The strong, silent type: home of Victorian Opera’s Richard Mills

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It’s conspicuously quiet inside the home of Victorian Opera’s artistic director Richard Mills. Not a sound can be heard from the nearby shops and cafes. And the conductor and composer is emphatic when asked about what music he likes to listen to while relaxing.

“I never listen to music because I find that the act of listening demands complete attention. I never listen to music for relaxation,” Mills says. “You can’t help but listen professionally. You’re really completely absorbed with it or not.”

On reflection, he admits to putting on the occasional music video or vinyl record, but prefers to live in silence.

“We’ve lost the capacity to listen because there’s so much noise in the contemporary world. The loudest noise Mendelssohn ever heard would have been the steam train, which is why the 18th century Mannheim crescendo was so powerful.”

For some 20 years now, Mills has lived in a converted warehouse in Melbourne’s inner north, designed by architects at Six Degrees. For work, Mills keeps a separate office around the corner, to demarcate spaces for concentrating and for relaxing. With two pianos and a composing bench, it’s a space for listening with focus.

The University of Melbourne, useful for research, and the performance venues of Southbank, are short trips away.

Melbourne wasn’t always home. Mills has worked with Opera Queensland and the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, and also worked as a type of fly-in, fly-out artistic director of the West Australian Opera.

During his time leading the Victorian Opera, the company has premiered several new works and been nominated for a global innovation award. He is hesitant about the overused word “innovation”, but clear on the need to find ways to reach a broad audience with a high art form.

For example, he wrote a new work, The Pied Piper, which involved community members alongside the opera’s professionals, and toured regional Victoria.

“They were part of a professional music context in a way that had meaning, in a way that they could achieve — they could do what they were asked to do, and enjoy it. And that whets their appetite for more,” Mills says.

“I hope we can give people something marvellous that they want to come and see, something that’s not part of their daily life at all. Something that’s extraordinary.

“We’re committed to renewing and sustaining the art form of opera.”

Even his home is a physical example of innovation. The building used to be a “dark, dingy shed”, but now the open-plan living space features high ceilings, white walls and tall windows that let the light stream in.

“It’s amazing what you can transform with a bit of imagination and a bit of hard work,” he says.

“And I guess that’s what we do as artists.

“In the end, I guess our mission is to transform somebody’s life. To make them see something beautiful they weren’t aware of and to give them an encounter with the marvellous.”

Despite the preference for peace and quiet, an organ looms over the living area. Mills offers an impromptu performance and suddenly the room is filled with bright, triumphant sound.

Outside, a courtyard

is packed with green plants – ferns, gardenias and orchids – some on high shelves to make sure they get the maximum amount of light.

We’re lucky enough to see a delicate stanhopea orchid in bloom, poking out of its hanging basket. Its flower might only last for two days.

A greenhouse holds slipper orchids – it’s in a fallow period during our early autumn visit, Mills explains – and in the sunshine, lettuce, kale and basil are growing.

He surveys his handiwork with pride. “I’ll go out of here in a coffin.”

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