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I’m in “The Isa” for the last hurrah of the crazy-brave adventure that has been OperaQ’s Project Puccini, and I’m thrilled to crow that our improbably ambitious journey across regional Queensland, incorporating a total of 384 local choristers into our beautiful new production of Puccini’s La bohème, has been an unqualified success.

Like the extraordinary team of people who will bring the performance to life tonight, I’m simultaneously relieved and sad that it’s over, but the overwhelming emotion is the thrill of achieving a seemingly impossible goal. From its planning phases two years ago until the final strains of Puccini’s achingly sad Act 4 silence at the Mount Isa Civic Centre tonight, this project has been special, and ensuring its success will continue to focus the minds of everyone involved.

With Project Puccini ‘everyone involved’ means literally hundreds of people across thousands of kilometres: the army of locals who participated or worked on the show; the touring company of stage technicians; wardrobe/wigs; tour and stage management; principal singers; Queensland Symphony Orchestra musicians; the show’s assistant director and conductor; and the OperaQ support team in our South Bank HQ. Every one of them has contributed to the project heart and soul, over and above. We couldn’t be prouder of their monumental achievement.

In short, this tour has been a game changer for OperaQ. The numbers are just part of the story, but they’re very nice numbers. By the end of tonight we’ll have played to more than 6,300 paying customers over 10 performances in eight regional locations, not counting 500+ complimentary tickets or the 900 school students we’re playing to today. To put that in context, that’s twice the audience last time we toured in 2012, and significantly more bums on seats than we had for our season in Brisbane. Most importantly, a large proportion of both our audience and local chorus participants had never had any contact with opera before this.

Over the last few weeks I’ve lost count of how many people have told me that this project has renewed their love of music, has been the best experience of their lives, has given them new confidence, that they cried their eyes out, that they had no idea opera could be so moving, what singing with their community has meant to them, that they’ve learned so much, how they loved acting in their costumes, the discipline of singing in Italian and with QSO, in a professional production with “real” singers. We’ve been thanked again and again for bringing a project of such quality and aspiration to their communities and, tellingly, for “taking us seriously”.

It’s been a privilege to witness some of these choruses’ ‘Yes We Can’ moments, to see the sense of accomplishment and pride on their faces at the curtain call. Going back to the old fly-in-fly-out touring model now seems unthinkable.
For the artists, too, it’s been a shot in the arm. Many of the La bohème principals are regional touring veterans: “For the last few years, it just felt like we were invisible in the places we toured. This is very different,” Andrew Collis, who plays the philosopher Colline, said. He welcomes the shift in thinking, stating, “For a very long time there was a sense that by ‘bringing culture to the regions’ we were doing them a big favour, an attitude that spoke down to local communities, which of course was reflected back in the fact that very few people in those communities were interested in what we had to say. The reality is that wherever we go we have to work hard to build an audience, and this project is doing that. The days of putting up a few posters and expecting an audience are over.” He admits to initially reserving a healthy scepticism about whether the community choruses would be up to the task of singing Puccini’s complex Act 2 of La bohème. “There are parts of that scene that can grind to a halt – I’ve heard it come apart in European houses. But the regional choruses have been great! Sure, there’s been the odd glitch, but only minor ones. And the energy radiating off that stage is great – Jason’s had to subdue some over-enthusiastic acting,” Andrew said.

Jason Barry-Smith, the production’s assistant director, has been with the project from the beginning, encouraging each of the nearly 800 people who auditioned, and overseeing staging rehearsals for each of the eight regional choruses. Exhausted but elated at the end of the tour, Jason is understandably passionate about, “how much this project, in particular, has meant to the participants.” The respect between professionals and volunteers is mutual, says Jason: “None of us have ever worked on a project like this before. It’s challenged us, but it’s reminded us why we are passionate about this art-form, and the energy of the local participants has sustained us through it all.”

It’s not overly melodramatic to say we’re fighting for the survival of opera in Australia. The Federal Government’s call for a National Opera Review to address the sustainability of the art form, has set more fine minds to work on this gnarly issue than ever before across Australia. It’s an initiative we welcome with open arms. This is a problem shared by every opera company in the world, but here in Australia the opera ecosystem is especially fragile and its collapse would cause significant cultural fallout. Today’s opera companies are not self-contained units – we’re deeply connected in myriad ways into the communities we serve and into the lives and work of the artists and companies with whom we collaborate creatively – our projects involve hundreds of people at a time, year in, year out. The National Opera Review recognises that opera is an essential voice in the national and global cultural discourse, but that there is a real danger of the ecosystem failing. The seriousness of this moment is clear to everyone involved.

Which is why we’re so elated with the grassroots revolution that’s taken place out here in regional Queensland these last few weeks. In this extraordinary part of the national landscape, we’ve made a small but significant step forward. Our experience with Project Puccini points to a more sustainable future for opera.

Artistic Director, OperaQ