The following weekend WASO will celebrate their 30th Anniversary with conductor laureate Vladimir Verbitsky with a grand Russian concert. The concert will include Tchaikovsky Manfred Symphony and Rachmaninov’s massive Edgar Allan Poe-inspired choral symphony The Bells.

WASO will end the month with a tribute on the 28/29th to the greatest film composer of all time: John Williams. The music will include soundtracks from Star Wars, ET, Superman and many others  WASO concertmaster Lawrence Jackson will step out from his orchestral activity on July 3rd for a concert with St George’s Cathedral organist Joseph Nolan as part of the Cathedral Music Series.

On the 9th July the Perth Symphonic Chorus, directed by Margaret Pride, will perform music to make you swoon, featuring a jazz trio and drawing on traditional and contemporary repertoire from Allegri to Ellington.

Musica Viva will bring the Sitkovetsky Trio to Perth on the 11th to perform piano trios by Mendelssohn, Rachmaninov and Shostakovich, PLUS a world premiere by Perth’s Lachlan Skipworth AND a preconcert talk by Rosalind Appleby. What a combination!

The WA Opera’s season of The Merry Widow opens on the 15th, set in 1920's Paris with a sizzling young cast including ex-Perth singers Taryn Fiebig and Alexander Lewis as Hanna and Danilo, young Perth soprano Emma Pettemerides as Valencienne and Opera Australia’s John Longmuir as Camille. Come dressed in the style of the 1920's for this brand new Opera Conference production directed by Graeme Murphy.

On the 16th the Robert Zielinski Trio will breeze through some traditional Irish Scottish reels as part of the Darlington Chamber Music Series and on the same night WAAPA’s week long International Art Song Academy will culminate in a gala concert with singers from around Australia accompanied by acclaimed English pianist, Dr Graham Johnson.

The Fremantle Chamber Orchestra will accompany Emily Leung in Bruch’s Violin Concerto on the 22/23 plus perform Mendelssohn’s Symphony No 3.

Freeze Frame Opera will dabble in some more creative opera with a concert on the 29th at Brans Antiques, Mosman Park. Proceeds will go towards the production of their next opera.

The month closes with the Perth Symphony Orchestra’s decadent Serenades in the City at Government House Ballroom including a champagne brunch, Tchaikovsky’s Serenade, Margaret Sutherland’s Concerto for Strings and stories from well-known author and journalist Rosalind Appleby. I suspect this will be more like a treat than a concert!

I hope to see you at some concerts soon!