A rotating roster of solo operatic voices will perform In Song, a free series of eight Sydney Chamber Opera concerts in a Victorian gothic-style former ecclesiastical church dating from 1891 in Sydney’s Alexandria.

The church, with its gabled porch entrance and vaulted timber ceiling, was acquired several years ago by the White Rabbit Gallery’s Director Judith Neilson. Its hall has a “beautiful acoustic for this intimate kind of work”, says SCO Artistic Director Jack Symonds.

Sydney Chamber Choir’s In Song program. Photograph © Lisa Tomasetti

Four 60-minute artsong programs, illustrating where the form has found itself in the 21st century, will each consist of one singer – soprano Jane Sheldon, soprano Anna Fraser, baritone Simon Lobelson or mezzo-soprano Emily Edmonds – accompanied by Symonds on piano, with each program performed twice. Singer and pianist are to be uniquely lit for each program by artist Elizabeth Gadsby’s light installation.

The concerts will juxtapose work dating from a century ago with 21st-century compositions, including some Australian and world premieres, and while audience capacity will be limited each time to 60 ticket holders, the concerts will also be filmed for free online distribution by Neilson’s new Phoenix Central Park cultural centre, based in Chippendale, which is presenting the series.

Sheldon will sing French composer Gabriel Fauré’s La Chanson d’Ève (The Song of Eve) and Fraser will take on Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg’s Das Buch der Hängenden Gärten (The Book of the Hanging Gardens) – two very different, ambitious works that speak of “visionary gardens”, but are each rarely performed, says Symonds.

“For Fauré, the audience has a notion he was, as he was dubbed at the time, a ‘master of charms’, as a French Romantic composer that wrote some pretty melodies and a requiem that everyone loves,” he says.

“They ignore the later Fauré, which is incredibly elusive – it’s a very odd language that is this perfect surface where all the activity and interesting detail sits just beneath the surface, and requires very concentrated, rarefied listening.”

The Schoenberg meanwhile is a large-scale work, and “extraordinarily difficult to perform, technically, interpretively and imaginatively. It marked the beginning of the composer “burning down, bit by bit, all the things he knew to be true about music”, and requires great concentration by both listener and performer.

Sheldon will premiere the song cycle Nearing Circumpolar from Australian composer Mary Finsterer’s upcoming opera Antarctica, which will have a global warming flavour.

“Mary is certainly writing the opera as we speak, and it’s been a long time in the works for her,” says Symonds. “In terms of the climate emergency, both Mary and Tom Wright, the librettist in the work, are fascinated by the [loss] of krill [due to climate change], which has a devastating effect on the ecology [up the food chain].”

Fraser will perform the world premiere of Australian composer David Evans’s In my brain, a setting of poet Emily Dickinson’s I felt a funeral in my brain. The “mechanistic, brutal” text sits alongside the music’s “velvety tonality”, says Symonds.

“It’s very deliberate programming Anna on the same day as Jane, because they’re almost opposite performers in so many ways,” says Symonds.

“Whereas Jane quite effortlessly plunges this silvery, rarefied world of sound, Anna is very passionate and earthy, with a laser-like, enormous range that is able to encompass huge shifts of expression and a stylistic range as well very easily.”

Simon Lobelson will give audiences Benjamin Britten’s Songs and Proverbs of William Blake and German composer Wolfgang Rihm’s Vermischter Traum, written in 2017 and “about as serious, heavy and German as you can get”, says Symonds. The piece requires gravitas, opening with the lines: “What is this life? What are we?”

“Simon’s been working with the SCO since 2013, and he’s an old friend of the company,” says Symonds. “He’s seen us through some of our most baritone-ally heavy shows.”

“He has a wonderful intimate intensity, and is able to scale his voice to the size of the work and the size of the space in which he’s singing, but it feels like you’re listening to some great Wagnerian baritone sometimes by the way he’s able to capture the intensity of every note.”

Finally, Emily Edmonds will perform US composer Samuel Barber’s Hermit Songs, written in 1953, “10 reflections from anonymous monks in pre-modern monasteries”, says Symonds.

The Artistic Director will also pay tribute to Edmonds’ voice with the world premiere of his own song cycle Nothing other than silence, in which he says he aims to capture an “electric intimacy” between voice and piano.

“Emily has a colour and an intensity that audiences around the world have responded to,” says Symonds.

“She’s been a leading performer on stage in London and Berlin and all throughout Europe, and we’re very lucky to have her back. She possesses an ability to inhabit a single word, or a single sound, and make it seem as though that is the only way it can ever be performed.

“When I hear anybody else sing Hermit Songs, for instance, even when Barber himself plays it with Leontyne Price, I can’t unhear the way Emily inflects individual words, and for me that’s often a sign of a really great singer, that they imprint their sound on your conception of a work.”

The In Song series’ free presentation is a condition set down by Phoenix as an offering to the community, but also accords with Symonds and Sydney Chamber Opera’s philosophy of greater access and equity for music audiences.

“This is the first free event we’ve offered, actually, but SCO has always had [low opera] ticket prices: as part of our residency at Carriageworks, nothing [at that venue] is over $50. It’s very much an idea that opera itself is not a form that one needs to outlay vast sums of money to see where it’s at.”

Sydney Chamber Opera’s In Song series, presented by Phoenix Central Park, will be held at The Church, 9 Mitchell Road, Alexandria at 5.30pm and 7.30pm on 12, 19 & 26 June and 3 July. Registration is essential, and some concerts are at or close to capacity, with waiting lists.


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