Singing the journey - Madonna Magazine

Singing the journey

Rosie Hoban 10 March 2017

Merlyn Quaife started walking and didn’t stop for thirty-six days. She found a sense of peace and healing along the 800 kilometres of road stretching from France to Santiago in Spain and in small, often isolated places of worship in villages along the way. Merlyn found respite from her physical and emotional pain as she walked day after day along the Camino de Santiago, a far cry from the grand concert halls where she has performed to acclaim for many decades.

The story of Merlyn’s spiritual and emotional healing journey is now an important part of her musical repertoire. She performed it recently at a summer music festival in Victoria and left many in the audience yearning to follow in her footsteps. Of course, thousands of people walk the famed Camino (the Way of St James) every year and most walkers have a personal story, a reason they are willing to endure the weeks of solitude and pain.

Merlyn, an acclaimed soprano, describes the walk as her ‘greatest performance’ following a difficult year, which included the breakup of her marriage. She now recounts the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela through readings, poems and songs, including Dvorák’s The Lord is my Shepherd (Psalm 23), Schubert’s Mass in G: Christe Eleison, Langlais’ Missa in Simplicitate: Kyrie and Agnus Dei, Mozart’s Abendempfindung and Schubert’s Heidenröslein.

The pilgrimage also took Merlyn back to some of her most loved musical experiences—singing in churches. ‘When I got to a town I would go to the church and if it was open and empty I would sing. To be able to do that was beautiful’, Merlyn says.

‘Like most walkers, I got blisters and a few ailments, but the act of walking day after day is very healing. I had problems with my hip but I just walked through the pain. It gave me a chance to listen to my body, heart and head.’

When she finally reached the Tomb of Saint James in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, Merlyn asked and was given permission to sing Psalm 23 and the Prayer of St Francis during one of the Masses.

Like most classically trained musicians, Merlyn has a deep love and appreciation of religious music. In fact, it was her mother, a faithful member of a church choir in Preston, in Melbourne’s north, who ensured Merlyn was immersed in music from a young age. A self-confessed ‘music nerd’, Merlyn preferred the ABC’s classics station to the rock‘n’roll music her friends were tuning into during her teen years. She honed her thespian skills at secondary college through the encouragement of a teacher who recognised her talent.

Since those school days of the 1960s, Merlyn has established herself as a distinguished soprano around the world. In fact her biography reads like a guide to the world’s great musical venues and performances including opera, oratorio, chamber music, contemporary music and of course the Camino. She has performed as a soloist with the Singapore Symphony, Hong Kong Philharmonic and the Voronesz Philharmonic in Russia; appeared with all the Australian Opera Companies and performed with all the Symphony Australia orchestras. Merlyn made her American debut at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC in 1994, singing the title role in Gordon Kerry’s opera Medea with Chamber Made Opera.

Through all her international success Merlyn has remained faithful to some important ‘performances’ in Australia, including at St Francis Church in Melbourne and for ACRATH (Australian Catholic Religious Against Trafficking in Humans).

More than 30 years ago she was asked to sing as soloist with the St Francis Church Choir and continues to do so at least five times a year. She describes this experience as ‘a very beautiful part of my musical life’.

Several years ago Fr Pat Negri, a priest at St Francis, told her about the work of ACRATH, a faith-based organisation working to eliminate the trafficking of people around the world. He described the group working with ACRATH as ‘amazing’ and Merlyn put up her hand to help raise money for their various campaigns.

Merlyn collaborated with pianist, composer and conductor Roger Heagney to produce a CD, Fortune My Foe, as a fundraiser for ACRATH. Fortune My Foe, a song cycle by Heagney, sets the poetry of Graeme Ellis to music. Produced by the ABC and released by Move Records, Merlyn is joined on the CD by pianist Andrea Katz.

‘We produced 1000 CDs not just to raise money for ACRATH, but to raise awareness of the issue and to encourage people to listen to music that they may not be familiar with,’ Merlyn said. All the people and organisations involved in the production of the CD gave their time and resources pro bono. The CDs are almost sold and Merlyn hopes to develop another musical project, possibly an annual concert, to continue her support of the anti-trafficking movement.

Merlyn recently made a ‘tree change’ and moved from Melbourne to a large regional Victorian town, in search of a more peaceful and calm lifestyle. But her tree change has not taken her away from performing, or teaching music. In between her musical performances over the years Merlyn has also been heavily involved in education, first as head of the Vocal Department at the Faculty of Music at Melbourne University and now at Monash University as Coordinator of Classical Voice. She loves working with the staff and particularly the students who she is keen to mentor into music careers.

When she is at home, amidst the sound of song is the buzz of bees—Merlyn Quaife, world-renowned soprano, walker of the famed Camino, seeker of peace, is now keeping bees


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