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Erin Helyard’s fortepiano performances referencing Schubert’s sexuality and syphilis reveal the harpsichord virtuoso and leader of Pinchgut Opera’s strong belief in historical context and personal experience informing musical expression. By Steve Dow.

Pinchgut Opera’s Erin Helyard’s emotional engagement with Baroque music

Erin Helyard
Credit: KEITH SAUNDERS

Erin Helyard is thin, his polished bald head offset by a neat beard, and he’s immaculately turned out in black suit with a red pocket handkerchief. This could be a cosmopolitan 18th- or 19th-century European salon, but as we watch him play his harpsichord in this discreet, cloistered bar just outside Sydney’s Kings Cross, this small audience of media is reminded that for most of the 21st century, Helyard has been Australia’s go-to man for neglected baroque masterpieces. His upcoming solo CD midyear on ABC Classics will be long overdue.

Fifteen years ago, Helyard co-founded Pinchgut Opera, and one of the company’s success stories plucked from the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, young soprano Alexandra Oomens, is here, singing one of Handel’s more popular concert pieces, Lascia ch’io pianga. The twist is that the aria is ornamented by Helyard in the style of Handel’s contemporary, the British composer William Babell.

Pinchgut is named for the tiny island in Sydney Harbour. To see it well, and to understand the place of its opera namesake in Sydney’s classical firmament, I recommend you sit in the rooftop cafe of the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia at Circular Quay, and turn your gaze to the north-east, to the section of water between the Opera House sails and Mrs Macquarie’s Chair in the Domain, flanking the Botanic Gardens.

Following the 1850s Crimean War, Pinchgut, once a place to dump convicts, was renamed Fort Denison and a fortification built upon it to protect Sydney from Russian warships. The sandstone tower and guns remain, defiantly within the sightline of Jørn Utzon’s high-culture landmark.

Helyard is leading Pinchgut Opera into its 15th year, bringing the company into a new era as sole artistic director after jointly splitting oversight for so long with co-founder and conductor Antony Walker. There is no rancour that Pinchgut rarely attracts annual government funding in the manner of the protected major opera and orchestra companies, but instead must look deeper to private philanthropy.

There is ambition, however, with the peripatetic Helyard keen to have Pinchgut tour more, particularly to make itself a presence in Melbourne, where he lives much of his year, teaching students and playing solo gigs at Melba Hall and the Melbourne Recital Centre.

When Helyard, Walker and violinist Anna McDonald kicked off the company, the ambition was always to make baroque opera more accessible and fun.

Helyard stands now and takes us through the 2017 season for Pinchgut, with a triple bill combining French opera and an Italian comic intermezzo – Rameau’s Anacréon and Pigmalion, and Vinci’s Erighetta e Don Chilone – with Perth-born soprano Taryn Fiebig leading the cast, in June. In November and December, it’s L’incoronazione di Poppea, the Monteverdi opera set in a decadent court in ancient Rome, with a cast headed by British-based Australian mezzo-soprano Helen Sherman. Both productions will be staged at City Recital Hall in Sydney’s Angel Place.

This week Helyard performed on fortepiano at the Melbourne Recital Centre in a program with the eye-popping title Schubert and Songfulness: Love in the Age of Syphilis. Helyard laughs when asked about the provocative subtext for the Austrian composer.

“Late one night I was reading up on the fear we might soon be in a post-antibiotic world,” he says. “I was just thinking of how the history of music might have changed if Schubert had access to antibiotics.

“We know that Schubert went through tertiary syphilis, which is a terrifying illness. No one in the world now would get to that level. He was in immense pain. He couldn’t bear the touch of another human hand, because he was very sensitive at that point. There’s some suggestion he caught syphilis from his dalliances with male prostitutes.

“About eight years ago there was a famous article written that shows Schubert was very probably what we now call gay. That provoked this storm of controversy among musicologists: it brought a lot of institutionalised homophobia to the fore. The debate simmered down, but I teach it in class now, showing that series of articles and letters.

“It was seen to be, ‘How dare my beloved composer be outed in this fashion?’ ”

Schubert’s Vienna was a totalitarian environment, a police state, where the threat of blackmail over personal affairs was ever-present.

“When you play Schubert and you think about all those things, it really changes the way you interpret all his works,” says Helyard. “At least for me. I’m a gay man. I do feel some sense of connection, too, with this poor Schubert, who caught a venereal disease that killed him, and how that fixes within you, when you play that repertoire… it’s quite poignant.”

In command of his subject, Helyard does not betray his introverted childhood, when bullying over his sexuality sent him inside himself. The experience burnished his sense of empathy, and informs his deep interest in musicology.

“With all my three hats on – opera directing, playing fortepiano and harpsichord, and as a musicologist – I think it’s important to put everything in historical context. The more you understand about the circumstances a work was written in, the more that allows you to be a better performer of the work.

“I think there’s a real danger in abstracting from its historical setting, which these people say who are claiming that Schubert’s sexuality is not a topic for discussion – that he is trans-historical, he transcends history. But I think that kind of knowledge – syphilis, homosexuality, unusual instruments – plays into a conception of how these works function, and how they can be made expressive again for a contemporary audience.”

 

Born in 1977, Helyard’s parents divorced when he was 14. His father taught high-school physics and chemistry, while his mother taught English. His mother then married another English teacher, while his father married an artist, and Helyard says he is fond of all four parents, the two sides of the family all getting together each Christmas.

He started playing the “crappy old upright” piano at home at age four or five, his mother playing the left hand and he the right. From her he gained a love of 19th-century authors such as Balzac and Dostoevsky. He and his sister would be encouraged to write and then read out short stories. From his father, Helyard gained an appreciation of the scientific, rational world – philosophy and the Enlightenment. 

ABC Classic FM was an important influence, but attending live classical concerts was a rare event.

“I didn’t have many friends in primary school and also the first part of high school,” says Helyard. “So the music practice room [at school] was a bit of a respite from humiliation and bullying. My love of music came out of a sense of solitude, you know what I mean?”

Physical or psychological bullying? “It was both. God, kids can be cruel. I just remember being called a ‘faggot’ and a ‘poofter’ constantly. Before I knew that I was gay, you’d get spat on and told you’re a faggot.

“It was so tough. I so hope that it’s so much easier nowadays. There were no gay men on the television, really. There was no role model beyond people I read about in books.”

He splutters with laughter. “I remember reading about Alexander the Great having a gay lover. He’s someone from 2000 years ago. Then you read about Oscar Wilde. You didn’t get [homosexuality] taught in sex education. I guess younger gay men and women have role models these days.”

The young, reclusive Helyard found solace in music. “Music was a moment for me to withdraw – it was a very beautiful safe, wonderful world, and also a world of discovery. I’m still fascinated by how much music there is. I started listening to opera, and musical theatre – although I don’t really enjoy musical theatre – but I do remember listening to Sondheim and Bernstein and other musicals like that when I was a teenager. I suddenly realised the power of human voice in song, which I still find to be the most impressive thing that one has. The human voice constantly infuses my knowledge of how I play at the keyboard.”

By 10, Helyard was asking his music teacher impudent questions. Why did Mozart use only 61 notes of the piano? Helyard learnt from a book that it was because Mozart favoured a Stein grand piano, which has just 61 keys, after his teacher dismissed his curiosity because she didn’t know the answer. A book was also where he discovered a fascinating baroque instrument called the harpsichord.

A life-changing event occurred in his mid-teens, when the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra, founded by Paul Dyer, came to play Gosford’s Laycock Street Theatre. Dyer became Helyard’s harpsichord teacher, and these lessons, alongside the study of ancient history, would form part of Helyard’s high school certificate, in which he gained a near-prefect TER score of 99.95. After a PhD in Canada, he played with the Australian Chamber Orchestra, where artistic director Richard Tognetti called him “cuz”, because they are related through marriage via Helyard’s stepmother.

Helyard’s been single for the past three years, and describes the break-up as one of the hardest things he has been through.

“For some reason, I’m still reeling from that,” he says. “There was a guy who I fell in love with, who then rejected me. That’s probably the hardest thing I’ve been through.”

Naturally, the experience has found its way through the fingertips to fortepiano and harpsichord keys. “I now see [the break-up] for the positive. When you play those Schubert songs – the regret and loss – and all opera.

“In fact, I remember conducting Giasone for Pinchgut just after we broke up. There’s this scorned princess who is rejected,” he says, then laughs at the comparison. “And I remember conducting and bawling my eyes out because you identify with those emotions.”

Handel’s Semele was Pinchgut’s first production, prefiguring Helyard’s conducting the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra for the performances of Handel’s oratorio Saul under the direction of Barrie Kosky, headlining the Adelaide Festival earlier this year.

Artistic trailblazing doesn’t necessarily lead to riches, however. “I don’t have a shiny house,” he says, when I remind him of a “where are they now?” series of interviews by The Sydney Morning Herald about 1995 HSC high achievers, in which he took part.

Others who received near-perfect scores, the reporter confided to Helyard, were earning big money in the legal and corporate worlds, but largely unhappy with their affluent lot. “I’m still deciding whether the first purchase I will make is a house, or an instrument. I don’t even own an instrument.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 13, 2017 as "Baroque hearted". Subscribe here.

Steve Dow
is a Sydney-based arts writer and the author of Gay: The Tenth Anniversary Collection.

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