I think a lot of classical performers could learn a thing or two (or three) from soprano Eva Kong. It was an extremely pleasant concert that was absolutely not what one expects from an opera singer, but after all, where is the fun in being predictable? If I were to try to put the show in one box, I guess you could say it was close to a jazz concert, but what made it so effective was the fact that the performers (Kong , jazz vocalist Asabi Goodman and accompanist Andrew Fincher) were all so relaxed on stage and clearly enjoying themselves. Let me put it this way – when was the last time you saw classical performers genuinely laugh?
There is also something to be said for taking classical music out of its usual concert halls. This performance took place at the City Workshop in central Brisbane, a place that really goes against the grain of classical music. It’s a dimly lit underground space that looks a lot more like some kind of cool/secret cocktail bar rather than the usual performance spaces we see opera performances in, so I think the venue exemplifies the Kong’s commitment to doing things differently. In this space, Kong and Goodman gave a powerful showcase of each of their respective brands of vocal acrobatics, and managed to make it intimate at the same time.
The hook of this show is that Kong and Goodman (very good friends off stage) are dueling divas. Banter between songs was interspersed with amusing lines (“top that!” Goodman sang after a particularly impressive performance), but there was still a clear sense of rivalry that was part of the showmanship – we saw at the times Kong and Goodman break character to laugh or smile more than once.
They started on the classic side of things with Daniel Pinkham’s directing Ave Maria for two unaccompanied voices, a beautifully rich showcase of two female voices that included startlingly acidic harmonies. Goodman stepped forward to Feel good, a song probably best known for Nina Simone’s stunning performance. Goodman’s performance was outstanding, displaying one of those amazing jazz vocals that make the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end.
Kong took up the piano again for a rendition of a traditional song that is an integral part of her repertoire (she also appeared in a recital at the Queensland Opera she gave last year). It’s a simple and haunting ballad, and Kong’s performance was smooth and quite touching.
Goodman really started from left field for the next song. Amid an onstage joke about opera singers knowing languages, Goodman pointed out that she could speak Japanese and launched into the sweet song Tears by the group X Japan. Not to be outdone, Kong responded with Autumn leaves in French (alongside lovely harmonic surprises in Fincher’s accompaniment). “Well, that has been a jazz song,” laughed Goodman, before the pair shared a performance by Gershwin Summer timealternating line by line, before Goodman’s joking suggestion of a more jazzy version of Fincher kicks the intensity up a notch.
Goodman gave us intense and emotional versions of some classics like (You make me feel like) a natural woman, God bless the child and Gee Baby, am I not good for you, and likewise Kong sang some firm favorites (his rendition of Gershwin’s The man I love was a winner).
So, what a nice change to see something where the musicians on stage are clearly having a blast! A relaxed hour-long show like this, I think, is something more performers could pick up on – even if the performance wasn’t strictly classical, the real question is whether it matters in the least , and I’d much rather see performers like Kong, Goodman and Fincher having fun than a dry-as-dust performance that doesn’t engage anyone at all. An unbuttoned performance that highlighted just how pleasant making music is.