Our Rehearsal Room: Erin Helyard and Jane Davidson

Our Rehearsal Room: Erin Helyard and Jane Davidson

Emotion, aerial artistry and religion from the Melbourne Con. 

Our Rehearsal Room: Erin Helyard and Jane Davidson

Emotion, aerial artistry and religion from the Melbourne Con. 


Given that there are many extant musical works which tell of Christ's Passion, what inspired you to tell this story through a musical pastiche?

EH: The story of Christ’s crucifixion has inspired composers for centuries – these settings are responses by Pergolesi and Handel. This pastiched setting is very much in keeping with how Easter celebrations were conducted musically in the eighteenth century.

JD: At a personal level, I’d always been struck by the beauty of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater and had thought that it would be fantastic to enact the powerful narrative of Mary’s grief and loss around the Passion of Christ as a movement and vocal project. I first had the opportunity to do that 15 years ago in the UK, at an anniversary event at Sheffield Cathedral. I then re-staged it for theatrical spaces and toured it with an opera company in Portugal. So, the Stabat Mater has had a number of previous imaginings. I also performed it in Winthrop Hall in Perth. But, the opportunity of returning it to a cathedral is just thrilling. The work belongs in the dramatic visual and acoustical space that constitutes a cathedral.

How did you select the works that make up Passion, Lament, Glory? 

EH: The Pergolesi was one of the most performed works of the eighteenth century and had a profound influence on the musical development of countless musicians. We counterpoised Handel’s well-known choruses from Messiah with an early masterpiece from his days in Italy: an exquisite Salve Regina.

JD: The detail of this project is in the title: Passion of Christ, Lament of Mary, Glory of the Resurrection. In the Stabat Mater, the work’s soprano and alto roles are split between 12 talented female performers - a number that, of course, has a certain Biblical resonance. I had always conceived of these 12 women as a close community, like twelve female disciples, supporting Mary and her loss. Essentially, I am drawing out the powerful female narrative – even though that’s not something we immediately think about when we consider Christianity today. Erin and I picked Handel's Salve Regina together. It was a perfect choice, highlighting the powerful and central figure of women in all cultures. ‘Hail Mary, queen of mercy’ also reflects the powerful historical significance of Mary as an icon in Early Modern European Christianity. Handel’s Messiah is probably the most iconic piece of Baroque music. To deal with the Passion of Christ, I’ve taken three choruses to explore the mass emotions of the group and the power of collective emotional experience. The way I have staged this will hopefully have a powerful impact on the audience. It attempts to lessen the distance between emotions spectated, emotions performed and emotions experienced.

Can you tell us about the Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions? How does Passion, Lament, Glory contribute to growing knowledge of emotional behaviours throughout history and the ways in which they change over time?

JD: The History of Emotions is a fascinating field. Looking at the thoughts and feelings that underpinned historical actions really gives a far greater insight into how the people of the past did what they did. Clearly, humans have lived and thought in different ways over time. We do have some ideas about what meanings Baroque musicians ascribed to their works, and attempting to carry some of this meaning to modern day audiences has been the driving impetus of the Early Music Movement. What I am trying to do in this performance is take the historical goal of moving the affections of the audience using the powerful music, but also ask the performers to centralise their emotional intention through clear and strong felt and physical gestures. This performance is juxtaposed with the Centre of the History of Emotions' collaboration with the NGV in a new exhibition entitled ’Love: The Art of Emotions 1400-1800'. In that, you will see this type of potent Early Modern European emotion as depicted in all kinds of images: religious love, motherly love etc. Our project works with this knowledge and multi-faceted representations of love as an emotional state, which of course involves grief as well as joy.

Passion, Lament, Glory features aerial artistry to complement musical storytelling. In your opinion, what impact does combining artistic disciplines have on audience engagement, as well as the experience of a work for both performer and audience?

JD: It is interesting that the past couple of years has seen many enactments of Baroque religious music in theatrical spaces. The Baroque oratorio tradition has been to perform the works unstaged in churches, but the works themselves have such theatrical content. For me, adding staging has the potential to clarify the narrative. I wanted to follow a couple of specific historical lines, firstly, the fact that I initially conceived of the work in the county of Yorkshire which has hosted Medieval Mystery Plays since the 1300s, with York Minster being a key performance site. So, there is a very long tradition of acting in religious sites in Europe. Secondly, and specifically in relation to the aerialist, there was a custom in sixteenth-century Germany where, on the feast of the Ascension, an image of Christ accompanied by angels and the Holy Spirit was drawn up through the tower. So, the aerial spectacle is based on historical precedents.

This piece will be performed by the entire vocal faculty of the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music. Can you tell me about the joys and challenges of working with such a large cohort?

EH: The vocal department at the MCM is one of the best in the country, with some of the best students I’ve ever worked with. They are diligent, professional, and hard-working. One of the hardest aspects has been timetabling these large rehearsals, but it pays off in the end. 

JD: No challenges, just joys of discovery and development. Though the past week has been pretty exhausting!

The Melbourne Conservatorium of Music presents Passion, Lament, Glory at St Paul's Cathedral at 7:30pm on Friday 31st March and Saturday 1st April. Tickets available here. Photography by Sarah Walker Photography