For almost four years, mother of two and opera singer Katie Noonan has been doing it tough. Between performing in Sydney Dance Company’s Les Illuminations and recording her latest record, Fierce Hearts, she’s been doing stints in women’s prisons, writing of estranged love in the freezing cold, and waxing lyrical about the badass women she’s encountered.
All this for the production of Love-Song-Circus – a collaborative work comprising a 16-piece song cycle by Noonan and circus-acrobatics by Circa that celebrates the lives and stories of Australia’s female convicts. Or “seriously badass powerful women” as Noonan likes to call them.
The idea for the work was conceived by Noonan after visiting the National Museum’s convict token collection. “It’s the largest convict love token collection in the world,” she says. “There were all these beautiful words inscribed on them.” And Noonan pored over each and every one, pulling together the best to write the third piece in the show. “I’d finished this amazing tour of the Cascades Female Factory in Hobart and I drove to Mount Wellington,” she recalls. “I went to the top and wrote the melody to Leaden Hearts up there in the freezing cold.”
Tokens like: When this you see remember me/ though many miles we distant be and I’ll love ‘til death shall stop my breath stole Noonan’s voice and became the lyrics to the only song in the production not dedicated to a specific woman. “While reading the tokens, the themes of love, longing, loneliness, but mainly loss and strength, captured my imagination. I thought, ‘Oh, I want to find out about these people’.”
History buffs will be familiar with some of the stories. “For example Mary Reibey, who’s on our $20 note,” says Noonan. “She was a widowed working mother of seven who started the Bank of NSW and the Sydney Grammar School. She pretty much owned the entire suburb of Annandale.” Then there’s Ellen Scott, who led the first ever female flash mob. “She was a pretty wild limerick,” says Noonan, who gets so caught up in Ellen’s song in performances that her voice waxes “a bit harsher, feistier” than fans are accustomed to. “You can’t really sing Ellen with a pretty, soft voice,” she reasons. “Ellen was at Cascades. The whole time the priest there was pontificating from the bible he was molesting the women. Ellen got so mad she led a flash mob. In the middle of his sermon they mooned him!” We laugh now, but it was a stand she paid for dearly. “For that, she got 30-days solitary confinement in a 6x4 cell with no seats.” Admirable? “Full on. She was a fabulous woman.”
There are some lesser-known, though no less badass ladies in Love-Song-Circus too. The song Janet refers to Janet Housten, a Cascades girl punished for falling pregnant while there. “She was sent to the crime class and forced to leave her child all weekend. If she played her cards right and kept her head down she could see her for maybe one, two hours on Sunday,” says Noonan. “After three the child was sent to an orphanage, while Ellen was forced to stay at the factory.” It wasn’t til much later they were reunited. “Those kinds of stories are very inspiring.”
They’ve captured audiences in Brisbane and Adelaide (Love-Song-Circus won the Fringe Awards for best music), and will play Sydney in April. So, what’s Noonan looking forward to when they do? “At every show we’ve had a descendant of one of the women there,” she glows. “Someone’s come up and gone, ‘I’m Esther’s great, great … grandson. So I’m excited to bring it to Sydney as many of these women were based here and helped form the city.”