Bell Shakespeare and the ACO breathe life into the musings of Janáček, Smetana, and Mozart.

“Initially they looked like two old tomes of letters, but once I got into them it became a bit of a page-turner. You get really involved in their lives, because one would write a letter, and then you’d want to read the response.”

It might seem like a daunting feat, but Susanna Dowling has read over 700 personal, handwritten letters. After blowing the dust from the surface, she is now preparing to breathe life into these “florid” musings in an intriguing music theatre collaboration. It’s called Intimate Letters, and showcases the words and music of three composers: Janáček, Smetana, and Mozart.

“The letters were written around the time that each composer wrote the music [featured in the performance], so the theme is very much what was going on in the mind or the style of the composer at the time – so you sort of get the emotional undercurrent.” said Dowling, who is Bell Shakespeare’s Director in Residence.

Not only does the emotional undercurrent provide context to each musical work, but it also drives the performance as a whole. Janáček wrote obsessively to his love, Kamila Stösslová, a married woman nearly 40 years his junior. Smetana wrote darkly of his deafness and the depths of anxiety and depression. Mozart wrote excitedly of his early career success and future musical aspirations.

“The letters are kind of incredible, and I think the music definitely helps translate them,” said Dowling. “It’s a nice way into the music beyond just appreciating it for what it is. I don’t think you could ever make a piece of theatre without it being with the music – it really is the star.”

Accept these few roses as a token of my unbounded esteem for you. You are so lovely in character and appearance that in your company one’s spirits are lifted; you breathe warm-heartedness, you look on the world with such kindness that one wants to only do good and pleasant things for you in return. You will not believe how glad I am that I have met you – Janáček

Intimate Letters will be performed around Australia this month, in a partnership between Bell Shakespeare and the Australian Chamber Orchestra. The orchestra’s Principal Cellist, Timo-Veikko Valve, has already performed an early version of the work in 2012, when it was originally staged as a pop-up chamber concert at Pier 2/3 in Sydney.

“It’s not in any way a revolutionary idea to combine text and music, especially with Janáček’s String Quartet No 2 (from which the performance borrows its name),” said Valve. “There is something very special about his ability to speak though the notes. His melodies, to me, sound like speech…maybe after listening to his letter, his words, his syntax, some of the quirkiness of his music will be better heard.”

In many ways, Intimate Letters is a performance with oratorio-like qualities. The letters, as read by actors Marshall Napier and Ella Scott Lynch, will weave between each piece of music and within the works themselves.

“It feels good to shake up the standard overture-concerto-symphony model of a concert program,” said Valve. “The Australian Chamber Orchestra loves to work with a wide variety of people who come to us with fresh eyes and ears, and new ideas. This breathes new life into the orchestra, and can be quite thrilling.”

Intimate Letters doesn’t just breathe new life into the orchestra, but also 100-year-old letters from figures known only for their music. In doing so, the audience will be provided with an exciting new way to connect, and the works  –  and their writers – are given a heart and soul. 

The Australian Chamber Orchestra and Bell Shakespeare perform Intimate Letters from August 18 – September 2. More information here.