Opera Queensland: The need for integrity and deep engagement with regional and remote communities

Opera and rugby league have a lot in common, especially in Queensland. Just as the sport draws on grassroots supporters and talent across the state to unite fans and nurture the next generation of playmakers, so too does the state’s opera company.

Opera Queensland: The need for integrity and deep engagement with regional and remote communities

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Opera Queensland Executive Director Sandra Willis said unity was a theme that beat at the heart of the company’s extensive regional and remote touring and education programs.

“Opera as an art form is not something people can do on their own, it’s about communities coming together to create something special by singing together,” Ms Willis said. 

“Opera has the power to make us see, hear and feel the world differently. It offers us reflection of who we are, how we relate to others and what it means to be human”.

“In this sense, when a community is going through a time of terrible distress, as many are now with the drought, it is really important to have things of great joy – be that their local football team or a choir – to bind a community together.

“We put a lot of effort into being geographically, artistically and financially accessible and have spent several years expanding and strengthening our regional and remote programs.”

Opera Queensland Director of Learning, Regional and Community Mark Taylor oversees a comprehensive schedule of small and large-scale initiatives.

The state company tours annually; alternating between mainstage productions in regional centres (La bohème in 2014,The Barber of Seville in 2016,Ruddigore in 2018 andTosca in 2020) to small, specialised programs in remote communities.

Driving each regional foray is a desire to forge deep connections and develop a legacy of genuine engagement.

“Opera Queensland has long shifted away from that FIFO – fly-in, fly-out – mentality of rolling into town for a show, rolling back out and having no engagement for the next year or two,” Mr Taylor said.

“Everything we do is directed towards building a great network of friends across the state who feel a really deep connection with their state company.”

One such initiative is the development of community choruses that perform in mainstage touring productions.

Local chorus masters are employed in each regional centre and members audition and rehearse for six months to perform alongside Opera Queensland in their hometown.

“In addition to the professional and personal development we’re offering as a state company, we’re also developing a legacy,” Mr Taylor said.

“By way of example, we’ve utilised a large cohort of the Toowoomba chorus we started building over the past eight years in Queensland Music Festival’s Opera at Jimbour program and in Mackay, the community chorus comes together to perform Christmas carols.”

In smaller communities, Opera Queensland employs a bespoke approach to touring and engagement.

Its 2019 tour of Songs To Die For visited 16 regional locations from the Gold Coast to Windorah, a tiny town with a permanent population of fewer than 120 people.

“There’s no one-size-fits-all-approach with a tour like this, we visited each location to establish what would work best for them,” Mr Taylor said.

“In Longreach, we identified that a lot of surrounding communities have no access to a music teacher, so we offered a half-day workshop with five of our touring artists for 60 students who travelled from schools as far as 150km away.”

In 2018, the Composed in Queensland initiative partnered four Opera Queensland artists and songwriters Megan Washington and Sara Storer with students in Central West Queensland.

Students from Longreach, Winton, Blackall, Barcaldine and Barcoo Shire wrote songs about the joys and hardships of life in the outback, uniting to perform together.

“We talk so much about legacies but there’s no greater legacy piece than a song written by, and for, these communities,” Mr Taylor said.

Queensland’s Minister for the Arts Leeanne Enoch said that engagement with vibrant and diverse arts and cultural experiences were essential in remote and regional communities.

“With Queensland being the most decentralised state in the country, programs such as the Regional Arts Development Fund, Queensland Arts Showcase Program, Playing Queensland Fund and the Regional Arts Services Network play a vital role in bringing communities together, supporting creative expression and promoting social cohesion,” Minister Enoch said.

“This commitment also extends to investing in our regional arts organisations and vital regional arts infrastructure such as the Cairns Centre of Contemporary Arts, Cairns Performing Arts Centre and the Rockhampton Art Gallery”.

Ms Willis said Opera Queensland’s vision is to both increase its reach and engagement across the state and strengthen its existing relationships.

“Our primary purpose, as a state opera company, is to make opera an integral part of Queensland life and to achieve that, we know we need to make it accessible to people well outside of Brisbane,” Ms Willis said.

“We won’t feel like our journey is complete until we have reached every Queenslander of every age and provided them the opportunity to experience the joy of opera.”

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