James, tell us a bit about yourself.
I grew up in country South Australia, and we moved to the city when I was young, and I went to school here in Adelaide. I studied at The Con [The Elder Conservatorium at Adelaide University] and completed a music degree there, majoring in classical singing, and later a Master’s Degree in Conducting. And then I moved interstate and overseas, pursuing conducting as my main passion. Now I live in Perth, but it’s exciting to be back to perform in Adelaide and be a part of G&S FEST with so many talented people from all over the country. This is very special for me.
Who introduced you to G&S? And what was your first memory of their operettas?
Before I was born, I know my parents were involved in amateur theatre, so I know there were earlier examples of where I came into contact with it that I can’t quite account for. But when I was a little kid, my cousin was in a Gilbert and Sullivan production at her high school, and I went along. I must have been really interested in it, because I had a double cassette of The Mikado, and I just kept playing it on a loop. That’s my earliest memory of not just listening, but obsessively listening and learning all the words and then just wanting more. I was taken to a lot of theatre by my parents, which I really enjoyed, but slowly it became something more significant and more of a contribution to my musical professional life. I did become obsessed with H.M.S. Pinafore. My school was going to do Pinafore as the school musical, and I thought, right, I need to prepare. I became obsessed, I learned everyone’s lines, bought the sheet music, I did research. I even made a toy box theatre with lights and figurines and everything, and I would get the music out, and I would practice conducting. And this was when I was very young, I have moved on from toy theatres to the real thing thankfully. But when I was very young I thought, one day I want to be a conductor, and I want to conduct this H.M.S. Pinafore, now how do I get there? So that shaped my career and education choices going forward.
So is this going to be the first time you conduct H.M.S. Pinafore? Is this your dream coming true?
Yep… first ever. I have been fortunate to conduct several other G&S Operas, but never Pinafore. I feel so incredibly lucky that Stuart has asked me to do this. I don’t think he is aware that it has been a life-long dream. On another G&S nerdy note, I get to be the musical director for Trial by Jury, The Sorcerer and H.M.S. Pinafore and track the evolution of the creative collaboration between Gilbert and Sullivan over the course of their first 3 major productions. I can see the ways in which they refined their processes, Sullivan’s musical themes and variations, Gilbert’s characters, story structure and topsy-turveydom.
What do you like about G&S and how do you approach their repertoire?
I feel like I have an obligation to uphold the fun and silliness. I encourage the singers and orchestra to use all of their craft, but I take having fun very seriously. Once everyone has learned their part, it has to come to life, and with G&S that requires a fun atmosphere with talented people. This has certainly been my experience with the Trial by Jury rehearsals so far and I can’t wait to start rehearsing the other productions with everyone. I realise that it isn’t every musician’s dream to conduct this music, but that makes it cool, G&S has a kind of cult following. My role is to really adore the music and to impart that to everybody. My job as conductor is to be the champion for Arthur Sullivan and all that he was trying to achieve with the music. There was intense public expectation on Sullivan to be the next great composer in England. He was grappling with with that pressure while collaborating with Gilbert. I’m sure Sullivan felt that he was wasting his innovative talents on the Savoy Operas and yet he continued to create wonderful music which has turned out to be enduring. Knowing the history behind the collaboration is an important part of my preparation for this repertoire.