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Steven's fairytale story - from Australia to Denmark

Meet Steven Moore, the Australian chorus master who has been made a knight by Queen Margrethe II for his work with the Royal Danish Opera.

Photographs: Laura Iona V - Copenhagen Photo Experience

Text: Sarah Redohl

Steven Moore had his first brush with Queen Margrethe II of Denmark shortly after moving to Copenhagen to work as chorus master for the Royal Danish Opera. Despite a fear of heights, he snuck up to the highest balcony to catch a glimpse of the royal box at the Copenhagen Opera House. He still remembers what the Queen was wearing: a bronze gown, a few elegant and understated jewels, and no crown.

Originally from Australia, Steven had long dreamt of performing for royalty - specifically, Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom and its commonwealths, who is also recognised as the Queen of Australia. "I'd dreamt of being knighted - Sir Steven Moore - just like Dame Joan Sutherland," he said, speaking of the Grammy-winning Australian dramatic coloratura soprano.

Although Steven did have the opportunity to play at London's Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, it was in Denmark that his dream came true. Last fall, Steven was made a Knight of the Order of the Dannebrog (Dannebrogordenen) by Queen Margrethe II for his service to the arts.

Despite a successful career spanning three continents and many countries, a nomination for opera chorus of the year in the International Opera Awards, and his recent knighthood, Steven continues to see himself as "a kid from Toowoomba."

"A kid from Toowoomba"

With a population of around 130,000, Toowoomba is the largest city in the Darling Downs region of Queensland, Australia. It occupies the crest and low ridges of Australia's most substantial mountain range, the Eastern Highlands. Supported by the region's rich volcanic soil, Toowoomba is surrounded by rolling hills of cotton, wheat, and herds of cattle. Known as 'The Garden City', Toowoomba itself is home to more than 150 public parks, its streets lined with purple blooms of jacaranda and broad canopies of camphor laurel.

Steven spent the first 22 years of his life in Toowoomba with his mom, dad, and two older sisters, Julianne and Katrina. Although neither of his parents is musical, his mom always wanted to learn to sing or play an instrument but never had the opportunity. "They decided that all of their kids would have the opportunity to pursue music," Steven said. His own musical education began informally when he was 3 years old, sitting on the piano bench next to his sisters during their lessons. Even then, Steven had a good ear and was able to play music almost instinctively.

At 7, he joined the local children's choir and theatre company. "Technically, I wasn't supposed to start until I was 8, but I was so desperate," he said. He still recalls his first musical production, about a princess in a distant land, pausing to sing a line he still remembers decades later. Soon he was playing the organ at several churches and participating in numerous choirs, concert bands, and chamber music groups. "Whatever music was up for grabs, I joined."

While studying the pipe organ at the University of Southern Queensland, Steven continued his broad musical interests around town and on campus, where he became involved in the school's opera studio. He went on to study voice at Griffith University, later travelling to Sydney to train as a répétiteur (a pianist and coach for opera rehearsals). The programme was run by a well-respected retired répétiteur from England, Victor Morris, who encouraged Steven to go to London. There, Steven studied at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and the National Opera Studio before working at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, for three years.

When a friend sent Steven the job posting at the Royal Danish Opera, Steven had just left his job as head of music and conductor at the Badisches Staatstheater in Karlsruhe, Germany. His plan was to freelance and work on several projects after six years in Karlsruhe, working six and sometimes seven days a week. "I didn't want to take a job just to have a job," he said. "If I was going to take on a new job, it had to be the perfect combination."

However, the role in Copenhagen intrigued him. Firstly, Steven had held "every single musical job the opera has to offer" at that point in his career - except chorus master. Secondly, Steven had visited Copenhagen a couple of years prior for a boat party in the harbour, and the city had left a positive impression. "Especially the architecture," he recalled. "Every city should have a gorgeous opera house on its main square!"

When Steven returned to Copenhagen for his auditions and interviews, he watched performances at the theatre and discussed the future vision for the company with his boss, John Fulljames. The role turned out to be "the perfect combination." He accepted the job and moved to Copenhagen in August of 2018. Now, his office at the Copenhagen Royal Opera overlooks those same boats passing up and down the harbour - the cornerstone of his first Copenhagen experience.

Old Danish, new Danish

No proper quest for knighthood would be complete without a few obstacles for the protagonist to overcome. One of the first obstacles Steven faced upon his arrival to Denmark was a different work culture. "I'm so used to long days in this job, it feels like it just comes with the territory," he said, recalling the German system in particular where they would rehearse in mornings and evenings five or six days a week and often perform on Sundays. When he came to Denmark and was told they only rehearsed once per day, he was shocked. Although it took some time for Steven to recalibrate his expectation of what is reasonable, he strives to adjust to the culture wherever he finds himself. "You can't bring your own way and only expect others to bend to it; instead, bring the best of you into their system and find your place from there."

"You can't bring your own way and only expect others to bend to it; instead, bring the best of you into their system and find your place from there." - Steven Moore

Another obstacle Steven still faces is learning Danish, adding that he's had more difficulty learning Danish than any other language. He was so proficient in German he regularly introduced operas in German while working in Karlsruhe. "Here, I find myself speaking pretty close to Danish, yet people don't understand me," he said. "I think because so few people speak Danish as a foreign language, Danes aren't used to hearing Danish spoken badly. In English, Spanish, German, there are enough non-native speakers that I think native speakers' ears are trained to better understand what people mean, even if the pronunciation is off." During Steven's time in Copenhagen, the Opera has performed several operas in Danish, including the Danish operas Maskarade and Drot og Marsk, and The Magic Flute in Danish. Steven works closely with the language coach to determine the best way for Danish to be sung in that opera, adding that there is a difference between old Danish and modern Danish. "To me, old Danish is a bit more like how the Queen would speak, whereas modern Danish sounds a bit more swallowed," he said. The type of Danish one might hear in a coffee shop, he adds, doesn't work so well on stage. So, the chorus tends to sing old Danish. "I'm not a native speaker, and I try to make it clear I'm not criticising anyone's pronunciation. My job is to support the chorus in making it beautiful and understandable for the audience."

The other side of the world

Steven met his partner of five years, Christopher, in Germany during the production of My Fair Lady; Steven was conducting, and Christopher was dancing. When they decided to move to Copenhagen together, they had both lived outside their native countries for years (Christopher is Italian). However, Denmark was not without new surprises for the couple.

For example, Steven was stunned by Copenhagen's bathrooms. "For a country with such attention to aesthetic and design, I was shocked!" he said. Thankfully, the couple was able to find an apartment in their preferred neighbourhood of Indre By that had a full-size bathroom, complete with a large bathtub. "Chris was like, 'Take it!' Dancers like to have a good soak in a bath."

The higher cost of living was also an adjustment. Steven estimates Copenhagen to be three times more expensive than Karlsruhe. "It took about 6 months of converting kroner to euros before I could really get my head around it," he said. "You just get used to paying 50 euros for two burgers. And the salaries here are designed to cope with that."

The couple enjoys Copenhagen's food scene, though they've had to adjust to Danes' earlier meal times. They're more inclined to eat on an Italian schedule, with lunch at 2 pm and dinner at 10 pm. "People here eat lunch at 11:30 am and dinner at 5:30 pm!" Steven laughed. Particular favourites include Kødbyens Fiskebar, Warpigs, and Reffen. However, during the COVID pandemic, they've enjoyed ordering in a wide variety of cuisines, from Arabic to Vietnamese. "We have to remind ourselves to place our Wolt order before 8:30 pm, though, or everything will be closed except McDonald's!"

The Danish winters were also a challenge, initially. "Everyone becomes so introverted during the winter, scuttled into their homes, staying warm, lighting candles, enjoying the hygge," he said. After three Danish winters, Steven and Chris have a cupboard full of winter wear, they've come to enjoy watching the snow, and they've learned to knit - a quintessentially Danish craft. During one of their first winters in Denmark, they knit scarves for one another. Steven made Chris a scarf he estimates to be about 6 metres long in the craziest of colours, "whatever yarn we had around the house," Steven recalls. "And he still wears it!" This past winter, they made a patchwork blanket together. Otherwise, Steven plans his future castle; "A castle for Sir Steven has a nice ring to it," he jokes.

Come summer, Denmark's laid-back outdoor lifestyle reminds Steven of Australia. "When the weather is good, it seems like everyone in Copenhagen is spending time outside with friends and family," he said. His own family is what he most misses about Australia, however, they are a constant presence in his life and a driving force behind his work. "It's hard being on the other side of the world from my family - literally - but I wouldn't be here without them. I want to make them proud every single day. Every compliment, honour, or award reminds me how blessed I am to have my family."

Compliments of the Queen

One of Steven's first major achievements with the Royal Danish Opera was the chorus' nomination for opera chorus of the year in the International Opera Awards. When he told the chorus, some of them thought it was amazing; others were unphased. "Many of the Danes were like, 'Yeah, that makes sense,'" Steven laughs, "typical Danish understatement."

He's also had the opportunity to perform for members of the Danish royal family several times. "They always remind everyone during royal performances to bow to the royal box first, then the audience," he said nonchalantly, now nearly as understated as his Danish coworkers. Queen Margrethe II, an accomplished painter and costume designer, frequently attends performances. "Having the support of such a prominent figure, one who genuinely loves and supports what we do, is invaluable for the organisation."

That made his inclusion in the Order of Dannebrog all the more special, "because it comes from a place of understanding and respect for the arts." Under normal circumstances, Steven would have had the opportunity to thank the Queen in person for the honour. However, COVID made that impossible in 2020. "I really wanted to put on a pair of white gloves and meet the Queen!" he said.

Steven was presented with his regalia and medal - a white enamelled Dannebrog cross with a red border, bearing several royal cyphers and no fewer than five Danish royal crowns - at an in-house ceremony at the theatre. Today, his medal and regalia are royal company to his cufflinks and watches until he has an opportunity to wear it - perhaps his next royal performance. "In my work, there are events where I can actually wear the regalia," Steven said. "It doesn't just sit in a box."

If Steven ever has the chance to meet Queen Margrethe II in person - rather than bowing to her from the stage or sighting her from the top balcony - you can bet he'll proudly wear his medal, continuing a tradition dating back 350 years to the establishment of the Order of Dannebrog. Bravo for the kid from Toowoomba!

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