Anna Dowsley is an Australian mezzo soprano and actress forging a career in Europe. She has sung many of the big operatic roles, from Dorabella in Mozart's Cosi fan Tutte to the title role in Carmen. Ali McGregor is a soprano, an actress and cabaret performer who, by her own admission, ‘ran away from classical music into the lurid arms of cabaret’ some time ago. They both juggle working lives, young children and the never-ending question of how to do it all.
In February Anna Dowsley appears in Long Lost Loves (and Grey Suede Gloves), a new song cycle written and directed by Constantine Costi, featuring the music of American composer William Bolcom and the words of the brilliant Arnold Weinstein from their signature collection, Cabaret Songs. It is tailor-made for Anna's voice, and it weaves together the songs into a highly personal narrative which explores some of the highs and lows of being an artist.
After finding a suitable time between Germany and Melbourne, when they are not on stage or in rehearsal and their children are playing elsewhere, Ali McGregor and Anna Dowsley compare notes on how William Bolcom’s songs differ, if at all, from more traditional 'art song' or lieder.
Ali: What does the word 'cabaret' mean to you?
Anna: When I first heard the term, it meant Liza Minelli. But if you had asked me five years ago, I would have thought of 1930s Berlin - grungy, subversive and politically outspoken; after hours, a very intimate audience…alcohol! And now, on a more personal level, I think of the late, beautiful Jacqui Dark. I saw one of her shows in Newtown not so long ago, and I was so in awe of the art form. You are laughing and then, a second later, you're crying. Having that power, that rawness... It amazed me.
Did you know these songs before working on this program?
When I was studying, singers would often do songs like 'George' and 'Black Max', but I never performed them myself. I knew them as the sort of songs you program to lighten the evening, which doesn't do them justice, as we've discovered.
How did your approach to these songs differ from your usual process?
So often, with opera and art song, the fourth wall is up. I love the fourth wall! I love being in the audience, watching someone from the outside. But this is a chance to be in the audience's lap. These songs are made for an audience. There are a few exceptions where there is a sense of introspection, and you are watching a soliloquy of sorts. The audience is there, and you're telling them a story.
I read a great story from Arnold Weinstein when asking a friend who had committed her life to studying the Bard, "How much do you know about Shakespeare?" She replied, "Not as much as he knows about me". How are you relating to these songs personally?
There's something so timeless about them, you forget that some of these were written in the seventies; they could easily have been written in the thirties, but they seem so contemporary. These colourful, vibrant characters may be larger than life but also relatable. The text is wonderful, and you never quite know where it will go, which is what I love about them.
And why they are such a fantastic writing team because, musically, you don't often know where Bolcom will go either…
Yes! I talked to Mikey (accompanist Michael Curtain) about this; Bolcom is a fantastic pianist who writes complex piano music. It sounds like it's all improvised, but then you open the score, and it's so beautifully detailed and not improvised at all. It's very much prescribed, but feels spontaneous.
Have you found you are learning this music the same way you would learn lieder or more traditional art song? Or has the process been different?
It's been different in that Mikey and I sort of jammed together. So often, you prepare music yourself, know all your notes, and get together and create the song. But with this, we had workshops, played, and made mistakes. It came from this process of mucking around and seeing what we felt.
Also, as a classical singer, it's usually not the norm that you sing in English. Taking that part of the process away lets your mind focus on other things straight away.
And especially with lyrics like these, which are clever with intricate wordplay, that takes time to figure out, doesn't it?
Yeah. When Con (director Constantine Costi) talked about looking at this from the perspective of an artist having a crisis of some sort, I realised that I'm having my own difficulties with everything having to be so perfect. In our world, you can't even go on stage without worrying that someone has secretly recorded you. It's so hard to take risks. But I love performance, and I love live theatre, and I love being able to take risks, daring to try. Con said, 'Anna, isn't this exactly what you need right now? Let's just be raw, be real. See what happens.'
Are there any songs that you have especially connected with?
Blue, definitely. When I first approached the text, I thought it was about deep love for someone else. But then I read that Weinstein was a follower of a meditation guru in New York who worked on finding this blue light as a sense of calm, as a sense of self. So, I came to the idea that it's not about loving someone else; it's about loving yourself. And I think that's something we can all strive for.
Long Lost Loves (and Grey Suede Gloves) tours nationally from February 20. For details and to book, click here.