“We received such an enthusiastic response when we invited the artists involved,” Nolan says. “We took that as a sign that audiences would react in a similar way. And they did! The thing we were most surprised by about last year’s festival was how far people travelled to get there. A lot of them were on the road at the time, because no one was travelling internationally. When they heard about the festival, they changed their itinerary to come and be part of it.”
More than 1700 people attended the inaugural Festival of Outback Opera in May 2021 with visitors coming from as far afield as Tasmania, New South Wales, South Australia and Victoria. Plans are already in place to welcome even more people this year.
“When we launched this year’s festival, Qantas called us to say they were looking at putting on an additional flight because of last year’s demand,” Nolan says. “Ultimately, we hope to make this a landmark festival that attracts artists and audiences from overseas, as well as around the country. None of this would be possible without government support. We’ve got a terrific arts minister in Leeanne Enoch, who understands the value of the arts and the important part they play in a healthy culture and community.”
The Queensland Government has provided $500,000 to support the 2022 festival and the creation of The Sopranos, a newly commissioned work by poet and writer Sarah Holland-Batt, which will be presented at the festival as part of its tour.
“The 2021 festival exceeded attendance targets and activated unique and iconic local venues in Longreach and Winton,” Minister Enoch said. “It’s great to see Opera Queensland return to communities in this region with a brand-new operatic work to strengthen partnerships with local councils, grow audiences and realise positive economic and social outcomes.”
According to Opera Queensland’s Learning, Regional and Community Director, Mark Taylor, the Festival has the full support of the local government areas hosting it, which include Longreach, Winton, Barcaldine, Blackall, Tambo and Windorah.
“I speak to each of the five mayors on a weekly basis, and they constantly report on the excitement that’s building in their LGAs. As part of the festival, I’ll be chairing a discussion panel titled Who Cares about the Arts in the Regions? with the likes of Greta Bradman, Patrick Nolan and a representative from Arts Queensland. It’ll provide an opportunity to sit down and unpack what the Arts really mean to Queensland over tea and scones supplied by the CWA. The title is a little provocative, but we know there is a passion for the performing arts in these shires. They recognise the cultural capital and the tourist dollars they bring.”
The festival sees the return of Dark Sky Serenade on 20 May with audiences treated to a visual and musical spectacular at the Australian Age of Dinosaurs museum, high atop a mesa rising 75 metres above nearby Winton. Some 98 million years old, it provides a spectacular setting against an endless starry sky.
The festival then travels to Longreach on 21 May for Singing in the Night, which is hosted at Camden Park Station – a 20,000-acre working cattle farm that boasts an incredible 360-degree view of the outback.
“The programming is a response to the natural environment,” Nolan says. “Dark Sky Serenade will be performed beneath the stars of a naturally occurring planetarium, so we’re looking at ideas of sleep and the romanticism associated with that. For the pastoral Singing in the Night, we wanted to explore our relationship with the earth, as so many composers and artists have done over the centuries.”
A special highlight of this year’s festival is the return to the stage of Greta Bradman, who is headlining both concerts.
“I’ll be singing Casta Diva from Bellini’s Norma,” Bradman reveals. “It holds a very special place in my heart, because I recorded it with Richard Bonynge and the English Chamber Orchestra. I spent a week with Richard at his home in Switzerland, when we worked on the repertoire for the album. I subsequently toured it, and also performed it with Zubin Mehta. I loved integrating the wisdom of both conductors with the way I sing the piece.”
Bradman is also looking forward to singing selections from La Bohème, which she considers a perfectly crafted opera.
“When I was learning it for my first performance with Opera Australia, I remember thinking it was a work of absolute genius. The rubato is written in and everything transitions from one time signature to another with incredible spontaneity. Puccini’s idioms and idiosyncrasies are there on the page in front of you, and it’s a real joy to bring them to life because they capture the essence of human nature.”
This year also sees the return of tenor Kang Wang, who has managed to squeeze the festival into a busy schedule that includes engagements at the Toscanini Festival in Parma, the Zurich Opera and the Metropolitan Opera in New York.
Thanks to a new partnership with the University of Queensland’s School of Music, the UQ Pulse Chamber Orchestra will accompany the singers at this year’s festival.
“The Associate Professor of Violin, Adam Chalabi, and cellist Patrick Murphy are leading the strings department at the university,” says Nolan. “We collaborated with them last year on Songs of Love and War, where we commissioned the composition students at UQ to rewrite contemporary songs in the manner of Monteverdi’s 1638 Madrigals. It was such a successful collaboration that we’ve invited them to be part of this year’s festival.”
The orchestra will perform under the festival’s musical director Dane Lam, who is putting together the program with Bradman, Nolan and Opera Queensland’s Head of Music, Narelle French. A Principal Conductor of China’s Xi’an Symphony Orchestra and Associate Music Director and Resident Conductor of Opera Queensland, Lam’s involvement promises a program that combines familiar works with more adventurous choices.
“The most important thing is to scaffold it all through the MC,” says Taylor. “Broadening people’s understanding around a performance is achieved through context and explaining why a piece has been chosen in a respectful and understandable way.”
With opera companies around the world increasingly drawing on what they consider to be the more commercially viable repertoire of musical theatre, wouldn’t it be safer to adopt a similar approach when programming a festival like this? Bradman doesn’t think so.
“That kind of programming makes big assumptions about our audiences, which aren’t sufficiently backed up by a data-driven approach. It underestimates the audiences and demonstrates a lack of understanding about why they’re turning up and what they’re looking for. We need to stop relying on conjecture, because it threatens the long-term viability of what we’re looking to do.”
Bradman adds, “When I’ve sung around the country, I’ve always found the reaction to be phenomenal.”
Nolan agrees. “After last year’s concert at the Age of the Dinosaurs museum, one of the production managers shook my hand and said, ‘I’ve never seen opera before and I didn’t think I was going to enjoy it, but this has been one of the best nights I’ve ever had!’”
Taylor has a similar story. “I remember a gentleman in Toowoomba, who was dragged along to one of our performances by his wife. He came up to me afterwards and said he couldn’t believe how life-changing the arts were.”
Taylor also recalls Opera Queensland’s 2014 regional tour of La Bohème, for which local residents were recruited as part of the chorus at each stop along the itinerary.
“One of my finest moments with the company was seeing someone from Mount Isa come to sing for us directly from a shift underground while still wearing a hi-vis vest. We’re a very accessible company and everyone’s there to enjoy the arts and feel comfortable. Performing in non-traditional venues ties back into where our cultural capital sits.”
Taylor observes that taking the opera outdoors rids it of the social mores associated with a conventional night at the opera. This casual approach does not, however, mean the audience is any less discerning.
“It’s got to be pretty good to get everyone up off their picnic rugs,” says Taylor, “and when Kang Wang sang Nessun Dorma last year, there was an eruption of whistling and cheering. I love that people feel comfortable enough to show their appreciation in these settings.”
Opera Queensland is keen to build on this enthusiasm for the artform, and community engagement is very much a part of the festival program. One example is the Sing Sing Sing event run by Jason Barry-Smith across three locations, including the North Gregory Hotel in Winton.
“It’s deemed the birthplace of Waltzing Matilda, because Banjo Paterson first performed his poem to the people gathered around the bar,” Taylor says. “Jason has created a new arrangement for a sing-along on 18 May, and we’ll probably do a bit of Funiculì, funiculà and Brindisi as well. The point is for everyone to have a go at singing opera over a beer or a glass of wine, which they all love to do.”
This cultivating of the grassroots, or “priming the old diesel pump” as Greta Bradman puts it, extends to Opera Queensland’s schools engagement program. This year’s festival will revive the company’s Composed in Queensland initiative and support vocal skills development in its participants.
Nolan explains, “In 2018, we commissioned singer-songwriters Megan Washington and Sara Storer to work with school students in the Longreach, Winton, Barcaldine, Blackall and Barcoo Shires and write songs based on the students’ experience of living on the land. We then spent a fortnight in each of those communities while the students learnt the songs before singing them in concert at the Qantas Founders Museum in Longreach.”
“This year we’re revisiting those songs. Some of the kids who wrote them are now in years 11 and 12, so we’ll teach the songs to primary schools and perform them again as part of the festival.”
Nolan is particularly proud of the impact of Opera Queensland’s schools’ program.
“Other arts groups will often emerge after we’ve visited a local community,” he says. “Choirs are formed, and students will audition for the conservatorium or Queensland University of Music. Baritone Samuel Piper is an excellent example of someone who attended our program at school and then went on to become a professional opera singer.”
Nolan is also eager to engage with First Nations people and Opera Queensland has a policy of connecting through Councillors wherever it goes. It’s then up to the community to decide if it wants to participate, but Nolan is encouraged by the enthusiasm he has seen in school and community choirs, as well as the classroom and community more broadly. One moment in particular has stayed with him.
“Earlier this year, we were rehearsing in the park where the Festival launch was going to be held. While Marcus Corowa was singing, all these First Nations children turned up and started playing around him. Marcus has such an exquisite voice, and his presence generated an energy that otherwise wouldn’t have been there. It was as subtle as that.”
The Koa and Iningai peoples are the traditional owners of the lands on which the Festival of Outback Opera is held, and Bradman is deeply grateful for the opportunity to perform there.
“The human culture of our First Nations peoples goes way back and is steeped in the performing arts. It’s incredibly special to be able to go out onto their lands and sing in a way that is hopefully respectful to them.”
“Being outdoors humanises opera,” adds Bradman. “It brings it back to what it’s really all about – the celebration of humanity by making and consuming music together.”
Opera Queensland’s Festival of Outback Opera will be held from 18 – 27 May. The program and ticket sales can be found here.