Bringing Opera to the Heart of Australia
Four towns and 1500km. Victoria Hope joins The Magic Flute on tour to the Northern Territory.
On a sunny Darwin morning in July, 30 members of Opera Australia’s Touring and Outreach Company board a rumbling air-conditioned coach. The Company Manager ticks off names, members of the orchestra negotiate space for their instruments, and everyone gets comfortable for the long journey ahead. Coach seats are prime real estate on tour, so you get your spot fast!
The company is three weeks into the tour and they’re accustomed to the routine. Some watch programmes on their iPads, others sit and study their music scores, headphones on, staring thoughtfully at the ever-changing landscape.
The stage crew worked until 2am last night, so they make a comfortable nest for themselves at the back of the coach and catch up on some much needed sleep.
This trip marks the beginning of the Northern Territory leg of Opera Australia’s 2015 regional tour of The Magic Flute.
Performers make a quick rest stop at one of the many roadhouses on the way to Katherine.
Four hours and 316km later, we arrive in Katherine. As bags are unloaded, room keys are allocated at the local motor inn. The afternoon is scheduled rest time for the artists. In the warm dusk light, the sound of a French horn travels through the open-air corridor. The singers practice their scales and arias.
Meanwhile, the three-strong crew are busy setting up the stage at St Joseph’s College Katherine. Set up is a well-oiled performance in its own right, and local volunteers are keen to help out.
The next day, the cast and orchestra arrive at the venue and get to know the space before 300 audience members arrive for a night at the opera. The stage is set in an undercover outdoor basketball court in the college grounds, surrounded by palm trees which partly relieve the pounding outback heat.
The singers meet their fellow cast members for the evening: 17 students from St. Joseph’s College and members of Katherine’s Cantarbillay Choir will be the Spirit Guides on Tamino’s journey of love and courage.
As Opera Australia’s Regional Children’s Chorus, they've already spent many hours learning the music with their music teacher and Opera Australia’s Chorus Master. Now, it is their night to shine.
As the children arrive on stage (which for many is a new experience), there is a look of both awe and fear in their faces. The stage manager puts everyone at rest, calmly guiding the children through their new surroundings, conducting their orientation both on stage and off. They’re treated as professional performers, not kids. And when they’re referred to as 'ladies and gentleman of the Chorus', how could they not feel a part of it all?
The cast and chorus conduct a walk-through of the production, otherwise known as the 'sound balance'. The conductor leads while the singers walk through the opera, practicing particular excerpts from the production which may need a little tweaking. The Children’s Chorus practice their blocking (movement) on stage, ensuring they know what to do once the stage lights are on and the audience is watching!
The Regional Children's Chorus in Katherine during their sound balance, under the guidance of conductor Paul Fitzsimon.
Backstage, the children laugh and beam with excitement as they slowly warm up to this new experience. While Hannah Dahlenburg (Queen of the Night) rehearses her famous aria, the children peek heads around the back of the set, mouths wide open as she hits the high notes. They’re hooked.
The sun goes down on a very warm Katherine evening, people start to arrive and take their seats. In the audience are opera lovers, first time opera goers, and friends and family of the Children's Chorus.
Two hours later, the people of Katherine are on their feet, offering a standing ovation to the company and Children's Chorus. Parents are beaming with pride and there is a sense of excitement as the audience embraces the spirit of the event.
Soon after this performance, the children’s music teacher wrote to say: "After the performance they [the children] were rapt, in ecstatic delight. and almost literally ‘over the moon’… Parents were in a similar state with tears of joy and hugs abounding. What a glorious experience you created for my 17 and all the other children across Australia by including the Children’s Chorus option... I told my kids that performing with singers from OA is equivalent to swimming in the Australian relay team at the Olympic Games. I tend to think they get that comparison now."
Tired and smiling, it was time to pack up and move on to Tennant Creek.
Eight hours and 673km later, we arrive in Tennant Creek. As the large touring coach rumbles into this quiet and sleepy town, we head to local motor inn and check in to our new home.
We’re performing as part of Tennant Creek’s annual Desert Harmony Festival, and three remote communities (Elliot, Ali Curung, and Alparra) will also have the chance to watch the performance via webcast.
At Tennant Creek’s Civic Hall, an overwhelming number of volunteer members from the community are eager to help with the set-up of the stage. It’s 8am and we need all hands on deck to do the heavy lifting and set up the orchestra pit and temporary dressing rooms.
Stage crew and local volunteers build the stage at Tennant Creek's Civic Hall.
Meanwhile the orchestra participate in a workshop with a group of young, local musicians at the Winanjjikari Music Centre. Later that night, these musicians perform original songs with the backing of Opera Australia’s orchestra, to a full house ahead of The Magic Flute.
By late afternoon, the stage is complete and the Children’s Chorus arrive for the evening’s performance. The stage manager walks the children through the opera and explains their movements on stage. It’s a smaller group of seven children, most of whom are accustomed to performing on stage, through local bands and school productions.
It's 9:30pm, Tamino has won Pamina’s heart, Papageno has found his Papagena, and another performance has wrapped up. The children race to their waiting families.
The Children's Chorus during their vocal warm-up in Tennant Creek.
As patrons left the venue, many stopped to say thank you, including one dapper, elderly gentleman, who approached us and said simply: "thank you for bringing such joy to our town".
The temperature is noticeably cooler when the company disembark in Alice Springs’ town centre, six hours south of Tennant Creek.
There's no Children’s Chorus for our performance in Alice Springs, so the singers take the opportunity to run a workshop with Alice Springs’ School of the Air, beaming a music lesson to isolated school children in the southern parts of the Northern Territory. The Araluen Arts Centre hosts the final Northern Territory performance before the company head to Western Australia.
After 1500km travel over two weeks, the Touring and Outreach company say goodbye to the Red Centre. But before they know it, they’ll be back. In 2017, Opera Australia will tour another Mozart classic: The Marriage of Figaro.
You can help us make this opportunity possible for children in regional areas in 2016 and 2017.
"I am really grateful to Opera Australia and I really appreciated getting to participate with the singers because ever since I was little being an opera singer is my dream, and this whole experience has just been so special for me."
– Children’s Chorus member, Geraldton, WA.