As music students in Perth, Western Australia, it can be quite daunting to think about what lies ahead when trying to pursue a career in Classical Music. Whilst some may see it as a negative to study music in such an isolated city, the Perth music scene is beginning to erupt with many opportunities for young artists to dip their toes into the industry. We sat down the other week to talk to Jessica Gethin, one of Australia’s young, rising conductors, about the opportunities that our young artists can receive.
Graduating as a violinist from WAAPA in 2002, Jessica has always been a lover of music. However, after discovering a benign tumour in her jaw, Jessica’s playing career was put on pause. In order to keep up her love and passion of music, Gethin dove into music scores. Whilst she continues to play violin to this day, Gethin has made an extremely successful career for herself in conducting. She worked on the podium for five years in the exclusive Symphony Australia Conductor Development Program. In 2015, she received the Brian Stacey Award for an Emerging Australian Conductor, and was presented with the $10 000 award to further expand her work on the podium. In the same year Jessica was accepted, over international competition, as one of six Inaugural Fellows into the Institute of Women Conductors with the Dallas Opera. (USA). Not to mention, she is the Chief Conductor of WA’s prominent Perth Symphony Orchestra and has worked for WA Opera and OperaBox in Australia.
We were delighted, of course, when Jessica agreed to sit down with us and give advice for aspiring young musicians in this industry.
What do you expect from singers when you work with them?
JG: I think it depends on the particular situation. Something like a Leeuwin Concert, such as the one with Rachelle Durkin and Bryn Terfel, requires a lot of opera excerpts. The preparation they bring into these rehearsals needs to be 100% as we have such limited time to rehearse. We might get one or two play throughs and then we’re on stage. For me, I need really clear communication. If we don’t have the luxury of learning this music together, I need them to show me their breathing and their phrase direction really clearly. Also, a good understanding of the orchestral part is necessary. There are a lot of things that we need to balance between the orchestra and the voice and they need to know that if an oboe is playing a solo through the texture, they need to bounce off that and have that idea. It’s not about just knowing the piano score; know the orchestral score.
When it comes to actually working on a full opera, the whole journey is different because it’s so collaborative from the beginning. In some ways, I want my singers to be prepared technically but have a little bit of flexibility as well so that we can work together to build that. If they’re set on a certain tempo, phrase or breath during the creative process, it becomes difficult to build. However, I do think this comes from experience and it also comes from really knowing your stuff.
What do you like about conducting opera? How is it different from conducting other works?
JG: It’s such a different process. When I work orchestrally (symphonically), the development process is quite lonely because it’s me sitting at home in my studio at 2 o’clock in the morning working through the score with my pencil. That process also happens with opera, but the journey is a lot longer. Symphonically, I’ll get 2 or 3 rehearsals and then the concert and it’s all over and done within a week. The whole process of doing an opera and the collaborative effort is a lot different. There’s much more time to explore things.
I think working with singers as a whole is a lot different because they bring so much of themselves into the role, whereas musicians have a completely different process. The human nature of working together is different. You’re evolving the opera. Where as, in a symphony, my interpretation begins from beat one.
What can instrumentalists gain from playing in an opera?
JG: I think it’s underestimated how different and hard it is to play symphonically versus in opera and ballet pits. It’s quite an art. I know that in Dallas they have the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and the Dallas Opera Orchestra. The Dallas Opera Orchestra are very used to moving the music around like Puccini where everything is pulled and pushed and phrased. They understand all of that and are used to it. They’re used to flexibility and they have to do huge programs stamina-wise with many different conductors. They’re doing a lot of playing in a pit where no-one can see them so just having that sense of balance and sensitivity for singers. The music all sits on the breath and with the voice. There are a lot of skills in that.
What can students do to bridge the gap between student and professional?
This is such a unique industry. It’s not just a job, it’s life. It’s really important that you see yourself as an artist already. You are already forging your career. You are already representing yourself in this industry and a lot of the time, it’ll be your lecturers that are hiring you outside of university. I now conduct many of my lecturers. Build up your contacts as much as you can and keep observing. Watching and listening to rehearsals is vital. A lot of people don’t have problems with students coming in and watching and listening to the rehearsals. Be as involved as you can, get as much experience as you can, ask questions, develop mentors. That’s not done enough in this industry. You have to choose people that are going to be your role model, and always have the $4 rule.
When you get out there, you’re on your own. There isn’t a career path. So developing mentors and being exposed to as many genres and and styles as possible and watching and observing rehearsals can be extremely vital. There’s no black and white line between student and professional. People may already hire you to go into the professional world, so you have to see yourself as the performer you want to be now.
JG: I think it’s an essential genre for telling stories and we need to keep it alive because it’s such an important part of the arts as a whole. We can not live in culturally sterile communities, that’s not how the world should work. We need to foster and encourage philanthropy and young artists to keep these art forms alive. I think opera has that unique ability because it does literally tell a story and it connects so much the human voice. The staging of it is so collaborative. There are so many different aspects of opera that could make it an appealing genre. Your job as young artists is to go out there and show to the world why we need this art form to stay alive. If you don’t do this, then you won’t have an audience. So making things accessible and appealing and of really good quality and interesting. A lot of people say they don’t like opera but the amount of people you ask “Have you actually BEEN to an opera?” and they reply “no” is astonishing. If you can get a new person to every single one of your concerts, that’s developing a network and they might just decide that they really like this music!
If you could see any tv show, movie, life event, book turned into an opera… What would it be?
JG: I think the movie ‘Australia’ would be great. I think it leaves lot of room for great character portrayal and character development, tension and twists in the storyline, would be an amazing score musically, a libretto that Australian audiences would relate to, costumes and landscapes they would connect to and a great way to tell some of our story.
A massive thank you to Jessica Gethin for taking time out of her busy schedule to speak to us. If you want to see her in action, Perth Symphony Orchestra have their upcoming concert Beethoven|Beer|Bratwurst… and Björk.
What are you waiting for? Buy a ticket today… and go find your mentor today!
Interviewed by Katherine Goyder and Emma Ashton