The soprano explains why she wants us to consider a powerfully nurturing and creative force.
Allison Bell is at Heathrow when we reach her, preparing to step onto the first flight of her 30-hour journey to Hobart. The soprano has lived in London for more than a decade, but returns to her home state at the end of the world to celebrate the winter solstice.
This year’s Dark Mofo will transform the island Tasmania through fire, divination and soul-eating fear. Bell will sing at the centre of it all, with her concert Heart of Darkness honouring the longest night of the year. She’ll draw larger crowds into St. David’s Cathedral than you’d find on a Sunday morning, with works by Schoenberg, Sculthorpe and Tavener set to echo through the centuries-old stone walls.
Before she ascends to the clouds, Bell sheds light on the “very heart of darkness that exists within each and every one of us”.
And so, you return. How does it feel to journey to your childhood home during its darkest hours?
Growing up on Tasmania’s North West Coast (pretty much equidistant between Mount Roland and Cradle Mountain), I knew Tasmania was an amazing place in winter. So raw and elemental. It has always been my favourite season. I love that Dark Mofo celebrates that raw beauty and energy of winter darkness in all its forms, physical and metaphysical. And in such an eclectic way, embracing so many different art forms.
I’ve found that I increasingly miss Tasmania’s space and wilderness. I’m pretty much a hippy at heart. My first 10 years in Europe were all about non-stop training and then working to build my career and artistic reputation. Now, I’m at a place where I can afford to step back a bit – particularly during our European summer, which is the down-time between regular September to June classical seasons there.
Your programme is far from conventional ‘classical’ music, and you chose it with both Dark Mofo and the winter solstice in mind. What do these works mean to you?
I chose this programme with Dark Mofo, and particularly the winter solstice, in mind. Tavener’s Akhmatova Songs, Sculthorpe’s String Quartet No 12 (From Ubirr) and Schoenberg’s String Quartet No 2 – these are all pieces that plunge us deep into the darkest corners of the human soul and psyche; into the darkest elements of existence. They embody fear, pain, jealousy, oppression, violence, hopelessness, shame, mortality, death. But finally, light and the eternal. I chose to call the concert Heart of Darkness, as theirs is a world of turmoil, crisis and despair that transport us to the very heart of darkness that exists within each and every one of us. All three pieces invite us to think on the deepest fears and thoughts that haunt us during our darkest hours.
Why do you wish to invite us to face the darkness in ourselves?
As we celebrate the winter solstice, the longest and darkest of nights, I hope the music leads the audience to contemplate and connect more strongly to their innermost needs, regrets and desires, their connection to each other and to the earth. As the final transcendental nature of the music shows, allowing ourselves to face our darkest emotions – this very act of acknowledgement, of making them conscious – can be cathartic. It allows us to find that strange ecstasy that lies within all darkness, the hope and renewal that cannot be obliterated no matter how dark. Like the winter solstice, each of the three pieces in its own way pays homage to the turning point where light begins to return.
I share the Festival’s aesthetic of perceiving darkness as a powerfully nurturing and creative force; that the winter is a time of awakening and celebration rather than a period of slowing down and hibernation. I think Dark Mofo is unique in this respect.
You’re known for performing avant-garde works, and have in the past admitted you like being placed outside your comfort zone. But does continuing to present such works mean they feel natural, even safe, to you?
This programme is a little more conventional than a lot of contemporary repertoire I’ve become known for of late, in that the pieces do not use any extended vocal techniques. It’s essentially straight singing, so to speak, albeit with a huge range of expression. The real challenge here is the level of emotional connection required, particularly in the Schoenberg. In that sense, this piece was life-changing for me when I first encountered it. I performed it for the first time at the Wigmore Hall in London with the Britten Sinfonia and Brett Dean on viola – no pressure! No wonder the work single-handedly changed the course of music history; the audience in Vienna in 1908 not only violently objecting to the errant soprano (the first time in the string quartet’s 150-year history that a soprano joined the strings), but to the highly charged emotion in Schoenberg’s music. There’s very little doubt that the composer’s new musical expressionism is a very real projection of his profound suffering and inner turmoil. I definitely feel like I’m channelling that profound struggle and anguish and it is a challenge. And very humbling. However, it does end with a glimmer of ecstatic hope, which definitely lifts me up too!
I don’t think I know what a comfort zone is anymore, in singing or in life generally! I always try to find something new and challenging, a different perspective, in every aspect of what I do in life.
You’ve worked with Susan Collins and Sue-Ellen Paulsen before, having performed at last year’s Dark Mofo and the museum’s 2014 Synaesthesia+ festival. Why do you feel a strong chemistry with these musicians?
We’ve already got to know each other a little better as performers and people through Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire at Synaesthesia+, and we definitely clicked! They are both wonderful players and personalities, and, in discussing with them the theme of the concert and the repertoire, I asked them to help me find a local second violin and viola. Jennifer Owen and Stefanie Farrands were immediately suggested, and I was thrilled they were keen to collaborate. Both are immensely talented and have played extensively worldwide, and are also very experienced chamber musicians. I’m very excited about working with this amazing group of players.
So what can we expect from you in the cathedral?
The resonant acoustic of a cathedral, for a small number of players such as this, is always magical. Also, the light and shadow in a cathedral, day or night, always has a mysterious quality that lends itself to contemplation and reflection. That residual smell of frankincense and wood is so provocative to the senses. I hope these elements, with these particular pieces of music, will have an effect that is beautifully intoxicating and otherworldly.
This festival forces us to confront the theme of death, whether through your programme, funeral parties or hymns to the dead. So how do you think music fits into this landscape? Is ‘classical’ music facing its own ‘death’ or transitional period, and do we need these sorts of events to keep its tradition ‘alive’?
I really don’t feel like classical music is dying. I can’t really speak for the Australian scene as I don’t know it well enough, but my experience singing both ‘contemporary classical’ music, as well as more traditional repertoire opera in Europe and the United States, is of strong and growing audiences. It’s true that companies have to be very clever about their programming and production of works to get diverse demographics in the door, but it’s being done in very exciting ways that cater to both new and younger as well as more traditional audiences.
Gerard Grisey’s Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil, for me the last great work of the 20th century, is a piece that on paper can present itself as too much of a challenge for a more traditional audience. However, I performed it with the London Philharmonic and Vladimir Jurowski at the Royal Festival Hall in London and the place was sold out and packed with the most diverse audience you’ve ever seen. Why? Vladimir had programmed it with Mahler Five in the second half and gave a pre-concert talk from the stage, which made the pairing seem utterly logical and illuminating. Everyone is happy and wanting more!
Dark Mofo runs until June 21 in Hobart