In Conversation: Paul Smith

In Conversation: Paul Smith

On the place of contemporary opera, dealing with writer's block and developing a story (from the middle)

Paul Smith
Sydney, Australia

In Conversation: Paul Smith

On the place of contemporary opera, dealing with writer's block and developing a story (from the middle)

Fancy Me Dead  is the kind of dark comedy that audiences scramble to catch on TV – full of twists and turns, complex relationships and fatal consequences. Can you tell me about how the story developed and what about the plot lends itself to the operatic genre?

The story developed from an unusual spot - the middle. While talking with the singers, Jermaine Chau and Taryn Srhoj, about what kind of show I could write for them, I told them about an idea I had where a business meeting is interrupted by two dead legs falling onto the stage, which they loved as it was a bit cabaret and a bit opera. So from there I worked in two directions simultaneously trying to figure out how we get to the legs and where we go after them. Whose legs are they? How did this person die? It was quite satisfying for me because the show has this almost mirror image built into the score in terms of motives and scenes and the idea of a reflection became really important during our rehearsal process when discussing the two main characters. The women are larger than life and they both have delusions of grandeur so an operatic score with operatic singing is the best way for them to express themselves. The intrigue, sinister intent and raw emotions are such operatic tropes. I also had these two amazing singers and had to find moments for them to show off, so there are two classic show stopping arias in the score as well.

The story line of this new opera makes comment on several major facets of contemporary society: money, gender, power and relationships. Moving forward, what do you think opera and classical music’s role can be in speaking on political and social events, and in this light what would you like to see developing composers focusing on?

Opera is unique in that it deals with musically representing many cultures but unfortunately those cultures largely come from the prism of 19th century straight white men. Of course we can work against that view in production but it imposes many limits. Things like yellow-face, and even black-face, are still commonplace at the opera, which horrifies me! Most of our art music culture is wrapped up in a system of private patrons, which I find very problematic. I know it's an impossible situation for the arts, but these systems reward and entertain a specific type of cultural norm. I would encourage developing composers to really consider where they want to sit in this system and to find ways to invite unexpected parties to the table when they can. It is very clear to me which music organisations in Australia value diversity and which do not.

This iteration of your opera, which was first presented at the Festival of Voices, features an expanded score for the Sirius Chamber Ensemble. Can you tell me about the process of re-orchestrating the piece and what it has been like working and rehearsing with the ensemble?

Having worked with Sirius before, I was able to speedily arrange the piano part. I know the players well and know what they like to do with their instruments. They are all such committed musicians too. The core players, Ian Sykes, Mel Coleman and Alison Evans, were present at the show's Sydney premiere in 2015 and Blush Opera is all about being part of a supportive music community. The colours from the ensemble have allowed the plot to thicken! Every line of text now has another element that tells the audience what is a sarcastic joke, what is a biting criticism or what is a deep regret. The singers and I are so amazed at what the ensemble and our conductor, Luke Spicer, are bringing out in the score. The show has a more complicated impact.   

When you’re working on a new piece of music what is your writing style and process? Are you an avid user of any particular notation software or do you stick with pencil and manuscript?

I normally start with things that are non-musical, which might sound a bit odd! My academic research is into connections between music and other forms of art so I tend to start somewhere visual or verbal. Many of my pieces come from novels, paintings, films or TV shows and this gives me a range of words or concepts which I then want to put into a piece of music. I have two main methods when writing the music though. Sometimes I sit at the piano and play with gestures like melodic fragments, a chord, or a rhythmic figure and other times I try to be far away from the piano and use software like Sibelius: this helps me change my style so everything doesn't follow my hand patterns. Sometimes I use manuscript paper, but I often don't know how to develop the ideas since it's not my normal mode of practice - the ideas become too isolated for me. 

The second university semester is fast approaching, meaning the submission of composition portfolios will be front of mind for many students. Do you have any advice for those working on finalising a body of writing to present?

I teach composition at the University of New England and one thing that we often discuss is how monolithic writing music can seem to be. It can feel like this enormous endeavor for student composers who are constantly being shown the most well known and regaled composers and it starts to feel foreign. Don't stress! Good education is about helping you do what you want to do in a successful and creative way. So try to think about what you want to achieve with your music, or what questions you want to ask with your music, and put that at the front of your portfolio. You may not have all the tools yet to do what you want to do, but you can ask for the right kind of help. Also, be ready for your portfolio to be changed. Music is not fixed and a score is not the final destination for a piece. Take suggestions on board and play with your music.  

Finally, writer’s block can sometimes crop up exactly when you don’t have time to deal with it! When you’re working to a deadline, how do you push through any feelings of being “stuck” with a piece?

This is always tricky! I'm an unusually collaborative composer so I'm often working with other artists while I compose and that means the creative process is often very dynamic. I enjoy being in a space with writers, actors or visual artists. But! When I'm having trouble coming up with new musical ideas I often go back to my favourite composers and listen to their music for a while. It tends to get me thinking in largely musical terms and then helps me generate new ideas faster. My current musical crush is Dobrinka Tabakova. Whenever I listen to her music I come away with a bunch of ideas. My aesthetic is different to hers, so the ideas are always filtered through my process in the end. I guess that's just another form of collaboration.  

Blush Opera presents Fancy Me Dead at the Bondi Feast from Thursday 20th July.