Jonathon Welch AM is truly an inspiration. Best known for forming the Choir of Hard Knocks for the ABC, Jonathon is also renowned for his beautiful tenor voice and his passionate advocacy for those less fortunate in our community. See Jonathon perform at the Glasshouse this month.
When did you first decide you were going to make a career out of singing?
I was really in my late teens, and I decided to go and do a music degree. I remember particularly going to see La traviata at the Palais Theatre in St Kilda when I was about 15 or 16. It was my mum’s great passion to go the opera and concerts. She took me to see Dame Joan Sutherland sing La traviata, and I thought at the time, “Wow! Whatever’s she’s having, I want!”
In my late teens I started having singing lessons. I was accepted into the Victorian State Opera Chorus when I was about 21. Two years later, I got into the very first Broadway production, The Pirates of Penzance in 1983, with Jon English and June Bronhill. I toured with that production for tabout 18 months.
I decided to go on and further my studies in Sydney and Queensland, where I did my postgraduate in music in the mid 1980s. I was eventually accepted as a principal tenor with Opera Australia in 1988, to make my debut with Dame Joan Sutherland [in The Merry Widow].
What CDs have you released?
The Merry Widow was recorded for world-wide release on DVD. I did other recordings with Opera Australia, including Turandot in the early 1990s.
Back in the late 1990s I was part of a group called Tenor Australis. We released an album of Australian songs in 1999.
More recently, I’ve released my own album, called With a Song in my Heart for ABC, which is my first solo recording. I’ve also done the Choir of Hard Knocks CD for ABC.
Choir of Hard Knocks is now known as Choir of Hope and Inspiration (www.choirofhopeandinspiration.com).
Where did the inspiration to form the Choir of Hard Knocks come from?
Ten years ago, I was staying with a friend in Calgary, Canada and I was stuck in a snow storm. I read an article in the Canadian Readers’ Digest about the Montreal Homeless Men’s Choir. It really inspired to me to come back to Australia and create Sydney Street Choir, which is still running to this very day.
I decided to come back to Melbourne in 2005 and was approached to start a similar project, which became the Choir of Hard Knocks with the ABC. It began in September 2006.
The choir comprises people from all walks of life – and especially those who may have had a few hard knocks?
Absolutely. Today the choir spans the complete gamut of people who are disadvantaged or marginalised, but also includes people who’ve had issues with homelessness, alcohol addiction; many of the members have mental health issues.
There are three members in wheelchairs, who’ve suffered everything from strokes to brain acquired injuries from accidents. There are sight impaired members, so it’s an extraordinary cross section of amazing people who have been dealt some very difficult cards in their lives.
Choral music brings people together, and it’s as much a social outlet as a way of building confidence and self esteem. Social inclusion is very much part of my work these days, and I think what’s really important is creating communities where people come back to connecting and caring.
So, I launched in November – not last year but the year before – Social Inclusion Week (www.socialinclusionweek.com.au) in an effort to go beyond the music and the people I could reach with choral music to the broader community. I want to inspire the community to take action and to connect again.
What’s been the highlight for you in terms of all the awards you’ve won?
For me, the greatest reward is seeing people enjoying themselves and the participants and the audience loving the music. But I have to say, being nominated and receiving an Australian of the Year Award in 2008, which comes from the public. I love the ANZAC of the Year Award I was given in the same year.They’re recognising that there are people in the community doing great work – it’s just so special. What I’m fiercely proud of is being Australian, and I’m so glad to have been born here.
The Order of Australia came in 2009 – and again, that was another public nomination. I feel so very honoured and privileged …
You’re performing at the Glasshouse this month, as a part of their Morning Music program. What pieces will you be singing?
Many of the songs will be from the album I released with the ABC. It’s a retrospective, really, of a lot of the music I grew up with. Lots of music from My Fair Lady ... Kismet. I thread the musical story with the story of my growing up and the music I sang that influenced me.
I’m very privileged to have Stephen Blackburn accompany me on stage. He’s been my fantastic accompanist and arranger for the Choir of Hard Knocks since day one.
Thank you Jonathon.
Jonathon will be performing at The Glasshouse on February 14, at 11am. Tickets are $22.50. Contact the Glasshouse Box Office on 6581 8888 or www.glasshouse.org.au for details.
Interview by Jo Atkins.