Landmark Women: Louise Page
Louise Page, 16 August 2013
MONICA LINDEMANN: Good morning ladies and gentlemen. Thank you so much for coming out this morning to the August edition of Landmark Women. I am Monica Lindemann, head of development. I am stepping in while Carisse is on leave. I have some Public Service announcements to make before I hand over to Sandy Forbes to introduce our guest speaker today. I need to let you know this event is being recorded. If you have any concerns about anonymity, if you ask a question today it will be recorded. If you would like to ask a question, please wait for the microphone to be handed to you so that we can capture that. All of the presentation will then be available on our website after the event.
My second announcement is that unfortunately we need to change the date for next month’s event to 27 September. We will send out some information about that. There is a significant cycling road race on that day and there would be terrible disruption to the roads and car parking. To avoid that whole mess we will move the event to another date, 27 September, but stand by for further information there.
SANDY FORBES: It’s the 27th and the speaker is Daryl Karp, who is the director of the Museum of Australian Democracy, so same time, same place but different date. We will send out emails to remind you.
I have the great pleasure this morning to introduce Louise Page who many of you know. I see her kissing some of you and not the babies - little election joke. Louise Page is a soprano and is one of Australia’s most highly regarded singers appearing in opera, operetta, oratorio, cabaret, recital and broadcasts. Her vocal talent and gift for interpretation has been widely acclaimed as a winner of the inaugural Mietta’s Song Recital Competition, the vocal grand final of the ABC Young Performer of the Year Award, the Robert Stolz/Apex scholarship to Vienna and the Belgium Radio and Television Opera en Bel Canto Prize. And she lives in Canberra.
Louise has performed throughout Europe, including roles at the Vienna State Opera as a member of the young artists program. She performs regularly in Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra and regional areas. She has been a soloist with the Sydney, Queensland, Canberra and Central Coast symphony orchestras and the National Capital Orchestra. She performs in recital for many organisations including Musica Viva and the ABC and has been a featured artist in the Australian Festival of Chamber Music and the Canberra International Music Festival.
In 2007 Louise received a Canberra Critics Circle Award for musical excellence, and in the same year she was recognised with the Canberra Times Artist of the Year Award, in particular for her presentation Nellie Melba: Queen of Song. In the 2013 Australia Day Honours list Louise was awarded on OAM for her services to the performing arts. Please welcome Louise who is going to sing for her morning tea.
LOUISE PAGE: Thank you. It’s lovely to be here. I think it would be easier to sing than speak actually. There is one more announcement too. Those of you who need the audio loop, I believe it has been turned on.
Sandy asked me here, and I am thrilled, chuffed. I wondered if she had got the right person for a while. I am delighted to be here to speak to you. As she said, there are many friends’ faces that I know here. It’s lovely to see you all. I hope you won’t be disappointed.
Sandy asked if I would speak about my life, my work and my passions, and I guess as a musician they are all the same. That’s why it was so distressing for many of us at the Australian National University School of Music last year when our lives were totally disrupted. There are three things in my life - my family. I have been married to John for 30-odd years. I was married at 19. I have two gorgeous girls, Marianna, 19 and Elizabeth 17. We have tried to combine our life so that my singing, John’s career - he’s now retired - as a member of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and my daughters’ lives somehow all manage to commingle. I must say that Canberra has been a very easy place to do this. I am a very proud Canberran, having lived here since 1984 on and off, and love being part of this community. I fell in love with Canberra when I first came here as a teenager.
I should start at the beginning, shouldn’t I, otherwise I will ramble forever. I was born in England and I moved to Perth with my family when I was five years old. I lived there until I was married, and my husband then got the job with Foreign Affairs and Trade and we moved to Canberra in 1983. John and I had met in Perth as teachers in a teachers college in WA there, where I was studying music as a cellist and John was studying politics, social sciences and that sort of thing. We both recognised quite early that our calling was not teaching. We are both quite shy people. I was only 20 at the time and barely older than the people I was meant to be teaching so I think that was going to be a very hard life. And I had this passion for music. Even though I was there as a cellist, we had to take a second instrument and mine was going to be singing. That’s where I got the bug, although I must admit I had also got it at high school with school choirs. I was playing the cello in the orchestra but it was the choir that really got me. Suddenly to have the opportunity to sing was wonderful.
When we came to Canberra, I had heard about this wonderful School of Music which in the early 1980s was in its heyday. John went off to the Department of Foreign Affairs, and I took a second degree at the School of Music. Music has been there right from the start, singing since I was 18 or so, which is probably a late start.
There were three parts of my life, one is my family. The other is my music and the other is my faith. I know very little about religion, I must say. All I know is that I have been loved every day of my life. I am very pleased and very glad that I have hardly ever been challenged, in that my life has been very happy, very easy. I still, I hope, have a lot of compassion and a lot of empathy for people who have suffered in their lives. I feel that I have had a very easy life. I try in what I think is a very selfish occupation, my singing, to lend some love and some comfort to people who enjoy music and maybe somehow are touched by it. I don’t know, it’s hard to explain. Those three things are the three important elements to my life.
Growing up in Perth, my father and mother were children of the war in England. No opportunities and they left England to get opportunities for their three children, my two brothers and I, hoping that we would find more opportunities here, which of course we have in Australia. My elder brother is a psychiatrist, and my younger brother is an Anglican minister in the church. I am trying to have a career in music.
When John and I were married we came to Canberra. I then won a scholarship to study music in Vienna, which threw the cat amongst the pigeons for a while. What were we going to do? It was quite a miracle in a way that the Robert Stolz scholarship to study at the conservatorium in Vienna was for a year. John tried his best to get some work over there but it didn’t happen until suddenly somebody doing exactly the same sort of work as him, which was nuclear non-proliferation work, suddenly retired at the Australian embassy in Vienna. It was quite a miracle that this person just decided to up and leave, doing exactly that same type of work that John was doing, at exactly the right level and they just handed it to him. So instead of the year we had in Vienna, we were there four years. As well as my year on scholarship at the conservatorium, which I must say was wonderful but not a patch on our School of Music here, as it was at the time, we had four years in Vienna instead.
I then went on to study as a young artist at the Vienna State Opera, which was for a year. It was meant to be two years but unfortunately they closed it down after one year (the young artist program). I knew that at the beginning. They told me that it would only be for one year before they closed it. And from then on I freelanced around. It was a wonderful opportunity being at the opera and also being at the conservatorium, because it meant that I learnt German properly, mixed with other students, most of them were international, looking at the life in Vienna and the life of an artist. Of course, to be at the Vienna State Opera was fantastic. We had free student tickets to any performance that we wanted to. We had our own box as employees of the Staatsoper. But if, for instance, the royal box happened to be open, we would have free tickets there instead. So we had either the worst seats or the best seats. It was an absolutely glorious time and I learnt a lot.
I looked at it and realised what a stressful life it was to be a musician. It’s a very selfish occupation, and even more so for a singer, because you have to be constantly aware of your own body, how tired you are, how sick you are, your nutrition et cetera. The stress of it, the way it plays with your mental capacities if you are having to memorise. I realised it was going to be a very hard and long road to follow but a very gorgeous one at the same time.
After four years we decided to return to Australia. As I said, I was a late starter after having done two degrees and had a few years overseas with John and in the Solomon Islands. By the time I had finished (as I considered it) training at the time I was 32 and of course it’s time for children as well. That was running out. We came back to Australia to have our children and to try to make a life here, which we have managed to do. Trying to combine all of those elements, the children, John’s career - and of course he had a regular income as opposed to the life of a musician which is very irregular - we settled in Australia in Canberra. In some ways that was hard and I regretted it in that we have no opera company here, no large population. But in many ways it has actually been a great benefit because it’s such a wonderful - I don’t like to call it a training ground but something like that – place where I can get up and test my craft, create shows and do wonderful things here for the Canberra public, which might have been a lot harder to do when there is so much more competition in Sydney, as well as more opportunities.
It’s been a glorious life here in Canberra where I do feel like I know most of the people in my audiences and many opportunities. I also love Canberra. I fell in love when we first came with my school choir and orchestra doing a tour from Western Australia travelling around up and down the eastern seaboard. We arrived in Canberra at 6 o’clock in the morning. WA is quite warm. We were told it was minus 1 outside, dreading it. We got off to one of those most beautiful Canberra mornings where it’s blue, still and clear and the frost is on the ground. I was hooked from then on. That was in the 1970s. I must have been 16 at the time. I somehow knew that I would be back. It has been a lovely life here - enjoying the life here, bringing up children, being part of the wonderful musical community here, both amateur and professional, which often intermingles. I guess we will see more and more of that after what has happened at the School of Music. The line will be blurred even further which might not be a bad thing, I don’t know. To me, it has been about being part of the community. That’s what I have really loved about it all. I sometimes regret that I have not been up in Sydney to take part in the opera there, but there have been so many more opportunities.
That’s the outline of my story, seeing the wonderful things over in Europe. I was never at the top but I saw the top, and I realised then it was perhaps not for me. I wanted more than that in the broader sense. I looked at it and saw there was very little to love there. We had a wonderful apartment right in the centre of Vienna, because of my husband’s job rather than my scholarship that I was supposed to be on. But there was no garden, no pets, no children and I think I realised I needed a bit more than just a very selfish life where you have to cosset yourself all the time and look after your health and mental energy.
I saw it destroy some people over there. There was one tenor in particular, Aragall, who was a fantastic tenor but he got to the stage where he couldn’t actually face the audience. He had to sing off to the side or with his back to them because it was so stressful. I have seen Pavarotti in rehearsal hunkered down, miserable as anything just rehearsing with the orchestra. I was thinking if that’s the toll it takes, because of course the higher you get, the more pressure is on people to perform their best all the time. If they have an off night, of course it’s splashed all over the press the next day. For me, I have had many off nights and people have been forgiving. I think I relaxed at that point.
When my children were about eight years old, I suddenly decided if I was going to sing it was because of the love of it, not for the money, not for the glory if you would like to call it that, it is because I was enjoying it and I felt it was something I had to do. It has been very much a part of that. Of course, when the children were little it was very difficult trying to keep the two things going. The wonderful Phillipa Candy has stood by me as my accompanist and dear friend for so many years. She used to come while I’m holding babies in arms, and toddlers and such like, putting up with the chaos just to keep us singing and performing all the way through those troublesome years. It was very difficult. I remember once saying to my husband, ‘I don’t think I can do both well, be a mother and a singer.’ He was the one who encouraged me who said, ‘You have come so far. At the moment, you can’t give it up now.’ He has always stood by me, as much as he could with babysitting and opportunities.
If I had one concert in Melbourne, I would have to take the whole family there. It ended up costing us a fortune, far more than the fee I would be getting, just to get the whole family and accommodate them. He has always stood by me in that way. Also the children have put up with a lot over the years but got a lot of benefit out of it as well. When my eldest daughter was about eight years old I decided then that I had to do it for love, for passion, and I think things changed at that point when I stopped striving. I think I always knew I was meant to be the best singer in the world, but any ambitions stopped. I just decided to stay amongst my community and love what I did whatever that was. Many opportunities have come my way and I have really enjoyed them. It doesn’t matter if I am singing for no money or whatever, it’s all the same. This is something I am doing for love. That’s the basic outline of my story. There are large gaps there. I might take questions at this point and see if anything more comes up.
SANDY FORBES: Questions for Louise.
QUESTION: Louise, I am wondering if your girls have inherited any of your talent.
LOUISE PAGE: They are both very musical. I spent a lot of time with them when they were younger. They have a lot of talent. My elder one - she will probably regret me saying this - has no discipline whatsoever. We have never pushed it with either of them. We have given them opportunities if they want it but just made sure they have that exposure in the beginning. The elder one plays the guitar and they both love their pop music. They both went to the Woden Valley Youth Choir, which was fantastic for them, that discipline. As I said, my elder one didn’t really like that structure whereas my younger one thrived on it, adored it until it coincided that she had to go to high school and up to the senior choir at the same time. There was a lot of rehearsal for the senior choir, sometimes meeting three or four times a week if they have performances on. To me being a mother doing the running around as well as my own thing was suddenly going to be a lot of pressure on me so I said, ‘Just wait and find out how much homework you have and if you want to go back to it later, you can.’ I think she would have loved to have gone back but she didn’t. They both played flute and clarinet and various things. My younger daughter has a fine voice but I think is looking at doing medicine next year. It’s always going to be a bit of a hobby for them. They get frustrated because they are often asked that question when they are out in public, ‘Do you sing like Mummy?’ They were very good about it when they were little; they would give a very considered answer. They are both lovely girls. They have the talent, the opportunities have been there, but I think they have both gone in other ways.
QUESTION: Louise, you mentioned in your early life that you thought your training at the School of Music here compared favourably with that in Austria. Would you care to elaborate on that?
LOUISE PAGE: Yes. I was a student at the School of Music in the late 1970s and early 1980s when it was in its heyday. I had done a bachelor of music, which was four years as opposed to three as it is now. There was such expert teaching and so many opportunities, and again that is something that Canberra has provided so well - the opportunities for students to get up and perform. It’s such a beneficial thing to have a secure audience to get up and test your skills. I had many opportunities as a young singer here in Canberra and in Australia.
I won the scholarship to Vienna, which is supposed to be the be all and end all of music to find that the conservatorium at the time was not. There’s a Hochschuele as well, the music high school, but the conservatorium was nothing compared to here. There were a lot of international students, and our main job seemed to be to learn German. The classes were nowhere near as thorough or as high level as what we had been doing here. I did have a bit more performance exposure with the opera class, but really the level and the intensity of the course was just nothing compared to this. It seemed a very general community level course. We didn’t have the fantastic music library that we had here or any of the facilities. You couldn’t get a practice room unless you booked at 7.30 in the morning or something like that. There didn’t seem to be the facilities or the organisation or the wonderful staff that we have here. It was very disappointing in many ways. Many people who won the scholarship before me stayed two weeks and then left to find their own way, spend their money of the scholarship in a different way. I stayed because I felt it was useful to really get hold of German properly by mixing with so many other people, whereas if I had been on my own I probably wouldn’t, except being down at the shops ordering my sandwich or whatever, and that’s all. To have had this high level of expertise here with these wonderful teachers at the ANU 20-odd years ago and then to go to the Vienna Con was a great shame. We had wonderful teachers in Vienna. I worked with Waldemar Kmment who was a very fine singer. He ran the opera class, and that was one of the best things. I had my teacher Hilde de Groote at the Vienna State Opera who gave me singing lessons. They were the two real beneficial things. You have to have this one-on-one tuition with people to develop your music skills, which is what is missing now at the ANU as part of their course. It was very different to live a different type of life over there in Vienna with different experiences. For me, what I had just experienced at the School of Music was far greater than anything I found in Vienna at the time. I probably just needed a one-on-one lesson at that point and exposure, which I got the next year when I went to the State Opera, through the performances on stage. But the conservatorium was not a patch on ours, as it used to be.
SANDY FORBES: Maybe you could say a few words about the loss of some of that at the School of Music. Do you feel like saying anything?
LOUISE PAGE: Every time I think I’m over it - I don’t know much about what’s happening now but it seems to me the direction they want is to write about music rather than make music from now on, because of course it’s a lot cheaper. All the performance teaching will happen by private teachers out in the community, with people like me and the ex-lecturers at the School of Music who are now just private teachers. That will still be happening but will just be on a private scale. What the ANU will handle will be the musicology aspects of it, as far as I can tell, because I don’t have anything to do with it now. It is still going on but it is just different. That’s all.
So many of us feel that it’s a detrimental thing for the community because we have had such roots in the community when so many of the high school teachers, the performers, the students have had contact with either staff or students from the School of Music and when we had so many people out there in world orchestras and world opera companies, all around the world – but that’s not relevant to university life. It doesn’t bring in research dollars. It is something that is not of interest to them. That is their prerogative, I suppose, but I can’t help feeling it’s a loss to the Canberra community rather than the ANU. Of course it is not the ANU’s job to support the community in this way – but still a great loss.
QUESTION: I was most impressed with the 12-year-old who sang with you at the International Music Festival. I was surprised at the maturity of that child’s voice. When I asked her how old she was, I gasped. I would like to ask you about a child who has been singing before she was born because her mother sang to her all the time and just sings constantly. At 11, is she too young to start music training other than the choir at school?
LOUISE PAGE: It really depends. Yes, Stephanie was 11, a gorgeous little singer with a great big voice. I think if a child is already doing so much on her own then yes, you have to nurture it and cultivate it. When I was a student at the School of Music learning, I remember my teacher, who was Ron Maconaghie, always saying, ‘You shouldn’t teach somebody to sing until they were 16 or 18, when the body has stopped growing, especially for boys.’ That seemed to be very much the philosophy at the time. But now when every kid is grabbing their hairbrush and belting out songs, I think you probably have to help them before they do damage. You should be showing them the right way to sing if they are showing an interest in it.
Musical training is a lot more than just singing as well. You can be teaching them the theory and even piano. I think that’s probably important for a singer these days. It used to be once upon a time that you could have a career as a singer without being able to read music very well or such like because people just taught you to do it and you learnt it by rote. These days there is so much competition that you can’t. That’s not good enough any more. You have to have your own very strong musical background. There is all that sort of training that can go on, music theory and stage development.
I have been just adjudicating the Sydney Eisteddfod singing division in the last month. I was talking to Neta Maugham, who is a very fine piano teacher and mother of Tamara Anna Cislowska, and teacher of people like Tamara, Simon Tedeschi and various others. She’s a very fine teacher. She was saying that she used to teach all her pupils, including Tamara, drama and speech as well. They had to enrol in the Eisteddfod not just playing the piano but also getting up and speaking and reciting and acting - all part of their training. That stage confidence is something you can give to children as well.
But as for singing training, yes, why not, if they are already doing a lot of it. Choir is important. But if they really have potential as a soloist, then the time has to come when you have to stop telling them to blend and be like everyone else. You are trying to encourage them to be a soloist and to stand out, but there is so much music training to be gathered from choirs, and so much more.
QUESTION: She already plays three instruments and has since she was four years old. She is composing her own music on the computer. She transposes music from one instrument to another and just loves to sing. As a matter of fact she sang at her grandfather’s funeral. That is what she wanted to sing.
LOUISE PAGE: In that case she should be grabbing every opportunity. There are some people who specialise in children singing. Again, the philosophy is that you should be trying to get them to sing very naturally in the beginning while their bodies are growing, and I think that’s probably still wise. But the time comes when the bodies have stopped growing where you need to start getting them to manufacture a sound. So instead of being very natural and child-like, folk-like, you start needing to produce the sound, manufacture the sound and such like, which is quite confronting but that has to be done safely. Yes, she should be doing everything she could if that is where her passion lies. If she has all that talent and if that’s what she wants, that is going to be what gets her there in the end.
QUESTION: I was wanting to get your opinion on the current production by Free-Rain Theatre of Phantom of the Opera. They chose to advertise the fact that their two leads were ‘imports’. They felt that it was a great drawcard that they weren’t using the locals. I found that very offensive.
LOUISE PAGE: Yes, I understand that. It’s hard to know. I don’t know how long the run of the season is -
QUESTION: They have actually said they were booked out for their season and they had put on another weekend. It was chocker block. They could have gone for another week.
LOUISE PAGE: Is the season several weeks?
LOUISE PAGE: It can go both ways. It always offends me when we bring in imports when we have so many very talented people of our own who could do it. But on the other hand audiences do like to see variety as well, and these people are supposed to be experts at what they do. I haven’t read much about them or seen the show yet. I believe they had to help in training the cast as well because they know so much about the show, as they have done it many times. I am sure they are going to provide an absolutely brilliant production, but it would have been nice to give our own people a go as well. There might be a second cast or understudies for local people who might get a chance.
One of the very beneficial roles that Canberra plays in the arts is that we have opportunities for our people to train, which is something I benefited very much from, and be able to get up in lead roles in small productions. When I was actually thrown into small roles in large productions over in Vienna, at least I had had some training on stage and knew what should be happening. I think we really need to give our own people that opportunity. We have some very fine musicians, actors and performers here in Canberra. I hope there are some understudies who might get a shot as the second cast but I don’t have that much information about it.
QUESTION: Louise, you have spoken about damaging the voice and so on, especially in relation to children. I would be interested to know what that involves exactly. How does a voice get damaged? What actually happens? Presumably the voice is the product of bits of skin and so on. I would be interested in that and what are the dangerous activities and how one might avoid that problem for adults and children.
LOUISE PAGE: It’s an occupational hazard for singers. I have been very lucky that as I am getting older - I am probably at my vocal peak right now - I have got there because I haven’t been singing every night in the opera for 30 years or whatever. What you have to consider when you are a singer or training somebody or have somebody being trained, is that we are athletes, and you have to consider yourself as that. It’s about aerobic capacity and muscle use, and you have to train yourself like any athlete. You have to warm up properly; you have to keep training those muscles in the best possible way. You would never consider just getting up out of bed one day and running a marathon. You have to train hard for that. You have to train in different areas. So stamina, as well as the start, and whatever, if you are a running 100-metre sprint. I consider that, for singers, you have to be a sprinter as well as a weightlifter, a marathon runner and various different things. There are so many different aspects to the control of your muscles.
If you were an athlete you would be breaking down all those different areas - practising your start and your finish, your general aerobic capacity and stamina levels et cetera - and working on all those different areas and keeping it in good nick. Most of the muscles that we have in our neck here [demonstrates], including the vocal folds as they call them now – or vocal cords as they used to be - are very tiny little muscles, so you are trying to take away as much as pressure from these neck muscles as you can and put them on the rest of your body. People think we sing from here and you see people straining like this [demonstrates] with great ropes of muscles here. But in fact it’s your body which has to do the work. The job of the teacher is to really impress upon people how much your body has to do rather than these little muscles to avoid damage. It’s training those and keeping them in good condition which is so important.
We had a lecture from the physiotherapist from the Australian Chamber Orchestra once, because they have a lot of repetitive strain injury with lots of wrist action and such like, and she was saying that it always happens from tension. If you are relaxed you won’t get that sort of injury. That’s why for musicians and for singers in particular it is so important to always be well rested and always be well prepared so that you are avoiding that stress and tension which puts strain on here. But if you have to do a lot of talking or a lot of shouting, that’s the sort of damage that gets done, especially shouting. You have to be prepared to work from your body – [demonstrates away from the microphone] - rather than here where you are starting to do this sort of action. Being aware of that sort of placement, that you are using your head as a megaphone rather than getting everything to come from here, straining here. It always has to be in a different type of spot, and of course it takes years of training.
It’s so easy for people to grab at opportunities and sing something that is far too hard for them, that they haven’t trained properly for and that they are not set up yet for. The damage comes in when they are singing something that is far too big. If you are suddenly given an opportunity to have a wonderful role five nights a week when you haven’t done very much of that sort of thing and you haven’t had a track record of constant preparation, of constant work like an athlete, to build up to it, that’s when damage may occur. I would be saying body work, stamina work and avoiding anything that makes you tired. When you are tired, the big muscles are the first ones that give up because it’s so much energy to keep them working so you start straining your vocal cords instead, because it takes far less energy to get those working than it does to keep your whole body working. Sorry, that’s a very general answer.
QUESTION: Louise, do you think you were born with a voice or is it all training?
LOUISE PAGE: It’s probably a bit of both. You have to have that passion, but I have heard so many people who were brilliantly trained and there is something missing - there is never that spark. If you were not born to be a singer, there is something missing. A person can sing brilliantly but somehow it leaves the audience cold - or leaves me cold sometimes, when I hear people sing. Shirley was saying about her granddaughter how she just can’t stop singing. That sort of passion and that musicality may be in the singer. It might come out as a pianist or violinist instead, but that drive, that need to perform music, to sing, is something that is innate; you have to have. And hopefully then good training will see you in good stead.
Other people who just decide they would like to be a singer, or their parents decide they want their son or daughter to be a singer, can get very well trained but they always have for me something that is lacking: that spirit, that drive, that need, that creativity and that energy. It is living in the right-hand side of your brain. Musicians and particularly composers have this creative urge that is very much a right-hand side of the brain drive, which makes us very impractical people in many ways. We haven’t got the left-hand side of the brain working properly or something, I don’t know. It’s a wonderful place to be living in the right-hand of your brain, the creative side, and it is that sort of imagination that goes with it which to me is a sign of a good singer. You can teach people over and over, say the same things over and over, and they never get it. Then you get somebody who comes along who has that imagination, who understands what it should sound like or what it could sound like and is willing to give it a go. That is something that you can’t be trained with; you are born with it.
SANDY FORBES: Let me just say thank you, Louise. It’s fantastic to see a little bit behind the curtain which will help us appreciate lots of singers when we see them again. We are very lucky in Canberra that we have you here. So thank you for your time this morning.
LOUISE PAGE: My pleasure, thank you. [applause]
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Date published: 5 September 2013