One of many reasons I embarked on writing this style of mag/blog is I knew I would never exhaust the supply of amazing minds living, working and creating in the city of Melbourne. I also knew I would learn more about the city around me and about the world at large – looking at it through a unique and individual lenses that combined place, personal history and vocation.
And that said… you just don’t meet opera singers every day. So it was a real thrill to meet Alison Rae Jones!
I was introduced to Alison via a “pass it on interview’ recommendation from a TENANT alumni, Dr. Amy Nisselle. Alison has been a freelance opera principal for 20 years and has worked in Australia, Europe, USA and South Africa. Her soprano voice has raised the roof in all manner of places from London’s West End to Amsterdam’s Musiektheatre and at Elton John’s birthday party.
She is truly passionate about opera and about making it more accessible to the masses. Catching up in her 3066 Collingwood home she introduced me to new terms, words like “rusty-gate” which refers to atonal music and “pop-op” which describes popular opera. Pieces like La donna e mobile and the Flower Duet, which have both been used in big brand commercials and which many people can hum along to – even if they don’t know exactly why.
She is now back in Australia and runs La Prima Opera, a concert opera and functions entertainment company based in of Melbourne.
She also still performs and can be seen this week at Gasworks Arts Park in Albert Park. Her show Sirens, is a ‘unique collaboration between three of Melbourne’s leading sopranos’ and I for one cannot wait to see her in action…There is something so joyful about witnessing a great voice in motion and the way it can inspire an impassioned mob.
Hi Alison, thanks for having me over. It’s a blast to meet an opera singer! I’ve seen a handful of operas in my life and have always been profoundly moved by them. The last one I saw was Madame Butterfly in Melbourne and it left me in a kind of dazed, tender state for the entire weekend. The vibration of the music; the power of the voices, was simply amazing.
What got you into opera?
I was born in Yallourn, Victoria, prior to the town being knocked down to make way for open-cut brown coal mining and I then grew up in Morwell, in the Latrobe Valley, Victoria. I was eleven, and performing at an Eisteddfod, when an adjudicator took my mother aside and told her I could take classical singing as far as I wanted. This planted a seed in my mind and changed my future I guess.
I was lucky enough to be accepted straight from school into the performance undergraduate course at the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA). Music is the only thing that’s never felt like work to me. My second course choice was Arts at Monash and I have no idea what I would have studied or what profession I would have followed, if not for this. I remember crossing off the days on a calendar until I moved to Ridley College, a Melbourne University residency.
What an adorable, vivid memory. After you graduated you spent a long time abroad, was that driven by ambition or necessity?
After graduating, I spent two years in the chorus and the School’s Company of the Victorian State Opera before being accepted into their Young Artist Program, which is like an apprenticeship for principal artists. I also did lots of recital and oratorio work and recorded for ABC FM. Then in 1995 I moved to London and was based as a freelance opera singer there until returning to Melbourne in 2007. There is definitely more opera work to be had in Europe.
I think the performing arts must be such an exciting career path. The variety of personalities that you get to contemplate and inhabit through emotion, costumes and the amazing venues one gets to call “the office”. Not to mention the people you meet: other performers, patrons and fans. What would you be the most proud of professionally?
As a performer there have been a number of highlights that I feel justify the incredible support I received from my family, community, teachers and colleagues along the way. The irony is that none of these people were there to see them!
One was working on the West End at the Savoy Theatre in London as Mabel in Pirates of Penzance and Josephine in HMS Pinafore for the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company.
The other was working in the role of Governess in Britten’s The Turn of the Screw based on the Henry James novel.
In a few incarnations of this piece, I was directed by Elijah Moshinsky, performed with the Schoenberg Ensemble in the Netherlands, conducted by the brilliant Reinbert De Leuuw and had the honour of working with the late, great, most renowned Quint of our time, Phillip Langridge.
What do you mean by a “quint”?
Quint is the name of a character, played by a lead tenor, in The Turn of the Screw. The character is a actually a ghost of a former valet.
Why do you think that opera attendance numbers have fallen over the last five years in Australia?
I think – things like the GFC aside – it’s all about exposure to the music. There’s a perception here that only the educated “get” the art form and of course this attitude breeds accessibility barriers. The concept of opera needs to be re-branded, hence my interest in performance opportunities like Opera in the Laneways, where I can take opera to Melbourne bars and to customers, many of whom have never experienced it.
Interestingly I’ve found that people young and old, male and female, speak passionately about film scores that include operatic pieces like the Countess Susanna duet from Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro in the Shawshank Redemption. Or pieces that have been used in commercials, like the Toreador Song, which is from the opera Carmen and is the theme tune for the Geelong Football Club song, or the Flower Duet from Lakmé that was used by British Airways.
So would these tracks be examples “pop-op”?
Yes, exactly. Pop-op is popular, often-requested pieces of music that I’m regularly asked to perform at corporate functions, weddings, etc. People know them well, without sometimes identifying them as opera.
What’s the difference between a musical and an opera? It can’t just be language, as operas like Carmen are also sung in English?
That’s a great question. You’re right and there are many musicals like West Side Story that are bilingual, too. The easiest answer is that musicals are generally miked (use microphones) and opera is voice projection only. As such, the body is used differently so that operatic voices carry over an orchestra. And I guess you might need a lot more breath to also dance if you’re a singer in musicals. Certainly there’s some crossover and there are artists like Marina Prior who are trained opera singers but have chosen to perform in musicals – to much acclaim. The other difference is that opera is entirely sung, whereas musicals contain more dialogue.
Do you think it’s the Italian language that makes it harder to access?
There are operas in many other languages including French, German, and even English. The reason we think of most opera as being Italian is simply because opera originated in Italy, so the most common language used in the Baroque and Classical periods for opera was Italian. And the word “opera” itself means “a work” in Latin.
But yes, perhaps. I think it’s a part of it. I loved living in Europe and seeing a younger crowd go to the opera and then head out clubbing afterwards. Many of them were perhaps more familiar with the language of origin, or speakers of it. But it was great that it was all part of their evening out, it wasn’t considered a performance art for the educated, the middle class or the elderly. It was embraced as an art form that combines story and song made for the whole community – which is the way I feel I about it.
Now you’re back in Melbourne, with all of this experience to share, what is a dream project?
My dream project was to start my own opera company and take opera to new audiences. I founded La Prima Opera in Melbourne in 2008. We take concert opera to metropolitan, regional and rural theatres around Australia and to non-traditional venues in Melbourne, such as with our Opera in the Laneway series at Guildford Lane Gallery, 1000 Pound Bend and The Paris Cat.
Up to 80 per cent of our audience have never been to an opera. Of course classical music is not everyone’s thing, but it is all about exposure. As I said earlier, I had many European friends in London who thought it was normal to go to the opera, then on to a club.
I find that lovely. In part just to imagine a place where the “rules of cool” are a little different – especially when the rules favour passionate and romantic artistic pursuits! Do you find opera singers to be passionate and romantic?
Hah ha! I find many opera singers to be rough and ready, salt of the earth folk. A good comparative creative type, or comparative career arc, might be that of a chef. To me many opera singers are similar: driven, passionate, romantic and perhaps sometimes a little emotional.
I love the analogy. I can easily imagine the late, great Pavarotti whipping up a coq au vin or brewing osso bucco with a hearty chuckle. You, however, Alison, seem very cool, calm and collected! What’s your secret?
I’m a good actress!
Aside from practising for your next performance, which I’m excited to see, what’s inspiring you right now and why?
Professionally speaking, I’ve been recently inspired by the incredible new music scene in Melbourne. The talent of groups like the Syzygy Ensemble is really exciting and the Victorian Opera is programming some fabulous contemporary opera as well. Oh and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s Metropolis New Music Festival was awesome.
I’m also looking forward to working with the Bridges Collective Ensemble in a cultural exchange with Malaysia and Indonesia, presenting new works by Australian and Malaysian composers.
Wow, that sounds interesting. Please keep me informed as to when that will be presented so I can pass it on to readers!
So, all this passion and commitment must have a flip side? Can you share with us a downside to your glamorous life, and your industry?
Oh that’s easy! It upsets me that most people who spend many years studying to be an opera singer end up having to do something else for a living.
If you’re lucky enough to have patriality in the UK, there is a lot more work there. I wish La Prima Opera were able to employ all the mid-career singers who have returned Melbourne. It’s becoming some list!
Ah, Melbourne, they all come back to the Grande Dame in the end! What are you enjoying most about being back in Melbourne?
My favourite thing about Melbourne is its inclusivity. The way Melburnians attend cultural activities does not seem to reflect the differences in society we’re sometimes too ready to exploit, such as gender, race, socioeconomics. Also, we tend to collect in its centre when business is over. Where other cities disperse, Melburnians head back to the inner city for dinner, drinks, entertainment, sport, movies, live music and theatre. It gives me a warm fuzzy feeling.
You’re living in Collingwood at the moment. Why did you gravitate to 3066?
My partner and were attracted to the bustling edgy energy of this area. It reminded us a bit of Brixton in London where we lived; it felt familiar and interesting.
If Collingwood reminds you of Brixton, what place does Melbourne remind you of?
The city that most reminds me of Melbourne is Amsterdam. Obviously it’s geographically and architecturally not really anything like it but there is a work/life balance and vibe there that is immediately familiar.
Oh, I agree! I’ve been waiting for Amsterdam to appear in response to that question. I’ve only passed through the city but I really enjoyed my time there and felt strangely at home amongst the foreignness of it all.
What about a Melbourne word or phrase? Did you miss a particular saying when you were away, or is there one that now stands out?
Speccy!It’s a football term so it’s as Melbourne as it comes – but I find it is useful for anything that is, well… speccy!
And what would you change about Melbourne, in its current state ?
First on my list is improved public transport – it should be the norm to travel by train, tram and bus in a city the size of Melbourne.
“Ching ching”. That’s the sound of me getting a dollar for every interviewee that responds in kind. I’m going to have to rephrase the question … or start writing letters to the Minister!
So what’s on for your week ahead?
I like jogging along the Yarra river, Merri Creek and the Tan . I have dinner at Long Grain in Little Bourke Street with friends, and preparation for my performance Sirens at Gasworks Arts Park on Monday.
Exciting! I can’t wait to see the show (and reader’s I have spare ticket if you are keen to join me! See below for “first dibs” details).
Sirens is only for one night – are there any more works in the pipeline for those who might miss out?
You can check out our La Prima Opera Facebook page to keep up with what we’re doing, but also look out for us at our new favourite Melbourne laneway venue, Ruby’s Music Room on the corner of Little Lonsdale St and Bennetts Ln in the CBD.
Thanks so much for your time, Alison. It’s been great chatting about opera, seeing the lovely view from your flat and meeting your cat family! I particularly loved learning that you name them after streets you live in when you adopt them. You have lived in streets with good names!
Lastly, who is a Melburnian that you would like to introduce to be interviewed by TENANT?
Two people pop straight into my mind. Anne Frankenberg, who is the current General Manager of 3MBS community radio and former opera, orchestra and women’s rights NGO manager and one remarkable Melbourne woman. The other is Gary Mills, independent wine maker of Jamsheed Wines. Gary studied literature but his passion is for making beautiful wine. His wine has just taken off in the US.
And the list of interesting and passionate Melburnians continues to prove endless! Thanks Alison – I look forward to meeting them soon.
So hands up if you want to come to the Opera?! The first person to message me, via twitter or email, re this post gets a ticket! (Contact details can be found on the About TENANT page).