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An excerpt from the libretto; art work by Katy Mutton.

Yes, it’s true: it’s show-time week.

That sound you can hear? My knees shaking. Pretty sure my ribs are rattling too.

After four years of wrestling 1400 words into 14 songs, The Weight of Light will have it moment in the sun this weekend and next. It has been such an amazing – daunting at times, but ultimately highly rewarding – experience, and here we are and I’m feeling incredibly grateful. Grateful to have this opportunity to write for performance, which, as I’ve noted before, is a new and different way of working for me. Grateful to be able to bring together three things I adore: words, story, and music. And grateful because it takes a team of skilled and extremely committed people to bring a work like this in front of an audience.

Recent adventures in media-land can be found in the Sydney Morning Herald, Resonate (the magazine of the Australian Music Centre), and the Canberra City News.

There are only three performances: 7.30pm on Saturday 3 March and 4pm on Sunday 4 March at The Street Theatre in Canberra; and 7.30pm on Saturday 10 March at the Goulburn Regional Conservatorium.

Tickets can be purchased here.

What is the show about?

Having completed his latest tour of Afghanistan, an Australian soldier is on leave and taking the opportunity to return to his family’s farm in regional New South Wales – he is looking forward to resting. However, as he makes his way home he is confronted by news that is both life-affirming and devastating, which pushes him to reveal a dark secret that clings like a ghost. Ultimately he must question everything he knows. What sort of man is he? What does it mean to be brave? And what future might be waiting for his family?

Who are the key artists in the show?

Michael Lampard rehearsing at The Street Theatre, February 2018 (Image: James Humberstone)

Baritone Michael Lampard will be playing ‘the soldier’. Born in Hobart, Michael has performed widely across Australia, Europe, UK, USA and Asia in operas, oratorios and many recitals. Competition success includes being an award-winning finalist in the Australian Singing Competition (2006 & 2008), being a Quarter Finalist in Placido Domingo’s Operalia in Paris (2007), placing third in the 2013 RMP Aria in Melbourne and winning the 2015 Melbourne Welsh Male Choir ‘Singer of the Year’ competition. Aside from his singing activities, Michael is also an experienced composer, conductor, chorus-master and voice teacher having taught privately and at the University of Tasmania. Since relocating to Melbourne in 2013 he has quickly established himself as one of Australia’s most exciting young operatic baritones. He has recently worked with Victorian Opera, Lyric Opera of Melbourne, Emotionworks, Melbourne Opera, CitiOpera, the Forest Collective, Camberwell Chorale, Victorian Youth Symphony Orchestra and as a chorister for Opera Australia. With the pianist Rhodri Clarke, Michael established the Zenith ensemble, a recital duo that have performed critically acclaimed recitals at the Melbourne Recital Centre, for 3MBS (Winterreise as part of the 2014 Schubert Marathon) and for many societies and organizations around Melbourne and Tasmania. He is establishing himself as a leading interpreter of new art music, commissioning and performing the premieres of many works by Australian and international composers.

Alan Hicks rehearsing the bowing technique required by the score (Image: James Humberstone)

Accompanist Alan Hicks is one of Australia’s foremost vocal coaches and accompanists. As Head of Voice at the ANU School of Music (2008-2012) he developed an exciting and innovative programme which provided voice students with high-level performance opportunities at embassies and consular venues throughout Canberra (in collaboration with the Friends of Opera), at Wesley Music Centre through the Wesley Music Scholarships and the Wednesday Lunchtime Live series, at the Street Theatre in fully staged operatic productions and at the Canberra International Music Festival. In April 2012 his students appeared in three of the five ABC Sunday Live concerts broadcast from Canberra. Alan is in demand as a recitalist with national and international artists. He performs in duo partnerships with Geoffrey Lancaster (Canberra International Music Festival 2009-2012) and Alan Vivian (Clarinet Ballistix and ABC Sunday Live). At the 2011 Australian Flute Festival he gave recitals with Aldo Baerten (Belgium), Jane Rutter (Aus) and Luca Manghi (Italy/NZ). Alan has appeared with his wife, mezzosoprano Christina Wilson, in Europe and Australia, performing regularly for the Canberra International Music Festival and on ABC Classic FM. Alan is a graduate of the Newcastle Conservatorium of Music and of the Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester, UK.

Composer James Humberstone during the creative development sessions at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, December 2017 (Image: Ryley Gillen)

Of course, there is also The Weight of Light’s composer, James Humberstone. James’s output is influenced by his research background in experimental music, and his interest in composing for children and community ensembles. Born in London, Humberstone migrated to Australia in 1997 after completing a degree in composition at the University of Exeter. His honours thesis was on the music of Howard Skempton, with whom Humberstone studied briefly after graduating. Humberstone has often cited Skempton as his greatest influence. By combining postgraduate studies in composition and experimental music with education qualifications and an 11-year residency at Sydney’s MLC School, Humberstone developed an approach to combining new and challenging music for children with a pedagogical approach, and continued to extend his experimental research and practice. He also combined knowledge about technology gained through nearly a decade at Sibelius Software with his compositional and education experience, and has become a leading authority in this field, publishing and regularly speaking at conferences internationally. In 2013 Humberstone completed his PhD and joined the faculty at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, where he remains as a tenured senior lecturer. Today he works in the fields of composition, music education and technology research, as well as experimental music.

Director Caroline Stacey (Image courtesty of Canberra City News)

Last but by no means least, the director of The Weight of Light is Caroline Stacey. Caroline is currently Artistic Director/CEO of The Street Theatre, Canberra’s creative hub for professional and independent artists. In 2012 Caroline received the Canberra Artist of the Year Award for her outstanding contribution to theatre and the performing arts. Other awards include: ACT International Women’s Day Award for her contribution to the performing arts in the ACT (2011), ABAF Margaret Lawrence Bequest Scholarship (2010), and the MEAA ACT Green Room Award for leadership in the cultural sector (2009). Caroline has a Master of Theatre Arts and BA in Sociology and English. Caroline has been nominated for Green Room Awards many times (including MO’s Madame Butterfly) and is the recipient of Canberra Critics Circle and Victorian Music Theatre Awards. Other creative roles include:  Artistic Director Castlemaine State Festival, VIC; Artistic Director Melba Festival; lecturer VCA Opera School; Cultural Planning and Development Manager Knox City Council; National Artistic Directorate member of ChamberMade; board member Rotary Puccini Foundation Awards, and Artistic Director of Outback Youth Theatre, NSW. Caroline has an extensive career as a stage director of theatre and opera. Opera/music theatre credits include: Love & the Art of War (Sydney Opera House), L’Orfeo (Queensland Music Festival), Pimpinone (West Australian Opera); The English Eccentrics, L’enfant et les sortilèges (Melbourne Festival); Lakme (Canterbury Opera); Madame Butterfly, The Magic Flute (Melbourne Opera); Medea (Adelaide Symphony Orchestra); The Tender Land, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Albert Herring, Nelson (Operalive); The Happy Prince (Victorian Opera), Rusalka, L’amour des Trois Oranges (VCA), Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, Dido and Aeneas, Medea, The Jade Harp, The Six Memos, Albert Herring, and From a Black Sky (The Street).

So that’s the calibre of a team that’s required to bring a song cycle to the stage. Extraordinary, don’t you think?

It would be terrific to see you at one of the shows.

Now, to the bath with a glass of whiskey…

Shit’s just got real.

Those were the words from the commissioner of The Weight of Light, Paul Scott-Williams, after I tweeted a picture of the poster for the show (below).

Last Friday afternoon I had dropped into the Street Theatre in Canberra to chat with the show’s director, and there it was, the poster, beaming beautifully from the entrance. Needless to say, I was gobsmacked: not only is the poster exquisite – the art work is by Australian visual artist Katy Mutton – but, to be frank, I never thought I would have the opportunity to write for performance. Or have a full-sized poster outside a theatre…in the national capital.

But here we are. And it’s wonderful.

A thing of beauty, and nerves, and excitement.

As I’ve written before, The Weight of Light has been in development since late 2013, when Paul, the director of the Goulburn Regional Conservatorium, and I had a coffee in Canberra; he wanted a contemporary song-cycle that would be relevant to current social concerns. We chose masculinity (these days that word would be preceded by ‘toxic’) as the core theme, though it’s also about war, home, and healing – and the show is not without love, too.

The story involves an Australian soldier who has come home from another tour in Afghanistan: he has a dark secret, but, as he soon finds out, so does his family. The music has been composed by James Humberstone from the Sydney Conservatorium, is being directed by Caroline Stacey from the Street Theatre in Canberra, and will be performed by Melbourne-based baritone Michael Lampard and Alan Hicks, one of Australia’s foremost accompanists.

We go into a two-week rehearsal stage starting on 19 December. Yikes.

A short video of the creative development sessions we held in December at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music can be found here. (It includes footage of me laughing, possible in all the wrong places.) A brief Q&A with yours truly can be found here; I talk a little about what it is like to work on a collaborative project, and provide some insights into how James and I developed the songs. Also, a short piece about the making of The Weight of Light that I wrote for Resonate, the magazine of the Australian Music Centre, can be found here.

What does all this feel like?

Preliminary staging ideas by Imogen Keen and Caroline Stacey, from the Street Theatre in Canberra

Exciting. Terrifying. Exposing.

Especially when Caroline showed me the drawings (above) for the staging – it really does feel as though the show is becoming ‘real’.

If you’re in the ACT region in early March, it would be really great to see you at one of the performances!

Specially commissioned art work by Katy Mutton

How lucky I am.

That’s what I keep thinking whenever I’m working on Homesong, or The Weight of Light as the song cycle is now known. Lucky because this is a project that brings together my two main creative loves: words and music. Lucky because it’s a project that has taken me well beyond what I usually consider my area of expertise. And lucky because I’m working with a team of incredibly skilled professionals.

So, what’s happened since the last Homesong Diary update?

Firstly, based on feedback from the creative development at The Street Theatre in June, which included responses from an invited audience, I did a lot of work on the libretto. I decided that the text would be more coherent if the story was told from one point of view with the present story told in present tense and the narrative elements that related to the past told in the past tense – this makes sense considering the entire story is told through the voice of one performer, a baritone. Also, when in doubt, go with simplicity! Then I spent some days examining the story in an almost clinical way: what was happening and when and why? Should some songs get the axe and new ones added? And what might be the most logical order of songs? Director Caroline Stacey and I then spent a few hours over coffee in Canberra going through the latest draft, eventually deciding that some elements of the libretto were clearer while some needed further refinement. And, yes, some songs got the axe and new ones were written.

Then the core team – project initiator Paul Scott-Williams from the Goulburn Regional Conservatorium, composer James Humberstone, and myself – got together in Goulburn to investigate the latest version of the libretto, essentially to check in with each other to make sure we were happy with the direction in which the work was going. It was at this point that we settled on the title, which is not only a line from one of the songs, but also, we thought, references the contrast in the work’s themes and elements. I’m especially fond of the title, as it reflects the somewhat wild mood-swings of the light in the Southern Tablelands, where the story has been both written and set.

While James worked on revisions and additions to the score (a process that was challenged by my near-constant fussing with the words), The Street Theatre commissioned Canberra visual artist Katy Mutton to create an image that would be used to support the project’s publicity campaign. The work Katy produced, which is above, beautifully reflects the sense of failing masculinity that is explored in the song cycle; we’re absolutely thrilled.

As the story revolves around an Australian soldier who has served in Afganistan I wished to check some of my assumptions by having discussions with professional support personnel at Soldier On, an organisation whose mission is to work side by side with those who serve and protect Australia, and their families, helping them to secure their futures

Baritone Michael Lampard and accompanist Alan Hicks try out the songs in ‘The Weight of Light’

Finally, last week, the team, including Caroline and new baritone Michael Lampard, and accompanist Alan Hicks met at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music to spend two days exploring the new songs and also to do a full run-through to see how the work was coming along. It’s a buzz hearing my words come to life, but perhaps what I have been enjoying the most is working collaboratively. As I have said elsewhere I’m primarily a writer of fiction, which means I spend most of my time in my writing room dreaming up characters and narrative scenarios and crafting sentences; sometimes the resultant stories come to life and sometimes (often?) they don’t. At heart I am a recluse, and I enjoy spending the majority of each week alone. However, working with a team and collaborating with other artists opens up so many possibilities. Mutual respect, I think, is a key ingredient and this team has that in spades.

Overall, it was agreed in Sydney that The Weight of Light is starting to rise off the page, which is exactly what any writer wants to hear. As James has observed, this song cycle is an emotional ride, and, in parts, it’s difficult (after all it explores themes of nationalism, fear, masculinity and family dynamics under extreme pressure), but there are also moments of beauty. Paul Scott-Williams’ original proposal – indeed requirement – was to create a work that would make a contribution to art song in Australia. We’ve certainly taken some risks; some pianos won’t be the same afterwards! But we really won’t know if it is any good until it’s back in front of an audience…

Next stop?

The work will have its world premiere at The Street Theatre in Canberra on 3-4 March 2018 – tickets are already on sale. It will be premiered at the Goulburn Regional Conservatorium on 10 March. There is talk of a tour and a recording, which would be completely terrific if they came to fruition. If you’re around this neck of the woods it would be wonderful to see you at one of the performances.

For now, a few days’ rest is warranted, before rehearsals begin in February. I hope to spend some time on the couch, with a pile of novels, and a very large glass of wine.

Borders: lines on a map but not necessarily in hearts and minds.

Borders: lines on a map but not necessarily in hearts and minds.

Borders.

They’ll be the end of us.

I’m not talking about the ill-fated book shop but those lines and marks that scare the living shit out of you and me.

There are the geographic borders: a sandy beach, a cliff-face, a wall of impenetrable rainforest. There are the borders that are nothing more than a flashing light on a computer screen or an invisible line somewhere in the ocean.

People want to cross over; they would do anything to go from one side to the other; they might risk death to be ‘over there’, where it is better. There are ways of doing it ‘legally’ and there are ways of doing it ‘illegally’, depending on the circumstances, and the level of desperation. It seems borders and desperation can go hand in hand, especially in this world where the difference between hope and hopelessness can be so marked.

Each week I, too, cross borders; at least, I drive past a sign that indicates I’m going from one place to another. I cross borders because there are opportunities on the other side, in ‘the big city’ as I’ve come to call it. Because these days I live in a country down in regional NSW. Because where I live the only arts work involves packing shelves. So I come into the ACT to do paid gigs that I enjoy, that are meaningful, that help to keep the wolves at bay.

But I’m not suffering political persecution.

Or religious discrimination.

Or threat of incarceration because I’m spending my life with another man.

Or because I’m a woman.

I’m lucky, supremely so, and just like everyone else who is lucky there is an obligation to cross borders at every opportunity. In the way I think, in the way I act and react, in the way I create – especially in the way I create. If artists can’t (or won’t) cross borders, who will? We should be crossing between forms, between materials, between genres, between ideas, between audiences. Because we should always be wanting – needing – to be uncomfortable. Because, perhaps, when uncomfortable we’re more productive, we’re alive, we’re fighting.

Inspiration is everywhere. There’s Oscar Wilde and his ability to move between prose and poetry, between stage and page, between the ‘legal’ and ‘illegal’ and risk his freedom and, ultimately, his life in the process. Closer to home there was, up until 2008, the Melbourne-based poet Dorothy Porter, who blurred the lines between collection and novel and reached the point where one of her works, The Monkey’s Mask, made it onto the silver screen. Closer to home even further, we have artists like Andrew Galan, who cross between the written and the spoken and the complex and the simple. And we have Katy Mutton, who slips – almost effortlessly – between the painted, the drawn, the political, and the personal.

Yes, borders are the end of the line for some of our number. And that’s our eternal shame, our immeasurably heavy burden.

But for us lucky ones, borders should be our beginnings.

*

(First published in BMA Magazine on 23 April 2014. Thanks to Sir Allan Sko.)

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