I have been in love with the human voice for as long as I can remember.
My own foray into life on the stage began in Geelong where I was born. My family were heavily involved in the local arts scene and in particular, the world of Gilbert and Sullivan and other operettas.
I performed in nearly all the local music societies from children’s pantomime to the local student orchestra where I played the double bass. I was also a keen pianist with a strong ability in sight reading, a skill that has helped me enormously in my own singing career.
For reasons unknown to me at the time, I left Australia as soon as I had finished my tertiary education.
Australia is a dichotomy – on the one hand the country is blessed with rich natural resources, very high standards of living, and an excellent health system. On the other, it has an inferiority complex; it is almost ungrateful for what is constantly available. Above all, it has such little regard for the arts, an enormous oversight in my opinion.
What has become apparent to me having lived in London for 25 years and performing all over the world, is just how many first-rate musicians, actors, artists, dancers, photographers, conductors, directors and designers we have.
In a country that is obsessed with sport – in particular football – it is often grating to witness the imbalance that the governments and other political bodies offer in support between the arts and sport.
Having sung in many of the great opera houses and concert halls throughout the world, I am in effect representing my country as an ambassador but I can only remember one instance where I was contacted by the Australian Consulate to offer me any assistance.
During this year and the devastation that Covid-19 has caused, it is even more telling how the current political powers have been prepared to allow the arts community and artists of all genres to collapse with zero support and next to nothing financially. I myself have had everything in my diary cancelled and am currently not eligible for any of the schemes that the government is offering.
What does all this mean for the Australia’s future? Many people have written great articles about the importance of the arts in our lives. But most people don’t really ever stop to think about a world without a concert, a jazz gig or a pop group, or anything theatrical ever happening again.
It is always the arts and its artists who rally to provide help to war-torn countries, or horrendous bush fires, but it is the very same people who are the first to have funding cut or in many cases, denied completely.
Now that I am teaching more than performing and have recently become the Artistic Director for two separate companies, I am becoming even more aware of why I left Australia at the age of 21. It is an endless battle to prove relevance, it is a competitive process to share small handouts, and many exciting and worthwhile companies have disappeared during this current lockdown.
I do not wish my sentiments to be all negative. As I said before, Australia pushes way above its weight in artistic talent and despite the apparent lack of support, continues to create major artists across all genres.
I have been one of the fortunate ones who has enjoyed a highly successful career abroad and was able to return home with relative kudos. It made my own journey easier than most and awarded me with accolades and the ability to open powerful doors. It is because of this that I have turned my current goal into helping and mentoring young singers, and also to try to provide work experience by forming a new opera company in Canberra.
Working on this side of the profession has been enlightening to say the least. As a freelance artist, one quickly learns the rules. We have agents or companies who magically create the work. We don’t need to think about very much, except our own individual paths and to be the best that we can. Learning our music, perfecting our craft, researching our roles and turning up to rehearse and perform on time.
When you hop over the fence and join the management team, all of a sudden there are many people to consider and the decisions you make affect everyone involved.
Working with young artists is both rewarding and at the same time, difficult. One has to give up a lot of time to build up trust and to encourage confidence. Each singer has different skills and abilities and there are no fast rules. Every case requires patience, tolerance, perseverance, stamina and a good sense of humour. I often remember my own great teacher and mentor Dame Joan Hammond who likened teaching to psychology – when to praise, when to push, when to talk and when to listen.
I love working with young artists and I feel blessed that I can draw upon my vast experience to help shape their paths, and that I can provide the safest environment for them to learn in.
The most difficult issue for me has always been where do they get experience and where can they work. Most ambitious singers these days feel compelled to leave these shores and head overseas where they believe are all the real opportunities and possibilities.
I spend a lot of my time now trying to convince artists not to leave Australia until they have the armour to equip them for the rigours of a profession in the arts. That is technique, resilience and determination. Too many return home, bereft and broke.
This is one of the main reasons I am putting my energies into the newly formed National Opera in Canberra. Canberra is the national capital of the country and has not had a professional opera company within my lifetime – even though it has an educated population with a wide appreciation of all things artistic.
Canberra Opera was an amateur company providing work for local singers. In 2019 it was left a generous bequest which enabled us to rebrand and to form what is now National Opera.
All new companies need to prove their worth before one can ever assume or ask for funding help from any governmental bodies. Consequently, we need to learn the skilled art of philanthropy and development. Unlike America, which is well versed and generous in its philanthropic bequests, arts bodies in Australia lean towards the same charitable benefactors and trying to acquire funding is proving both time consuming and demoralising.
Having said that, National Opera is being treated fairly and we are well on the way to securing the necessary funds for our first major production at the end of the year, provided we are permitted to do so with the current lockdown.
There is so much to plan. So many pieces to fit together to put an opera on the stage. Apart from the obvious, there are so many things that one takes for granted. Each cog needs careful management and each one needs to work in harmony with the others. People’s egos and sensibilities need watchful care to ensure a successful production.
I am loving putting this together and watching the company become as one. I love helping young singers, instrumentalists and actors become independent and grow in confidence and learn to shine. I love working with people from every facet of the industry and am forever grateful that I have been able to help in some small way.
I pray that Australia, the beautiful land we live in, can one day learn to hold on with pride to the incredible talent we have here and that arts companies from every field never have to fight for their relevance again and we can be able to flourish and shine for every future generation.
Peter Coleman-Wright AO is widely considered one of the most versatile singers in the world today, equally at home in opera, concert and recital. His extensive and varied repertoire has taken him to many of the world’s greatest opera companies and concert halls.
He has sung throughout Europe – at La Scala Milan, La Fenice Venice, Netherlands Opera, Munich, Vienna, Geneva, Paris, Bordeaux, Flanders and at the Aix-en-Provence and Bregenz Festivals. In the United Kingdom he has been a frequent guest of the Royal Opera Covent Garden, English National Opera and Glyndebourne Festival. He has worked for the Aldeburgh Festival at the BBC Proms and with all the leading orchestras at London’s South Bank, Albert Hall, The Barbican, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester and the Wigmore Hall.
In North America he has sung at the Metropolitan Opera New York, New York City Opera, Houston, Santa Fe and Vancouver. He has sung at Teatro Colon Buenos Aries and in San Paulo Brazil.
He has sung extensively for Opera Australia and has worked with all the major symphony orchestras throughout all the principal concert halls.
He has sung more than 60 roles including Figaro, Forester, Michele, Scarpia, Marcello, Sharpless, Don Giovanni, Count, Onegin, Dandini, Billy Budd, Macbeth,Gunther, Golaud, Germont, Chorebe, Wolfram, Beckmesser, Gunther, Donner, Pizzaro, and Sweeny Todd. His numerous awards include Helpmann Awards for Todd and The Traveller (Death in Venice), Green room awards for Billy Budd, Orestes, and Harry Joy (Brett Dean).
Peter Coleman-Wright has recorded extensively for EMI, Telarc, Hyperion, ABC classics and LSO and SSO live.
Recent engagements include concerts in Madrid, Moscow, Amsterdam, Los Angeles Philharmonic in Nixon in China with John Adams conducting , Rape of Lucretia Aldeburgh which was nominated for a Grammy award.
A champion of new and contemporary repertoire, he has created numerous roles most notably Harry Joy in Brett Dean’s Bliss and the title role in Caligula by Detlev Glanert.
Peter holds an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Melbourne and was awarded the Performer of the Year in the recent Arts awards in Australia for Socrates by Brett Dean. Peter was made an Officer in the order of Australia in 2015.