Anna Goldsworthy is a pianist, writer and festival director. She is a lecturer at the Elder Conservatorium of music, and 2020 Artist-and-Writer-in-Residence at Melbourne Recital Centre. Anna has known much-loved Australian composer and conductor Richard Mills for decades. Here she contemplates the artist’s rich musical legacy, on the eve of his 70th birthday celebrations
Richard Mills first entered my orbit when I was a teenager, through the landline in the hallway (this was a previous century). My father took the call, and gesticulated towards the piano; obediently, I launched an assault on the Prokofiev Toccata. Only afterwards did he explain that he had been talking to a very distinguished composer about the possibility of writing a libretto for an opera. I’m not sure if my schoolgirl attempts at Prokofiev helped his cause, but he got the gig, and the one after that, collaborating with Richard Mills on the operas Summer of the Seventeenth Doll and then Batavia.
From then on, Richard became a regular visitor to the family home in Adelaide. It always felt as if a weather system had passed into my music room. He would seize the piano with his great bear paws and toss cascades of glittering notes into the air, crooning the vocal lines in his distinctive falsetto. He rejected my oil heater with a contemptuous snort; I felt feeble for suggesting it. On one of his first visits, I played for him, and while he made some vaguely encouraging noises, he also issued some stern diagnoses: there is no REAL LEGATO in your playing; you have NO UNDERSTANDING of harmony. He prescribed a book of Art Tatum transcriptions; I quickly became a harmony nerd.
Later, I came to know Richard as a revered colleague and elder. I think of him now as our community’s gigantic brain. His passion and energy, and the sheer amount of musical information he carries about on his person, is as overwhelming to me today as it was thirty years ago. He is a person who knows everything – or does a very convincing simulacrum of someone who does. I know I am not the only festival director who has called him up and asked, for example, how would you program a Baroque festival? And as he puffs around Gilpin Park in Brunswick, with Buddy (his beloved kelpie cross staffy, immortalised in this program), all you need to do is turn on the speaker phone and start transcribing. Likewise: what would you say if you were interviewed for this job? And, over a single circuit of the park, he extemporises the most eloquent, definitive speech imaginable, as if a roomful of speechwriters had labored over it for days.
He is also our community’s beating heart, and feels things so acutely – so operatically – that I fear for him sometimes. On the one hand, there are the Jeremiah-like pronouncements that boom down the phone line: I’m warning you darling the mediocre are gaining ranks and they’re COMING FOR US! On the other hand, there are the Facebook posts of wombats and endearing dogs. He is an alarming workaholic, but his schedule is underlined above all by an urgent need to contribute, to make a difference.
And he makes a difference in all sorts of ways. Richard is a true musical polymath, possibly the truest we have. He exemplifies the ‘complete musician,’ an increasingly rare commodity: he is a brilliant composer and orchestrator; a charismatic conductor; a visionary artistic director.
In the words of another distinguished elder, Stephen McIntyre:
‘Richard brings a great variety of expertise to his role as Artistic Director of Victorian Opera: a long and distinguished conducting career, a body of significant compositional work, both operatic and instrumental; a wide knowledge of the operatic repertoire, and a deep understanding of the different voices for the many casting decisions that need to be taken for each opera in a season. I think that Victorian Opera is lucky to have him in this role.’
Likewise, his vast experience in the performance and production of operas informs his work as a composer. He has said to me that:
‘Working in the opera industry as a conductor, and as artistic director of a company, has been inseparable from the craft of writing. It’s so complex that you cannot know it from the outside. This applies right down to the simple process of orchestration, of knowing what will balance and what won't. It's also knowing what singers can do and what they can't do. There's only one way to learn that, and that's the received memory of conducting opera performances.’
It has been my privilege to know Richard in each of his roles. When I was writing the libretto for Victorian Opera’s The Magic Pudding with composer Calvin Bowman, I was struck by the way he could supply rhyming couplets on demand, but also by the way he could pluck any scene from any opera out of the vast library in his head, and offer it to us as a template. Earlier this year, he composed a new work for my trio, Seraphim, commissioned by Dimity Reed to celebrate the birthday of Garry Joslin. We premiered it at Melbourne Recital Centre, and are taking it to the Perth Festival next year. It is a work that seems to encapsulate Richard. It’s a series of portraits and memories, which speaks of his essential generosity, but the identity of each of its subjects remains a secret: despite his gregariousness he is an intensely private person. Above, all the work is teeming with life: vividly coloured, exuberant, virtuosic, each movement its own weather system.
As we celebrate Richard on his birthday, I’m struck not only by how much I love the man, but also how rudderless we’d all be without him.
Celebrate Richard Mills’s prolific musical legacy when he conducts Orchestra Victoria and Australia’s best-loved opera singers in Elisabeth Murdoch Hall on Friday 13 December. Tickets available here.