I just came back from performing in the recent Opera Australia regional tour and it really reminds you how extraordinary Australia is: there are so many unique and wonderful communities across the country, and it is a great privilege for me to bring the joy of opera to places that wouldn’t necessarily experience this kind of music in another capacity. I think it is incredibly important to share this music on the community’s terms rather than in a major concert hall! Taking a show on the road means you really have to adjust the way you live: there are no comforts. You live out of a suitcase and you have to adjust a lot of your routines, particularly how you warm up and prepare for performance. When you’re in a hotel, you can’t really be doing vocal exercises in your room because you’re going to disturb someone! It’s important to be mindful. Usually I like to get into work early and do a proper warm up when I’m in Sydney, so this is something that has to be adjusted, as often we’re not performing in venues that have the space for that. Psychologically and emotionally, it’s important to have a great support system on tour and we were incredibly lucky - the cast and crew were completely amazing. I think that’s one of the most important things, the other being diet and exercise. I know that if I’m staying healthy, I’ll sing well because I won’t be feeling additional physical strain. I’m a gym junkie so when I arrive somewhere new I always ask locals about a great local gym or a good running track.
I knew a while ago that I would be going into a little period of break following the tour and I started to think about what I’d do to fill that time. Perhaps put on a recital? Travel overseas? I was speaking with a colleague about my original idea of performing a recital of Russian repertoire around Australia and they asked if I’d considered Babi Yar, a work for male chorus, double orchestra and bass soloist. As it happened, I hadn’t heard of it so I went and found a recording and from that very first listen I was hooked. It completely captivated me and I became obsessed with putting it on. I had worked with the Zelman Symphony in 2013 on Mahler 8 - a work similarly scored for double orchestra and chorus - and when I approached them about this work, they agreed wholeheartedly. Realising that last September was the 75th anniversary of the massacres referred to in the work helped us push harder: it made us really consider how worthy this event would be to commemorate the horrors that had occurred. The current political climate where discrimination and bigotry of all kinds if rife is also enough of a reason to put in this work in the hope of reminding people that kindness and compassion are incredible important.
The music was the first thing that captivated me about this work - it’s an incredibly powerful score without knowing the context - but as I dug deeper and found out the massacres in the Ukraine I wondered how this story had flown relatively under the radar. The poet of the work was a humanitarian that realised regardless of the fact he was not Jewish, the massacres had a wide-spread affect on all of Ukraine and this inspired him to write the extraordinary piece. Shostakovich himself had also suffered from oppression throughout his life under the Stalinist regime and felt compelled to write this symphony which, 60 years later, we’re all the better for.
I do think music has the power to join heart and head. I watch the news every day and while atrocities flash up on the screen in front of me, I often think about how powerless we all are, often a world away from what is happening, and it is easy to think there is nothing you can do to aid those suffering. When you can use music as a conduit though, it opens a part of your heart where you can understand things on a much stronger human to human level. The Babi Yar massacres, while historical, is so important becuause it allows us as audience members to remember what we have lived through and wonder why we still choose to hate rather than spread kindness. I understand that the act of simply performing this work is not enough - it will not create world piece - but I think perhaps that people will listen to the music, consider the context and go home thinking about what they can do to treat each other more kindly and be understanding and compassionate. This project, which started as an opportunity to sing during a period of unemployment has now become a movement for love and respect.
Putting this work together has really been an exercise in time management for me and George Deutsch and the committee at Zelman Symphony have been invaluable, particularly while I’ve been on the road. I bought the score two years ago and in that time have started learning Russian which really has allowed me to devour the score and the language. I cannot converse in Russian fluently (yet!) but I can sing in it and recognise the letters of the alphabet. Aside from nailing the accent, honestly the hardest thing about this piece has been singing it without crying! On the tour bus while studying the score, my colleagues would often turn to me and ask if I was okay because there would be tears rolling down my cheeks. It’s such a strong work with an extraordinary message - the incredible poetry coupled with Shostakovich’s music really speaks to you. I have been a concert singer for a couple of decades now, and often works don’t move me to tears but this one does. I really hope it touches lives.
Adrian Tamburini and the Zelman Symphony present Babi Yar at 2pm on Sunday 3rd September at the Arts Centre Melbourne. More information and tickets here. Photo of Dmitry Shostakovich in 1950 from the Deutsche Fotothek.