Five minutes with Narelle Yeo

24 May 2019
From human rights lawyer to professional opera singer
Meet human rights lawyer turned professional opera singer Dr Narelle Yeo, who's now bringing students and professionals together through inclusion programs at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. 

What is your professional background and how did you come to join the University?

I worked as a human rights lawyer in Sydney and in the Pilbara until I moved to the USA to study music. After graduate school in Texas, I began my opera career in San Francisco, working concurrently as a singer and stage director. While in the USA I was mentored by a number of directors, who fostered this talent in me while I was singing. I also performed widely in Western USA in opera, musical theatre and theatre. Eventually, I obtained a position at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music as a stage director. 

While in the USA, and also during short stints in Europe, I was able to be schooled in the niche field of opera direction from some gifted and inspiring mentors. After returning to Australia for family reasons, I began directing in theatre companies and schools in NSW and eventually began directing at the Sydney Conservatorium. I completed my doctorate at Sydney in rehearsal dynamics before taking up my current role as stage director and singing teacher. I am also involved in ethics and educational integrity at the Conservatorium.

What made you make the transition from lawyer to musician? 

I was always around music and from the age of 18 I was playing music at night while studying in the day. I was encouraged to study law and I don’t regret that choice at all. It taught me how to think rationally and impartially about issues. In particular, my work in human rights law exposed me to a range of amazing people from many cultures with incredible stories that have stayed with me.

The decision to jump to music was helped by a scholarship to Rice University in Texas. It had the right mix of intellectual stimulation and a brilliant musical faculty. After my time at Rice, I moved to the West Coast where I was able to obtain work directing well as singing.Both these roles demand very different skills. Directing is a multi-faceted and complex task, requiring organisation, quick thinking, creativity and a thick skin. Opera singing is like an Olympic sport, requiring physical stamina and coordination, language and acting ability and nerves of steel. In the USA this dual existence was possible and was very rewarding. While I trained in opera, I have always kept my voice flexible, performing a range of music from classical to music theatre and jazz. My musical tastes are very eclectic, but I feel immensely grateful to be able to make a career out of both performing and directing. I am passionate about educating the next generation of musicians.

Tell us about the ‘7 Little Australians’ project you've just wrapped up that was performed at the Spiegeltent in Wollongong last week. 

The Conservatorium does so many culturally significant projects, and I am proud to get to work on some of them. The Con is committed to reaching out to regional communities and providing opportunities for young musicians who may not have access to the resources of the city. This is the third year we have run the Inclusion program, and we had 16 instrumentalists and 40 singers in the program this year in Wollongong. We are also taking the project out to Western NSW in September.

The feedback for this program is overwhelmingly positive, with participants of all levels of experience obtaining valuable mentoring within a professional performing environment. From these projects I have learned the extraordinary talent, passion and stickability of this generation of Sydney student.

A lot of your research focuses on a three-tier learning/teaching culture. Tell me about this approach and the value of it? 

A few years ago, along with Professor Jennifer Rowley, I developed a unique mentoring project preparing a professional performance of a work of opera or musical theatre, but matching professionals with emerging artists and students. The mentoring program is unique in a number of ways: the theatre is generally not seen as a particularly democratic environment, but this mentoring project intends to democratise the rehearsal process, giving younger students the capacity to teach professionals as well as be mentored by them. Everyone who signs up for this project commits to the mentoring element, which is centred around the Conservatorium students’ capacity for growth, building empathy and relationships across age and experience in time-critical environments and the concept of lifelong learning and skills acquisition through both experimentation and mastery.

Our results show that professionals as well as students are changed by the experience, which builds on corporate leadership training principles, but with a professional performance outcome. The purposeful, distinct lack of a “star system” is a radical element of this program, which has a circular, web-like structure. The Inclusion project combines what we teach at the Con with real world experience.

Music is a cultural and emotional language, along with other forms of art, and serves a vital function in all cultures, whether it be for ritual or relaxation. I love that it is hard to make great art, and I am passionate about supporting those who try...
Dr Narelle Yeo

This is a hard question but if you had to choose a favourite piece of music, what would it be? 

That is such a hard question for a musician! All music is tied to its’ context, so place, time and circumstance will influence my musical taste as much as anyone else’s...what you were doing, how you were feeling at the time…

Having said that, I do tend to lean towards composers and musicians who attempt great things, even if they fall short. One moment of greatness and emotional intensity in a musical work is good enough for me. For example, Mahler thought that, “A symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything.” I have a personal preference for boldness like this – the art of the grand intention.  I love the theatre created by bands like Queen. Mozart operas are amazing studies in humanity, intricate and complicated, with beautiful melodies. The late albums of Kate Bush and Sigur Ros have brilliant concepts behind them. The final trio in Der Rosenkavalier by Strauss is my guilty pleasure.

What is it about music that you love, that has made you dedicate your career to it?

I love live performance more than anything. Un-amplified sound engages all of the senses and nothing can compare with it, whether it be a folk scratch band in a pub on a Sunday night, or a great orchestra on a world stage. Victor Hugo said, “Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent.” Music is a cultural and emotional language, along with other forms of art, and serves a vital function in all cultures, whether it be for ritual or relaxation. I love that it is hard to make great art, and I am passionate about supporting those who try...

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