Interview by Shirley Apthorp 

Take the train from Melbourne to Brisbane, for instance, and you’ll see rolling hills dotted with scraggy eucalypts and think, ’That’s a Fred Williams painting!’ You might be listening to Mahler or Brahms or Schubert as you travel, and you might wonder: How does this music fit with these landscapes? 

This is precisely the question that Musica Viva Australia’s new A Winter’s Journey seeks to answer. By pairing images of Fred Williams paintings with Schubert’s iconic Winterreise song cycle, director Lindy Hume, tenor Allan Clayton, and pianist Kate Golla take a fresh look at a core piece of Romantic repertoire. 

In many ways, Winterreise is the epitome of European Romanticism. Schubert, aware that he was dying of syphilis, chose Wilhelm Müller’s bleak poems and set them almost all in minor keys. The poems describe a desperately unhappy man journeying through a winter landscape on his quest to put a soured love story behind him.

Is the cycle quintessentially European?

’What does that even mean?’ counters Kate Golla. ’I think it’s about emotional turmoil. Of course the aspect of nature is completely woven into the poetry, but I think it’s more about personal reactions to nature, awareness of where you are, and what’s inside and outside your head. And I think it absolutely can translate across any boundaries.’ 

Of course, says Allan Clayton, Müller’s icy landscapes will clash with the sun-bleached expanses of Australia. That’s the point. ’The idea of a journey through the snow of a European winter versus whatever that might mean in Australia is an interesting one. The German Romantic poetry is very literal and specific; but it does transport, I think. It’s not hard to understand why the original poems went down such a storm, because this descent into some sort of delusion is so fascinating.’ 

When we speak, Clayton is fresh off the plane from his New York run in the title role of Brett Dean’s Hamlet at the Metropolitan Opera; this followed a stint as Kurt Weill’s hapless Jimmy Mahoney in The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, in turn following his triumph as Peter Grimes at Covent Garden. Clayton seems to be making a specialty of tormented souls.

’I know! My friends and family keep asking me to do something fun…'

’You could argue that Hamlet knows what he’s doing the whole time, so it’s not really clear whether he’s mad or not. Mahoney is a pretty tortured character. Grimes loses any sense of self, time and place. And I think that in Winterreise, the protagonist does go mad.’ 

The point, agrees Golla, is the way that Müller’s icy landscapes function as a metaphor for the protagonist’s inner turmoil. And to find that relationship, the landscape need be neither European nor frigid. 

’I think there’s something about the immensity of Australian landscape that can encompass so much. It’s the wildness of it. I’ve done a few of those road trips. I remember going with my parents from Sydney to Adelaide when I was a kid. And I remember asking them to stop the car, and I got out and just shouted, you know, into the nothing. Perhaps you can’t compare that to snowy forests and beautiful lakes, but I think they have the same kind of resonance. We are human beings, and these are our landscapes. It’s what we live in, and that is what our emotions are – how they are reflected, I suppose. We all share the same emotional landscape.’ 

The title’s reference to a journey, says Golla, should not be taken too literally, since the poems are episodic in nature and there is no concrete destination. ’It’s all very inward-looking and introspective. There are tiny moments of looking upwards, glimpses of redemption. But I see each song as an individual thing. They are just so extraordinary. They balance on the knife edge between tears and hope, and I guess that’s what makes it so beautiful.’ 

Though Golla and Clayton have worked together for many years, this will be their first Winterreise together. ’Allan is a very difficult man to book to do anything, because he’s so wonderful,’ says Golla. ’So he’s always extremely busy. And I think possibly with the pandemic, a little opening happened, and so they grabbed it.’ 

Clayton looks forward immensely to the chance to work intensively with Golla. ’She’s just an incredible player, but also an amazing, instinctive musician, someone who is very dedicated and just brilliant at what she does.’ 

One of Clayton’s first opera performances was a production directed by Lindy Hume at Aldeburgh’s Britten–Pears School in 2005; it made a profound impression. ’She was incredibly insightful, kind and patient with us. She’s someone who wants to understand the work from a performer’s point of view, which is great. She’s not the kind of prescriptive director who says, ’Move here, do that.’ She has a framework, and allows you to play within that, which I think the best directors do.’ 

The enthusiasm that Clayton and Golla express about their artistic collaboration is balanced by their mutual passion for Schubert’s music. 

’It will be a real treat,’ says Golla, ’to just be able to concentrate on these incredibly intense, brief, focussed little musical gems.’ 

Don't miss the upcoming national tour of A Winter's Journey from 12 to 27 July. Tickets are available here.