Growing up in a singing and dancing family taught this parliamentary maestro a musical trick or two.

My mother Kathleen Congreve was an opera singer, so music was part of our house and from when I was very small I can remember attending recitals where she was singing. I have memories of wonderful parties full of music and musicians, singing and playing. In my head I still hear my mother rehearsing Senta’s aria. She had a collection of wonderful evening frocks because she dressed up to sing on the ABC. That was back when they would dress up to sing on radio! When I got a bit older I used to dress up in them.

As a child I learned to sing – I think I made my appearance on radio aged eight – and to play piano. I don’t play well at all, but I do love to listen to it played well. Although I never considered it as a career, I use my singing training every day when speaking. Diaphragm control and that sort of thing is very important. I remember as a kid being fascinated when people would measure their waistline. If they wanted it to be smaller they would say breathe in, but to me if I breathed in it expanded! 

Art song was my first love because that was part of my mother’s repertoire. While my father was away fighting she led theatre parties to entertain the troops. I’ve still got her repertoire book, which is extraordinarily large and has everything from popular arias to things like The Last Rose of Summer. I learned ballet, so obviously I enjoyed Tchaikovsky, and I liked Chopin from the start.

It took me a long time to really appreciate Wagner though – horrible man, and yet wonderful music.

I like contemporary classical music as well. I was able to help organise support for Moya Henderson when she composed her opera, Lindy. I met her when she was struggling to get it written and I thought, “She really needs time when she can just work without having to try and sustain herself.” I went off to see Frank Lowy and I said, “I think it’s really important that this work gets written, do you think you can help?” I asked Dick Pratt as well and together they supported her for three years so that she could do that work. I have to be honest; I did lobby a bit to help her get a workshop with Richard Gill. Lindy Chamberlain herself went to the rehearsals and on opening night at the Opera House I was sat next to Michael Chamberlain and his wife. It was difficult for him so I took them afterwards to meet the singers. It was a magical night. Now there’s an opera that was a sell out in Sydney and Melbourne and should be back in the repertoire!

I’ve been involved in the Sydney International Piano Competition of Australia since the beginning in 1977. Claire Dan wanted young Australians exposed to the best the world had to offer. She said this country had been very good to her and she wanted to give back. We became close and decided to set up The Friends of the competition. So I talked to a lot of my friends and we got a group together. When we told people that this is the Sydney International Piano Competition and we’d love you to come, they would say, “but
we can’t play.” “No,” we said, “you don’t have to play, you just have to come.” Anyway, Claire had the competition accepted internationally and off we went. Irina Plotnikova was the first winner and I remember the girl who came second, also from the USSR, who played a
bit like the Russian army.

I often say it is music that keeps me sane in what is a fairly stressful life of politics. Music gives you such rewards, such highs. In opera, for example, you get everything – passion, colour, action, design, as well as splendid voices and wonderful orchestrations. It’s these things that give me such a sense of enjoyment.

The music I couldn’t live without…

Messiah evokes family connections. My mother sang it in Sydney Town Hall on the 50th anniversary of Melba’s death – I still have the crits. But if I had to pick just one it would be something of Sutherland. Joan and Richard gave so much to Australia. When they were here we took it for granted – two of the world’s great stars performing for us. When you think about it, how fortunate we were.

Bronwyn Bishop is President of the Friends of the Sydney International Piano Competition of Australia. Tickets for the 2016 Competition are now on sale.