The significance of singing Pauline Viardot “in this time of awakening”


Soprano Lisa Harper-Brown (pictured below) will perform in a Tenth Muse Initiative called Ugly Beauty: Celebrating 200 Years of Pauline Viardot. In a statement about the event, Lisa said: “The significance of this concert in this time of ‘awakening’ cannot be overstated; to awaken our minds to the endeavours of a forgotten few, a previously overlooked minority of inspirational composers who worked in private, because they lacked the vital credentials of being male.” We asked Lisa to elaborate on her ideas of an awakening in the context of this event, and these are the words she has to share.

My concept of ‘awakening’ draws inspiration from our current world situation, and more recent and historical contexts.

As the world grapples with the fallout of the current global dilemma, each one of us has been required to redirect our concerns closer to home.

Governments, industry, and institutions have had to turn their attention to local affairs and immediate solutions, and our societies have turned their attentions inwardly to address community issues, focusing on ‘being here’ and ‘staying safe’, and for many ‘coming home’.

This honing of focus has made us more in-tune with our families, friends, and work colleagues, and brought us closer together as neighbours; as inhabitants of this world. An awakening of consciousness, tolerance, appreciation, and compassion.

In the performing arts, this awareness, together with the restrictions in travel, have resulted in a more centralised approach toward performers and performing opportunities. I have felt the awakening as artistic and educational bodies have sought to maintain engagement and connection across distances of time and space.

An awakening of multi-media and bandwidth ensued.

I have felt the awakening as artistic and educational bodies have sought to maintain engagement and connection across distances of time and space.

When the Western Australian lockdown eased at the end of 2020, I remember the last moments of a performance by the West Australian Symphony Orchestra in the concert hall: the palpable sense of once again being ‘part of a live performance’. There was a combined sense of overwhelming joy and gratitude felt by performers and audience alike, that what we had considered ‘normal’ could now possibly become ‘normal’ again.

From a personal perspective, this past year-and-a-half has provided me with more and less time. More time as the first lockdown began, for my daughter, and for my professional craft and passions – to reflect, to ponder, to explore. But less time to adapt to the severe and sudden changes that each day might bring.

An awakening of ‘What if?’.

Yet, my family and I have also been facing significant hardship associated with sickness and separation. In a time of great uncertainty and turmoil, we have all faced huge personal, professional, and social challenges. The repercussions have, to my mind, been awakenings of the spirit and soul.

I’m not alone in this sense. Friends and colleagues have intimated similar feelings, as they’ve negotiated the ups and downs of life in this current time of crisis and upheaval. So, it has definitely been, for me and those around me, an awakening in all its manifestations.

It was during this time that I met, and began to work closely, with Tenth Muse’s Hannah Lee Tungate (pictured below).

Hannah’s endeavours to bring awareness of talented women composers, instrumentalists, and performers from past to the modern-day history — through research, performance, publication and social media platforms — is completely inspiring.

My own study in this area, which began haphazardly some 10 years ago, has been buoyed and enriched because of our association. A gift from Hannah, of a compendium of 24 songs by women composers, was both extraordinary and eye-opening. This collection now forms the backbone of my repertoire selections for both undergraduates and young singers. Having taught for more than 30 years, this addition to my music score resources has been profound, and subsequently propelled my own journey of discovery. I know several of my colleagues, having received the same gift from Hannah, feel the same sense of enlightenment and immense appreciation.

I also include the current gender awareness movement as part of this ‘awakening’. Having witnessed the struggles of the workplace, those facing gender transition challenges, as well as the results of gender imbalance throughout many social and professional arenas, I know that there is an awakening taking place. These concerns date back, beyond the time of those women we are championing in our upcoming concert, but are also resonating very strongly in the now.

In the past few months, the ABC’s programming of series promoting women composers of the past and the present has been an awakening of its own, raising awareness across our country, and reinforcing that talent and skill, no matter its origin, deserve to be celebrated.

I sometimes marvel, but also question, how far we have actually come, since Viardot, Malibran, Hensel, and Lang and their contemporaries worked quietly in the background to pursue their craft.

With ventures such as Ugly Beauty, we can ensure future audiences have the privilege to discover the music of all composers of worth and merit, along with the legends of musical literature that we all know and love.

It seems outrageous to say, but it is true: this will be the first public recital in Perth to focus its entire program on works penned by unsung women composers from the 19th Century, and marks the 200th birthday of our featured songstress and composer: Pauline Viardot (pictured below).

The songs and chamber works performed have been rarely heard, since the French and German soirées for which they were written, and certainly not by a 21st-Century antipodean audience. To that end, it will feature numerous Australian premieres, which is equal cause for celebration.

In my positions as lecturer and classical voice specialist for University of Western Australia, Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts, and the West Australian Opera company, I have the luxury and privilege to bring awareness of these composers and their wonderful compositions to a whole new generation of young singers and musicians. This recital extends these parameters to avid concertgoers and lovers of music.

The performance will also span a huge range of musicians: combining artists from across Perth’s leading tertiary institutions, both current students and alumni, with emerging artists and professional musicians, including myself and Chelsea Kluga (pictured below), with the fabulous Martina Liegat at the piano.

I am completely in awe of the immense skillset of Pauline Viardot. A talented and celebrated singer, exemplary pianist, gifted composer, pedagogue and polyglot, she was lauded by some of the greatest musicians of the 19th Century, and is an outstanding role model for aspiring women of today. Her art songs are imbued with the rhythmic and melodic scope of the 19th-Century art song tradition, together with nationalistic and folk music influences. Combining beautiful and evolving melodies with harmonic richness and yet subtlety, they are notable for their settings of texts from across five languages.

And yet Viardot is not alone, it seems, as the women represented throughout our program possess an equal range of proficiency across many disciplines.

I am so proud to be a part of this venture, to sing this exquisite music. I urge music lovers, young and not-so-young, to expand their musical radar and join with us to mark this exciting occasion. It will definitely be the start of an extraordinary awakening.

See Lisa perform in Tenth Muse initiative Ugly Beauty: Celebrating 200 Years of Pauline Viardot at the Callaway Music Auditorium, University of Western Australia, 2pm July 18.

Images supplied.