The Littlest Prima Donna: Sydney’s Busking Opera Singer

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Author: Donna Cain
Category: Biography, Books
Balboa Press (Bloomington Indiana, USA), 2017 100 pp.
ISBN: 9781504307888
Reviewed by

The Littlest Prima Donna is a very entertaining and informative memoir of the highs and lows of making a living as a busker in inner city, Sydney.”

The author who trained as an opera singer presents thirty-eight vignettes (ranging from a half -page to two pages) focused on encounters with her audiences, both captive and antagonistic. The book also includes location photographs by Stuart Innes and forewords by Choir of Hard Knocks director, Jonathon Welch, and historian, Ann Howard.

Most of the individual stories include the identification of the location (or “pitch” in busker-speak) of Cain’s performances. These include Martin Place, Taylor Square, Pitt Street Mall, Wynyard Park, Central Station underground pedestrian tunnel, Circular Quay, Queen Victoria Building (exterior), Hyde Park and Belmore Park (near Central Station). One gets a sense of the comparative vibe of these different pitches through Cain’s engaging story-telling.

Photo: Pete Hawk and strandedcorridors.com

Specific popular arias from the operatic repertoire are mentioned in some of the accounts, including “Vissi D’arte” (Puccini), “O Mio Babbino” (Puccini), “Quando M’en Vo” (Puccini), “Ave Maria” (Caccini), “Der Hölle Rache” (Mozart), “Les Oiseaux dans la Charmille” (Offenbach), “So anch’io la virtù magica”  (Donizetti) and “Depuis le jour (Charpentier).  However, as mentioned before, the thrust of Cain’s book in on personal interactions, not on the music being performed or her particular interpretations of it.

Compared to performance on stage there is a more immediate interaction with audiences when busking. Cain’s positive feedback includes extreme compliments. A common reaction to her performances is disbelief that she is performing as a busker instead of for Opera Australia. One woman was so impressed that she personally went straight to the Capitol Theatre (near the Belmore Park pitch) to try to organise a gig for her in Wicked, the Musical. Cain is flattered by the adoration of some members of her public, but realistic about her career prospects in this regard. There are many stories of people making large contributions to her “busker basket” (up to fifty dollars) and even people who have heard her perform, then left the scene only to return to give her money after visiting an automatic teller machine. Other audience members are protective of her when she is verbally abused by people who are antagonistic for one reason or another towards what she is performing.

Cain’s busking has led to other performance opportunities. Through contact with a member of her busking audience, she was invited to sing with the Australia-Asia Culture Orchestra in Verbrugghen Hall at the Sydney Conservatorium. Other audience contacts led to performances at NSW Parliament House and on the radio station, 2GB.

Donna Cain’s other life: Donna on the left,then Dorine Tolley (pianist), Johanna Petschke (clarinetist), Anna Szydlowski (pianist)

In writing the entry for ‘Busker’ in my book, The Australian Guide to Careers in Music (Music Council of Australia/UNSW Press, 2003), I thought I had covered all aspects of what it takes and what it is like to be a busker. However my busker informants did not really alert me to the dangers and other negative aspects of this kind of work.  In this respect, Cain’s book is a real eye-opener.

In quite a few of her stories, Cain outlines instances of audience behaviour such as harassment, invasion of personal space, obscene gestures, verbal abuse using foul language, contemptuousness (such as offering her money not to sing), theft of her equipment (She uses a sound system with backing tracks on her smart phone) and accusations that she is miming. A common attitude that she experienced is that buskers are homeless and beggars. Beggars themselves are often aggressive towards buskers because they feel that buskers are invading their territory and unfairly competing with them. In actual fact, the busker has paid for a licence from the City Council in order to secure the right to perform on the pitch that just happens to be favoured by the beggar. Thus for the busker, a complex dynamic of spatial politics needs to be negotiated on a daily basis.

Donna Cain’s memoir is recounted with the same exuberance and passion as I imagine she gives to her busking. I am reminded of a passage on page 1 of her book: “The audience does not want 90% of you. They want your entire heart ripped out for art.”

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