Usually on ANZAC Day, tens of thousands of Australians attend dawn services or marches, while orchestras, musical ensembles and opera companies program special concerts to remember the fallen. This year it will be very different because of coronavirus restrictions.

Australians are being encouraged to “Light Up the Dawn” at home, by paying respect in their driveways, front gates or verandahs at dawn. The ABC will also broadcast a Dawn Service from the Australian War Memorial at 5:30am on television, radio and its YouTube and Facebook feeds.

Bethany Hill and Charlotte Kelso. Photograph courtesy of State Opera South Australia

State Opera South Australia will release a free online ANZAC Day concert called Keep the Home Fires Burning at 11am (ACST) on ANZAC Day morning. The 45-minute concert was specially recorded yesterday (Thursday, April 23) at the Ghost Light Bunker – a temporary, purpose-built streaming studio in Adelaide, established by Mosaic Audio Visual in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, to provide a safe and cost effective online broadcast space for the live theatre and performance sector.

Named after Ivor Novello’s patriotic wartime anthem, Keep the Home Fires Burning, the concert will feature a selection of hit songs from the trenches and the music hall of the era including Danny Boy, Floral Dance, Macushla, Oh! What a lovely War and Keep the Home Fires Burning, of course, as well as some Gilbert and Sullivan.

The concert is performed by five SOSA artists, soprano Bethany Hill, mezzo-soprano Charlotte Kelso, tenors Mark Oates and Andrew Crispe, and bass Gerry Masi, accompanied on piano by Anthony Hunt, SOSA’s Head of Music and Chorus Master.

State Opera South Australia Artistic Director Stuart Maunder admits that the project came about pretty late in the day. “Honestly, the company got around a white board and tried to find as many projects as we could to help us connect with our audience and sector,” he tells Limelight.

“One idea was to recreate the Red Cross Gala, Keep the Home Fires Burning, a concert we mounted in 2018. Our Head of Marketing Sidonie Henbest suggested that this was the perfect production to bring to life this ANZAC Day. We made the decision on Thursday last week, signed our singers on the Friday, started rehearsing on the Monday, before recording and editing on Thursday April 23. Having all South Australian-based artists made it easier to make our vision a reality in such a short time frame.”

The online ANZAC Day concert is not exactly the same as the 2018 concert. “A lot of it is the same repertoire but this time it’s a socially-distanced performance. This concert is about making love to a microphone rather than performing a standard concert. It also includes different material for the girls – we have included some great parlour songs and war songs of that time as well as a smidge of Gilbert and Sullivan,” says Maunder.

Asked which G & S, he says: “We have included the beautiful quartet When the Wooer goes a Wooing from Yeomen of the Guard as well as Tarantara (When the Foeman bears his Steel) from Pirates of Penzance, which is one of their most exciting pieces of counterpoint, a perfect piece to sing-along to.”

Maunder says that the experience of recording the online concert in the Ghost Light Bunker was “extraordinary. We had only ten people in the room at any one time, then we’d have a change-over – one would leave, and one would come in. We were all socially distanced, much hand sanitiser, and no one had to play the school Prefect. It’s amazing how much our practices have changed in only five weeks.”

“Everybody was really excited to be back in the room doing something again and by doing projects like this, it allows us to continue to employ local talent. All of the technicians were thinking the same thing: ‘Thank God we can do what we trained for,’” adds Maunder.

The audio quality of the recording is “very good”, he says. “This is not meant to be broadcast quality like the Met – this is simply a three-camera shoot and it’s very good. The joy of it is we’re performing repertoire that no one else is doing at the moment.”

Stuart Maunder. Photograph © Greg Bowker

Asked how SOSA is coping with the devastating impact of COVID-19, Maunder admits that it has been “a very hard time for the company, as it has been for the world. We aren’t able to employ a lot of our casual staff – many of whom have been working for the company on and off for a long time. That’s hard… State Opera is a Statutory Authority and therefore we are not eligible to have JobKeeper, but I am pleased to say that we have been able to look after people as best as we can. We’re employing as many artists as possible.”

“Certainly, we have every intention of putting on the shows that have been postponed when we come out the other side. It won’t just be a matter of starting a new slate at the beginning of 2021. We are hoping against hope that we will be on stage with Sweeney Todd in October of this year in the new Her Majesty’s Theatre.”

Maunder says that he and his team are “trying to keep as positive as possible in the present and to plan for the future. We are continuing to coach and rehearse the singers in a socially-distanced manner or over the internet. As an art form, we depend on people coming together for a unified enjoyment of a product. You can go some way toward that online but it’s not the same thing. We just want people to get into a theatre again. All of the signs are positive and let’s see in the next few months where it will be. Who would have thought of all of this started just five weeks ago for us all?”

Re-assessing the use of digital media is something that all arts companies are now having to do. “You have to embrace all of these new technologies and finally this 62-year old has [had] to take his head out of the sand and realise that it’s actually part of a new world and it’s important. To see me desperately try and edit my own podcast is a sad sight to behold,” quips Maunder.

“I think the artform has learnt a lot from this. Thank God the Met and the Royal Opera and all of those companies have an amazing digital archive to draw on. We are not trying to emulate the major production values of these larger companies. We are trying to create something intimate and local that speaks to our audiences. Though Facebook Live conversations, podcasts and even Spotify playlists we are continuing to connect.”

Maunder believes that eventually, in the fullness of time, it is going to be “the most positive thing that could possibly have happened to the artform. It’s absolutely just focused us all onto what I think is important and how we need to have this injection of human endeavour in art. We need to connect with other human beings and that is so often through live performances and that’s going to come back,” he says.

“It’s not the same online – it’s just not. I even hate not shaking hands with people. We are going to get over a time where that is a thing of the past and we will be able to physically communicate again.”

Other orchestras honouring ANZAC Day online include the Australian Chamber Orchestra, which will stream its Helpmann Award-winning ANZAC commemoration Reflections on Gallipoli on its Facebook page on April 25 at 6pm, and the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra which will stream a clip featuring music by FS Kelly, who was killed on the Western Front in 1916, as part of its online TSO Daily Dose. Tonight (Friday April 24) at 7.30pm, Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s ANZAC Day Virtual Choir will perform Joe Twist’s new arrangement of Banjo Paterson’s Waltzing Matilda on its YouTube channel.

State Opera South Australia will stream Keep the Home Fires Burning on Saturday April 25 at 11am ACST via its Facebook page