Giuseppe Verdi’s setting of the Latin Requiem Mass is one of the great choral blockbusters, rivalling Handel’s Messiah and Mozart’s own Requiem for popularity. Already outsized for performances in most churches, the Requiem will break free of the concert hall in Opera Queensland’s 2019 season, coming to the Gold Coast’s Home of the Arts for an outdoor performance, in collaboration with the Bleach* Festival, that promises plenty of surprises.

Verdi Requiem, Opera QueenslandOpera Queensland’s Requiem 

“I’ve often found doing outside concerts, in the moment of the performance something really beautiful can happen, because you’re not in a concert hall – you’re not in a covered space – and it’s night time, and there’s just this wonderful natural beauty to that,” says Opera Queensland’s Artist in Residence Natalie Murray Beale, who will conduct the epic work with the Queensland Conservatorium Symphony Orchestra, Opera Queensland Chorus and a quartet of soloists: soprano Natalie Aroyan, mezzo-soprano Milijana Nikolic, tenor Rosario La Spina and bass-baritone Andrew Collis.

In addition to the beauty of Verdi’s music, the beauty of nature will be one of the themes running through the production. Opera Queensland’s Artistic Director Patrick Nolan is cagey about what exactly the experience will entail, however. “We’ve got some little touches,” he says. “I don’t want to give away too much.”

There might be a clue in his choice of site designer, Alex Podger, who has designed work for MONA FOMA and Dark Mofo in Tasmania and the Woodford Folk Festival in Queensland. “One of his specialities is fire,” Nolan says, “which obviously has a certain resonance with [the idea of] requiem, with the idea of transition and rebirth.”

“We want to create a space in which we can respond to that ritualistic element, and I guess in a way also honour it,” he says. “None of us are Catholics – I’m an ex-Catholic – but I think all of us had a great respect for the spiritual energy of the work, and also the respect for the dead. The energy and the sort of passion that the Requiem generates has to be recognised.”

Verdi wrote what would become the Libera me of his Requiem for a setting of the mass in honour of Rossini in 1868, for which he compiled contributions from 12 other Italian composers. While the project eventually fell through – much to Verdi’s frustration – he revisited the material following the death of the poet and novelist Alessandro Manzoni in 1873, incorporating it into a Messa da Requiem he wrote entirely himself. As a mass for the dead, grief is an indelible part of the Requiem, both Verdi’s grief and the grief of Italy as a whole: “Now all is over, and with him ends the purest, holiest title to our fame,” Verdi wrote of Manzoni.

Nolan will be exploring ideas of grief in this production, though from a more secular, universal angle than a Catholic Mass might suggest. But a tension between secular and religious responses to death has been a part of the Requiem from the beginning, with critic Hans von Bülow famously dubbing it “an opera in ecclesiastical vestments”.

“Ironically, Verdi wasn’t a believer,” Nolan says. “But he was obviously a very smart cookie, because he knew if he was going to get his music played he had to write for the church – they weren’t singing in public parks in Verdi’s day, that’s for sure!”

Opera Queensland’s production, which will feature lighting and video by Mark Howett on a giant wrap-around video screen, will explore ideas of grief with a focus on the natural environment. “We’re looking at the idea that it is a requiem for our natural world and looking at our relationship with the environment as a way in to understanding the text,” Nolan says. “We’re drawing on a lot of the imagery from the local area, so we’re using the Gold Coast as an inspiration. From Surfer’s Paradise to the Hinterland – there’s actually an enormous spectrum of environments and locations and textures in that area.”

Though there is a strong ecological message to the production, “it’s not fire and brimstone from the pulpit,” Nolan says. “Even though sometimes the music might feel like that.”

As for performing out in the natural environment, it can pose its own challenges – especially if the wind picks up, Beale explains. “The best thing I can do is prepare my score so well that it is basically from memory, and I can feel safe that I can direct this big ship through the storm, so to speak.”

Whatever the weather, it is sure to be a memorable performance. “It will definitely be a very different experience to your usual outdoor concert at HOTA,” Nolan says. “Let’s just say there’ll be some surprises.”

Opera Queensland presents Verdi’s Requiem as part of the Bleach* Festival, at HOTA Gold Coast, on April 27