Two types of people walk the alleys of Melbourne’s wildly eclectic arts scene: those who argue classical music is a static art form, and those who know the work of Ben Opie.
Tackling mind-blowing innovation with the class and sensitivity of a veteran, Ben is a young oboist of matchless capacity performing at the cutting edge of classical music’s fresh-faced evolution. With a big emphasis on innovation and meaningful collaborations, Ben’s approach has the power to keep classical music connected and relevant to its audience.
You’d take him for a Melbournian, of course. Bearded, sharply dressed, and with a warm and generous demeanor, Ben’s talents are intriguing; think the inquisitive genius of performance artist Matthew Barney paired with pop enigma Bjork’s fierce willingness to embrace the contemporary.
But you were certain of your opinions on what classical music is, and the effects it can have, right? Think again. Not in recent history has an Australian classical musician moved so courageously between projects. Bach from a three-tonne truck in a gritty Melbourne pop-up venue? No problem.
Amongst a history of solo performances throughout Europe, the Middle East and North America, Ben’s boundary-obliterating chamber group, Inventi Ensemble has featured at the heart of the Australian music scene since early 2014. A champion of contemporary repertoire and mixed-media works, Ben has collaborated with Gretchen Miller (ABC Radio National) and artist Cecilia White (‘The Breathing Space Projects’), and has appeared in various other multimedia performances, both locally and internationally.
Ben has featured around the world as an expert music mentor. His unique approach to pedagogy and practice seeks to encourage in young musicians not only the development of their musicianship but their creative entrepreneurial skills to boot.
If there’s a young mind qualified to speak on true professional balance today, there’s no doubt it’s this one.
What has been your most memorable concert and why?
I don't think I can pin down one most memorable concert... often I find myself playing music in strange places which can create a truly unique atmosphere. Recently I played a surreal concert as part of a 12 hour festival in Melbourne where we were playing Mozart, JC Bach, Britten and Arnold quartets at 430 in the morning.... Performing an opera gala in front of Uluru in central Australia with the Darwin Symphony is certainly unforgettable. I also always love performing new music and seeing people's reactions to the new sound worlds.
Playing for huge audiences can be a lot of fun, but some of my most memorable performances are the intimate ones where I am playing for only a handful of people in a tiny room or a cave- there I can really explore the communicative aspect of concert performance.
What are some of your thoughts or philosophies related to oboe playing?
My philosophy is to make it as easy as you can... even if it means you have to convince yourself that it's easy! Half the battle is over if you can say "I can do this and I embrace the challenge" rather than "this is really difficult and I don't like it".
I find it's easy for us to think "oh that reed isn't working" or something like that.y strategy is to have a musical goal, then work with the instrument head towards that goal, rather than expecting the instrument will get me to that point.
How would you describe your relationship with your reeds?
Pretty good! I have a real belief that you have to work with your reeds, rather than trying to make that one elusive perfect reed. So I try to come to my reeds with the attitude 'I can work together with this reed to help it perform to its best'. It helps that I play a wide variety of repertoire, so if there are times when a certain reed is really inappropriate for a classical chamber music recital, it might end up being perfect for an exploratory music experiment!
When you are not playing the oboe, what do you enjoy doing?
I like keeping fit, I read a lot and I like exploratory art practices. I also like to travel, so combine that with my career and it all seems to fit together nicely!
Could you tell us a bit more about your interactive community music workshops?
I realised a while ago that it's weird that we spend so much time locked alone in a room playing music or practicing music. I realised we could be exploring musical things with other people, and especially with other people that might not always have it in their lives. Like hospitals, prisons, detention centres etc.
So I started looking into adding interactive elements to performances and then eventually workshops. This can range from just being informative and open in a performance to actually showing people they can make their own instruments out of found objects. Recently we made 'elephant trumpets' out of cardboard tubes and rubber gloves, 'shoeboxharps' from shoeboxes and rubber bands, and percussion instruments from pasta and pipes. Then we all came together and performed parts of Bliss' Conversations. You can be as simple or complex as you like with the time you have.
I'd encourage all performers to get creative and be as inclusive as possible in their performances. It doesn't take much to prepare a session but it can make a huge difference to the participants.
What would you say are most important approaches in introducing beginners to learning the oboe?
Any person who comes to playing the oboe needs to be able to control their air. I spend a lot of time on not only breathing exercises but also air control and learning how to breathe for a phrase (ie. you don't need to take the biggest breath, just the best one!)
The other thing to remember is to be patient. Playing the oboe can be an investment with huge rewards down the line, but be consistent and organised with your development. Practice lots in short bursts at first. But make plans to grow from there.