When Creative Worlds Collide: Interview with Jane Sheldon
Soprano Jane Sheldon is a fearless performer who believes in pushing the boundaries of vocal performance. She lives parallel lives, balancing her work between Australia and the US, and has a passion for bringing her two worlds together in creative collaborations. Before the end of 2019, Ms Sheldon is performing three world premieres, starting with the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra in English Baroque with Circa from 2 May 2019. She spoke to Beth Keehn during rehearsals just before the national tour.
BK: Let’s start by talking about your journey into classical music. How did you become interested in singing?
JS: I started out as a child chorister with the Sydney Children’s Choir and Gondwana Voices, which was a specific kind of environment to learn how to be a musician and quite different from singing for most school choirs. This was because Lyn Williams, who directs the ensembles, takes child musicians very seriously, and always treated us like serious performers. She also wanted us to perform music by living Australian composers – so that specific repertoire focus, and the way Lyn related to us as musicians, was the magical recipe for me. Then, when professional ensembles in Sydney wanted to perform tricky music with a child singer, they would ask Lyn. She put me forward for a few projects and that opened me up to a world of professional musicians – many are still my colleagues today. That started me off, and then I began to get work as a teenager. By that stage I had a private singing teacher, and I had very good mentors who put me forward for opportunities. It is important to say that, you can have talent, but being recognised and supported by people in the profession is crucial – and I was very lucky.
How did you know you wanted to be a soprano singer?
I was always singing with the high voices – and I had good training and helpful teachers. They recognised that soprano was my natural vocal range – or tessitura. So much of what a soprano does is out of the speaking range – I found I was able to use that high range in a way that was attractive to composers who liked to hear the voice used more as an instrument. And I have found it interesting to be asked to use my voice in ways that aim for something other worldly – I think a lot of the times composers are using the soprano voice to achieve something that sounds rare or strange – sometimes celestial, sometimes mimicking an instrument. I just got a kick out of that – I was interested in continuing to use my voice in that way and a lot of the music I do pushes those extremes – not so much with height – there are sopranos who can hit higher notes than I can, but more timbrely and extending the vocal colouring in places. It’s interesting because in English Baroque I sing quite a bit of folk song – and that’s probably as close to spoken range as my singing gets.
What were your steps between study and working in the US?
I studied privately for many years in Australia – I basically learnt on the job, in tandem with private tuition. Then in my early 20s I thought I would benefit from formal tertiary training. I studied at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester… I had the idea – as lots of Australian singers do at that age – I would study and stick around in the UK and see if I could find work. However, at the same time, I met my future husband who was living in Boston. So, the short answer is – I moved to the US for love!
However, Boston does have a very healthy music scene and it’s not far from New York, so that made it very easy, professionally, to contemplate the move. My husband and I lived in Boston for a few years and then, as I got more committed to performing contemporary Chamber music, it was clear that New York had the greatest density of that work. We decided to move to New York and I was lucky enough to sing lots of very exciting music while I was there.
Now I am based primarily in Australia but I maintain work in America. I can see now that I have built a sense of community with colleagues in each place. At the moment I am preparing for a show in New York in September and I can pick and choose the players for that performance – and part of the fun is that a lot of them are mates!
Recently I realised that I had built two careers in parallel and they didn’t interact very much – so I’ve tried to be more proactive about introducing people from these two communities to each other where I think there might be fruitful collaboration. And I think the avenue with most potential is to connect small Chamber companies that have overlapping repertoires and propose that they create co-productions that can be presented in each location.
It must be a challenge living and working in two countries.
The thing about building parallel lives in two separate places is that there is always a part of you that misses the place you are not in. I think I have succeeded in staving off any ill effects of that by continuing to work in both places. I wouldn’t feel happy if I knew I had five years ahead of me where I wouldn’t work with any of my colleagues in one place. But, after years of frenetic to and fro, I’m feeling much more organised. There’s much less travel chaos!
How would you describe your interest in what you call ‘exploratory Chamber music’?
Personally, it is about being exploratory vocally in some way – or in the type of physicality that the piece requires me to have on stage. I’m interested in work that pushes me to discover new vocal or physical things about stage presentation. But then also, more generally, it might cover the way an audience relates to a piece, spatially or aurally, the presentation space or the way we’re asked to think about the acoustics – all the things that take work outside of convention.
You have sung interesting songs by a range of composers – from Alma Mahler to John Cage… your New York group, Ekmeles, sang work by British composer Martin Iddon, written for five voices and 15 wine glasses – and you’ve worked with guitarist Julian Curwin on your album Crossing. What attracts you to showcase pieces?
Fuelling many of the decisions I make is this preference for work that falls under the term ‘exploratory’ that we were talking about – and also more and more I am making choices based on who the collaborator is and what they are trying to do… and having a sense that we can marry our tastes and priorities well.
A company that I do a lot of work with is Sydney Chamber Opera. I am enthusiastic about ongoing work with them because they are a company whose idea of what should be on stage is perfectly aligned with mine – that is a rare find. So, I tend to be on a project, and if we are making good, satisfying work, I just want to work in that environment again.
For the Crossing album, Julian and I had known each other for a long time and he asked me to collaborate with him. For quite a while we couldn’t work out what it would be, and in the end we settled on a recorded project rather than a stage show. We talked about ideas for a few years, and eventually found songs that marry our mutual interest in medieval music and troubadour folk songs – Julian’s love of spaghetti Western music is buried in there, and it also includes some of the strange vocal techniques that I like to employ.
You have said that you like working on new pieces – so you must be excited to be working on three world premieres. First – English Baroque with Circa with the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra (ABO)…
While I’ve worked with the ABO several times in the past, this is my first involvement with the collaboration between the ABO and Circa. This time around, I believe there is more integration of the musicians’ bodies and the acrobats’ bodies in the performance space – it’s a very flexible and shared space. The Circa performers are just staggeringly talented. When I first met them, Circa’s Artistic Director, Yaron Lifschitz, said to me: “I’ve been told that you’re fearless!” And I thought – what a lovely thing to say… but I was also aware that he’s got trapeze artists hanging from his ceiling – so I wondered what he had in mind! At first I thought – Oh well, there’ll be this amazing acrobatic show and I’ll be off to the side, and the music will be a pure accompaniment. But it became clear that there is a bit more fluidity spatially and interactively between us all – which is nice – I’m not doing anything too wild up there, but I am interacting with the bodies of the acrobats and their apparatus in a way that is fun.
Can you tell us a bit about how you work with both teams – the musicians and the acrobats – and how the show is put together?
Each company has a period of rehearsals separately so that there is quite a bit in place before we get together. It is really in this final week before the show that we come together and are all in the room at once. That is certainly a good way for me to work – to really have the music in place first before I start being aware of these bodies flying all over the place!
It helps that I’ve worked with the ABO in the past – first when I was 19 years old, and again five years ago. It certainly helps to really know the community I am entering into and to know their past work as a company and as players.
Were you able to choose any of the vocal pieces?
When ABO’s Artistic Director, Paul Dyer, first pitched the collaboration to me, I sent through some thoughts. A programme like this is really artistically the work of Paul and Yaron – and I come into the project at a later stage. There was a lot in place already before I chatted with Paul about repertoire, but he has certainly selected some pieces that I love. The beauty is that Paul knows what I like and what suits my voice. He knows I love Purcell – so there’s some beautiful Purcell and also a piece by Handel – ‘Gentle Morpheus, Son of Night’ – that I suggested he include, which I’m very happy about.
In July 2019, you will be in Sydney with Carriageworks…
Yes, I’ll be working with Sydney Chamber Opera. Composer Elliott Gyger has created a new opera based on Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda – also a world premiere. It seems like a wonderfully operatic and sonic piece.
And then the premiere of your own work in New York – Poem for a Dried Up River in New York in September 2019 …
That piece is a 40-minute composition that I’m writing – set to an existing text, Poem for a Dried Up River, by Alice Oswald, a British poet who I absolutely adore. The poem contemplates the strangeness of the ritual of creating female forms in times of drought and fallow fields. It involves a water nymph’s attempts to fill a dry river with water and, musically, much of the piece comes from the sounds of effort – it is a piece for two sopranos (one of which is me) a string trio, percussion and some electronics.
It’s funny, but that does bring the three projects full circle in a way – the poem is being presented in New York as part of the Resonant Bodies Festival. The new work involves electronic field recordings and designs – both by colleagues who are based in Australia. Presenting their work in New York is all part of this overall drive I have to link the two places and creative communities that I love.
Jane Sheldon’s English Baroque with Circa tour begins at the Canberra International Music Festival on 2 May, then to Sydney for six performances, Melbourne for two performances, and finally in Brisbane on 21 May.
For performance dates, please check the ABO website: https://www.brandenburg.com.au/concerts/2019/english-baroque-with-circa/