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Festival of Outback Opera 2024

Opera Queensland goes to Longreach
Opera Queensland
ABR Arts 23 May 2024

Festival of Outback Opera 2024

Opera Queensland goes to Longreach
Opera Queensland
ABR Arts 23 May 2024
Photograph by Glenn Hunt and courtesy of Opera Queensland
Photograph by Glenn Hunt and courtesy of Opera Queensland

Black kites wheeling above parched plains, big hats, rattling road trains, and vast skies form the backdrop for the Festival of Outback Opera in remote ‘Waltzing Matilda country’ – a place studded with cattle stations and opal mines. Here, Banjo Paterson penned his jolly swagman opus. It is a place, in the bard’s words, ‘where the telegraph don’t reach you nor the railways run to town’; a locale far removed from classical music’s natural habitat in metropolitan arts centres.

Each year, Opera Queensland celebrates opera in Longreach. The town of Winton, north-west of Longreach, where the majority of events occur, is situated in central Queensland on Koa country; it has a population of around 950. The program – inclusive and accessible – is tailored to honour the heritage and culture of this region. It includes everything from Mozart and Donizetti to Lady Gaga and Jimmy Barnes. The intention is to build a lasting relationship with locals through concerts, panel discussions, and interactive workshops in schools.

Outside the hardware store on Winton’s main street, with models of life-size Brahman cattle on the nature strip, a young woman in riding boots sings. The accomplished tenor Nick Kirkup, one of OQ’s promising young artists, boasted that he had serenaded delighted passengers with ‘Danny Boy’ and ‘La Donna è Mobile’ on the twenty-eight-hour train trip from Brisbane to Winton.

Artistic Director and CEO Patrick Nolan is determined to connect to community and broker enduring relationships with the townsfolk. The regional touring show Do We Need Another Hero, written and directed by Laura Hansford was performed al fresco in Dustarena, the backyard of local performer Amanda-Lyn Pearson, who creates and directs The Crackup Sisters

(L-R) Shakira Ringdahi, Marcus Corowa, Ruby Clark, and Jason Barry-Smith (photograph by Glenn Hunt and courtesy of Opera Queensland)(L-R) Shikara Ringdahl, Marcus Corowa, Ruby Clark, and Jason Barry-Smith (photograph by Glenn Hunt and courtesy of Opera Queensland)

On a cramped stage flanked by a horse float, veteran baritone Jason Barry-Smith, Ruby Clark, a music theatre graduate from the Queensland Conservatorium, Marcus Corowa, a Bundjalung and South Sea Islander man, OQ Young artist Shikara Ringdahl, and capable musical director Luke Volker enthralled children from the Gold Coast’s A.B. Paterson College with a juxtaposition of classical gems and contemporary ballads. 

In a punchy delivery of Lady Gaga’s ‘Paparazzi’ by Clark, Corowa, and Ringdahl – with Volker’s astute backing on piano – the enthusiastic cast sparked off one another’s high energy. A barking dog and chittering galahs joined in Ringdahl’s heartfelt cover of ‘Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood’ and Corowa’s funky cover of ‘Working Man’s Hero’. Some transitions were clipped in the rapid alternation between songs, but the show was fun, pacy, and broadly appealing.

Next morning, Winton’s Musical Fence café buzzed with praise. Barbara Hartigan loved the collage of contrasting musics and the we-can-all-make-a-difference message. Heather Eastwood admired the historical sweep of heroes from Odysseus and Joan of Arc to Che Guevara. Though ‘not a fan of opera’, Mike Comes, who had driven from Western Australia, found that he couldn’t stop smiling all the way through Barry-Smith’s polished ‘Largo al Factotum’ from Rossini’s The Barber of Seville.

Nina Korbe at the Outback Festival of Opera (photograph by Glenn Hunt and courtesy of Opera Queensland)Nina Korbe at the Festival of Outback Opera (photograph by Glenn Hunt and courtesy of Opera Queensland)

At the Long Lunch at the Waltzing Matilda Centre, compèred by soprano Katie Stenzel, the patrons enjoyed a recital throughout a three-course gourmet lunch sourced from locally grown lamb and beef. Nina Korbe reprised her recent and much celebrated role as Maria from West Side Story, with ‘I Feel Pretty.’

Much as these tours appeal to Wintonians and visitors from Brisbane, Tasmania, Melbourne, Sydney, New Zealand, and Switzerland, it can be confronting for the performers. Stenzel explains, ‘This year has been kind to us with warm weather but when it’s cold it’s tough to sing your best if it’s a long time since you warmed up.’ Singing in the open, for opera singers accustomed to acoustic environments, is not without challenges. There is 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’.

Korbe, a proud Koa, Kuku Yalanji, Wakka Wakka woman delivered an eloquent Welcome to Country before Sky Serenade at The Australian Age of Dinosaurs Museum, twenty-four kilometres south-east of Winton. Situated on top of a large mesa plateau, the Jump Up, it was humbling and a privilege to watch the singers and orchestra comprised of University of Queensland and Queensland Symphony Orchestra players silhouetted against an expansive sky after sunset.

Korbe’s ‘Sul fil d’un soffio etesio’ from Verdi’s Falstaff revealed her gracious presence, an exquisite tone, and an expressively directed higher register. ‘Solenne in quest’ora’, from La forza del destino, featured tenor Rosario La Spina and baritone Shaun Brown in an expertly dovetailed and theatrical reading. Brown also impressed with his speedy execution of the Champagne Aria from Don Giovanni.

Under a canopy of stars, La Spina thrilled the crowd with his impassioned ‘Nessun Dorma’, supported by a University of Queensland chorus. His ‘Federico’s Lament’ from Francesco Cilea’s L’arlesiana suited this tenor’s gift for heart-wrenching oratory.

Conductor Chris van Tuinen, artistic director of Western Australian Opera, introduced each item and poked fun at opera plots and their convoluted twists and turns.

It is easy to forget the time and effort involved in achieving high-quality performances. When Rachelle Durkin began Andrew Ford’s ‘Our Mother’s Heart’ she forgot the first line and quipped, ‘that’s what can happen in live theatre.’ She was embarrassed, but her easily redeemable mishap reeled in the audience, which revelled in her exemplary account of Ford’s song, with Kate Fagan’s lyrics referencing the night sky’s ‘wheeling stars’ and ‘planetary time’.

Kate Miller-Heidke is a composer and a poly-stylistic singer. Her performances were powerful. In Handel’s ‘Rejoice Greatly’, she demonstrated an affinity with baroque music as she scaled the florid lines with a silvery tone and glittery precision. The aria sharply contrasted with ‘My Sky’ from The Rabbits, an opera she herself composed. Here, in a harrowing narrative, she relayed a palette of shifting colours and eerie wails as her character Bird observes the ‘rabbits’ (white colonial forces) feeding ‘numbats’ (First Nations people) poisoned food.

Before the Singing in The Night event, the windy conditions and swirls of red dust at Camden Park, a cattle station near Longreach, were not ideal. Nevertheless, perennial favourites by Puccini, Gluck, and Arne, a stand-out ‘E lucevan le stelle’ by La Spina, and Miller-Heidke’s stunning airing of Carl Vine’s ‘Love Me Sweet’ from the television series The Battlers wowed the crowd.

Finally, Barry-Smith, ever the showman, sang a rousing ‘Waltzing Matilda’ and the audience joined in. His leadership was used to great effect at , Sing, Sing at Drover’s Place, Longreach, in which the baritone involved a willing audience in beatboxing and chorusing of ‘Click Go The Shears’.

Patrick Nolan dreams of securing sponsorship to build an amphitheatre with tiered seating, as in Verona, Italy, and Orange, France. He believes that such a venue would foster a closer relationship between the audience, the performers, and the surrounding environment.

Now in its fourth year, this opera-driven jamboree, which enlivens and empowers a remote region, boosts the local economy, and provides professional and emerging artists with multiple opportunities to perform, is an impressive example of cultural tourism.


Festival of Outback Opera 2024 (Opera Queensland) ran from the 14-20 May 2024. Performances attended: May 14-16. Gillian Wills travelled to the festival as a guest of Opera Queensland.

Comment (1)

  • A beautiful review, Gillian. Hope to see you out west again next year.
    Posted by Linda Apelt
    02 June 2024

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