It’s great to be back with the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra for this project, Thomas Tallis’ England. I have been working with the band for almost a decade, so I feel quite comfortable getting stuck into projects with them now. I’ve always loved working with Paul and this music is my absolute bread and butter, so it’s particularly exciting. At any given time, I’m preparing for six or seven upcoming concerts, so getting ready for this performance is part of a whole suite of work I’m currently doing - I usually have to get started learning music and preparing characters at least a month out, so it’s helpful that I have performed two of the solos I’ll be singing with the ABO before!
Most musicians have a bit of a window of downtime in January, which I really lapped up this year as a way to get a head start on all my music learning. My preparation is pretty similar across the board, with some adjustments depending on the project, but I always start off by sitting down at the piano and working with a metronome, then progress to smaller musical nuances and finally, get to the heart of the drama.
By the time I get into rehearsals with an orchestra, all those pieces are brought together, but I must admit that first rehearsal in front of all the musicians always makes me more nervous than the actual performance! You are standing up there eyeballing all of your colleagues and they know so much more about the music, so you want to be bang on the money. With an orchestra like the ABO, it’s a really beautiful experience and there is a special warmth between all the players. Paul is energetic and creative, and working with period instruments is such a treat for me. There is a real love for baroque music in Australia, I think, and the ABO fills a big space in the industry. It’s also great to see lots of smaller groups cropping up that are exploring Historically Informed Performance Practice and I think a lot of those organisations have been inspired, in part at least, by the ABO. There’s a broad demographic interested in Baroque performance and I think lots of young people are drawn to these scores because they’re so high-paced and fresh.
Working across a number of different musical genres has always been an important thing to me. I sing a lot of early music and classical music, but contemporary music is a big part of my work, and now I am very consciously looking for interesting ways to perform the music I love. I am really enjoying working on both Western Art Music and contemporary sounds together at the moment – not as a fusion, but as a pairing. I think working in different styles and listening to a broad range of music actually makes you a better musician. Having an understanding of pop has made me a little more relaxed on stage, because the most important thing is how you tell the story, rather than being completely perfect in your delivery. I try and infuse a bit of that philosophy in all my classical and baroque work now. Since working in a more contemporary way, I also feel more grounded; it’s funny how much things can change when you realise you don’t need to get so tense or overly serious. When you’re having a good time on stage, your audience has a good time too.
I try and make sure that when I walk on stage I’m super loose and comfortable, having done some proper stretching and breathing exercises in the moments before I go on. As I wait, I remind myself about the story of my character – the acting coaches I work with encourage me to think about putting whatever I’m performing, say, a baroque aria, into a modern context. This helps when I’m getting ready to deliver an authentic and empathetic retelling of a work. It’s important to not be too precious about how your day goes when you have a performance, though. I remember on the day I won the Australian Singing Competition, my car broke down while I was on my way to the final, and I walked in the door with 15 minutes to spare! I was so stressed but I had to buckle down and give it all I had, which taught me that you can’t control your entry onto the stage; it’s much more important to be able to rely on your preparation.
I was brought up in the choral tradition and discovered that I was a countertenor more or less on my own. It was natural then that I got more and more involved in Baroque and early music. I had CDs of Andreas Scholl growing up and hearing him sing made being a countertenor seem kind of cool to me. You don’t always feel 100% confident getting up on stage singing in a falsetto voice, but knowing that there was someone like Scholl out there, doing it incredibly well, made it feel like a real possibility. I remember when I was starting out people would giggle and think it was weird that my voice sounded the way it did, but the more confident I became the less I worried about that. I go out of my way now to perform in a lot of different settings – from churches and recital halls to contemporary spaces – and there is still sometimes a moment where the audience gets confused about what they’re hearing, but I do think people recognize that the countertenor voice is really special.
Speaking of contemporary spaces, I’ve been working on my own show and learning the ropes around event management has been a massive learning curve. I have a huge respect for the artists who do this all the time! I’m pretty lucky that my wife manages a lot of the logistics and has spared me a few of the bumps along the way, but any kind of involvement in the “other side” really helps you grow as a performer. Of course, there is always heaps going on between my own projects and the work I do as a freelance countertenor, but my teacher in Basel has a great philosophy about busy-ness that I try and keep in mind: when you’ve got a million things on, you have to relax into the stress. The slower you move and the easier you take it, the more you’ll actually enjoy the work you are doing. It’s simple, but it works!
Max Riebl performs alongside the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra in Thomas Tallis' England from Wednesday 21st February.