Sheldon shows her metal in Romitelli video opera


By Annarosa Berman

Soprano Jane Sheldon faces an interesting challenge in Sydney Chamber Opera’s staging of Fausto Romitelli’s An Index of Metals this November with Ensemble Offspring. Romitelli described his final work as “an electric poem that explodes the possibilities of the opera format”. For Sheldon, this means working out what form she takes on stage. “I’m comfortable with the idea of being a presence or an energy rather than a clearly defined character,” she says. “But I’ll have to wait to learn what [director] Kip Williams has in mind.”

Sheldon has not worked with Williams before, but was inspired by his 2015 Sydney Theatre Company production of Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly Last Summer, which was played out before the unblinking gaze of three video cameras. For a performer, diving into a director’s vision of a piece is “always a leap of faith”, she says.

Having worked with conductor Jack Symonds in SCO’s 2013 production of Giya Kancheli’s Exil, she is looking forward to their next collaboration. ”Jack approaches the musical process with tremendous passion and devotion,” she says. “He is rigorous but also flexible, he’s got absolutely fantastic ears, and he notices everything.”

In general she enjoys working with conductors who are enthusiastic about the piece being performed, who make clear gestures and above all, who understand how voices work. “You can strike a high C on a piano many times in a row and it just keeps sounding great; if you have a singer do the same thing, fatigue becomes audible fairly quickly.”

Sheldon has performed with some of the world’s most acclaimed classical musicians, including William Christie and Charles Dutoit, yet she especially loves working with SCO – she’s a chamber musician who loves creating new music with a small group of like-minded artists. “There are plenty of exciting things about working with big companies and big, senior figures in music, but the feeling of making something new in an intimate context with a group of peers is very elusive in that setting. You are usually a cog in someone else’s machine. The machine might be a very beautiful and wonderful one, and one that you’re very proud to be a part of, but for me the experience is often not as artistically satisfying.”

In New York, where she’s based, she performs only new chamber music. She’s a member of Ekmeles, a 6-piece vocal ensemble which specialises in extended vocal techniques and performs European modernist repertoire, and a founding member of  Thump & Wail, a trio with a percussionist and a saxophone player. New York’s new music community feels like Sydney’s in certain ways, she says. “It’s pretty close-knit, and I find myself working with same people again and again, and performing for the same audience members again and again. I have great affection for new music audiences because they are prepared to spend their spare time and money experiencing art that challenges them.”

Learning complex new roles that are not part of mainstream opera companies’ core repertoire takes a tremendous amount of energy and work. To Sheldon it’s a thoroughly worthwhile exercise, even if opportunities to reprise such roles are often few and far between. “I work best when I’m discovering things from scratch, and I feel I have more to offer making new work than recreating well-known roles,” she says.

A surprising number of artists specialise, as she does, in the apparently extreme opposites of early and new music. But she explains that both styles require “a certain amount of vocal agility and timbral flexibility”, that both styles demand a willingness to do some “notational puzzle solving”, and that both styles offer the freedom to be playful. Both styles also encourage what she refers to as “vertical thinking” in music. Rather than seeing her part as a “long line which sails over a bed of sound provided by the instrumental parts” (i.e. “horizontal thinking”), she tends to concentrate on how her part “locks into the other parts in a given instant”. This enables her to find her way through rhythmically complex music and in complex tuning systems, such as microtonality in new music and exotic temperaments in early music.

Sheldon is often described as Australian-American, and she confesses to getting “a weepy feeling of homecoming” when landing in both Australia and America. Trying to articulate the characteristics of this double identity, she says: “I have a pretty good bullshit detector (Australia), a suspicion of anyone who seeks power of any kind (Australia) or who takes themselves too seriously (Australia), a genuinely positive and fairly pragmatic outlook (probably both, but America turned up the volume on that), a desire to chase joy without feeling any shame about it (America) and a belief that the unexamined life is a bit of a waste (America).”

In Australia, November is going to be an interesting opera month.

Read the full interview with Jane Sheldon here.

Photo: Samuel Hodge

  • E-list