Janet Todd! That darling and talented sister of mine and her terrific film-making partner Adam Taylor have been my gracious hosts here in sunny Los Angeles for the past week, and it has been an unspeakable joy to be spending some quality time with them. I had not seen Janet in over three years, which my wonderful mum Lian could not brook. So recently she surprised me with a return ticket to visit LA - and here I am taking the time to appreciate the loving support of my family. Now my horizons are being broadened by this excellent pair, with such experiences as sampling the outstanding Mexican and Thai food, walking up to Griffith Observatory, enjoying their knowledge of the quirks and cultural strangeness of Hollywood, The Last Bookstore (where we bumped into Martin Freeman) and the Broad museum, where we were struck by the hauntingly arresting paintings of Mark Tansey
Janet is performing regularly with LA Opera and the Pacific Opera (POP), and it was during a fundraiser for the latter that we had the unexpected opportunity to perform together! Janet had sung a number of solos and ensembles throughout the night at the stunning old Castle Green in Pasadena, (including “Ain’t it a clear night” from Susannah on the verandah, and in a very convincing southern accent!). The night was rollicking along to its boozy, joyful conclusion, when a generous donor named Annette, with whom Adam and I had been chatting to earlier, approached POP’s artistic director Josh Shaw promising a $500 donation if Janet and I sang a duet together! Well, we couldn’t refuse, despite the fact I’d imbibed a couple of vinos through the course of the evening and was jetlagged as all get out. But then Janet and I ran into the same problem we have always had when asked to sing together... As soprano and tenor siblings, there actually is not much duet rep that isn’t romantic, and therefore deeply uncomfortable for performers and audience alike! And there’s only so many times you can sing The Prayer before the very concept of Music starts to get lose its shine. So we quickly struck on the idea of rejigging the lyrics to “Were you not to Koko plighted” from Mikado, which Janet had recently performed for POP. After 5 minutes of hashing it out and some masterly pianism from Charlie Kim, our throw-together duet went well and managed to hit the right notes, both in terms of pitch and the general vibe of the evening! After 3 years of not seeing each other and something like 9 years since we last performed together, it was such a joy to be sharing a stage within 36 hours of landing in LA!
A video of the performance (shot by Adam) can be viewed on my Facebook page dated November 7.
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On the subject of singing, I am really excited to be able to perform Handel’s Messiah again this December 7 with Andrew Raiskums and Gloriana at St Peter's, Eastern Hill. To perform with such outstanding historically-informed musicians is a joy that should never be taken for granted, and I will be relishing every note of this uniquely powerful work. And with a line up of such musically and dramatically committed soloists (Sally-Anne Russell, Cristina Russo and Nicholas Dinopolous), it will certainly be a really special performance.
I haven’t experienced an Aussie summer since 2013, and nothing feels more like an Aussie summer to me than Handel’s Messiah, the Boxing Day Test and a steady shower of jacaranda flowers. I feel it will be a very orienting experience after years of travel and adventure.
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Cailin Howarth is a singer, psychologist and a dear friend of mine. She has started a service called The Performer’s Edge which is essentially one-on-one performance psychology to help you get closer to your fullest potential. I have had sessions with her for a few weeks now, and each one has led to an exciting yet gentle revelation about ways I tend to get in my own way as a performer, recognising and affirming my own strengths, and finding solutions and pathways to achieve what I want in my career. But even more fundamentally, she has really helped me identify the things I do want much more clearly. It is an ongoing adventure and I feel excited to have her wisdom and skill on my side. Her website is https://www.theperformersedge.world/
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I have been reading about the Chinese guqin (pronounced "goo - chin") recently and it’s inspired me to write a poem. The guqin (lit. ancient qin) is an ancient Chinese musical instrument, which has its own centuries-old classical tradition. The painting above is by Wang Zhenpeng, and dates to the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368AD).
Structurally, the instrument has remained more or less unchanged since at least 200AD, though some say the instrument has existed in some form for as much as 5000 years. Similar to a modern lapsteel guitar, the guqin is placed on the lap or a table and the player plucks its 7 strings (silk or steel), which are stretched over a wooden resonating chamber.
The tradition of qin playin is not only musical, but also spiritual and philosophical. It was a favoured instrument of scholars and was deeply connected to Buddhism and Daoism, initially as a way of communicating with the gods. Its quietly haunting tone is said to be the resonance of the universe. The base of the instrument is flat to represent the earth, the top (made of a different wood) is domed to represent heaven, and the player plucks the strings to resonate both heaven and earth into harmony.
But how can we as individuals resonate a celestial harmony, while we carry with us the scars and injuries of our lives? That transcendent peace that passes all understanding can so often seem like a distant light, abstract and out of reach. But when the layers of lacquer that cover the body of a guqin crack, they are not covered over. No one seeks to heal them by making those cracks go away. Instead they are honoured and given names. They are accepted and welcomed, becoming part of the character of the instrument. Those cracks are of the universe and part of it, just as our own scars are.
I thought about how this philosophy relates to mental illness and mental health - a subject that I’m sure has touched every one of us deeply, whether personally or regarding a loved-one. Australia has one of the highest rates of suicide in the world, and it is the number one cause of death for males between the age of 15 and 44. The fact that depression and mental illness has afflicted some of the most beautiful people I have known makes me so sad and angry. And my heart continually breaks for those who did not survive it. But there is a way back from it and I’m deeply humbled to know some people who have won that terrible battle, allowing their scars to be part of the beautiful, deep resonance of the universe. So I wrote a poem about these things, and it is called Guqin.
Thank you for reading this, and if you have been affected by it, please reach out and talk to a loved one, or contact Lifeline or any other service you can. The world is better with all of you in it, just by being you.