Kirsten Boerema: A Class of Her Own
interview by Neil Boyack
As a sideline to teaching music at Castlemaine Secondary College, self-confessed show-off Kirsten Boerema plays in Bella Frisky, a three piece band with a multitude of instruments, promising cool tunes that will transport you to exotic global locales.
Neil Boyack: Where were you born – have you always lived in a rural area?
Kirsten Boerema: I was born in Perth near both the river and the beach and spent lots of time swimming, sunbaking and playing the cello and guitar and singing in bands. When I was 20 I moved to Melbourne to study and got accepted into the Victorian College of the Arts, studying opera. I finished my Bachelor of Music and then did an Honours year.
NB: Who brought music into your life? Were you a part of a musical family?
KB: Both of my parents were musicians. Mum was, and still is, a cellist and classical pianist and my dad was a jazz saxophonist/clarinettist. His mother was a concert pianist and his sister, my aunt, was an opera singer. Many generations ago, my great great grandfather was a noted composer in Holland during the Golden Age, and his portrait hangs in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam still. I’m the youngest of four girls and we all play various instruments and sing. We have very different musical tastes so unfortunately rarely play together. I arranged a beautiful four-part harmony song for my Dad’s funeral ten years ago, and I think that’s the last time we performed together. We all live in different places, so it’s near impossible anyway.
NB: You speak a number of languages and incorporate this into Bella Frisky, how did you come to learn so many?
KB: When I was in 2nd year of my music degree I successfully auditioned with the Victoria State Opera. This followed many years of singing with a variety of opera companies including Opera Australia (formerly the Australian Opera), West Australian Opera Company and Oz Opera. As part of a company you receive language coaching as you must sing in many languages; Italian, French, German and Russian mostly. My real passion with singing was not opera but songs, and I was fortunate enough to win many competitions and scholarships to study singing in France, Italy, Germany and England. Here I indulged in singing songs from mainly European and South American composers in a wider variety of languages including Spanish, Portuguese, Latin, Danish, Swedish and more …
Obviously you can’t master all of these languages conversationally and so I studied IPA (International Phonetics Alphabet) and learned to pronounce perfectly by working with language coaches and studying and practising really hard. My Italian and Dutch are my best spoken languages but I can’t say I’m fluent in either. However I can certainly get by and am willing to have a crack in German and French too. I love singing in German the most. It’s dark and beautifully poetic. Singing Schubert, Schumann, Brahms and Mahler is my idea of Heaven.
NB: What form of music do you enjoy performing most and why?
KB: Unfortunately, and not so uncommon as you may think, I had a vocal cord malfunction in my thirties and had to have surgery to laser off a burst blood vessel. This affected my top range and for a number of years I couldn’t sing at all. This was horrid but led me to teaching music, which I’ll get to later. When I had recovered enough and my voice reappeared, I realised I would probably never sing operatically again professionally and I started singing more jazz and European folk/gypsy music. My language training meant I was able to tackle anything convincingly. With my friends Michael and Matt, Bella Frisky was born. I love singing in all the different languages and also how the styles of folk music from differing countries have such unique flavours. I still sing classically and am performing Rossini’s Misse Solennelle in May, but singing in Bella Frisky is fun and allows us to have a musical life outside of teaching five days a week.
NB: What do you enjoy most about teaching music?
KB: I do love being a music teacher. I love the students’ enthusiasm and seeing them develop from Year 7 through to Year 12 and then into their adult life. I love preparing and performing in concerts with them and seeing the joy they get from these experiences such as the recent Cuban workshops and performance for the Castlemaine State Festival. We go on a four day Music Camp in June which culminates in a performance at the Town Hall. These concerts are consistently brilliant, which is down to the students and staff working so hard and having an amazing work ethic. I work with great music colleagues. We are all very happy at CSC and that congeniality is clear to the students who in turn love working with all of the instrumental teachers. I really love teaching music theory/aural and analysis too as it very satisfying for me to teach students how music is constructed and to give them the gift of another language that they’ll have for the rest of their lives.
NB: Who are your musical influences?
KB: So many! I love musicians who aren’t perfect and have a human frailty about them such as Nina Simone with her wild and ugly vocals. Operatically I love Maria Callas and Montserrat Caballe, both who sing with raw emotion rather than beauty of tone being the be all and end all. I love Mahler with his aching melodies that weave in and out and around each other. He reaches such despair in his music only to lift it up to the light again with a folk-like melody which leaves you full of optimism. I adore Yma Sumac and our recent Castlemaine State Festival show Queen Cannibali & the Skull Island Orchestra was an homage to that wonderful genre Exotica. I also love total kitsch like Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass. It’s too hard a question! Depends on the time of day.
NB: What is you instrument of choice?
KB: At the moment my new theremin is my favourite instrument (Dr Who theme tune instrument). It sounds like a human voice and I’m trying to recreate my own operatic sound through it. It has a four octave range though, unlike me. I love watching people’s faces who have never seen or heard a theremin, because they don’t quite understand what’s happening and what they’re hearing, and it also has a comic quality to it.
NB: What are listening to at the moment?
KB: Not much. Sometimes I go through periods when I have to let my ears be silent. It’s very noisy running a music department and if I’m not rehearsing myself for gigs, I enjoy quiet. Having said that, I was singing along to Deep Purple’s Highway Star the other night. Classic bloke song. Is he singing about the car or a girl? Who knows. I love karaoke and can bust out a pretty good Shirley Bassey. I also like doing Open Mic at the Bridge if there’s nothing to do on a Wednesday night (after tap dancing that is).
NB: How long have you been working at Castlemaine Secondary College?
KB: I’ve been Music Coordinator at CSC for six years. I am terribly organised and love things to run smoothly. It’s a big job with 10 staff and about 250 kids learning music. The students need instruments hired, repaired, music bought, music arranged, camps and excursions organised, individualised learning programs, an assortment of ensembles, choirs, orchestras … It’s never-ending but totally rewarding. We run from one fabulous event to the next. We start our school musical next and at the same time I’m trying my very hardest to organise a cultural exchange with the Cuban Cultural Alliance to get some of our students and staff to go to Cuba and live and breathe that amazing music. There’s music camp at the end of Term 2 and concerts galore scattered throughout the calendar. Never a moments rest but I love the challenge and I’m happy that I earn my living from what I love doing the most – music.
Kirsten Boerema & Bella Frisky are performing at the Newstead Short Story Tattoo as part of the Friday Night Jazz Club, Friday 1 May 2015, Newstead Community Centre, Newsrtead (VIC). Tix via Oztix or newsteadtattoo.org