May Howlett was born 1931, in Subiaco, Western Australia. She won various scholarships including a secondary studentship to study Music at Melbourne University Conservatorium (majoring in Pianoforte and Singing), graduating in 1954 with a Bachelor of Music, and obtaining a Diploma of Education the following year. She received extra-mural coaching in composition with Arthur Nickson. Serious illness prevented her going on to study with Paul Badura-Skoda in Vienna as planned, so Howlett started teaching and accompanying to supplement the few professional performance opportunities available in those times, founded a piano trio, and toured for the Victorian Arts Council.
In 1971, following an invitation to join Larry Sitsky’s Composition class at the new School of Music in Canberra, Howlett, now married with two small children, received her first commission, for a cantata, Six Meditations on the Katha Upanishads for three choirs, organ, recorders and percussion, which received its premiere by Gaudeamus at the inaugural concert for the Canberra New Music Society. Apart from running a successful teaching practice and being in demand as an accompanist, she was taking advanced singing lessons and role study with retired Professeur de Chant from Stuttgart Conservatoire, Mme Zelma Lans, as well as being an active member of the newly-formed Canberra Opera Group, and understudying roles sung by its founder, Sun Aria winner and retired lead soprano from Sadlers’ Wells Opera Company, Eleanor Houston. She passed ABC auditions as radio recitalist in both voice and piano. From the age of three, theatre continued its place as a major interest in Howlett’s life, so she joined the Canberra Repertory Company and ventured into comedy acting under the direction of Peter Batey. Following her husband’s serious operation, the family planned to move to Sydney for professional work; Howlett was offered further role study with David Parker and Marie Van Hove. But on the eve of departure she was rushed to hospital for a near-fatal operation, from which she took a year to recover.
On returning from her original one-woman show in Carnegie Recital Hall, New York, and cabaret and Impro in Hollywood, Howlett found the theatre scene in Sydney had changed, so formed a ‘girl’ singing trio, arranging works by Gershwin and other great songwriters of the ‘30’s and entered the Club circuit, which she found was also disintegrating. In 1981, she joined Barry Humphries for a nation-wide tour of An Evening’s Intercourse before joining the staff of the Melba Conservatorium of Music in Melbourne.
1987-1991, Howlett held a position in the Performing Arts Unit of the New South Wales Department of Education, working on the Schools Spectacular, selecting the 200-voice Barge Choir for the Bicentenary, devising small shows for Martin Place and the Royal Easter Show, and initiating the first State Drama Festival and Drama Camps. Here she also returned to composition with her second commission for Gaudeamus, Ashes of Roses. Other works followed e.g. Exhibits for flute and piano, The Boy Who Wasn’t There (schools opera version), which were recorded and presented regularly over 2MBS-FM.
In 1996, Harsichordist, Audley Green and Howlett, composer, were awarded an artist-in-residency at Bundanon, the beautiful Trust property willed by Arthur Boyd to the nation, to complete and rehearse Fanta-si’-a, a trio for viola, cello and harpsichord, for a recital for The Friends of the Bundanon Trust. A quartet To Times Recalled, and a number of piano works followed, including the expanded version of The Boy Who Wasn’t There, a chamber opera with accompanying Thesis for an MA Mus at Macquarie University in 2006. After moving to the Southern Highlands, the volume of works grew and, in 2007, Howlett joined the publishing house, Wirripang. For listings see www.australiancomposers.com.au and AMC websites. A dedicated CD of varied aspects of her work is in progress; she was the recipient of two dedicated concerts in 2013 (one in Cork, Ireland, the other at the Universiti Teknologi in Kuala Lumpur), and another will be held in 2014 to launch the CD. In June 2014, her orchestral work The Invisible Lake is to receive its premiere in Manhattan, NY, by the North/South Consonance Orchestra (cond. Max Lifchitz).
In 2006, Howlett graduated with a MA in Music from Macquarie University with a thesis entitled 'The Production of a Contemporary Chamber Opera', which was accompanied by a revised score, with piano reduction and workshop recording of her chamber opera, The Boy Who Wasn't There.
Howlett seeks to explore the more unusual aspects of an instrument (including the voice - e.g. 'Chataka Bird', the last movement of her song cycle Secrets, for soprano, as in Sacred Grove, for bassoon and marimba, without straining for attenuated effects, although some of her compositions may, if occasion demands, challenge her philosophy.
Howlett’s writing covers a variety of forms and styles but is, perhaps, best described as largely lyrically based with, according to Sitsky, “a sting in the tail”. Preferring the smaller forms to the larger, taking into account what she perceives as the ‘voice’ of the instrument itself in varying moods and situations, her aim is to provide an enjoyable, if challenging, experience for audience and performer alike.
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