Post by Dick Letts, April 22nd, 2015
Nicole, Russell, Cate, Naomi, Baz… you don’t even need to be given their surnames to know exactly whom we are talking about. The international world of film is jammed with Australian actors and directors and anyone with a pulse knows many names.
Because they are more than names: we can see them, here, easily, in cinemas and on television. They are great artists and they are in our lives.
Then there are John, Simone and Elijah. Australian artists, world figures, living abroad. But not in our cinemas, not on television, not easily in our lives. Classical musicians – guitarist John Williams, conductor Simone Young, opera director Elijah Moshinsky, three of many.
Classical music is international. But even when Australians succeed in classical music internationally, it may not register here. We have assembled a list of 200 Australian classical musicians achieving at the top level internationally but most are seen only fleetingly in Australia. Out of sight, out of mind. Many would like to live and work in Australia, or at least be offered visiting artist engagements, but the opportunities are not there.
It is not the intention here to give CPR to the cringe. Australian musicians living in Australia make music wonderfully. But the international market comprises hundreds of millions of potential listeners and a very large number of competing musicians. To sing with the Metropolitan Opera or conduct the Vienna Philharmonic, you must be chosen over the best the world has to offer. Australian musicians living overseas are indeed chosen. Another point of importance is that while such Australian artists live overseas, they are not here, enriching our musical life. And they often are not here because the door is not widely enough open.
We can get an idea of the level of accomplishment in this Australian diaspora when some of the orchestral musicians are flown into Australia to form the Australian World Orchestra. The AWO is certainly one of the very finest orchestras in the world. (Listen to its CD of The Rite of Spring and Mahler’s Symphony 1.)
There are many Australian singers playing principal roles in major houses like Vienna State Opera, Deutsche Oper Berlin, Royal Opera Covent Garden, Metropolitan Opera New York, Paris Opera. They are especially to be found as company members or guests in German opera houses such as those in Berlin, Hamburg, Franklin, Cologne, Munich, Wiesbaden, Dresden, not to mention the Berlin Philharmonic and other orchestras.
It is interesting that Germany is so welcoming to foreign performers and that so many of the best head there to lift their careers. This is the country that despite high costs comparable to those in Australia, is able to maintain an auto industry producing the most sought-after brands in the world: Porsche, Mercedes, BMW, VW. The German brand prepares one for quality, design of technical precision and beauty. Germany is also home to a disproportionate number of the world’s best and/or most innovative orchestras, opera companies and classical music ensembles.
Of course there is a connection. What could it be, we wonder.
Our 200 Australians also work, disproportionately, in the great British opera companies and orchestras. Germanic quality standards do not seem to apply in British industry but British opera companies and orchestras have plenty of cause for pride. London has managed to sustain a role as one of the cultural capitals although not, one would have to say, as a source of innovation to equal New York or Berlin. So many artists are going to Berlin.
But to return to the point. Every so often one hears some vague generalisation about classical music in Europe collapsing if the Australians left. Of course it is not true but on the other hand, when we list names and accomplishments, it is clear that Australia’s strength internationally in classical music is well beyond what most people know.
At present, we do not have an Australian Simon Rattle or John Adams or, well, Joan Sutherland. What would it take? I don’t mean marketing tricks or Olympic grooming. I mean cultural change that means we produce a Simon Rattle and a competitor to Mercedes.
You can see the list of 200, Australian classical musicians successful abroad at a high level, as a “mapping paper” at http://musicinaustralia.org.au/index.php?title=Australian_Classical_Musicians_Successful_Abroad_at_a_High_Level
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