Michele Hewitson Interview: Gareth Farr

By Michele Hewitson

Gareth Farr, arguably New Zealand's best-known composer, has written the music for the production of Othello opening tonight in Auckland. Photo / Steven McNicholl
Gareth Farr, arguably New Zealand's best-known composer, has written the music for the production of Othello opening tonight in Auckland. Photo / Steven McNicholl

Gareth Farr, the Wellington composer, has been in Auckland this week, fine-tuning his score for the Jesse Peach production of Othello. This, I'd better say now, opens tonight at the Maidment.

There's a nice plug, and now we can both say "phew" about having got that out of the way. He was worried that we hadn't talked about Othello, which was partly my fault, but mostly his for being a drag queen. Of course you go to talk to him swearing you won't go on about the drag queen half of his life for, oh, more than half the time, but it is, he agrees, fascinating.

Also, he is much more interesting than any one play, being very good at acting up in interviews, which he regards, rightly, as a performance. And he was enjoying being outgoing because when he collaborates with other creative sorts it is such a change from the usual introspective life of the composer. He says he is very good to work with and when hitches in the score happen, he says, "Oh, no problem. I'll just whip up another one." He doesn't like to be
seen to take himself too seriously.

He said, about having his picture taken during the interview, that "I might be picking my nose". This was just being silly, I said. The very idea of an important composer picking his nose ... He put on one his voices, the posh one, and said that of course he wouldn't do any such thing: "I'm much too cultured a person."

He has a repertoire of voices and is also partial to a particularly blokey one. His real voice is what you might call gay composer. I'm pretty sure that won't offend him; because I'm pretty sure he can't be offended. We'll get to the undergarments in good time. If you ask him in what ways his music reflects his personality, he'll say it's direct.

Like many performers he's acutely shy and he says the idea of walking into a party where he knows nobody fills him with horror. People do say to him, "Oh, come to our party in drag, it'll be such fun." It'd be fun for them, not for him, he says, because it's hard work and, besides, he hates having to get dressed at home and drive his car while wearing full drag. That's not the kind of attention he craves. "I like being on stage, when you're in control." He'll only go to parties in drag if somebody pays him. And do they? "No!"

He has always got a lot of attention and was widely regarded as a boy wonder; at 25 he was the youngest composer in residence ever at Chamber Music NZ, but there has always been a view that perhaps he wasn't quite serious enough. He used to say that people, meaning classical music audiences, were a bit snooty about him because he had "entertainer" on his business card, and because of his drag act. "And it's just a cliched word but if you're not entertaining
the audience than you've f***ed it up, haven't you?"

He thinks classical musical audiences were frightened somehow by the idea of a composer being a drag queen. I think he might have been a bit frightened, or defensive at least, despite the bravado, in the early stages of his career, about not being taken seriously. I had excavated a quote: "People come up and say, 'Oh lovely piece,' but they either don't mean it or they haven't got a clue." So if people were ever a bit snooty about him, he might have been returning the favour. "Oh dear! Oh. I do remember saying that. Where do you get all this stuff from?"

There is screeds of stuff on him because he has always been, according to him, a "media slut". Most composers are not media sluts but then most composers are not drag queens either. He must surely be our best known composer and he said, "I suppose so. I think I've done a lot of things that have got me noticed." But had he done them for that reason? "Well, it probably looks like it, but I haven't."

He says he never says no to a gig because he's still so insecure that
he thinks if he turns down a job,he'll never get another. His latest big job, he announced with a tremendous flourish, is this:
"I'm doing the rugby!"

He means he's writing the music for the Rugby World Cup opening ceremony and the fanfare to be played when the teams come out. "It's all terribly gladiatorial and testosterone-ey, which I think is great." He has been to three rugby games in his life but you don't have to have killed your wife to play Othello either, obviously.

Still, he loves the idea that he's writing for the rugby. Later he took out his strawberry chapstick, puckered up, and said: "I'm butch mate! I'm writing for rugby!" Then he said something flirty about the photographer. I told him off, because he's been with his partner for 11 years and is as good as married. He didn't mean it; he was just entertainer doing it for my entertainment.

If he ever did worry that he wouldn't be taken seriously because he's not a purist, he long ago got over it. In any case, he says he couldn't have made a living writing only for orchestra. Also, "I get bored shitless."

So you can ask him if he's made it yet, which is a bit rude, and he won't get the pip. "Oh, I don't know. I feel like I'm just about there." Whatever having made it means. "Well, I don't know, because the thing is I used to think I knew what that meant and what that meant was getting stuff performed all over the world by things like the New York Phil[harmonia]. And I'm not so bothered about that anymore. I'm not as likely to spend that much time pushing myself on the world. I'd rather spend time working with people I like working with."

Was he horribly pushy, does he think now? "Well, this is the problem! I've never actually been very good at it. But I always thought that was what you had to do and that it was part of the job. And in fact I think, you know, you can get repeat gigs much more easily by not being pushy. By being charming or just by being easy to work with." He is certainly entertaining. But is he charming? "I'm terribly charming!"

He really ought to be weird as well, but he isn't, not remotely. But because he is a composer and a drag queen he must almost certainly be unique, or so you'd think.

Well, that would make all of us, including him, quite wrong. He has recently been contacted by ... and we really need one of his drum rolls here ... a Finnish composer who is also a drag queen, and, like him, a percussionist. "He found me on Facebook and probably had the same reaction: 'Oh my God, there's another one!"'

That's probably the only possible reaction because: who'd have thought? He is quite interested in the idea that there could be two (or four, really) of them and not at all miffed that he's no longer the only composer who is also a drag queen.

Which did rather bring us nicely to Lilith. I wasn't sure how to talk about her. Do you refer to her as an entirely separate person, as in: Where is Lilith? She hasn't been around for a while. Yes, he says, because it's "easier. She's got a separate Facebook. See? I just said 'she' too."

So she's back, after a long break, which is a good thing because he's very fond of her and she's good fun and a nice person. When he was doing his show in the States all the American drag queens used to call Lilith the "friendly" queen until the day she slapped some bloke for pulling his pants down during a memorial number. "And all of the queens just went: 'Oh my God! Maybe she isn't so friendly after all."'

There used to be - how to put this without earning a slap from Lilith? - a little less of both of them. Does she have to wear those slimming Nancy Ganz pants? "Spanx! No, they wouldn't be enough. I've got one of those Victorian knee-in-the-back corsets. It's brilliant." Doesn't it hurt? "Oh, everything hurts!" He's not a bit vain. "My God, no. I wear black all the time and don't get my hair cut properly."

We had a very interesting, if confusing, conversation about what he called the "whole Kinsey scale of everything else going on". He sometimes dresses straight women in drag and they become ... well, what? Straight women pretending to be gay men pretending to be caricatures of women? Something like that. They go camp too, he says. It is all very confusing, on the Kinsey scale, and you have to be very careful, he said, or else you can offend everyone.

I think I've got this right: He is a drag queen and most definitely not a cross dresser. Being a drag queen is not in any way a sexual thing. But why does a gay man want to dress up as a woman? "Aah well! That's where we get into difficult territory because the logical progression from that is that they want to be a woman, which is not true, because there's a definite thing, a woman trapped in a woman's body. That's transsexual. But some of the drag queens in the States are transsexuals." And, to further confuse matters, Lilith bashes drums on stage, which, being very blokey, is not at all Queeny. We needed a manual, I said. He said, "Ha, ha. You need the whole section!"

They needed the theatre back for the rehearsal of that play he's written the music for, the one we forgot to talk about. So we had to go. But we hadn't done Marie Antoinette. He said he'd email a picture: of him dressed as Marie Antoinette, "with a f***ing great ship in the top of my wig!" for his 40th birthday, which was held in Ian Fraser's ballroom.

Wait! Wait! I said, like the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland. How did he come to have his 40th in Ian Fraser's ballroom? Come to that, what is Ian Fraser doing with a ballroom? Oh, they met at a party, he said, airily.

Apologies to the poor publicist. I blame that copycat Finn, Marie Antoinette's wig, Lilith's undergarments and a charming composer - poor old Othello never stood a chance.

- NZ Herald

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