It's amazing where music can take you

Published 08 January 2019

If you were to write a piece of music to capture composer Dr Paul Smith's career, it would be dramatic and dynamic.

From a childhood of classical piano performances, to singing opera and then composing it, research and teaching, his personal score is rich in vocal and instrumental flourishes.

When thoughts of becoming a concert pianist gave way to opera singing, the bass baritone joined a young artists' company and began performing the arias of Mozart and Puccini for corporate functions and parties.

Composing music was the next movement, and Paul wrote two chamber operas, the second - The Spidermaiden and the Runaway Plum Blossom - successfully premiering in Singapore.

Then there was the theatre score (with piano) that he devised and performed, based on Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, and passages of cabaret and musical theatre, before Paul upped the tempo with the "fun-loving boutique opera company" Blush, which continues to strike a chord with a new generation of opera goers.

He was also a contributing writer for the ABC digital series What is Music last year, and spent three weeks in Armenia on a composition residency working on pieces for the toy piano.

"It's been a full and varied career so far, filled with lots of different musical influences, but as in every good opera it all comes together in the end," says Paul, who lectures in music theory and composition within the UNE's School of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences.

"I guess it comes from my interest in exploring different styles of music and expressing them in different ways."

Paul came relatively late to music, learning the piano from the age of 10.

"Surprisingly, mine was a very non-musical family," he says.

"We didn't have music in the house or go to concerts, so I approached music as an open book, without any baggage."

It was his own formal musical studies that opened up the world of composition, and today, as co-artistic director of Blush, Paul is experimenting with ways opera can both explore contemporary themes and appeal to new audiences.

His latest work - Chop Chef – is a collaboration with writer Julie Koh and satirises reality television's appetite for cooking competitions while indulging his own passion for food.

"Some people don't respond to opera but most respond to TV, so that's where Chop Chef had its origins," Paul says.

"Through Blush, we are keen to get people in the door and help them to discover that opera can be fun and wacky as well as an emotional, dramatic experience.

“The opera scene in Australia is narrow and getting narrower. Staging big new operas today is risky and expensive, but a smaller opera company like ours, performing in more intimate settings, can work.

“Opera doesn't have to be grand and opulent."

One of Paul's primary motivations with Blush is to give expression to people who have traditionally been excluded from opera.

"We're working in smaller, inclusive venues like bars and makeshift black-box spaces, and I am particularly interested in telling minority stories concerning race, sexuality and gender," he says.

"At its best, music can cause people to reflect on issues and sometimes to change their minds."

Brave choices and a willingness to collaborate with other artists have been hallmarks of Paul's eclectic career.

"I have never worried that my work will fit," he says.

"I try to foster that in my students by exposing them to new music in a non-judgemental way.

“I learn from their musical influences and tastes, too, because every type of music and every response to it is equally valid."

This all makes for some fascinating discussions with students.

"Music generates strong emotions and ideas," Paul says.

"Studying music challenges you to consider what music means culturally and socially, and I enjoy being able to discuss with my students how or indeed if a piece of music fits into their world.

“Together, we test the limits of what can be considered music and how it can be performed."

So, too, do Paul's former students.

"Some have gone on to curate musical programs for arts organisations, while others have become specialist teachers, performers and experimental artists, as well as composers of film scores," he says. "It's amazing where music can take you."

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