We sat down with Chamber Made Opera CEO and Creative Director, Tim Stitz, to talk all things Between 8 and 9.
Between 8 and 9 has stemmed out of a major international collaboration - can you tell me about how your relationship with Sichuan began?
It actually started way back in 2014. I’d been talking to my colleagues about our desire to do an artist-to-artist exchange in Asia for a number of reasons, but particularly because of the importance for Australia to be looking to our neighbours to have an authentic dialogue. At Chamber Made Opera, we had previously done artist-to-artist exchanges or collaborations before, so it didn’t seem impossible! We began to speak with Wang Zheng-Ting, who is a master of the Sheng - an instrument like a mouth organ, it’s absolutely amazing. Once we’d started our conversation, we received some travel money from the Playking Foundation at Arts Centre Melbourne, whose remit is to look to Asia to develop partnerships and projects. We went for the first time in July of 2015 to begin our collaboration, and selected the four artists (two vocalists and two instrumentalists) that we’re working with now! It was incredibly interesting to experience the Conservatorium in Sichuan, as it is really one of the centres of world musics: teaching both Western and Traditional musics. This project has really emanated out of the Conservatorium and the dialogue we’ve had with them over the past two years. The Sichuan Conservatory is actually the Sister University to the Melbourne Conservatorium, and both institutions have offered a lot of good faith and support to us and this project.
What has it been like - logistically and artistically - working across countries and languages?
I think we always wish we had more time! It takes a lot of money getting the eight people involved into a room, after paying everyone their fee and putting up the travel costs for half of the artists! Of course, it’s not as expensive as it would be to work with artists from the UK or Europe, but it is really important to us that everyone gets paid properly so it takes some serious resources. What we ended up doing was going for a two week trip to share musical and artistic ideas. We were working with four languages really - Sichuanese, English, Mandarin and music. Doing an international collaboration where there is a language barrier means the music becomes the common language in the rehearsal room. We also began to use the language of improvisation. The conservatorium model - not just in Asia but all over the world - prioritises accuracy: you’re good if you get every note right. What we tried to do was break down some of that, and allow all of the musicians to make mistakes and try new things. It takes quite a lot of time to translate and understand concepts in real time, but it means all of the artists are really part of the process. Last year, we managed to scaffold some time together again thanks to the support of the Victorian government, which we really used to create this new work, Between 8 and 9. We’ve built this project to be part of a wider artistic exchange, so in the future, it may be seen in many different iterations.
This particular project, Between 8 and 9, brings together culture, sculpture, electronics and voice. Can you tell me about the experience you’ve built for audience members?
Between 8 and 9 has been inspired by the process of meeting four artists from Australia and four artists from China, in a really physical way. Initially, the meetings were around a table in Sichuan - a place that is known for their tea houses, just like Melbourne is known for its cafes. The process of meeting around a table may seem superficial initially, but it’s actually more about sharing where you come from, what you think about, and what it’s like to live where you live. These meetings around different tables really informed the genesis of this work. When audience members come into the space, they’ll be seated at a table with one of the performers. It’s extremely intimate, and a really special experience. This piece sits at the intersection of theatre, design, and performance, which is something that Chamber Made Opera is really passionate about. We’re really interested in where the voice fits into these sorts of works, because for us, opera means work where multiple art forms come together - which may not be the traditional definition of “opera”, but makes complete sense if you break down how an opera is built. We invite audiences to be present, and participate, in a way. It’s not necessarily active participation, but we do actively try and build a relationship between our audience and performers. It has to be engaging.
Your role as CEO and Creative Director of Chamber Made Opera is really multi-faceted. Can you tell me about how you came into this position?
To be honest I never really planned this! If you specifically want to be a performer or an arts manager, you might have a bit of a path planned out, but this has happened quite organically for me. I studied music at high school, and I really wanted to be an actor, so while I did lots of university theatre, I did the “right thing” and got a commerce degree. I didn’t love it, but in hindsight, it’s been incredibly helpful, especially in running a company. I loved being involved in student theatre, and I’m so glad that I had experiences in making my own work and being part of Australian writing. I was ready for a new challenge, so when I thought “okay, I’ll give this a shot” and tried Chamber Made Opera, I was really lucky to get to work with the previous Chamber Made Opera Artistic Director, David Young. He is such a great artist and producer, and working with him felt like a tutelage and I learnt so much. Working as a producer is amazing, because it’s an opportunity to help artists realise their ideas, and I’m definitely still very much involved in the creative process. I love being in the rehearsal room and am in it perhaps more than other producers. When thinking about your own career, I think it’s great to have an idea of where you want to end up, but I’d definitely recommend being open to the idea that it might play out differently and you’ll get just as much out of it.
Do you have advice for artists looking to have their own work produced?
You have to be good at lots of things, and I think it is really important that all artists - whether you’re a solo musician or a producer - should be able to manage application writing, finance, marketing, etc. A select few artists will have management, but being an independent artist means you need to know how to do everything for your business. When artists approach me about their work at Chamber Made Opera, I want them to have done their homework, and hopefully to have seen what we’re all about. I get so much mail from people who think we’re a traditional company, and it’s just not a good use of your time as an artist! So once the artist knows that we’re the right fit for them, I’m looking for people who are really passionate about their content. It’s also really okay not to have all the answers because that’s what we’re here to help with. Of course, it’s important to be able to sell your project, but it’s also about being able to engage in a discussion and work with artists in a collaborative way. We work with lots of emerging artists, from jobbing musicians to arts managers, and we always get them to help out a bit with admin - grant writing, processes, database work - because even if it’s boring sometimes, it’s so important to your personal artistic development. We’re a small team too, and we get so much done because we're each doing the jobs of six people! Be okay to help out with all the moving parts, from the bump-in to the strategic plan.