Yvonne Kenny is an artist who recognises that a song can be great no matter the genre.
It is the quality that makes the difference. The maxim has come to the fore in her career since her 1995 recording of a collection of popular folk and art songs and arias titled Simple Gifts, an ABC Classics disc with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. It outsold even The Three Tenors.
It was an important point in her career, one of three major tangents that projected her towards the summit of her profession, the first being rejected for her first job application after graduating in science from Sydney University. At that same time she was invited to replace a singer scheduled to sing in a Handel opera. Her singing career began.
A second important career marker was when her teacher at the New South Wales Conservatorium, Ronal Jackson, gave her the opportunity to replace another singer who was not able to take up a scholarship to study singing at La Scala, which she did for a year.
"Yes, Simple Gifts has been a life changing experience," Kenny says. "It was the first Australian artist classic CD that went gold and sold in the thousands and thousands, a sort of landmark. I feel very proud of that because I think it gave ABC Classics the confidence to really trust and develop Australian performers, the first of a big success story for Australian recording artists. There wasn't really a recording industry for Australian voices. It just didn't exist before that one as far as I know."
Simple Gifts was the start of another new direction for Kenny and encouraged her to devise her new recital format, A Touch of Venus, which she is presenting on an Australian tour for Musica Viva in July and August with British pianist Iain Burnside.
Drawing together great love songs across periods and genres, the program explores "all the ups and downs that life and love have to offer" through songs by Handel, Schumann, Hahn, Canteloube, Satie, Bridge, Kern, Gershwin, Coward, Porter, Weill, Britten and Sondheim, all strategically juxtaposed in matching pairs and interspersed with a scripted spoken text to link the songs shared by Kenny and Burnside.
It was created for a 2004 summer opera festival presented by fellow Australian Marylin Abbott, a notable "gardening person," at her Hampshire stately home and garden in England. "It was an experiment and proved to be a huge success with the audience," said Kenny. "It's entertaining, quite fun, an up-grade from the usual song recital format. It's more like a show, a little more theatrical, not quite the staid Victorian style song recital.
"I just wanted to do something different, to develop something that would be more of an entertainment using a mixture of different repertoire, beautiful classical songs plus some quite witty amusing things which are from the American Broadway scene. It is a complete mix.
"The interesting thing too is that I put things side by side that wouldn't normally lie side by side, so I'm more focussed on what the text is saying to tell the narrative of the piece rather than the period of the writing of the song. Iain is quite a famous broadcaster over here in England. He works on BBC3 the classical music station, presents many programs about singers and songs and repertoire and interviews. He's marvellous to have on board because he's also a very fine accompanist. He's great fun, a good person to travel with and do these things with.
"And these songs are great. Jerome Kern's "All the Things You Are", one of the songs I sing, is one of the greatest songs ever written. Nobody has written anything more beautiful and touching than that. And nobody is cleverer with words than Cole Porter. His genius, and his ability to write the words and the music are quite remarkable.
"I really believe we have to be relevant to today as well, which is why I've included all these different genres and put them side by side and juxtaposed them in a way that people aren't used to."
Kenny has become almost as famous for her rendition of "Banana Boat Song", including playing percussion instruments and wearing hot pink satin with ruffles and flowers, in Jamaican Entertainment, an arrangement of Arthur Benjamin pieces for a Musica Viva tour in 2002, as she has for the numerous operatic roles she has sung from Sydney Opera House to Covent Garden, La Scala and in the United States, and many opera houses in between.
Before Simple Gifts went gold she had already made numerous operatic recordings in Australia and overseas and is preparing to record for a Chandos series of operas in English of La Voix Humane, the Poulenc opera she presented (in English) in Melbourne in 2005. Opera Rara has also invited her to be part of a CD of Offenbach.
A Touch of Venus is close to her heart, modelled as it is on the Schumann song cycle Woman's Life and Love and such a success in Hampshire and at Wigmore Hall in London earlier this year, that she can see many more possibilities for such programs.
"There's masses of stuff out there, so much repertoire to be explored. I can always create another one. I just feel so heartened by the reaction. The Wigmore Hall is a traditional recital venue and Venus went in on a Sunday afternoon as a cabaret spot. The hall was pretty full and people absolutely loved it," said the diva who is equally at home in her residences in London and in Sydney.
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