While in Sydney earlier this year, to perform her show Secrets for the Sydney Festival, Claron McFadden caught up with Fine Music magazine.
An intimate jazz theatre show about all the things we’d prefer to keep ‘hush hush’, Secrets draws its material from the anonymous true confessions entrusted to the performers by past audiences around the globe.
American soprano McFadden, equally enchanting when whispering surreptitiously into the mic or singing from the rooftops, was joined on stage by experimental accordion-brass-cello trio Michel Massot, Tuur Florizoone and Marine Horbaczewski.
McFadden studied voice at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, finishing her degree in 1984, and gained international fame when making her Glyndebourne Festival Opera debut in the title role of the opera Lulu, conducted by Sir Andrew Davis.
Returning to Australia after a seven year absence, McFadden, who is known for singing many of the major oratorio works, brought something quite different for Sydney Festival.
“It’s a funny thing when the trio opened up and allowed me to join,” she says.
“We had to find a way to embrace the fact that it’s called Secrets so it’s based on these stories.
“I felt almost like the guardian of the secrets,” says McFadden, “They were teasing me at one point, it was like I was the mother of all these people who had entrusted me with some very deep and painful things”.
At first the group was going to set the ‘secrets’ to music and lyrics and then it became quite clear that the stories were so diverse and had their own “musicality, their own rhythm”, that they couldn’t impose a musical structure on them.
“They indicated themselves what kind of environment they wanted to be in,” said McFadden.
“In the end there were only a few that are actually used as lyrics and for the rest we create a kind of carpet of sound on the actual instrument… Coming from that I sort of step out and become a re-teller and tell the secret and then step back in.”
The players had wanted to work together for some time and McFadden said it was up to her to “come up with a concept”.
“I was inspired by a book I had gotten as a present,” about a project in the US where an artist encouraged people to write down secrets they had never revealed to anyone, on a postcard, and mail them anonymously to a post box – to be used as part of an exhibition. Apparently the response was overwhelming and the artist is still receiving ‘mail’ more than a decade later.
“People feel the need to confess, to get it out… many say ‘what a relief it was to be able to share this’”.
The secrets received by McFadden seemed to fall into five or six general categories such as lost love, poor body image and suicide to name a few.
“These secrets,” she says, “everybody has them”.
“For some reason there’s a need for secrets to be spoken or voiced, so I started to ask myself ‘do secrets only really come to life when they’re spoken?’”
McFadden realised her role was to be instrumental literally and figuratively in giving them a voice through which they could be expressed. It was initially suggested that she read them as neutrally as possible, as if she were just conveying the words of others.
“I thought long and hard about that and at first I was reading them quite neutral while we were in the creative process just to try and get a feeling of what they were. But it became very clear, it’s like telling stories to a child… just enough to give it life.”
There was one story that gave McFadden much more cause for thought, a suicide story. In re-imagining a conversation between a mother and daughter involved in this story, McFadden became aware of the critical nature of how words are expressed, and the role of emphasis and intention.
Describing the creative process as a broad musical palette, McFadden says, “It was great for me to be able to add my colours to the palette so that we could make even more colours and with the beauty of the text,” it allowed her to further explore her skills as a true instrumentalist.
– Andrew Bukenya