In Conversation: Eva-Marie Middleton

In Conversation: Eva-Marie Middleton

Dream of a Childhood's End. 

In Conversation: Eva-Marie Middleton

Dream of a Childhood's End. 

Your upcoming performance for Fringe World Perth sees you and a small chamber ensemble performing lieder by Mahler and Wagner. Tell us how the idea for this production came about.

Whenever I finish a show I like to take some time to experiment with what my voice has become capable of during the production (the voice is constantly growing and changing and surprising me). I finished the OperaBox production of Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos in September 2016, in which I played The Composer, and did my usual experimenting, during which I came across the Mahler Kindertotenlieder. Not only was I surprised by how my voice could now handle the music, the subject matter struck me. While it is literally about the death of a child, I found myself reading into it a lot about losing childhood in general. This is particularly pertinent in a world where we constantly see pictures of children in war zones on TV and refugee children on boats; even just seeing how fast children I know grow up in contemporary Western Society. This idea of lost childhood spoke to me a lot. 

I then started thinking of another piece with which to pair it. I had learnt the Wagner Wesendonck Lieder years before, and been ready to perform them a couple of times with various orchestras around Perth. However, other programming demands had forced a change: One of these turned into a performance of  Strauss's Four Last Songs, so not a change for the worse, but I still hadn’t had a chance to perform the Wagner. While the Wagner isn’t about a literal death as with the Mahler, there is a certain philosophical nature to the songs, a coming to terms with life in all its aspects, which I thought worked alongside the Mahler. Again, my voice now felt so much more at ease with the music that the pairing just made sense. 

I approached a couple of friends about this idea, and I think the most important part in my decision-making process was that no one said the idea was stupid, so I went ahead! I had already found an arrangement of the Mahler by an American arranger for piano, oboe and French horn (and voice of course), so I decided to make my own arrangement of the Wagner to match. I always had in my head the idea that I wanted to do something more akin to a one-person opera than a traditional lieder recital, so I brought a director on board. They have helped a lot in shaping the show, particularly with finding that line between an explicit narrative while also leaving enough space for audiences to insert their own interpretation. 

What drew you to this repertoire?

I love late romantic repertoire above all for the musical form itself. Listening to Mozart is lovely, but every line is tied in a nice little bow of dominant-tonic cadences which feels very different to my experience of life. There aren’t neat episodes in life, but instead one event falls into the next and into the next and you might not find any resolution for a long time. The extended harmonies and long drawn out phrases of this romantic repertoire just speak to me so much more of real life experience. What’s more, singing this repertoire feels like slipping on an old glove that fits perfectly, whereas it tends to feel like a squeeze to fit my voice into earlier repertoire. Certain voices fit in certain places, and the long expansive lines of the Mahler feel natural to me. It was a very strange feeling the first time I ever sang any of this music, a sort of homecoming to a home I didn’t know I had, but which felt right.

Dream of Childhood's End looks at the loss of childhood in contemporary society. What are your thoughts on music as an opportunity for people to play in a world where our focus is on 'busyness' rather than taking the time to enjoy things?

Music gives us permission to do things that we don’t get to do in real life. Everything is deeper, the stakes are higher, the emotions all consuming, the palate is richer. It’s a place where any thought pushed aside by everyday life can come to fore, that we might wallow in it and explore its every facet. As life gets busier it is important to have these safe opportunities, to give ourselves permission to explore the deeper questions. I think that’s true of all art forms, but music has a way a moving beyond the limitations of language and expressing the inexpressible. Even though I’m singing words, the pitch, the dynamic, the accompaniment, all the musical elements add a greater meaning to it than the simple literal translation.

Fringe festivals tend to offer comedy, cabaret, and other music genre performances more frequently than classical music. What is it about this particular production, focusing on classical music, that makes it so suited to Fringe?

My favourite fringe festival experience was from a few years ago where I went to a dance performance. It took place in a tiny room which seated no more than 10 people. The two dancers were within a hands-width of my face. They danced on a sort of scaffold, a couple’s dance exploring different stages in a relationship. It was amazing, confronting, touching, and everyone left knowing they’d shared something intimate and unrepeatable. That is my perfect fringe experience. Yes, fringe often has comedy and cabaret elements, but that’s because those genres are very good at creating that intimate, edgy fringe feel. At its heart, I feel fringe is about something that breaks the mould, that’s a bit on the edge. That is certainly what we are doing in this production. It’s in no way a traditional lieder performance. There’s lots of moving and singing in amongst the audience. There’s talking to the audience. It has that in-your-face feel which is so vastly different to mainstream classical music, with its clear divide between audience and performer. The subject matter is also so contemporary, as a commentary on life in the early 21st century, that it is entirely fringe appropriate.

How would you recommend getting started with chamber music outside of university?

There is often a real feeling of division between singers and instrumentalists. At university, you might not see them much as you’re taking different electives. In opera, you do most of the rehearsal process without the orchestra. They might quickly introduce the singers at the Sitzprobe, but they won’t introduce all the orchestra members, and it’s at a point where your mind is 100% on the performance, so you never feel like you’ve bonded with orchestra members. OperaBox has been really trying over the last couple of shows to break down that divide, to have more social events with singers and orchestra together but it is hard. 

With that in mind, I have to say that one of the best moments in producing this show was the day I had to call the instrumentalists. I had a spiel I’d come up with to explain who I was and how I knew them through whatever show we’d done together. Yet, as soon as I got them on the phone, I never needed to say it. They all knew exactly who I was, and were all eager to be involved. For me it was a bit of an epiphany that there shouldn't be a divide between instrumentalists and singers; we’re all musicians in it together and all wanting to find opportunities to challenge ourselves as artists. Once you have that mentality, then chamber music becomes no harder to organize than a small vocal ensemble. In terms of tips: Get to know the instrumentalists in any show you’re doing, as much as you can, and just ask them if they’re interested. You’ll be surprised!

This production is a clear example of musicians coming together, making their own opportunities in forging their musical careers. Do you have any tips for our readers who might be interested in doing this as well - any advice you wish you had before you started?

  1. There’s no right or wrong time to do things. I used to feel bad that I wasn’t doing solo things when other people were, but it just wasn’t the right time for me personally. There’s no advantage to running before you can walk, and you can’t miss the boat so to speak, so just be ok with when you feel you’re ready. 
  2. Always take note of how other events are organised. Making your own musical opportunities is a combination of musical skill and organisational skill, and we’re often very good at having musical role models but not organisational ones. Join committees, notice the leadership behind different choirs and orchestras, ask questions of people, soak up all that experience as well so that when you come to do it yourself you’re not trying to reinvent the wheel.
  3. Just ask people. The worst thing that can happen is someone says no, but then again they might say yes. 
  4. Treat people as you want to be treated. In the arts money is tight, and yet sometimes it is fellow artists who are lax on paying people. When you can, pay promptly, pay early, show other artists that you value them. That respect goes a long way.

What can audiences expect from this performance?

This show is an immersive experience. Come expecting beautiful music, but also expect that music to be all around you, right up close and powerful. Expect deep emotions. The show has moments for the audience to reflect on their own childhood, on their own loss, on how we all have that common suffering of leaving childhood behind, never to return. Expect to be taken on that emotional journal. Above all, expect to leave feeling that we have all shared this intimate experience together, never to be repeated.