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Mozart goes to Bathurst: classical music in regional Australia

Regional tours such as Opera Australia’s cross-country circuit with The Magic Flute deliver real benefits to the communities they visit. Albert Comper, Opera Australia

Since July, Mozart’s popular opera, The Magic Flute, has been touring regional Australia. The Opera Australia production, a version of Mozart’s classic reinvented by Australian playwright Michael Gow and designer Robert Kemp, has a contemporary edge.

Last week, it provided Bathurst’s regional community with an enchanting evening of extraordinary voices, delightful acting, sharp comic timing and sophisticated orchestration.

Anna Yun, Stacey Alleaume and Regina Daniel onstage in The Magic Flute. Albert Comper, Opera Australia

As if to answer the question, is there an audience for opera in regional Australia, the performance, at Bathurst’s Memorial Entertainment Centre, was a sell-out. The Indiana Jones-meets-The Mummy makeover of the opera enabled all members of the regional community, including the very young and senior, to enjoy a story about love, truth, forgiveness and wisdom.

When I spoke to Executive Producer Sandra Willis, she told me, “Opera is an art form created for everybody. It’s purpose is not just to entertain, but also to educate and inspire.” This is precisely what happened in Bathurst.

The audience that packed into Bathurst’s auditorium included country-folk, district academics, urban visitors, as well as proud parents, brothers, and sisters supporting the town’s school children singing in the choir.

Opera Australia’s rural engagement program introduces schoolchildren to classical music.

Every performance in regional Australia involves auditioning and selecting children from a number of local schools to form a choir that joins with the operatic troupe. This is not an easy task. The process is painstaking on every level, but the results are worthwhile when on opening night, after the first and perhaps only rehearsal, the ensemble comes up trumps.

Conductor Simon Kenway told me he thought the production was important because, “it allowed local school children and their teachers to realise their potential and to know the profound joy of music.”

Certainly, the company gathered talented students from Bathurst’s local schools to bring together a chorus of young local voices that charmed the audience.

Christopher Hilier as Papageno and Sam Roberts-Smith as Tamino. Albert Comper, Opera Australia

This remarkable tour of talented young vocalists, designers, chorus masters, concertmasters, conductors and musicians has been two years in the planning. The caravans of performers have already travelled throughout regional Victoria, and are now mid-way through their New South Wales tour.

I asked Sandra Willis about the money required to house, feed and move such a large cast of singers and musicians. She said frankly, “there is no profit”. Opera Australia’s commitment to the region is not anchored in financial gain but goodwill. Of course this does not mean that there are no fiscal anxieties — quite the contrary.

Hannah Dahlenburg as Queen of the Night. Albert Comper, Opera Australia

This confident production that playfully satirises the Australian ocker, has well and shrugged off the cultural cringe. Andrew Moran’s hilarious take on Papageno is a case in point. The production mixes popular culture references with Australian colloquial expressions. The whimsical spirit of Mozart’s opera is preserved while making it applicable to an audience that he could never have imagined, but surely would have embraced.

What also made this particular version of The Magic Flute resonate was its ability to be both very funny and musically brilliant. The skill of the singers to engage in slapstick comedy, while also hitting the right notes, was impressive.

The bond between performers and audience members strengthened after the performance, as locals were given the opportunity to meet and speak with the cast. This kind of immediate feedback cultivated a deeper level of connection that is perhaps rare in cosmopolitan centres.

City-dwellers may like to kid themselves that there is no informed audience for the arts in regional Australia. In my experience, that’s simply not the case. In regional towns like Bathurst, there’s a thriving community of people who support the arts and who have a sophisticated knowledge and appreciation of music, literature, theatre, and also in this case, opera.

To align geographical isolation with cultural ignorance is misunderstanding the curiosity and awareness of people who live outside of Australian capital cities. What’s more, I noted that a number of Sydney-siders made the train trip to Bathurst in order to see this witty Mozart revamp.

For Opera Australia to stage The Magic Flute in Bathurst meant that its community could come together as a united, joyful, and enthusiastic group. The production left an impression that will be long remembered.

Opera Australia’s The Magic Flute is currently touring regional NSW. The tour continues around the nation through to 2015. Details here.

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