Bridget O’Brien – ‘Classical music: what’s in it for young people?’

'An art upon our shoulders'


This blog was selected for publication from entry into the 2017 CutCommon Young Writer of the Year Competition.


At 10 years old, my mother took me to see Verdi’s Aida. A siren-like heroine took to the stage, and sent squillo to every crevice of the monstrous performance venue. Soldiers and priestesses shrouded in armour and costumed in valour punctuated her bravado, sending a triumphant rattle through us all. They warbled mighty cadences and divided into bone-chilling harmonies. A lush swell of 20 violins carried lust and fervour, while the racing roar of a trombone brought to life the fear and despair. Colossal pillars of stone and gold framed the spotlight, and innumerable artists wore different identities in a narrative I was lucky to behold. Before me stood a world of crafted wonder, so foreign and enticing.

Yet – at interval – I begged my mother to take me home.

I think back to what occupied my MP3 player in that era: some Leona Lewis, Rihanna, Matchbox Twenty, and definitely some token Taylor Swift. With a learned appreciation for progressions of four chords, the same hook chorus six times, and lyrics I could immediately interpret, Verdi boasted a complexity that was out of my reach and too much for me to stomach for too long a time.

Zooming seven years into the future, I started my Bachelor of Music in classical voice. It was wondrous knowing that I held membership at a conservatorium full of young people just like me:  plucked from a pool of obscurity, all with that golden ticket of affluence to afford them such a pursuit. While a toddler of three might have the upper body strength to emulate a ditty on violin that will have them proficient in Bach by age 12, singers face a different journey – Donizetti coloratura is best mastered by a grown up; so show-tunes, folk songs, and contemporary melodies fill the gaps. Some students, like me, had chosen this path on a whim, without much reason or directed passion to substantiate it. One even had to ask: ’Wait, so what’s Nessun Dorma?’.

I discovered that the ways in which we learnt to love our craft were skewed from the path of normality

Our diversity of roots propelled me to wonder: how many of us are only able to relish the awe of a Schubert lied via the stepping stone of loving Lloyd Webber’s Christine Daae? How many of us have become admittedly eager to watch Wagner’s Ring in one sitting, as consequence of our appreciation for Apocalypse Now’s helicopter scene? As I began to understand my fellow classical musicians, who were all fresh to adulthood, I discovered that the ways in which we learnt to love our craft were skewed from the path of normality. There was no traditional route to develop a love affair with Mascagni, whose recordings can be found only in the deepest bowels of Spotify’s catalogue. I spend my days with teenagers to 20-somethings, all of whom harbour a burgeoning love for the anachronism that seems to draw retirees to seats in concert halls. And with palpable joy and spirit manifested in every moment of sharing and listening with each other, there has to be something in it for young people – and sharing something surely becomes our responsibility.

How do we reinvent expiry?

We are the generation that has witnessed the most cacophonous collisions between sister-arts, cousin-arts and arts-four-times-removed. Take Granados’ piano suites borne of Goya’s acrylic work, or the wit of Beaumarchais plays underpinning the mythos of a handful of Mozart and Rossini, influencing almost anything that followed. This domino-like impact of inspiration makes our definition of classical music the most complex yet. We have the influence of everyone who has gone before us, upon every contemporary we have today. So, what to do with all this potential – an entire genre of art that did the groundwork for almost everything we commercially consume today? How do we treat the art that demands more attention, immersion and mastery than anything more accessible? How do we continue to renew an art that steals predominantly from a repertory of dead people? How do we reinvent expiry?

In this life and in this scene, I am constantly graced by examples of innovation and courage on the stage. I have witnessed the subterranean rumble of a singer’s brazen intent, with a director’s gastronomic vision, alongside an orchestra’s formidable oomph emerge in a volcanic celebration of opera performance that’s rewritten some of my biggest world opinions. Take Lindy Hume’s incarnation of The Barber of Seville (Opera Queensland, 2016), which captured a wit I didn’t know Rossini could embody. The theatrical paraphernalia of Verdi’s Macbeth as performed by a Congolese company (Brisbane Festival, 2015) made my skin crawl in the way the Scottish villain hadn’t yet managed. Zeffirelli’s cinematic Pagliacci (1982) triggered a greater empathy than I’d ever felt for the underdog. With all this triumphant profundity in mind, I wonder, ’Is there really room for ordinary art anymore?’.

We should abandon program guidelines and the rhetoric that endures just because it’s tradition

We should abandon program guidelines and the rhetoric that endures just because it’s tradition. When the zest for art dies, so does the artistry. Let’s surrender the guardrails as set by those before us, and live by a reformed set of rules. Let’s never settle for anything that doesn’t thrill, and let’s perform music that we believe is truly and viscerally inspired. That’s what audiences will want to hear.

In gifting classical music to youth, we need to remind them of the accessibility that comes from contextualising, in the same way that a literature student might encounter relevance with themes of Virginia Woolf in their English class after just a bit of digging. Perhaps the manner of the art has evolved, but there will always be a theme threading through them all, which can prompt the relevance for our emerging generation.

It is vital to be daring and cross the threshold between the humdrum and the obscurity – even if it requires a little more gall. We must amalgamate the intimidating, boring or tired with a renewed accessibility. This world is wrought with an oversaturation of ‘easy art’. I worry some children have absorbed so much graphic animation that the grandeur of a Monet might bore them. Just as my juvenile comfort in listening to commercial radio prompted an eye-roll when my grandparents would air ABC Classic FM.

With reinvention sans stigma, the young classical musicians of today have opportunities to perform work that induces wonder through surprise. Our worlds and stages can become the new forums to expose people of young, old, and varying levels of conditioning to our unique sounds. With our passion and their untainted attention, the music will always speak for itself.

I’d kill to confront my 10-year-old self and assure her that Aida deserved a rapturous ovation. But I know if I hadn’t travelled this same journey, I’d be absent from the vantage point that allows me to deduce this wisdom:

Developing a relationship with classical music is more than the cyclical tedium of fact-delivery from person to person until the inspiration becomes a memory of its former self. It’s through the arduous growing and fumbling that we reveal our passions and power. In setting our ideas alight upon the stage, fresh perspectives can butterfly through hippocampus of the world to those who’ve come before and those who are yet to follow – and it’s magic.


About Bridget

Bridget is a 19-year-old soprano, writer and student from the Sunshine Coast, enrolled in Classical Voice at the Queensland Conservatorium Griffith University. She has performed across Brisbane in a variety of forums including conservatorium opera productions, roles at the Sound Thinking Australia Opera School (notably Lisette in Puccini’s La Rondine); and with the independent Brisbane City Opera, whose first production will be Bridget’s debut in October. Her postgraduate plans include immersing herself in the education of writing for future creative exploits and finding her critical voice. Additionally, Bridget plans on international study in operatic languages, vocal technique, and the holistic coordination of stagecraft, direction and production design in opera performance.


Read more of these reflections on classical music as part of CutCommon Young Writers’ Month.

Image supplied.

Listen up!

%d bloggers like this: