When I was growing up, Mum and Dad had classical music playing 24/7 – and they still do – but it was all crowd-pleasing stuff, which is not to diminish it. My father very much latched onto The Three Tenors. Even though I don’t know much about opera, there’ll still be certain things I can hum. My dad performed in amateur musicals. One of my earliest memories is seeing him do Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado. He was dressed up and in make-up, but it was absolutely normal.

I learned a few instruments growing up, but the only time my mum went “you’ll thank me when you’re older” was with the piano. I still remember the egg timer that was on top of it, which she would flip. It was not one you could force to go quicker. I know because I tried. But I absolutely do thank her for that. I also learned saxophone and went to an Indigenous boarding school in Broome for a while and the boys there taught me guitar. I don’t play any instrument well, but it’s enough to get me by and to be able to learn new material.

Simon GleesonSimon Gleeson

Music was a kind of drip-drip love for me. There was a lot of singing in the house, except for when my mum joined in and we’d rudely all go quiet because she’s got a horrific voice!

I actually started falling in love with the stories in music, not necessarily with the music itself. It was Les Mis that first piqued my interest in music theatre because it revolves around story and the music is so beautifully woven into the narrative. My dear friend Paul Kildea, who’s a conductor and academic and who was a boarding master of mine, was one of the first people to say, “you should think seriously about doing this for a living”. It only takes one person you admire and trust to lead you down that path. Going to WAAPA educated me about musical theatre, though musicals are not something I listen to at home. I prefer to see them or be in them.

I was once asked to assistant direct The Ring Cycle at Covent Garden by Keith Warner. Keith and I had worked on Kurt Weill’s Der Silbersee (Silver Lake) at Wexford Festival Opera in Ireland. We became close and he said, “I think you should come and do The Ring with me.” He sent me the English and German translations and all the CDs. At the time I was doing a piece at the Edinburgh Festival, but I spent all my days immersed in Wagner. I didn’t actually do it because a film came along instead, but to go through that process was amazing.

These days I’m getting an education in new pop music thanks to my daughter. But most of the music around the house is made by one of us – my wife Natalie O’Donnell or our two children – singing or rehearsing something.

I checked iTunes before doing this for Limelight and was shocked to find my most played album was Glenn Gould’s Goldberg Variations. But I think my late school years have kept the strongest musical hold on me. The soundtracks of that particular time are the albums I’ve recently gone back to: R.E.M., The Badloves, The Doors and even Guns N’ Roses, Michael Jackson and Queen. Big band music is my favourite, though. And I loved listening to Harry Connick Jr. when I was younger, so my tastes are super eclectic. It all depends on how I feel. But I love sad songs, I just love them.

THE MUSIC I COULDN’T LIVE WITHOUT…

BACH: GOLDBERG VARIATIONS

Glenn Gould p
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It’s not just that it’s the most played album on my iTunes, it’s by far the most played. So, I think it has obviously gotten me through many days. It’s just so beautifully sculpted as a piece of music. I love it, I don’t know why. It’s under my skin, in my bloodstream. And I prefer to listen to it with headphones so that you can hear this crazy guy humming along as he does crazy things.


Simon Gleeson is in Melbourne Theatre Company’s Hay Fever, playing at Southbank Theatre until October 28. Simon Gleeson performs in the Australian Philharmonic Orchestra’s New Year’s Eve 2017 concert series, December 31 at Arts Centre Melbourne.