A small arts organisation based in the Great Southern, Breaksea isn’t afraid to dream big. Julie Hosking discovers the community heart behind its creative forces.
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Pia Harris has sung on some of the world’s biggest stages, from Royal Albert Hall in London to Carnegie Hall in New York, but maintains she’s hitting her highest professional notes a long way from those hallowed venues.
“I feel like it’s the most important work I’ve ever done – it’s the stories, the stories are co-written with the community and they are really important stories that need to be told. And they are relevant to us; I think that’s what makes it so powerful.”
The lyric coloratura soprano is talking about Breaksea, the multi-arts organisation she’s been involved in with almost since its inception. A not-for-profit group based in the Great Southern seems an unlikely career high for an international artist but Harris begs to differ. The Breaksea team are not settling for second best simply because they happen to be based a long way from a capital city.
The mission “to spread the joy of creativity” means ensuring that the communities and emerging artists they work with have access to world-class talent.
“I think what makes us different is we bring professional artists,” says Harris, who recently moved into the role of musical director and mentorship. “We had a great collaboration with UWA last year with Fairy Queen, and we’re able to bring those artists to the regions to work and to perform with local artists and youth.”
Lighting the creative fire in regional youth and supporting that creativity are key drivers.
“We do have a strong connection to youth and identifying talented youth in areas that maybe just don’t have that access, or other disadvantages – it’s very important to us,” Harris says.
This determination to create opportunities stems from founder and artistic director Matt Ward’s experience growing up in a region where artistic avenues were limited. Named for the lighthouse island just off his home town of Albany, Breaksea was founded to provide the kind of life-changing experiences the London-trained tenor sought overseas.
Formally launched in 2019, Breaksea grew out of Ward’s residency with the Vancouver Arts Centre which produced the 2017 opera Pilgrims of the Sea — a story created for Albany about the 1977 anti-whaling protests and featuring community members.
“I’m so proud of the progression of Breaksea over the past five years. To see how communities have welcomed us and gathered about our projects is very special,” Ward says.
“At our heart, we seek to connect with people and to spark and nurture their creativity. We are excited that our programs this year will be a part of bringing people together to share stories, singing and creative experience. Each year we learn and build on our processes and methodologies and 2023 is no different.”
This includes garnering the support of celebrated international artist Rachelle Durkin, who returned to Western Australia when Covid hit. The soprano had been living and working in New York since winning a place in the Metropolitan Opera’s coveted young artist program in 2001, making the occasional trip back to Australia to perform as a guest artist.
“I knew Matt very well already. Not only had we performed together before, we had just collaborated on Our Little Inventor, which he directed for West Australian Opera,” Durkin says.
When Ward asked if she’d be interested in becoming the 2023 patron, it was a “no brainer”. While Durkin grew up in suburban Maddington, the opportunities weren’t much better there, either. She remembers wanting to be part of community arts but finding her only creative outlet in the school band or singing in talent quests at shopping centres.
“I’m sure I’m speaking on behalf of anyone who is in the arts or has a passion for creating that for most it starts in community, at the grass roots. We should all have an outlet to create at any time in our lives,” she says.
“Breaksea’s mission is to reach out to remote communities who don’t have access to this, which is something I am proud of and want to support.”
Like Durkin and Ward, Harris learned from the best overseas. After studying at the Royal College of Music in London, she earned principal roles with Opera Holland Park and the New York Lyric Opera.
Now she is passionate about nurturing homegrown talent. Her voice rises with delight when she talks about the trajectory of two young artists Breaksea has taken under its wing. Noongar artist Jarrad Inman, who is now a board member, was snapped up for the West Australian Opera’s 2021 production of Koolbardi wer Wardong, while Bonnie Staude was cast in Freeze Frame Opera’s Angels and Devils in the same year.
The company is much more than a hothouse for emerging singers, however. The depth and breadth of the work Breaksea has produced over the past five years is impressive.
Inman’s first involvement was through the community arts project By Other Eyes, a choral-theatre performance in 2018 staged inside the Field of Light: Avenue of Honour, artist Bruce Munro’s stunning light installation in Albany commemorating the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I.
Breaksea nurtures artistic souls, including dancers, composers, choreographers, filmmakers and visual artists, of all levels and at all stages of the creative process.
The multi-disciplinary Seachange offered more than 100 workshops to the community in everything from lantern making to puppetry, culminating in a performance at the Albany Entertainment Centre. (A book cataloguing this project is out now.) View from the Magpie’s Nest was a dance work commissioned by Breaksea and performed with Let’s Shine, Albany Light Opera’s all-abilities group.
Breaksea, which is largely funded by the State Government and City of Albany, has also produced sculpture exhibitions, film art trails and headed north to create the East Kimberley Community Choir.
The 2023 season is another reflection of this diverse approach to programming.
“This year we are able to connect with over 2000 participants from across WA,” Ward says. “Our youth mentees are provided with professional placement to develop their craft, but also witness the positive power of community arts across genres, regions and demographics.”
The first project comes to fruition tonight with Origins, a huge community choir performance at Hillarys Boat Harbour as part of the Joondalup Festival. About 300 people of varied experience put their hand up for a series of workshops over seven weeks, with Harris guiding them through a WA songbook (from Birds of Tokyo to Tim Minchin) to perform live.
“Many of them can’t read music, but it’s showing them that’s not essential. It’s finding what works for them and what makes them feel good about it and feel good about themselves,” she says of the Community Choral Project.
“The most important thing is they experience the joy of being together – the connectedness of being in a community but also the joy of being able to share and enjoy music.”
Also high on the agenda when the creative team were coming up with the 2023 program was a children’s show – not just a show for children but created with them.
“We wanted to create something really beautiful with amazing costumes that would really spark the imagination, and we wanted to really involve them,” Harris says.
Breaksea is working with students at remote schools in the Great Southern to create The Magical Weedy Seadragon, the story of a magical seadragon washed up on shore.
“There will be 40 workshops over a period of time and then we’ll perform in the schools we’ve worked with before taking it to the Albany Entertainment Centre,” Harris says.
The 2023 program will also honour beloved collaborator and supporter Rob Castiglione, who died last year. The filmmaker was a founding board member who documented a lot of Breaksea’s work, which will be screened as part of the online Breaksea Film Festival on 12-14 May.
“He was a wonderful colleague and artist and a very talented filmmaker,” Harris says. “He was a deeply insightful person whose contribution to Breaksea was integral; he just endlessly inspired us. We feel very honoured to have worked so closely with him.”
The season wraps in September with Thunderstorm, the story of a World War I serviceman thrust into blindness with only his memories to guide him. Described as an immersive play with music interludes, this reworking of By Other Eyes was created with the people of the Great Southern and local Noongar elders, with music by Jonathan Brain.
“The audience experienced By Other Eyes through headphones and then they were walking through the Field of Light with this wonderful track of the play with pre-recorded music and then live music on top of that,” Harris says.
“With Thunderstorm it will be staged as a play. It was a really powerful song in By Other Eyes; it’s full of meaning and intention and it really moves people; Matt and I just looked at each other and said why don’t we call it Thunderstorm?”
If all of the above sounds like a lot of work, Harris and Ward are also in demand outside Breaksea. A UWA Choral Society Fellow this year, Harris will conduct An Easter Odyssey for the society on 2 April – she was part of Perth Symphony Orchestra‘s Women on the Podium conducting program last year — and will then prepare a 100-plus choir for the Joondalup Symphony Orchestra’s concert on 30 April.
“Matt also directs a lot for the West Australian Opera and does other things,” she says. “I think it’s important as a mentor that you’re still working in your industry. It’s really positive not just for Breaksea but for the people we work with; it makes us stronger together.”
As Breaksea celebrates its fifth season, Harris reflects on its development with some pride. “I think we have affected change in the Great Southern and we have had the opportunity to go to Karratha and Kununurra and are hoping to go there again,” she says. “We’ve also been to the Wheatbelt, to Toodyay, and we love spending time with our community participants. That engagement really filters down, making art more accessible for everyone.”
And Harris is determined the cultural hothouse will go from strength to strength. “I’ve got lots of plans for our music department and for our mentorship – I feel like we’re just going to keep expanding,” she says.
Ward concurs. “I’m incredibly proud of the Breaksea team for all their hard work and commitment,” he says. “We hope to go on to build communities through shared creative experience, provide platforms for important stories to be shared and develop the next generation of talent from across the regions.”
Pictured top: The baroque opera ‘Fairy Queen’ was a collaboration with UWA’s Conservatorium of Music. Photo: Nic Duncan
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