In Conversation: Kanen Breen

In Conversation: Kanen Breen

On setbacks, cabaret and telling stories with opera. 

In Conversation: Kanen Breen

On setbacks, cabaret and telling stories with opera. 

You’ve been called an ‘accidental opera star’. Before you joined the Victorian State Opera Chorus, did you ever envisage yourself as an opera singer?

Never in my wildest dreams! First and foremost, I consider myself an entertainer, and I am very comfortable being labelled thus - certainly, I am perhaps best known for my association with the operatic stage, but I have always regarded my capacity to sing opera as a 'special effect', that is, an ASPECT of my skill-set rather than my raison d'ètre. 

It thrills and delights me to be surrounded by and immersed in the talents of others, whatever it may be that they excel at. I learn (steal) from my colleagues all the time, whether they be an international operatic superstar, an unknown comedian or a cabaret chanteuse on the skids. Humans fascinate me, those who are drawn to the theatre especially. I am an introvert (really, I am) and my greatest pleasure in life is watching how other introverted performers variously overcome their natures and transform themselves into showbiz spectacles. 

You star alongside Meow Meow in Victorian Opera’s upcoming work ’Tis Pity: An Operatic Fantasia on Selling the Skin and Teeth. How would you describe the work?

It's a mash-up, dream-like, a fantasia; part song-cycle, part vaudeville, part circus, part opera. In examining the human body as a site for pleasure, for punishment and for profit, we are freely crossing genres, musical forms and influences. Meow, Cameron Menzies (director) and Richard Mills (composer) have created a twisted history of sorts, which moves through times libidinous and straight-laced, debauched and despotic. Working girls and boys have been both reviled and celebrated across history; there's an obvious correlation between the flesh business and 'the show business' which ’Tis Pity toys with through an extravagant marriage of music, dance, and theatrical spectacle. 

How does the creative process differ between ’Tis Pity, where you are one of a cast of only two, and a work with a much larger cast?

There's a lot more space in the rehearsal room for a start! Meow and I are joined onstage by three knockout dancers who perform many different story-telling functions across the breadth of the show. So there are five of us onstage plus a 35 piece orchestra and conductor, all breathing life into the stories being told. The pleasures of rehearsing a brand new piece are innumerable; no rules, nothing is a mistake yet, everyone is pulling in the same direction. A small cast like this one, full of mad-cap energy and inventiveness generates an exciting momentum and there's time for everyone to have a voice. Cameron is great at harnessing the ideas being tossed about, giving them reason and form, or telling us when they're shithouse!

’Tis Pity appears, on first glance, to be quite unusual in the current Australian opera landscape; an operatic cabaret of sorts. Do you see opera and cabaret as synergetic art forms, and how is this reflected in ’Tis Pity?

Absolutely yes! I adore cross-pollination! With myself, Meow and an orchestra onstage, we have the capacity to shift from an epic symphonic sound-world into intimate, hushed introspection and everywhere in between. Meow's got great vocal chops so she can ride victoriously over the top of a thumping band one minute, and break your heart (or your balls) the next, with a whisper and a smile. Opera and cabaret alike are sensational means by which to explore the personal within the political. 

You’ve been part of opera in Australia since you joined the Victorian State Opera Schools Company. How has opera in Australia changed since then, and how do you see the future of Australian opera?

Opera is alive and well but is its audience? Shows like ’Tis Pity, which combine classical and contemporary sound worlds are an excellent means by which to reinvigorate the ears of an existing operatic audience whilst also enticing newer and younger bums (and ears) onto seats. If I knew how to secure, or even predict the future of opera in Australia, I'd be a VERY wealthy man! Opera itself hasn't changed since my first days, but the world has. We live in an age of instant gratification, more so than ever before, so opera is now competing with iPads and Netflix and cheap thrills at the touch of a button. Adapt or die, I suppose. There will ALWAYS be a place for the spine-tingling virtuosity of the human voice in full flight, but the form in which it is presented requires constant re-examination. Victorian Opera has prioritised this type of exploration since its inception, which is an enormously satisfying journey to be a part of. 

Rehearsal Magazine is for young artists and music students – what do you wish you’d known when you were starting out as a performer?

NOTHING is permanent! Good times come to an end, bad times will pass. Managements come and go, you will fall out of favour inexplicably and opportunity will come knocking when you least expect it. You have to be prepared to ride out some storms if you want to dance on the rainbows. See change as opportunity - a chance to evolve and re-invent.

The older I get, the more I realise that mental and physical health are interdependent- treasure your physical health. Don't burn up your capital, don't take yourself for granted and hopefully your emotional well-being will fall into line. 

How can young singers and artists get started in making their own performance opportunities? 

Persistence, daring and a willingness to fail spectacularly and often. These are three ingredients which served me well as I set out on a career in the entertainment industry. Failure is a short-cut to self-understanding and nothing teaches you what you're made of and what you really have to offer like having to rebuild from the ground up. If your talent is resilient, you will learn through knock-backs and disappointment that there really is no such thing as a backwards step, only detours, re-routes and hopefully some scenic tours on the road to wherever you’re supposed to be. 

'Tis Pity appears at the Melbourne Recital Centre on Saturday 4, Monday 6, Tuesday 7 & Wednesday 8 February at 7.30pm. For more information, and to purchase tickets head to the MRC website