Lighting designer proves a musical ‘catholic’ who four years of Wagner’s Ring didn’t convert.

Defining what music means to me is almost impossible. The easiest answer would be to say that I neither can, nor indeed wish to, imagine my life in its absence. I would fail the Desert Island Disc test miserably, as I’d need a suitcase big enough to sink the average atoll to accompany me. It has simply always been one of the most important things in my world.

My earliest childhood experiences of music were nothing if not eclectic, ranging from the predictable (Tubby the Tuba, Peter and the Wolf) through the mildly precocious (Mozart’s Jupiter, Beethoven’s Emperor) to the somewhat left-of-field (Spike Jones’ Carmen) all of which formed the first building blocks of my record collection. To this day, I find it impossible to hear Carmen without mentally superimposing Jones’ brilliantly corny lyrics, punctuated, naturally, by the odd car horn. 

Meanwhile, growing up alongside a very much older pair of siblings, there were the constant strains of my sister’s guitar practice from one room and the raucous tones of my brother’s encyclopaedic collection of Be-bop records from another. The former gave rise to a certain tension in the family, as we would all tacitly hold our breath every time she reached a particular section of what I now know to be an étude by Fernando Sor.  She would inevitably falter, then stumble, before continuing as though nothing had happened. It was only then that we could all exhale and get on with our lives. The latter proved to have a lasting influence on my musical taste – jazz has continued to be my ‘other’ favourite music. 

From about the age of nine, I did the typical four or five years of piano lessons and theory, but found easy excuses for fairly desultory practice once the novelty wore off, as this involved daily trips to a nearby friend’s house in order to use their piano. In my teens, I followed in my sister’s footsteps (she was by this stage teaching classical guitar in New Zealand) and pursued the guitar fairly obsessively for many years. This culminated in a part time stint playing bad Spanish guitar in a very bad Spanish restaurant – for extremely bad pay.

By then I was working in theatre and, still following the music, decided to give opera a try. Unfortunately, by this stage I was extremely opinionated and set in my ways with respect to what music I liked – and more to the point, what I loathed. I say unfortunately, because the vast bulk of the standard opera repertoire falls firmly into the gap, or rather chasm, between my likes. I refer of course to the so-called Romantic period. To this day, with a few notable exceptions, my musical world goes into a decades-long hibernation with the death of Beethoven. It feels as though, with the completion of his last string quartets, all that was to be musically said, had been said, right up until the emergence of the early 20th-century composers like Stravinsky, Bartók etc. It’s almost as though those last Beethoven works were so far ahead of their time that the rest of the world had to catch up before anyone could write anything meaningful again. My long involvement with opera has largely served to reinforce this prejudice. Nowadays I’m far more likely to be found doing a Mozart or a Britten, than a Verdi, let alone a Wagner. Four precious years of my life spent living with the Ring Cycle most certainly confirmed that particular prejudice! Music simply has always been an essential part of my life!

Nick Schlieper is lighting designer for Macbeth at Sydney Theatre Company from July 21-Sept 27