Christmas, Limelight

What inspired you to put together this Christmas concert – Carols for Justice?

I first heard about the Martin Place Tent City movement in early August this year. When I saw that Sydney’s homeless were perceived as an eyesore that should be gotten rid of, I was furious. I wanted to do something to support them. I remembered an incident at St James walking with a colleague, after a gig singing with the Australian Haydn Ensemble. This guy set his space up like a living room with a sofa, all makeshift of course, in the tunnel. I felt at that moment, that we stepped into his house. I said “Hi” and he replied with a smile. My colleague was taken aback by my forwardness, so I told her “they are not invisible… that can be us, at any time.”

Ayşe Göknur Shanal, Christmas, Carols, HomelessSoprano Ayşe Göknur Shanal.

So I went ahead and contacted Lanz Priestley, who is the coordinator of Sydney’s 24-7 Kitchen and Safe Space Community, to volunteer to take food. He told me of an idea for a  concert at that time, to raise awareness about homelessness. Lanz is an amazing guy, who is constantly assisting the rough sleepers with food, finding foster homes for the homeless kids, taking out furniture for those who have managed to get housing, he doesn’t stop.

I have been a member of an organisation called Mums for Refugees. So when I initiated the concert for the asylum seekers at Sydney Opera House, I contacted its national co-ordinator, Dulce Carolina Muñoz. She is assisting and directing help for new arrivals and those in detention. Dulce is an extraordinary person. She and I like to get things done. The concert at the Sydney Opera House was a wonderful success. During that time, I started cooking and taking food to Martin Place and kept thinking to myself, these folk, they have a right to hear beautiful live classical music and I can do this for them. So I asked Lanz and Dulce to help me to put this evening together.

I asked pianist Alan Hicks to present the programme with me, who came on board at short notice. Alan and I have worked together before. He is a brilliant and engaging performer. So we have a lot of fun when we present together.

What are some of the challenges of organising an event like this?

When we decided to go ahead with 16th December, I spoke to Lanz and we decided to keep it humble and within our means. I wanted to do something intimate with piano. It is possible to create an intimate atmosphere, even in a large space like Martin Place. When it came to the piano, I put a call out for a grand. I wanted this to be small, but special and I did not want to compromise on the quality and beauty of sound. When I reached out to Ara and Nyree at Theme and Variations for a Steinway, they came on board and so did their piano removal service Dragon Pianos. Ara and Nyee are two of the nicest, most generous people you can meet. They work tirelessly within our industry, because they are so passionate about classical music and fostering young talent. They knew why I wanted a Steinway, in a context like this. They are trusting me with a $100K plus instrument and that says a lot.

When there’s a will, there’s a way.

In September you performed a concert Songs for Refugees, with proceeds donated toward legal representation for asylum seekers on Manus and Nauru. Why is this an important issue for you?

I have been a refugee advocate for over 10 years and this issue was one of the major reasons for me to complete a law degree between 2010 and 2012. The majority of the legal profession and law colleagues would agree with me when I say that our government is violating International and Human Rights Laws in Manus and Nauru. I know this is a vexed issue, because many Australians are not fully informed about the situation, so they are robbed of the ability to form sound opinions and have no choice but to believe the repetitive populist statements being pumped through the mainstream media. Being a refugee is not illegal. Coming by boat is not illegal. These are false statements. Turning back the boats is illegal. Fear is being used to manipulate everyone. Our government’s immigration policy, as it stands today, is a racist policy. There is no sugar coating it and this is why this issue is important to me. It is time for change.

The idea for Songs for Refugees was simmering since 2015, when I saw the image of the body of toddler Alan Kurdi, with his tiny jeans and red T-shirt, washed up on the shores of Bodrum, Turkey (my parents migrated from Turkey in 1970). That moment changed my life forever. I could not turn a blind eye. I am a mother myself. As an artist, I have a responsibility to use my voice, not just on stage, but wherever I go, against injustice. Artists are meant to be the conscience of a society.

How does that event relate to the Christmas concert? Are there parallels between the experience of asylum seekers internationally and the homeless in Australia?

When Lanz, Dulce and I started talking about the concert, it was Lanz who said Sydney’s Homeless Community supports the refugee cause and this needs to be part of the message. He stressed the common aspect of being rough sleepers on the streets of Sydney, without a home, often running away from family violence, fearing mugging, theft, living with hunger and the obvious parallels with being a refugee, without a home, a country, on a global scale. Micro, macro… sounds pretty similar, doesn’t it?

How did you go about choosing the repertoire for the event?

When I plan a programme for a ‘new’ audience I do it with the ears of a new listener. Works that will introduce people to the classical repertoire in the best way possible. So, they are melodious, emotive, playful and passionate. Some Puccini, Strauss, Gounod, Duparc, Ginastera and Brahms’ popular Stiller Nacht, and other carols which everyone can sing along to.

How will this concert be different from more conventional Carols concerts?

From 4 pm, there will be free food (yes, FREE) provided by organisations, gourmet chefs, and restaurants – for everyone, not just for the homeless. We have hairdressers and barbers, to pamper those in need. At 5 pm, the combined Catholic Choirs will come by and present a bracket of their own programme. The main concert will be from 6 to 8pm.

However, this isn’t just another carols concert, because there will be works from the classical repertoire. It is also very different from other major carols events, because this is a grassroots, non-commercial concert. There won’t be anyone in our event telling our rough sleepers to ‘move along’, because they are an ‘eyesore’, or they smell. We want to break the barriers between the rich and poor, ‘us’ and ‘them’, and bring it all back to being a united community. Just us. Everyone is welcome. This is a family friendly event.

We will also have guest speakers, such as George Newhouse, who is an established Human Rights Lawyer.

Ah! And one tiny point. it is not everyday that you get to see a soprano, who happens to be of Muslim faith presenting a concert singing Christmas Carols! Talk about breaking barriers, yes?

What do you hope to achieve through the concert?

In a time of polarisation and division, we want our audience to go home feeling recharged and inspired by the music, with their sense of trust and faith in their fellow human beings, and humanity in general, restored. We want them to have the willingness to connect with each other. To have the courage to form dialogues with those who they perceive as ‘different’. To form a relationship with our homeless community. Only then will we be able to see change.

Do you have a favourite Christmas song?

There are too many! I’ll say O Holy Night.


Carols for Justice is at Martin Place, Sydney, on December 16, from 4pm until 8pm.

Limelight, Australia's Classical Music and Arts Magazine