Walking Vallis Woods to Great Elm from Frome is just about one of the nicest walks that you could find around these parts, at this time of year (October) the trees are in glorious technicolour and we are blessed with these unexpected but very welcome sunshine filled days. The duck pond at Great Elm is a great resting spot, and the view complete with the ancient boathouse on the side of the pond is picture postcard pretty. If you’re luck enough you might even be fortunate enough to hear music emanating from the building hidden behind the boathouse, this is Jackdaws.
Jackdaws is dedicated to improving participation in and enjoyment of music through weekend courses, Education projects, a Young Artists Programme and performances by world class musicians. Their ethos is inspiration, access and inclusion. The charitable trust was established by Opera Singer Maureen Lehane 25 years ago, when she and composer husband Peter Wishart moved to the area. By all accounts Maureen was a powerhouse of a woman with a vision and the determination to match, to this day her legacy lives on in the work of this hidden jewel of a music centre on the fringes of Frome.
Before Maureen died she made very sure that her boots would be filled by just the right feet…..step forward this week’s Human of Frome, Saffron Von Zwanenberg a woman who entered the world of Opera and indeed the Jackdaw’s world by the most unlikely route imaginable.
Born to immigrant parents in 1970s London, Saffron’s Doctor Father is of Dutch extraction and her Artist Mother came to the UK from Palestine at the age of 6. Saffron and her family moved to Newcastle where she lived until she was about 8 years old. I asked if that had been a big move for her, she replied not really and continued with her family tale. The story continues on the remote Island of East New Britain just off the coast of Papua New Guinea, where her Father took up a post in the hospital. That was a big move and city child, Saffron found herself living in Rabaul, famed for having the 5th deepest harbour in the world. The harbour was formed when a prehistoric volcano erupted leaving a circular crater surrounded by newly formed active volcanoes. The Island was small, and continues to remain small as it it lives with the threat of volcanic eruptions every 50 years or so. Saffron recalls happy carefree days, roaming Mango Avenue, the Island’s one shopping street and amusing herself with her Father’s limited tape cassette library. At the age of 13, she returned to Newcastle, the life that she had lived in Papua New Guinea under threat by the imminent eruption of Mount Tarvurvur (which went on to largely destroy Rabaul in 1994).
She describes her return to secondary school in Newcastle as a ‘Baptism of Fire’, explaining that she was quite ‘different’ following her years of carefree childhood in one of the remotest spots on the planet. Saffron talks about bullying but says that that was just a part of life, it didn’t have a label but it was rife in the schools back then…she says however that she was adaptable just like other children and laughingly comments that she had perfected her Geordie accent within her first week back in the city. Music was a saving grace for her, although she was very different to her fellow students in that there was a large gap in her musical knowledge, she didn’t even know who ‘Duran Duran’ were back then. There had been no TV in Rabaul, so if you wanted to enjoy music you had to make it. Her Father had a guitar and a tape recorder that he had bought in Hong Kong on their way out there. Before their departure he had meticulously recorded his entire music collection onto cassette. This left the young Saffron with a limited selection of The Eagles, Bob Dylan, Bob Seger and Opera to choose from. She chose Opera and the young English girl could be heard regularly singing along to Joan Sutherland and Pavarotti.
Back in 1980’s Newcastle, despite her difference Saffron found her tribe and before too long had established a theatrical company with her friends. This troupe of liberal creatives performed some risque shows in the school hall, including a Full Monty (esque) striptease show (pre The Full Monty), the school however did put their foot down when they suggested putting on their version of The Rocky Horror Show. In this time, one of Saffron’s teachers ‘Mr.Young’ noticed her voice when one day she sang ‘Hey Jude’ with a bunch of other students…Saffron continued singing at the end where the song goes up and up and up, other singers falling by the wayside and open mouthed waiting for her to come back down. Mr.Young was the first person to suggest that she should take singing lessons. Her epiphany came at A level time, she knew then that she had to be an Opera Singer and was supported by her Biology and PE teachers and her parents in her choice.
Saffron secured a place at Trinity College in London where she studied an associate postgraduate course and then went onto achieve a postgraduate in Opera at The Royal College . She eventually left The Royal College as a Junior Fellow. With her academic achievements in her pocket she took a year out and traveled to the USA. Alone, she found herself in New Jersey looking after kids at a religious girl guide camp for a period of months, very out of her comfort zone she persevered as only a Geordie Opera singer via New Guinea can.
Upon her return to the UK she worked for many Opera companies. Disillusioned however with the life of an Opera singer, Saffron gravitated towards the works of a director called Robert Chevara. He hailed from a physical theater background, something in his work resonated with her. She became his assistant for a number of years whilst at the same time developing an interest in Opera and children and its effects on the lives of those who have access to it. Over the years Saffron has worked in many capacities within the world of Opera and education, at one point she commuted weekly from London to Wales where she was Education Officer for Mid Wales. On the recommendation of a conductor friend she participated in her first workshop at Jackdaws nearly a decade ago.
When Maureen Lehane handed the proverbial baton over to Saffron she clearly knew what she was doing. Sounds like she had put her through some rigorous testing over the years, throwing challenges in her path like musical grenades…one of the first being the task of re-creating Wagner’s Epic Ring Cycle (the Opera equivalent of The Lord Of the Rings) over a summer period. Of course Saffron rose to the challenge with the same ‘of course, no problem’ attitude as she has approached everything in her life thus far. Now very much a part of the beating heart of Jackdaws, Saffron continues the great legacy of its founder and continuously looks at new and exciting ways to develop it, planning permission and funding have been secured for an extension which will see a new performance hall built on site and an ambitious programme of workshops (over 40) is planned for the coming year.
Jackdaws was a hub of activity on the day that we sat outside chatting, a chorus of birdsong behind us, a flurry of applications arriving for the 25th Maureen Lehane Vocal Awards, the Trust’s accountant arriving for a meeting, and I am aware that this sleepy little wooded valley is very deceptive….at its heart lies a bustling music education trust and at its helm an unassuming Geordie girl who has had the most extraordinary journey to this place, her spiritual home.
This article was first published by the Frome Times, 24 October 2017.
Humans of Frome was started by Ciara Nolan as a column in the independent newspaper, The Frome Times. It celebrates those individuals who dare to walk their own unique path no matter what difficulties they might have had to overcome along the road. Read more remarkable stories on the Humans of Frome Facebook Page or at The Frome Times.