There must be something in the water … or the air in Toowoomba. Because two of the stars of Opera Queensland’s inaugural Brisbane Bel Canto festival are from the city on the Great Dividing Range.

World famous soprano Jessica Pratt, who lives in Italy nowadays, hails from Toowoomba. Coincidentally, Pratt has worked a lot with the acclaimed composer and conductor Richard Mills, who is also from there.

They will join Opera Queensland’s stars across a week of opera from April 20.

This new festival for Brisbane uses the much-loved operas from the middle of the 19th century as a springboard to an event that explores the wonders of the human voice.

Mills, 75, who now lives in Melbourne where he was artistic director of the Victorian Opera for the past decade or so, has a busy conducting schedule – four concerts at Brisbane Bel Canto. He says he’s thrilled to be back in the city where he was a student, after growing up in Toowoomba.

“Growing up in Toowoomba there was always music in the house,” he recalls. “My mum played the piano and the violin in the Philharmonic Orchestra. There was music in school and I sang as a kid. I grew to love it.”

Mills has had an amazing career here and abroad and is thrilled to work with Brisbane Bel Canto.

“This festival is a very good idea,” Mills says. “Brisbane is a very good festival city and I hope you can make it an annual event and attract tourism. I am working pretty hard at it. I worked on creating the festival with Patrick Nolan.”

Nolan, artistic director of Opera Queensland, says Brisbane Bel Canto celebrates the one thing central to opera, the human voice.

“There are few things that can connect with our emotional centre more effectively than the human voice in full flight,” Nolan says. “Opera is the artform that celebrates this energy more profoundly and passionately than any other and the virtuosity demanded by bel canto singing is the epitome of the experience.”

Bel canto means, basically, “beautiful singing” and demands a performer be at the peak of their powers technically speaking while drawing deeply on emotions to fully express character. The three great composers of the bel canto tradition are Donizetti, Rossini and Bellini – who will all be featured in Brisbane Bel Canto.

The festival begins with Donizetti’s Lucia De Lammermoor, based on the novel The Bride of Lammermoor by Sir Walter Scott, with Pratt in the lead role of Lucia. Pratt has performed the role before including at La Scala in Milan, where it was once performed by Dame Joan Sutherland and, before her Dame Nellie Melba.

Mills will conduct the Queensland Symphony Orchestra and the Opera Queensland Chorus for this semi-staged concert at QPAC. Mills has worked with Pratt many times.

“She’s a great artist and a poet, first and foremost, because she finds beauty in every phrase,” Mills says. “Jessica and I, we don’t need to talk much as our relationship is very musically intuitive.”

Pratt says she is looking forward to portraying Lucia again.

“And I am also particularly looking forward to the Jessica Pratt in Concert event with the Queensland Symphony Orchestra (QSO), a highlight for me. Having roots in Toowoomba and Brisbane, these performances hold a special place in my heart. I look forward to sharing this wonderful music with my family, friends and the local community.”

Mills will have family at the concerts, too, since he still has cousins in Brisbane. He’s also looking forward to working with the QSO.

“It’s good that there are no bad Australian orchestras anymore,” he says. He is full of praise for the Queensland Conservatorium, Griffith University, the best institution of its kind in the country according to him. And he’s a man who knows.

He will conduct the Queensland Conservatorium Orchestra for Rossini’s Stabat Mater, a moving work based on a 13th century hymn lamenting the Virgin Mary’s sorrow at Jesus’s crucifixion. Rossini’s poignant masterpiece stands as a testament to the composer’s genius and conveys profound grief and hope through its exquisite melodies. Leading singers, including Eva Kong and Iain Henderson, will star in this hour-long performance.

“I’m a bit of a Rossini specialist,” Mills says. “And I’m a practicing Catholic. While this is a piece about suffering it’s also about hope, albeit a hope that is struggled for but still attainable. It has an amazing finale.”

The other big drawcard is the Brisbane Bel Canto Long Lunch with foodie Maggie Beer who is creating a special opera-inspired menu for festival goers, featuring local product and a dessert in honour of Jessica Pratt – La Dolce, Jessica. Oh, and there will be singing at lunch, too.

Brisbane Bel Canto, April 20-26

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