Sylvie Woods – ‘Classical music: what’s in it for young people?’

The Elephant (or, kangaroo?) In The Room


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


Sydney is a city where most music journalists are handed free tickets to the shows they review. If they don’t feel like writing a puff piece that day, they’d better start looking for another job.

Sydney is a city where marketing administrators of music companies feel they must encourage the fetishisation of classical music in order to survive, where management sees no alternative other than to shamelessly coat concerts in elitism in order to put bums on seats.

Sydney is a city where silver-haired audiences are ubiquitous in classical music performances.

In short, classical music in Australia is imperiled. It might lose its soul. I know, I’m pointing out the obvious. Classical music is low priority in Australia, we know that already. Let me say this, though:

While art is underfunded and private sponsors and tourists are more generous than our government in supporting classical music, young people are going to contemporary performances where they feel more welcome. I mean, who wants to sit next to Hyacinth Bucket at the opera? Not me. But where does this leave the future of the art form if young people are the future?

We want to laugh. We want to see something exciting. But more than that, we actually want to be challenged

When marketing promotes the ‘elitism’ in classical music performances, that is what really pushes us away. We want to laugh. We want to see something exciting. But more than that, we actually want to be challenged. This superficial method of marketing doesn’t indicate how much young people have to learn from classical music, it just tells them they don’t really belong. Young people are only getting more educated, so why wouldn’t they be interested in the powerful and revolutionary aspects of classical music? Well, it’s because they’re getting sold a glamorous, glossy evening they can’t afford, with no indication of the idea behind the art. They might be quite interested in the idea, but how would they know? They aren’t getting told what it is, nor are they informed as to how it relates to their life.

With no guarantee from our government of survival, marketing administrations at many of our classical music companies have resorted to popping a gimmick beside art to entice those who are not interested in art to come. In Sydney, notably unashamedly, our companies use our world-renowned landmarks as an opportunity to sell the splendour of an event and not the details of the performance.

Our primary opera company now markets its Opera On The Harbour gimmick over social media as ‘Sydney’s cultural event of the year’. Yes, those words exactly. Selling to the socially conscious? Yeah, I reckon.

Funding art privately is an unbefitting, short-term solution to young peoples’ disinterest in classical music performances. Depriving classical music in Australia of a generous, central, stable funding channel will continue to numb young people to the knowledge that can be gained from great opera, orchestral works and chamber performances.

There is no debate to be had about the value of the great potential of classical music to bring a new depth to one’s life. Against all odds, local performers are doing an incredible job of furthering the artform. What we see and what we perform in Australia is certainly of high quality, produced and performed by animated, educated young people. Wonderful art that begs thought and reflection is staged across the country every day. Stirring classical music comes to Sydney year-round. The tendency of youth in Sydney to find a traditional concert setting ‘stuffy’ is our government’s fault, not theirs. It is certainly not the fault of our fantastic performers.

When art is being sold as an aesthetic distraction and social statement, our classical music scene is truly showing signs of decay

So, as tourists and upper-middle class bankers (who haven’t done anything ‘cultural’ since the last Harry Potter movie) flock to the harbour to feel ‘cultured’, world-class musicians – the result of years of thought, passion, purpose and working for free – are forced to compete with the prettily framed harbour.

The smaller companies in Australia are where the grit and perseverance in the pursuit of great art is evident. Friends of the performers come to these concerts, and the demographic is younger. There are classical singers in this country who work year after year for nothing. However, when art is being sold as an aesthetic distraction and social statement, our classical music scene is truly showing signs of decay.

‘Yeah, classical music is kind of boring, here’s a view.’

Is that really all we’ve got?

Instead of twisting the concept of art to suit those who don’t understand it, we must deal with this inexorable problem of funding. There is limited hope us otherwise. Classical music struggles alongside other art in Australia to remain art. Manipulated and driven by forces which don’t understand it and don’t appreciate it, art will decline, and distraction will replace it. Art is essential: it is a balm and also a source of strength, and Australians have every right to it.


About Sylvie

Sylvie is due to graduate from the BA program at Sydney University this year. She started performing classically with Opera Australia in the children’s chorus. She sang with the company from 2006-2009 in Turandot, La Boheme and Werther. In the past, she performed lead roles in theatrical productions at the Seymour Centre throughout her studies: Joanna in Sweeney Todd, Philia in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Maria Feletti in Dario Fo’s Accidental Death of an Anarchist, Ulla in The Producers and Miss Fitzgerald in Picnic at Hanging Rock.

Most recently, Sylvie was the soloist in new work Ex Aere by Kirsten Milenko at City Recital Hall as part of Sydney’s Unashamedly Original series. Sylvie has performed in Europe with the Sydney Children’s Choir, as a soloist at the Sydney Opera House in Carmina Burana, and performed in Leonard Bernstein’ Mass with the Sydney Conservatorium Chamber Choir. She sung as a soloist in Allegri’s Miserere with the St Andrew’s College Chapel Choir where she resided on the William Cumming Thom Choral Scholarship during her first two years of university. Sylvie can be heard as the soloist in the World Vision The Wall commercial that ran through New Zealand. She has performed on 102.5 Fine Music FM on numerous occasions and on Sydney’s Eastside Radio.

Sylvie is also a writer and has contributed to such publications as CutCommon and The Ladies Network. She won the prestigious Principal’s Prize for poetry at St Andrew’s College in 2013.


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


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