Photos – Glenn Hunt

Opera’s natural habitat may be metropolitan arts centres but the background to Opera Queensland’s Festival of Outback Opera is big sky country where Banjo Paterson penned Waltzing Matilda and black kites wheel above parched plains stretching as far as the eye can see.

The first half of the six-day program was situated in and around Winton, a proud, country town with a pretty streetscape, boutique museums, an open-air theatre, friendly cafes and shops selling Akubra hats, cowboy boots and opals. The locals appreciate the influx of visitors during the winter months for the Festival which boosts the economy before tourism resumes in the spring.

The programmed events were tailored to suit Winton and Longreach and arise out of discussion between Patrick Nolan, OQ’s artistic director and CEO with key representatives from the community.

A reading of Banjo Paterson poetry outside The Waltzing Matilda Centre preceded a Long Lunch sourced from local beef and lamb and serenaded by Nina Korbe reprising her acclaimed role as Maria from West Side Story with a performance of 'I Feel Pretty'. OQ’s Head of Music Narelle French and cellist Patrick Murphy gave a warm and radiant reading of Chopin’s Largo. Katie Stenzel’s dreamy take on 'Somewhere Over the Rainbow' charmed the diners.

With its collection of barrels used by clowns at rodeos and giant hoops which trick horses once jumped through, Dustarena, the backyard of local comedian Amanda-Lyn Pearson is a homage to historical Australian performance. And it was here on a cramped outdoor stage flanked by a rusty horse float that this year’s zesty, regional touring show Do We Need Another Hero was presented to a rapt audience of children from the Gold Coast’s AB Paterson College. Themes from the show and the title song were workshopped in local schools.

A cast of four, Barry-Smith, young OQ artists Shakira Ringdahl and Marcus Corowa, a Bundgalung man and Ruby Clark, a music theatre graduate from Griffith University presented a broad mix of songs from Gluck and Rossini to Michael Jackson and Alicia Keys, the performance intermittently ‘enhanced’ by a barking dog and noisy parrots.

Pianist and musical director Luke Volker played remarkably, seamlessly switching between pop, music theatre and opera with all styles authentically nuanced. Barry-Smith’s Largo al Factotum from The Barber of Seville, Corowa’s Working Class Hero and Ringdahl’s Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood were standouts.

Visitors and locals approved of the show’s worthy message of we-can-all-make-a-difference and Heather Eastwood who had come to listen to her nephew Jackson Eastwood solo with UQ’s enthusiastic chorus as a prelude to Conversations at Winton’s North Gregory pub was impressed by the historical narrative about heroes from Ulysses to Joan of Arc to Che Guevara.

Nina Korbe, a proud Koa Akauky Ayaslnji, Wakka Wakka woman delivered an eloquent Welcome to Country for Dark Sky Serenade at The Age of Dinosaurs 24 kilometres south-east of Winton. Situated on top of elevated land The Jump Up, where dinosaurs stampeded 95 million years ago, it was humbling to watch the singers and an orchestra comprised of UQ and Queensland Symphony Orchestra players silhouetted against an expansive, starry sky.

Korbe’s Sul fil d’un soffio etesio from Verdi’s Falstaff revealed her charisma and grace and a lovely voice always meaningfully directed. Solenne in quest’ora from La forza del destino, also by Verdi, featured tenor Rosario La Spina and baritone Shaun Brown in an expertly dovetailed and dramatic account.

Singing outdoors for opera singers accustomed to acoustic environments is challenging – there’s a tendency to push the voice because it feels as if the sound is disappearing. Stenzel has learned to, ‘sing the way it feels rather than the way it sounds.’

The windy conditions and swirls of red dust at Camden Park, a cattle station 25kms out of Longreach just before the staged entertainment Singing in the Night were certainly a challenge. And yet, performances by Rachelle Durkin, Brown, la Spina, Nick Kirkup, Korbe and Stenzel were committed and on point.

Kate Miller-Heidke’s Love Me Sweet by Carl Vine written for The TV show The Battlers was riveting, La Spina’s impassioned E lucevan le stelle from Puccini’s Tosca with lovely clarinet obbligato hit the spot and soprano Durkin’s astonishing Olympian virtuosity in The soldier tire’d from Arne’s Artaxerxes was world class. The concert was followed by supper around a campfire in the property owner James Walker’s garden, where the performers and festival punters exchanged experiences.

In the future, Nolan would like to stage an opera and include a piano recital and even a trivia night. A bigger ambition is to secure sponsorship to build an amphitheatre with tiered seating along the lines of those in Verona, Italy and in Orange, France to further promote the intimacy and connection between singers and the audience in this winning example of cultural tourism.

Gillian Wills is an author and arts writer who publishes with Australian Stage Online, InReview and Limelight. Big Music, her novel is to be published by Hawkeye Publishing. Her memoir Elvis and Me: how a world-weary musician and a broken racehorse rescued each other, Finch was released in 2016 in Australia, America, Canada, The UK and NZ. 

Event details

Opera Queensland presents
Festival of Outback Opera

Artistic Director Patrick Nolan

Venue: Various | see website for details
Dates: 14 – 20 May 2024

Most read Brisbane reviews

More from this author

Now playing Brisbane