Just as dining outdoors can enhance the taste of food, there’s something irresistible about hearing classical music out in the open.

Opera is tagged as elitist and dependent on dazzling theatrical sets. Yet, during Opera Queensland’s six-day Festival of Outback Opera, a young woman in riding boots from the University of Queensland stood outside the Winton hardware store and sang her heart out to statues of sheep and bovines on the main street’s nature strip.

The vision of Opera Queensland’s artistic director and CEO Patrick Nolan is anything but exclusive and programs braid opera giants Mozart and Donizetti with anything from Lady Gaga to The Beatles.

A wild mix of tunes enthralled children from the Gold Coast’s AB Paterson College and adults, too, in the pacy regional touring show Do We Need Another Hero?, written and directed by Laura Hansford.

This was held at Dustarena, the backyard of Wintonian Amanda-Lyn Pearson, the creator and director of The Crackup Sisters’ shows.

Young OQ artists Shikara Ringdahl, Marcus Corowa, Ruby Clark, seasoned baritone Jason Barry-Smith and musical director Luke Volker whipped up a storm on a humble stage. Noisy galahs and a barking dog joined in Ringdahl’s heartfelt cover of Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood and Corowa’s funky version of Working Man’s Hero.

Mike Comes, who had driven all the way from Western Australia, told me he didn’t like opera but found he couldn’t stop grinning all through Barry-Smith’s superb Largo al Factotum from Rossini’s Barber of Seville.

Next morning Winton’s cafes buzzed with praise for the musical’s gifted cast and the narrative’s survey of historical heroes including Orpheus, Joan of Arc and Che Guevara.

Winton is Waltzing Matilda country and Australia’s dinosaur capital. It’s where Banjo Paterson penned his jolly swagman opus. Here cattle stations abound and opals are mined.

Patrick Nolan’s goal in coming here is to relate to community and the entertainments on offer celebrated Winton and Longreach’s cultural legacies.

The charismatic Gregory North recited Paterson’s verse with wicked humour in the courtyard of the Waltzing Matilda Centre as a prelude to a Long Lunch which had been booked out since Christmas. While diners savoured the three-course menu made from the region’s lamb and beef, they enjoyed cellist Patrick Murphy and pianist Narelle French’s poetic account of Chopin’s Largo. Rising star, soprano Nina Korbe, reprised her recent role as Maria in West Side Story with I Feel Pretty and Katie Stenzel delivered a dreamy take on Somewhere Over the Rainbow.

Dark Sky Serenade, a sell-out show, was held at The Age of Dinosaurs venue on elevated ground with magnificent views not far from an ancient dreaming site. All was right in the world when sopranos Korbe and Rachelle Durkin, tenor Rosario La Spina and baritone Shaun Brown gave stunning recitals of hits by Italian greats Verdi and Puccini and England’s Gilbert and Sullivan. Australian Andrew Ford’s My Mother’s Heart was beautifully reflected by Durkin.

An orchestral team of UQ students and Queensland Symphony Orchestra musicians was ably conducted by Chris van Tuinen, West Australian Opera’s artistic director. His dry wit ridiculed convoluted opera plots to everyone’s delight. Kate Miller-Heidke’s powerful, mournful delivery of My Sky from her opera The Rabbits stole the show.

Much as the al fresco events pleased travellers from Brisbane, Tasmania, Melbourne, Sydney, New Zealand and Switzerland, performing in the great outdoors is not without its difficulties for the singers.

“Performing outside is hard because opera singers, accustomed to enclosed sets, can feel the need to push the voice because it feels like the sound is disappearing,” Katie Stenzel says. “I’ve learned to sing the way it feels rather than the way it sounds.”

Swirls of red dust at cattle station Camden Park near Longreach, just before the Singing in the Night event, looked challenging and the interval was cancelled due to windy conditions, yet the recital triumphed.

Rosario La Spina’s marvellous E lucevan le stelle from Puccini’s Tosca was a gem and Miller-Heidke’s exquisite airing of Carl Vine’s Love Me Sweet from The Battlers hit the spot. Afterwards, cattle property owner James Walker hosted supper around a camp fire.

Nolan dreams of securing sponsorship to build an amphitheatre with tiered seating to increase the intimacy and connection between audience and performers in this impressive opera-fuelled jamboree.

Festival of Outback Opera 2024 was held at Winton and Longreach, May 14-20; Gillian Wills travelled to the festival as a guest of Opera Queensland.

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