Pinchgut Opera’s AD has just cut his first solo disc. The in-demand harpsichordist talks about the joys of Handel and musical theatre.
So what was it that attracted you to music?
I don’t come from a very musical family but my mum played piano a little bit and she definitely encouraged me. We had a piano in the house, and me and my sister would toy around on it. I remember she would play the left hand of pieces and I would play the right. I think I was quite a lonely kid, and the piano was just another universe. I see kids nowadays on the internet, and I wonder if that’s the same impulse.
Do you remember when you first heard a harpsichord?
It was in my early teens. At the stage I was a voracious consumer of ABC Classic FM who had a programme listing called 24 Hours which I subscribed to. I had this tape recorder that I could programme, so often late at night I’d record these amazing works. I had all these curated cassettes of this weird repertoire because I was fascinated by the 18th century. I don’t know exactly when that started, but it may have come from my thing for Australian history and the first fleet. Around eight or nine I discovered that the piano wasn’t around in the past. “Oh,” I thought, “so what did these composers that I enjoy – Bach, Mozart, Haydn – actually play? And slowly I realised there were these other instruments. I remember hearing Gustav Leonhardt and people like Christophe Rousset and I recorded all of them. Later I was able to study harpsichord at the Sydney Conservatorium, in what was then called the School of Extension Studies (a sort of outreach programme). I started with Paul Dyer when I was 14, and when I finished high school I did my final exams on harpsichord and piano.
Gosh, you were studying harpsichord at 14? Were you identified as gifted?
I guess so. It was unusual because I didn’t have an instrument, so it was hard to practise. And I had to take the train from Gosford to Sydney, which was hard. When I first started on a harpsichord – and I’ve talked to other people who’ve had the same response – it suddenly felt like a huge weight was lifted off my shoulders playing this repertoire. The instrument and the music were a match at last – the tessitura of the music, the simplicity of the counterpoint, the transparency… Through people like Bach I discovered Scarlatti, and then the 17th-century composers, and then French composers. I was a voracious sight reader, and to this day, I’m really proud of my sight-reading skills, which were honed at this point. I remember one of my favourite things was to push my parents to drive me down to Zephyr Music in Crows Nest, and there I would be, my nose pressed against the glass of the candy store.
Did you have particular inspirations in the early music field?
CDs came out in the ’80s, which was amazing for early music – I guess somewhere in a landfill are those curated cassette tapes of mine! I soon discovered John Eliot Gardiner, and I just got addicted to all of his recordings with the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists. And then slowly the Germans started coming out with things. I remember that first recording of Brandenburg Five with Il Giardino Armonico – these guys were thrashing the shit out of it, you know.
Was opera a first love, or it was something that you got into later?
No, but you know what was my first love? I’m a bit hesitant to say it, but it was musical theatre – I was at Gosford Musical Society. With the more sophisticated musical theatre, like Sondheim and Bernstein, you hear the power of the human voice, the power of text set to music in English that’s understandable. But then I saw an amazing filmed version of Don Giovanni with Kiri Te Kanawa and I got a bootleg copy taped from SBS or something, and I remember watching that over and over again. José van Dam was in it – really fantastic singers – and filmed on set in Spain. So I guess I got into opera and musical theatre. I did a lot of musicals as a pit musician, and I have to say that taught me a lot about improvisation and not treating the score as this holy relic, which we’re often encouraged to do in 19th-century music. Music from the 17th and 18th century is completely un-proscriptive. It’s just a recipe, an aide-mémoire for the musician. And it’s the same in musical theatre.
The other thing was I had this textual background. I love text. My mother – my whole family – are very literary minded. We had an amazing library, and I read Dickens and Dostoevsky and all the great 18th-century writers, and the great German writers like Hesse and Thomas Mann. So, novels and literature and stories and then music – put them together and you get opera.
Erin Helyard recording his new Handel disc for ABC Classics. Photo © Hamish Lane
I know you’re incredibly voracious as a listener. Has that always been the case?
Oh, yes. It’s funny, I formed with a friend of mine, the Anti-Bach club as an undergraduate because – and I say this only in jest – because I felt that everyone concentrates on a couple of figures in the 18th century. Of course, I love them to bits, and as I get older I still come back to them as sources of comfort and rejuvenation. But at the time, I thought, these guys can’t have existed in a vacuum. There must have been other people. And then the Hasse celebrations – I think it was his bicentenary – brought forward all these recordings and I bought every single one. Galuppi, I remember getting into. Vivaldi was slowly getting recorded, and suddenly we discovered that his operas were incredible. And then I got interested in places. Hasse was in Dresden, who else was there? The next thing that was very, very important was ISMLP. That happened quite recently, really, making all these scores available now online.
How did Pinchgut Opera come about?
At the end of my undergraduate studies I came in contact with Ken and Liz Nielsen, a couple of arts connoisseurs who very kindly supported me and my studies. Through them I made a contact with Antony Walker, who was at that stage with Sydney Philharmonia, and also his artistic manager at that time who was Alison Johnston. At the time, we thought no one was doing baroque opera. The most amazing thing in the last 15 years has been the way the quality of instrumental playing in Australia in period performance has just gone through the roof. So we decided to start this company and we did Semele as our first performance. Antony and I were named co-artistic directors, and Antony at that stage became a big mentor for me.
You’ve done more solo playing and now recording in the last year. Is that something you’re increasingly moving into?
That’s my happy space. But it was funny doing the recording because suddenly I didn’t have other people there, which is liberating, but also not liberating. When you’re in charge of yourself, you can trust yourself – at least I know what my capabilities are – but at the same time, you’re in a different world as a soloist.
How different is playing Handel harpsichord suites, from conducting an opera from the keyboard?
It’s not majorly different. Obviously the textures are different, but the Handel suites I chose for ABC Classics, have lots of fugues in them. Of course, something like Saul also has choral fugues – he’s actually an amazing contrapuntalist, much more Italianate than someone like Bach – but then in the suites there are also lots of dance movements derived from the 17th century, so that’s a different tradition altogether. What I like about my career is that people often ask me you do so many different things. You can conduct the Australian Haydn Ensemble and then play instrumental music, or you do opera with Pinchgut and then you’re duetting in 19th-century rep with Stephanie McCallum. But actually, it’s no different to musicians of the 17th, 18th, or early-19th centuries who did all of those things. I think the specialisation that the 19th century introduced through the German university system, which has become the norm now, has pros and cons. I’m definitely a sort of Enlightenment dude in that I like the challenges of doing lots of different things.
With the ABC disc, how did you decide what to play?
I recommended to Toby Chadd that I do Handel, partly because I feel that I’m now a sort of Handel specialist. I’ve done more operas by Handel than any other composer. And when you are inside one of his scores, it’s like you get inside his head. You also get inside how he sets texts, how he understands drama, how he responds to the drama. Often when I’m playing harpsichord in opera rehearsals, I’m reducing from a full score, turning an aria into a harpsichord solo. In fact, a contemporary of Handel’s did this and arranged arias. They were very virtuosic and really bizarre arrangements, so I proposed to Toby that I do some of those, because they felt really close to me.
The suite I chose is a collection from Rinaldo, and then I did a standalone Vo’ Far Guerre from Rinaldo as well, which has a famous harpsichord solo that Handel played at the premiere.
I know you are excited about the instrument you got to play on the recording. What’s so special?
I’m playing on this beautiful, beautiful 18th-century instrument that was restored to superb playing condition by Carey Beebe. This particular instrument has a technological innovation that appeared in the 1750s at the end of Handel’s life. It’s a pedal that pulls on and off the stops. So what I’m able to do in these suites is actually create – in inverted commas – dynamics, and swells, and really interesting effects. A lot of harpsichord players, we play these standardised, two manual, two eights and a four, buff stop, French-German models. But actually, the history of the harpsichord in the 18th century is one of huge plurality and diversity. So I thought it would be great to do this in a special way that also simulates the voice – with me it’s always about the voice.
Are you an optimist or pessimist about the future for the arts?
I’m really excited about the future, but it was interesting having a chat with Barrie Kosky in Adelaide. I asked him quite frankly if he would return to Australia and he said even though he loves Australia more than ever, he would not, because of the state of the arts here. The Komische Oper just received a 5% increase in funding in Berlin. I spend, and I know every reader who reads this who’s involved in an arts organisation will spend hours trying to scrabble together money.
If someone gave you a million dollars today, what would you do with it – and don’t say buy a house.
I would invest it straight back into Pinchgut, because it’s basically my lifeblood at the moment. My university life and Pinchgut are my twin souls, and if I can do amazing productions outside that – like the Adelaide Festival – then I’m extremely happy. My dream would need probably a bit more than a million dollars. One of the most moving experiences of my life was going to London and seeing a performance of a Cavalli opera in the Sam Wanamaker theatre, next to the Globe. It’s a very tiny theatre, there’s no artificial light. I was in tears for three hours. I was moved not only by the musicianship and the singing, but by the lighting. It wasn’t that expensive, it only cost them 1.6 million pounds or something, and I thought, let’s put a Venetian opera house on the shores of Sydney Harbour. What we’re doing with Pinchgut is wonderful. We’re doing 18th-century vocal performance practice, 18th-century instrumental practice, but everything else we are obliged to do in a modern way, because of the locale and the fact we cannot afford 18th-century costumes. It’s very expensive to do dance too – gesture takes extra rehearsal – but wouldn’t it be wonderful if we were able to be the Les Arts Florissants of the southern hemisphere?
Erin Helyard’s new Handel disc is out now on ABC Classics.