One young tenor shows that many hands really do make light work.
Edmond Choo has set his mind on the money. Like many before him, the tenor is conscious of the cultural isolation faced by performing artists in Australia, and the potential for overseas study to help boost his profile, locally and internationally.
“I feel that I need to do a little bit of extra training just to fill the gaps,” Choo explains, “and I think going overseas will also expose me to a whole different culture and a whole different appreciation of opera, and the opera world – something we just don’t seem to have here in Australia, or not to that degree, anyway.”
To get there, Choo has opted for the road less travelled, perhaps even the road un-travelled. He’s set up his own concert series across Sydney and Melbourne, and in the process convinced big-name opera singers, radio presenters, and an entire orchestra to get on board – for free. There’s a website to promote it all, and additionally the Australian Cultural Fund is facilitating donations on his behalf.
Although his musical talents have earned him a coveted place in the Master of Performance course at London’s Royal College of Music the prospect of taking it up seemed impossible, with fees pushing a daunting AUD$30,000 per annum for international students and the cost of living in London notoriously high. However, having nominated AUD$125,000 as the total sum required to cover tuition, board, and living expenses for the duration of the two-year course, Edmond is pursuing this unconventional but entirely appropriate plan of action with characteristic verve.
While pursuing postgraduate studies overseas is a common path for many young Australian musicians, most will spend their undergraduate years in Australia saving like crazy, before embarking on the tenuous journey of living from grant to sought-after grant while serving what many in the arts scene – participants and observers alike – consider to be the essential time abroad. But even the most paltry grants are hotly contested. As Choo notes, “there’s a lot of really good talent in Australia, but there are only so many competitions and grants out there.” So the singer took to the drawing board instead.
“It all started off last year with my attending a friend’s fundraising concert, who was going to study at the Royal Northern College of Music, and I thought, ‘Obviously this would be a fantastic idea, I’d love to have a one-off concert, but a one-off concert isn’t exactly going to get me all the money that I need for two years.’”
But a seven-off series just might. So far, Choo has put on three concerts in his home city of Melbourne, and a further two in Sydney, where he is currently based. The last hurrah will be his recital of Schumann’s Dichterliebe entitled Romance Through Song, but the penultimate event is an Opera Gala in Marrickville featuring some of Australian opera’s elite. Among others, Rosario La Spina, Samuel Dundas, Nicole Car (who recently played Mimì in La Bohème) and Edmond’s brother Henry, a principal tenor with Opera Australia, have all volunteered their time for Choo’s cause. “The opera community as a whole has been really, really supportive,” he says. “They’ve all been really impressed that I’ve been able to pull off all these things, and all these projects, in terms of marketing myself.
“The Marrickville project started off as piano and singers, and it’s just grown and grown from one idea to the next. It was going to be maybe a concert at the community hall, then it turned into the town hall, then it turned into an orchestra, and then turned into chorus as well. But I’m just really pleased at how it’s transformed along the way, and hoping that I’ll sell enough tickets to make some good proceeds. I wanted to leave Sydney with something to remember me by, in terms of – I know this sounds really ego-driven – something special; for people to say ‘Wow, that was amazing, how did this person do it on his own, we would really like to support him.’ It’s not like your average fundraising concert that’s been put on by a student before.”
It certainly isn’t. Without any formal experience in PR and marketing, Choo has embraced the process with an indomitable sense of enterprise that seems to be his trademark. He is also keeping some very long hours – singing in the Opera Australia chorus by day and night, then coming home to “tweak the website, email people and do all those little things that help with promotion.” A typical day for Choo ends at 3am.
He acknowledges the lack of marketing training in practical arts-based degrees in Australia, but says building a network of contacts can be even more useful.
Choo’s fundraising efforts through the ACF currently stand at $84,000 – and counting… His own initiative, the Coro 500, enables its members to make smaller financial contributions in exchange for regular updates and an invitation to an exclusive donors-only performance when Choo returns to Australia. This, combined with contributions of his own, means he’s very nearly at the finish line, and just in the nick of time – he departs for London soon after the Marrickville gala. Though he began the venture with “modest” hopes for success, Choo says he is elated at the result, and optimistic about the upcoming concert.
“I’ve learnt that anything’s possible, as long as you put your mind to it, as cheesy as that sounds. I never imagined myself putting on this many concerts, I never imagined rallying up this support, but it’s all possible – as long as you’re good to people, they will help you out.”