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NICHOLAS Milton may be a consummate violinist, conductor and the artistic director of the Canberra Symphony Orchestra, but it’s his prowess in the art of committee sitting that has given rise to the orchestra’s exceptional “International Opera Gala” next month.
Milton has been the general music director and chief conductor of the State Opera House of Saarbrücken in Germany since 2014. Fluent in English and German, he was a sitting duck for inclusion in the Australia-Germany advisory group set up to “take the already strong bilateral partnership to a new level”.
One of the results will be the Canberra-only performance, with the orchestra, of operatic favourites by six of the company’s top artists.
We catch up with Milton by Skype to Germany late at night as he emerges from a performance of Wagner’s “Tannhauser”.
“I’ve been in Germany for well over 10 years, but this is my third season here in Saarbrücken,” he tells “CityNews”.
Arriving in 2004 with very modest German, he quickly made himself familiar with the rich culture of the country, directed the Jena Philharmonic Orchestra, freelanced and then in 2014, took up the job in Saarbrücken where, as general manager as well as artistic director in chief, he calls the shots.
With a rapid turnover repertoire, performances every night and sometimes up to 10 new productions to add into the standard repertoire annually, he judges it to be “a terrific opportunity”.
All the while he keeps up an impressive practice in Australia, conducting with Opera Australia and the Willoughby Symphony Orchestra, and leading the CSO into a kind of golden age.
That Canberra connection has proved most productive. After an approach from former Prime Minister Tony Abbott who was keen to cement cultural relations between Australia and Germany, he agreed to sit on a “fascinating” committee chaired by Federal Minister Mathias Cormann that has also included Lucy Turnbull and ANU vice-chancellor Brian Schmidt.
“It’s a big learning curve to manage an opera house,” Milton says with considerable understatement.
“So I saw a chance to do a bit of an exchange. Our singers have met a lot of Australians and then the advisory group gave me a chance to bring our cultures together.
“They wanted to fund some German artists to come out to Australia and I was happy to oblige, because I have institutions – it’s hard to make institutions work together because the planning is done years ahead, but it was possible because I was chief in Canberra and chief here [Saarbrücken], too.”
Milton is naturally proud of the powerhouse of talent he is bringing – “a bass, one of the great baritones of the world, two incredible sopranos, a mezzo soprano, an amazing tenor – the full range”.
Together with the CSO, they will perform solos, duets and ensemble segments of operas by Wagner, Mozart, Verdi, and Puccini, “the most incredible music I could find… the right mix”.
As well, in keeping with the cultural exchange, the ensemble and the CSO will perform the Australian premiere of a work by German composer Paul Dessau, best known to Australian theatre audiences as the composer for Bertolt Brecht’s “Mother Courage” and “The Good Woman of Setzuan”.
The aria we’ll hear comes from Dessau’s 1975 satirical opera, “Leonce und Lena” and bears the unlikely title of “My Tired Feet”.
Other highlights of the gala will include Icelandic baritone superstar Olafur Sigurdarson singing an aria from Verdi’s “Falstaff”, but Milton is equally excited about the rest of the ensemble who, he tells us, typically for a German opera house, come from all over the world – Sigurdarson and soprano Herdís Anna Jónasdóttir from Finland, soprano Susanne Brownsteffer and mezzo soprano Judith Brown from Germany, bass Hiroshi Matsui from Japan and tenor Carlos Moreno Pelizari from Chile.
The logistics of bringing six operatic stars to town and rehearsing with the CSO are such that they’ll only have a bit of time off, but he’s determined to ensure that they will “get a feel for Canberra, visit the galleries and see the lake”. We give Milton our best tips on where to find kangaroos.
It’s impossible to suppress Milton’s enthusiasm for the coming concert. “Yes, we sell out each year, but we want to make sure all people know about this,” he says.
“International Opera Gala”, Llewellyn Hall, Saturday, July 8. Some tickets still available from CSO Direct on 6262 6772 or at premier.ticketek.com.au