A dragon welcomes Shaula Salathe’s visitors, an exquisite metal sculpture perched on the mailbox. It is an appropriate image: a “dragon slayer” is how Shaula’s husband Andrew describes her.
The house is nestled between sky-grazing trees on a narrow, winding road in the Dandenong Ranges. On a chilly early spring day, smoke plumes from the chimney, hinting at the warmth within. A knock on the front door reveals a curious young blonde, Liana, Shaula’s 10-year-old daughter. “Mum,” she yells in that tone of voice every mother dreads and out pops Shaula. She looks bohemian in a bright red wrap dress with a long black vest and is adorned with beaded jewellery complete with matching red lipstick. Grey brunette hair so long she can sit on it is hidden in an elegant twisted bun. It is clear from her stunned expression and its clear she has forgotten about the interview, but she recovers quickly, offering a welcoming cup of chai tea.
One step into the house and there is a grand piano, slightly obscuring a Celtic harp – just two of the many instruments in which Shaula is accomplished. “Everything but brass,” she responds when asked for the exact number.
As a musician, Shaula, or Lady Shaula as she is known, is a small woman with a big personality, oozing confidence in both body language and voice. She has travelled from Tokyo to Switzerland, but, she is perhaps best known for her work at home. She played the fiery soprano Carlotta in the Australian production of The Phantom of the Opera until she was five and a half months pregnant with her first child, Xander. “Oh god I was sick as anything, running off stage to throw up. I threw up about every 20 minutes,” she recalls.
Although Phantom is perhaps the most impressive part of her extensive resume, it is not her dream. For Shaula, composing is her true passion. “I knew I wanted to be a composer by about the age of four,” she says. By prep, she was composing a female version of the musical Oliver, the idea perhaps providing a cure for envy, as her brother was playing the title role at the time. She wasn’t yet writing music, but it was all in her head and by age 13, she was composing her own songs. Decades later, Shaula, who is coy about her age, still remembers some of them. Bubbling with energy, she jumps up from her chair, bounds over to the piano and belts out one of her original Oliver compositions, astonishingly good for having been composed by a four year old. With the exception of the few insertions of “something” in place of forgotten lyrics, the performance is enchanting.
Since those beginnings, Shaula has composed musicals, an opera, a short-film soundtrack and more, but orchestra is the ultimate goal. Inspired by the wildly successful Irish composer/conductor Eimear Noone, she fantasises about standing in front of an orchestra and conducting a piece of her own. “I’m happy to have a dream that feels big and scary and head straight for that.”
The music has always been there, a multi-generational part of Shaula’s family. “Since pre-birth, you breathe and you make music,” she says. “Life has a soundtrack and either I am composing it as I go, or it’s somebody else’s music.”
Sitting at the dining table, its surface covered with large old-fashioned candle holders and a lot of paperwork, Shaula describes coming from a “brilliantly dysfunction family”. She says: “You only know your own family, it’s funny isn’t it? It takes years and years to go… oh my version of normal was nothing like anyone else’s normal.”
An over-achieving kid – “just the A+ student looking to get the gold medal in every field that you can step into” – at 16 she was the youngest Australian to achieve a Licentiate in Music (LMusA) for classical piano from the Australian Music Examinations Board. On top of that, she competed in championship calisthenics.
Her husband Andrew says Shaula gets “possessed by the musical devil”. She just can’t help herself, he says, describing a family trip to Florence earlier this year when Shaula gate-crashed a busker on a handpan, joining in with her own vocal improvisation. Childhood friend and fellow performer Sally Bourne, tells of her 50th birthday party at her parents home, where she discovered Shaula was (where else?) at the piano, “giving everyone a sing-song”. But it’s not egotistical. For Shaula, it’s an obligation; “I’m just lucky enough for the art having landed in my body for a while and I should share that with as many people as I can because generally you get to outlive it.”
Sally describes her friend as “a diamond” who, after the death of Sally’s mother, wrote an entire song in her memory. This caring nature is reflected through Shaula’s philanthropical work. “That feels like the real stuff,” says Shaula. Her current philanthropy baby, Concerts against Cancer, has personal significance because of her own father’s death from the disease 20-odd years ago. But, the ultimate push came after two young mums she knew lost their cancer battles, leaving behind small children. “We can’t wait for governments anymore, the answers are out there,” says Shaula. Concerts against Cancer holds a fundraising concert within a year of a cancer victim’s death. The first concert will be later this year. “I figured if every person who died of cancer had that going, then there would be a lot of money,” says Shaula.
Husband Andrew is an aviation refuelling vehicles manager. Shaula is the creative to his logic. It’s a balance that brings structure to their lives, allowing for Shaula’s creativity without the fear of bills and mortgages. Their love story is not unusual: they met at work. Shaula was the pianist at a hotel restaurant Andrew managed. She made the first move, but he resisted. “She pestered me into submission,” he remembers. The eventual first date was an obvious success as they were married within the year “and pregnant on the wedding night”, adds Shaula before saying with a laugh that was perhaps too much information. They are a playful pair, constantly laughing and teasing each other.
“Shaula is incredibly competent at testing smoke alarms,” says Andrew.
This playfulness has obviously been passed down to their daughter Liana, as she butts into both parents’ interviews with random yet hilarious additions. Shaula and Andrew explain their impressive teamwork in a crisis, Andrew joking “just set something on fire and bring out the best.” Then Liana jumps in complaining, “can I be somewhere else when that happens?” While Shaula lovingly reminisces about their previous pet dog Avalanche, she consistently uses the pronoun ‘she’ until Liana yells out, “Avalanche was a boy!”
Liana doesn’t describe herself as musical but will occasionally sing. That is until her mother tries to join in in harmony, which Liana does not appreciate. “Stop stealing my songs,” she complains to her mother. So despite being an incredibly talented musician, Shaula is really just like any mother trying to impress the harshest critics of all, their children.