Göknur Shanal: How to make your own Stabat Mater

One of Australia’s rising vocal stars, Göknur Shanal is no stranger to making things happen for herself.

Soprano Göknur Shanal has had two successful careers to date. For her latest enterprise, she's adding entrepeneur, social activist and charity worker to her list of accomplishments. Here's what she's up to, and why.

Tell us a little bit about yourself

Born in Brisbane, I grew up in Wollongong and I am a lyric soprano. I am one of five children brought up by my mother as a single parent, who was a music teacher and used to play the cello. At 20, I won the Australian Singing Competition and then, went on to win Symphony Australia’s Young Performers Award Vocal Category. At 21 I left for the UK to study at the Royal College of Music. After that, I came back and completed a post graduate degree at the Sydney Conservatorium. Another opportunity popped up when I won both the McDonald’s Operatic Aria and Opera Foundation’s Metropolitan Opera Award, to leave our shores this time for NY to be an adjunct young artist at the Met. I came back to Australia, signed up with an agent and started singing professionally. I toured with OzOpera performing Mimi in La Bohème during 2004, did a few performances with the SSO. Then I decided to quit singing for a while. Now I am back!

How did this concert idea come about?

Ever since I saw the Pergolesi being performed at the Royal College of Music in London, I wanted to sing this piece. That was a long time ago. Beginning of this year, I started to think about putting it together myself.

The Stabat Mater is one of Pergolesi’s most popular sacred works. He wrote it just before he died of tuberculosis. About the first movement, Jean-Jacques Rousseau said that it is “the most perfect and touching duet to come from the pen of any composer”. The opening duet between the soprano and mezzo is what has moved, inspired and driven me to make this concept come alive. It was a purely selfish, creative reason. A blind desire to perform it myself.

What are the challenges in putting a performance like this together?

Many. For starters, a classical singer, like myself, is not your ideal prototype for an impresario. They usually rely on their agents to get them ‘gigs’ or wait until an organisation, institution or a corporation offers them an engagement. I wanted to create my own opportunity to perform this work because I am so passionate about it. So I went about it in a practical way. After I made a budget for the concert, I approached several people for advice about how to get this thing off the ground. I wanted to have the string ensemble and the organ. I approached several people, with my proposal. Our conductor William Moxey generously decided to come on board as well as mezzo-soprano Lotte Latukefu. SSO’s Alex Norton will be leading the Ensemble. We have amazing musicians who are taking the plunge, placing their trust in me.

How do you go about funding something like this independently?

I have recently finished a graduate law degree so I decided to approach some of my colleagues and seniors in the legal profession to help ease the pressure of putting all the money in myself. There have been some very generous donors.

Half the proceeds from this concert are going to Médecins Sans Frontières? How did this idea come about?

I am going to be very unpopular after this! You know, just as my career was taking off, I stopped singing altogether. My time away has allowed me to observe the whole industry from the outside. As classical musicians, we are constantly trying to justify how important this Artform is to the rest of humanity. One of my favourite people, Richard Gill, is actively raising awareness about the importance of classical music in children’s cognitive and academic development and I agree with him wholeheartedly. However, Peter Gelb, the General Manager of New York’s Met says “our audience is aging’ and this is the reality we are facing right now. The burning question in my mind is: How relevant is classical music in today’s society? How are we actually contributing to the wider community? It’s all nice to stand on the stage of our performance venues and say “this beautiful music deserves to be heard by everyone”.

Do you think that the classical music industry has lost its voice?

Classical music has previously been instrumental in social and political change. Lately? Hardly at all. We live in a bubble these days, almost oblivious to what is happening around the world, afraid to say anything out loud for fear of rocking the boat. No pun intended there with the recent immigration policy ‘reforms’! I am your rare creature (and worst nightmare for some) – an ‘activist’ opera singer. 

What do you plan to do, to bring about change?

My way of making classical music relevant is by creating initiatives towards ‘serious aid’. I love the work Médecins Sans Frontières does. It doesn’t know borders and it doesn’t discriminate in its contribution to humanity. Their voluntary services reach the most destitute corners of third world countries. I am envious of the substance in their work. This is why I want to bring more conscience to my creativity by way of raising awareness and building a bridge between my two passions: music and service to mankind. This industry can do with a little improvement by being more generous to the rest of society. It has been very generous to me in that I have been the beneficiary of most of the competitions this country has to offer to young singers. Without those opportunities I would not have been able to go to the Met to study or the London’s Royal College of Music.

Göknur Shanal performs in Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater on Sunday August 25 at 4pm at Pitt Street Uniting Church.

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Göknur Shanal: How to make your own Stabat Mater
Pergolesi's Stabat Mater: one of the Baroque's most moving works of vocal music
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