The Art of Playing Opera – To the Moon and Back

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Rachael Beesley will be concertmaster for the forthcoming national tour of Voyage to the Moon, a co-production of Musica Viva Australia and Victorian Opera in collaboration with the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions. Rachael was recently concertmaster for the cycle of Beethoven Symphonies performed by Anima Eterna at the Sydney Festival in January 2016, at the City Recital Hall and the Sydney Opera House.

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The voice of Alan Curtis booming out loud and clear in some Baroque palace or church in Italy is a sound I shall remember well. Alan was a master of detail and the ‘halt’ was usually intended to bring a rehearsal or recording to an abrupt stop in order to explore a minor point of continuo phrasing or vocal ornamentation. Alan was one of the world’s pre-eminent musicians and musical minds, and his demands were exacting.

Learning of Alan’s sudden death in July last year, in the middle of preparations for Voyage to the Moon, was devastating for those of us who had been especially excited by his enthusiasm to be part of this unique collaboration. But our most immediate thoughts were with his family and colleagues worldwide.

As Alan’s Il Complesso Barocco concertmaster on many recordings and tours, I was privileged to work in depth with such a sweet and gentle soul, who was a charismatic, energetic and passionate advocate for the music of the Baroque. His quest for learning was endless and he loved to share his enthusiasm for the music he discovered or was working on with his colleagues. He cared deeply for his singers, including Joyce DiDonata (mezzo-soprano), Anne Hallenberg (mezzo-soprano) and Karina Gauvin (soprano), and gave them every possibility to shine on the stage or in recordings.

Working with singers of this calibre is both inspiring and breathtaking. The moment when you connect musically you are carried away to another dimension, both in rehearsal and on the stage. Also, watching these singers embody the characters they are performing shows the incredible power of a fully engaging mind, body and spirit.

I remember coming in to rehearse Charpentier’s David and Jonathan with Anders J. Dahlin (tenor) for Pinchgut Opera. We began at the most intimate moment in the opera where the violin and voice intertwine. The amazing thing was that we had never met in person (as rehearsal areas on opera sets are often very busy places), but in that moment we created something very special in the music, which brought both cheers and tears from our colleagues. They couldn’t believe we’d never worked together or met before!

Philippe Jaroussky (countertenor) is another incredible singer who can bring an entire orchestra to its pinnacle. Joyously for me, as guest concertmaster of the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra, performing Handel arias with him was like being driven in a Ferrari around the most stunning scenery in Tuscany!

That’s the thing about opera, it takes you away from where you are to a place you can only imagine, with a sensation that you can only dream of…

I’ve been in love with opera and the life of opera all of my career, from winning an audition for Orchestra Victoria while I was still studying at the VCA, to debuting with Cosi fan tutte and performing Strauss’s Elektra for Melbourne Festival, performing in the ground-breaking production of Rameau’s Les Paladins with William Christie and Les Arts Florissants in Paris and Shanghai, and an amazing evening of opera highlights by Wagner and Strauss with the indomitable Simone Young at the helm of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra.

These fabulous experiences strengthened my ability, and confidence, to lead an orchestra in a way that brings the dedication and hard work behind the scenes to fruition as a fully formed and engaging presentation on stage for the audience to experience in every dimension.

I’m eternally grateful for the wonderful opportunities I’ve had to perform  as a concertmaster. The many highlights include: performing in Vienna at the beautiful Theater an der Wien with Alan Curtis, where, greeting the singers in a cafe after the performance, my colleagues from Vienna were overwhelmed to see the warm respect the world-renowned singers showed me and the musicians of the orchestra; recording the Magic Flute with Sigiswald Kuijken and La Petite Bande in Beaune, France, including working on it until 3am and then getting lost trying to find our hotel!; performing the heart-rendering Dido’s Lament with Yvonne Kenny for Opera Australia’s production of Dido and Aeneas in the Sydney Opera House; and exploring Rodelinda with the dynamic 86-year-old Richard Bonynge and the Melbourne Chamber Orchestra.

From the concertmaster’s perspective, we exist at the very point where the visual imagery, text and drama come to life. The music demands our full awareness of the conductor or director’s gestures, and our reaction to the singers’ breathing as well as our movements lead the orchestra through the score. Living and breathing the music allows us to be fully immersed in the passion of opera. Looking for that spark to engage and unite an ensemble of musicians and singers and to use this energy to connect with the audience is what drives our performance goal.

I’ve enjoyed a long association as concertmaster with Victorian Opera for the creative productions of Xerxes, Baroque Triple Bill and the Marriage of Figaro. Now is a wonderful chance for the rest of Australia to experience the unique and daring Victorian Opera’s production of Voyage to the Moon as we tour nationally for Musica Viva Australia. The work of the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions will illuminate the processes involved in bringing our production to the stage and engage the public with vital questions about why and how Baroque music moves our affections. On this voyage of discovery, I’ll be thinking of Alan and his booming voice as we travel to the Moon.

Rachael Beesley is an internationally renowned violinist, university lecturer and teacher at Melbourne and Sydney Conservatories, Monash University and DAIR at ANU School of Music. She is a Historically Informed Performance Practice specialist, Flow coach, guest concertmaster and director with the crème of European and Australian orchestras. She has numerous festival, radio and television appearances to her name, and is a recording artist on over 30 CDs. With awards from the Ian Potter Cultural Trust, she is listed in Whos Who of Australian Women. Find out more at www.rachaelbeesley.com.

Voyage to the Moon will tour in Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide, Brisbane and Perth. Tickets available here. This an exciting collaboration between Musica Viva and Victorian Opera, in partnership with the Performance Program of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions, led by Professor Jane Davidson who is also professor of Creative and Performing Arts at The University of Melbourne..

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