Thursday, 28 April 2016

May Gig Guide

The Perth autumn is settling in with some fabulously wet, cold days this past week. Perth's cultural life is starting to gear up accordingly. There is nothing like braving a stormy night to get to a snug theatre and muse on life's purpose. And May is promising some high quality gigs that will be well-worth the effort.

On Monday 2nd May Stephen Hough's national Musica Viva tour arrives in Perth. Hough will be playing piano works by Liszt, Franck, Schubert plus his own Piano Sonata. I’m interested in how this program explores Hough’s catholic faith and charts a musical progression from dark to light.

On the 5th Katie Noonan and the Brodsky Quartet are in town. I remember vividly every Katie Noonan concert I’ve been to because she’s always so intelligent and artistic: her band George, with WASO, then venturing into jazz. Now she’s taking on the string quartet genre and I expect this to be really interesting too.

The Australian Chamber Orchestra are taking on the giants on May 11th performing Bach’s The Art of Fugue (famously used in An Equal Music) and Beethoven’s Grosse Fugue. This is going to be a powerful concert.
The WA Symphony Orchestra will be performing classics by Haydn and Mozart on May 6th, directed by concertmaster Laurence Jackson. The popular (and almost sold-out) Cushion Concerts for kids are on from 4th-7th and the orchestra will be in the pit for WA Ballet's Beauty and the Beast from 13th-28th.

On 21st May the University of Western Australia Orchestra will perform works by Alan Lourens (Euphonium Concerto) and James Ledger (Two Memorials – a world premiere) in celebration of the composers’ 50th birthdays. A world premiere by Holdsworth is also on the program.

Lastly St George's Cathedral will be showcasing singing superstars Sara Macliver and Fiona Campbell in their Divas Delight program on the 27th. The concert will be recorded by ABC Classic FM and I've just noticed the Post restaurant next door at ComoThe Treasury offers pre-theatre meals. Perfect!

That's all for this month, unless you can think of something I've missed?
So be brave, get to a concert and take care of your soul this autumn.

Friday, 15 April 2016

The Riders review

 A down-to-earth Aussie guy is renovating a cottage in Ireland and missing home. He sings of ‘The blow of sunlight striking up from a Perth beach’. It sounds familiar and yet so unusual to hear Western Australia mentioned in an opera. But WA Opera’s The Riders, based on a novel by Tim Winton with music by Iain Grandage and sung by predominantly WA singers, is very much a WA affair.

Images from the Victorian Opera 2014 production of The Riders.

The plot follows Scully as he builds his wife Jennifer’s dream house then discovers at the airport that only his daughter has arrived. The blow sends him reeling across Europe searching for his missing wife. The light in the darkness is the relationship between Scully and his daughter Billie.

Under Marion Potts' direction the opera, like Winton’s novel, left most questions unanswered. Alison Croggon’s libretto cleverly diffused Winton’s novel into a poetic 90 minute work. The opera diverges from the book by creating a speaking role for Scully’s absent wife Jennifer.  Emma Pearson’s golden, wonderfully flexible soprano brought vulnerability and complexity to Jennifer who described her family alternately as ‘millstones dragging me down’ and ‘Torn off me like a scab, when do I stop bleeding?’.

The role of Billie was shared by Rosanna Radici and Mia Beattie. On opening night 15 year old Radici navigated complex harmonies and rhythms with spot on accuracy, her pure soprano the calm epicentre of a whirlwind opera.

James Clayton’s clean diction and grief-laden delivery made Scully instantly likeable and also threatening as he tussled with his own jealousy and love.

Wade Kernot as Arthur, Matthew Lester as the painter Alex and Fiona Campbell as Marianne were outstanding in supporting roles. The three also represented a kind of Greek chorus, singing with beautifully balanced harmonies.

Dale Ferguson’s set used trestles to create architectural scaffolding, furniture and the impression of silhouetted horses. A huge projected arrivals screen (Matt Scott lighting) established the airport scene while the stage revolve gave a sense of constant movement.

Iain Grandage’s music conveyed both the emotional and geographical trajectory of the opera. Under conductor Brad Cohen the 14–piece WA Symphony Orchestra moved seamlessly from minimalism to serialism via cabaret and folksong. The relentless pace of Scully’s chase was heard in the constant triplet rhythms which also represented the mythological Riders Scully encountered in Ireland who threaten to drag him into the past. The tension of unanswered questions was heard in the atonal harmonies while the bird-like solo recorder interludes played by Genevieve Lacey evoked isolation and freedom.

The opera concluded with Scully facing the Riders for the last time and choosing to move on from his memories. Billie blew out one of the three candles and the stage lights dimmed as the duo reclaimed their little family. Opera’s capacity to captivate never ceases to amaze me, and the impact of The Riders was all the greater given the home-grown nature of the story. A stunning piece of theatre we can be unashamedly proud of.

This review copyright The West Australian 2016.

Friday, 8 April 2016

The Riders

I am so excited about The Riders opening in Perth next week. Tim Winton's Booker Prize short-listed novel has been turned into an opera by librettist Alison Croggon (also a fantastic critic) and composer Iain Grandage, who won his first Helpmann award for his music for Winton's Cloudstreet.

I love the idea of a home-grown opera, with lines like "The blow of Perth sunlight striking up from a white beach" and an almost-entirely WA cast. James Clayton seems born for the role of Scully: rough, tenderhearted and with magnetic stage charisma.

Then there's the idea of Winton's metaphors (the three candles, the references to birds, the Celtic mythology and the Irish song quotes) being illuminated by music. Wagner would have a field day with the leitmotif potential in Winton's novels! I look forward to hearing what Grandage does.

The Riders was produced in 2014 by Opera Victoria and Malthouse Theatre. c Jeff Busby

My interview with soprano Emma Pearson gives a fascinating insiders perspective on The Riders. And here is a preview from The West Australian newspaper to whet your appetite:

Grandage Rides Winton Tale

Revivals of new Australian stage works are rare enough but it is rarer still to see one name at the heart of three productions in just the first few months of this year.

Multiple award-winning composer Iain Grandage’s fingerprints are all over the scores for Barking Gecko-Australian Opera’s The Rabbits and the Sydney Theatre Company’s The Secret River.
Grandage, who picked up the first of his five Helpmann Awards for his Cloudstreet score in 2002, is back in his old hometown of Perth to work with WA Opera on his revival of another Tim Winton adaptation, The Riders.

Based on Winton’s 1994 novel about an Australian man’s desperate search for his wife across Europe, Grandage’s opera was premiered by Opera Victoria and Malthouse Theatre in 2014.
WA Opera artistic director Brad Cohen, in his first full season at the helm, has given Grandage, librettist Alison Croggon and director Marion Potts the opportunity to restage The Riders with the benefit of lessons learnt from those first performances.

Grandage says he is “beyond thrilled” that WA Opera is giving The Riders another outing, particularly because of his and Winton’s WA heritage and the fact that Fremantle is a kind of Ithaca in the odyssey of lovelorn Scully and his daughter Billie.

Read the rest here.

The opera season runs April13th - 16th. For tickets go to

Monday, 4 April 2016

Celebrity Soft Spot Emma Pearson

Emma Pearson studied voice at the University of Western Australia and the Australian Opera Studio. She was principal artist at the Hessisches Staatsheater in Wiesbaden Germany from 2005-2014 and her schedule now includes Opera Australia, Opera New Zealand, Minnesota Orchestra and City of London Sinfonia.  Emma was in Perth last year singing Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro and is back at WA Opera this month for The Riders, a new opera based on Tim Winton's novel.  There are rumours we may be able to woo this hard working and incredibly talented soprano back to Australian shores - read on for more details!

What music gets your heart racing? 

There are definitely heart racing moments in The Riders, "The Storm" in particular is fun and wild. An electric guitar solo wouldn't be out of place!

What calms you down?

Relaxing music, I look forward to albums by the cellist Sol Gabetta and singer/songwriter Laura Marling. I saw Simone Young conduct a wonderful Lohengrin at Zürich Opera last year, now I love listening to "Mein lieber Schwan" remembering that feeling Klaus Florian Vogt created with his voice.

What do you sing along to? 

Wade and I spent many hours driving around Germany, Switzerland and Italy so we were always singing in the car, usually Mumford & Sons, Rufus Wainwright or Dave Dobbyn. 

This month you are singing the role of Jennifer in The Riders, an opera by Iain Graindage (composer) and Alison Croggon (librettist) based on the novel by Tim Winton. It is a very WA affair! The soprano, composer and novelist are from Perth and The Rider’s protagonists are from Perth. Is this the closest association Perth has ever had to opera?!? 

Pearson singing the Queen of the Night aria
Yes the entire cast (a part from Wade my New Zealand-born husband) grew up in or now live in Perth. The two girls sharing the main role of Billie (Rosanna Radici & Mia Beattie) are very smart middle-school music students at M.L.C. Richard Mills based his opera Batavia (2001) off the coast of W.A., but I think this is the first time anyone has sung lines such as "The blow of Perth sunlight striking up from a white beach" operatically! Tim Winton has given us reminders of experiences this cast and this audience all know so well. "A sniff of eucalypt, and memory rushes in like a fever." We have to thank Alison Croggon for all that she has incorporated in the libretto. West Australians can be very proud of this piece.

The opera opens with Scully in Ireland waiting for his wife and daughter to arrive from Perth. Only his daughter gets off the plane so the opera follows the journey of Scully searching Europe for his missing wife. The opera could be taken as a warning not to chase elusive hopes from the past. Is it a dark story? What can the audience expect?

It's a dark story in that it explores what happens when we suddenly lose the most valuable thing in our lives. The audience will see Scully go through the stages of grief, dragging his daughter through dangerous places to find Jennifer. The hunt for her is gripping but his daughter Billie's singing will melt your heart and it is also is really uplifting when you see that in the end, Scully has the strength of character not to look for his love anymore. We see him evolve. Before Alex (the painter) kills himself, he sings to Scully, "Sometimes the only end of something, is the end you make." 
The Riders are from celtic mythology, terrifying, faceless horsemen who try to drag us back to the past. At the end of the opera Scully sings "Every night they'll be here...but I'm not waiting with them, not in life, not in death, not any more." Our director Marion Pott's idea of Billie carefully blowing out one of the three symbolic candles burning in their window, always has me reaching for tissues at the end.

You are playing the role of Scully’s missing wife Jennifer. Is she a heroine or an anti-hero?

It is a really interesting character and I have tried to understand her point of view even though at first, to be honest, I sided with Scully. Because in the book, Jennifer comes across as unbelievably selfish and delusional about her artistic potential. But the question why she really runs away is always left unanswered. In the opera Marion, Iain and Alison have given Jennifer a more sympathetic voice, she represents people who value high-achievement and self-discovery over romanticism and family obligation.We are assuming she is still pregnant when she runs away. Iain has written her music beautifully so that the audience will be more sympathetic towards her. She doesn't feel a bond with her daughter or husband anymore, only suffocation. Some of my friends feel she is a heroine, someone who remains true to herself, no matter the cost. 

How did you prepare for the role? 

I started by reading the book and Iain sent us an early version of the score months ahead of time so we could start tinkering. I like starting ahead of schedule on modern opera roles so that the intervals and rhythms become second nature and you can just concentrate on singing technique, realistic movement and your part as a reliable cog the whole machine.

How are rehearsals going? 

We end a full run of the opera passing a box of tissues around, it's pretty moving! Brad Cohen is there every day refining our diction, style, tuning. Marion Potts is changing some aspects from the original Melbourne production to suit His Maj's stage and incorporating our ideas if they fit with the style of the piece. A great luxury! Iain has been here and has shown us more than the notes on a page can. If only Verdi was still able to do the same for his operas! James Clayton is singing this enormous lead role superbly.

Where did you grow up and what led you into opera? 

I grew up on a rural property in Wanneroo, my Dad grew and exported wildflowers. We moved in to Wembley in my final years of highschool at St Mary's A.G.S. I studied classical singing at St Mary's, loving Lieder and baroque music, but wasn't very keen on opera until I saw a Deborah Warner production of Britten 's Turn of the Screw at Covent Garden in 2002.

From where I sit opera singers have a grueling job. To be successful singers must have not only natural vocal talent and years of technical training, but also the tenacity to learn at least five languages, be an outstanding actor and maintain excellent physical health. All the while working late nights, travelling lots and engaging with seriously psychologically challenging roles! How do you do it?! 

You have to put yourself first, like Jennifer! Or find a partner with similar values. And have very understanding parents.  It also helps, a lot, to have a dual passport. It is an itinerant lifestyle, you have to be prepared to live away from loved ones for months at a time. I was lucky to have an intense self-improvement period at the Australian Opera Studio, be touring operas at 23 and then fall into a safe job at a German opera house at 24. I slowly added international destinations to my workload with mixed results!

Pearson and Wade Kernot
Your husband Wade Kernot is principal bass at Theatre St Gallen in Switzerland. What are your tips for managing a long-distant marriage? 

After 5 years of travelling to see each other we are now both freelancing and can even work together on operas occasionally (like The Riders). Now we travel together more often. Skype was our lifeline, we always talked through everything we were experiencing and held the same future goals in our heads. 

You finished working in Wiesbaden in 2014 and the State of Hessen awarded you the honorary title of “Kammersängerin” - the youngest opera singer to have ever received this title. Since then you seem to be much in demand around Australia and in Europe. Why did you opt for a freelance lifestyle and what is the plan for the next stage of your life? 

While I was very grateful for the nine years of salaried income at Wiesbaden, I started to get run down trying to branch out into other opera companies, keep up with family in Australia and NZ and try to start my own family. It was burning the candle at every end. I reached a point where the freelance work was enough to live on, so that when our Intendant retired in 2014, I decided not to take a "Fest position" in another company and finally move in with my husband in Switzerland.

When I last interviewed you in 2006 you had a soft spot for the role of Adele in Die Fledermaus. What is your dream role now?

Haha that is a funny reminder! I suppose it was 10 years ago. I sang my dream role last year, Violetta in La traviata for Opera Queensland. I also had a wonderful time singing Hilda in Henze ' s Elegy for Young Lovers recently. It was very challenging music but a funny/tragic Miss Haversham-type character role. I would love to perform that opera again in English (text by W. H. Auden) one day.

Opera is such a huge part of German culture where it holds intellectual and political sway. What do you feel the art form has to say to Australians, where opera isn’t so mainstream?

It is human nature to enjoy stories, escapism and live music. These days it's also rare to hear live music with your own ears, free of microphones and sound engineering. Come to the opera to be soothed or moved and hear the power of the natural human voice. I was watching a Katy Perry concert on the plane recently and with the sound down it was basically opera just without a story line. The desire for the grandeur and spectacle of our artform is still there. The main difference with Australia and Germany is Australian parents don't take their children to symphonic concerts, theatre, ballet or opera, as often. Our children become adults who are unsure of what to expect inside formal performance venues, like an adult going to church for the first time. 

Where are you spending your spare moments in Perth? 

I am trying to keep up with the changes in this lovely city since I left in 2003! I am intrigued by Print Hall in St George's Tce, Gordon 's Garage in Gordon St and love Bivouac and Sneaky Tony's in Northbridge. On weekends I visit my parents at their home in Dawesville- it's so peaceful there and the beaches from Tim's Thicket to Miami are great.

What’s it going to take for us to woo you back to Australia? 

A small male child might make an appearance in our lives in August, we hope! He will definitely make us settle down near family for a while.  

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

It's mostly languages, music, art and cheese sandwiches with me these days. I have a soft spot for public libraries, big and small. I'm compiling a mental list of the vinyl albums I want to own once we settle down. I'm also trying to be a better cook and baker, thanks to the all inspiring TV show Great British Bake Off. 

Watch Emma Pearson in her debut at Opera Australia singing Queen of the Night in David Freeman's The Magic Flute.

Thank you Emma for making time for Celebrity Soft Spot. The Riders opens at His Majesty's Theatre on April 13th. For tickets go to WA Opera.  To listen to more from Emma Pearson go to or her website