Opera Queensland’s touring production of The Barber of Seville will use choruses sourced from eight regional centres

Nearly 250 Queenslanders will step into the spotlight as chorus members in Lindy Hume’s new production of The Barber of Seville as part of Opera Queensland’s community initiative Project Rossini. Singers from eight communities from across the State – Gold Coast, Mackay, Fraser Coast (Maryborough), Rockhampton, Townsville, Toowoomba, Cairns and Gladstone – will each form a chorus. The members of each community chorus will receive free professional training in singing, dancing, stagecraft and Italian language skills in preparation for their Rossini debut. These community sourced singers will perform alongside professionals from Opera Queensland and an ensemble of musicians from Queensland Symphony Orchestra in local theatres.

Project Rossini follows the success of Opera Queensland’s 2014 production of La Bohème, which offered community singers a similar opportunity as part of Project Puccini. A chorus member in La Bohème, Scott Foden from Rockhampton, heard about Project Puccini on ABC Radio. “It was something pretty different,” says Foden, “I’d never done anything like that before. So I wanted to see what happened backstage.”

Foden, who plays guitar in a rock band, knew very little about La Bohème when he first became involved in the project. “I didn’t even know the name of the opera when I auditioned,” he says, “My girlfriend said, ‘I’ve got a book at home which has pasta recipes that you can match to different operas.’ She said something about Puccini, and I said, ‘Is that a type of pasta?'”

The experience, however, turned this rocker into an opera lover. “It’s done wonders,” Foden says, “I’ve got so much more confidence. I’m a musician, but after singing in Italian – the sky’s the limit! It was pretty cool to play with the symphony and a conductor – I’d never done that before.” Having been through the process once, Foden knows what to expect. “Last time I was panicky – it was hard – but this time it’s more relaxed, and I’m just going to really enjoy it!” What is he looking forward to most? “The stage time. Playing at Pilgrim Theatre in front of a thousand people.”

Giovanni Battiato is a chorus member from Cairns; a new destination for the scheme this year. “This has always been a lifelong dream of mine,” said Battiato, “I always wanted to sing – since I was a little boy – but I never, ever pursued it.” Battiato is a fruit and vegetable wholesaler, who heard about the project through his friend Frank – a wine wholesaler – and his wife, Bec. “I was covered in goosebumps when they told me about it. They said, ‘honestly, with a voice like yours, you need to do this.’ I went and auditioned, and the rest is history.”

While Battiato always loved music (he owns the entire collection of Luciano Pavarotti’s recordings), he didn’t want to show too much interest in singing when he was younger in case people found out he was gay. “I came out at the age of 37,” he said, “As much as I wanted to be who I wanted to be as a child, it just wasn’t heard of here in this town. In 2016 we’re very accepted, it’s magnificent the way the gay community have embraced each other, and the local community have embraced the gay community. I think it’s a fantastic thing.”

Battatio is excited to begin the process of preparing for the performance. “I can’t wait till we start doing our training!” He says, “We’re getting our costumes made at the moment. I’ve got size-14 feet, and they said they’re going to be supplying shoes – so I’m looking forward to seeing what they’re going to supply me!”

“I’m very overwhelmed to be selected. When I went and did my audition I met a few people and, I must say, there’s a lot of talent in Cairns. I’m looking forward to meeting everybody and making some really great friends. It’s going to be an amazing experience, absolutely amazing.”

Soprano Emily Burke played Mimì in Project Puccini’s La Bohème and will be playing Berta in The Barber of Seville this year. She has also toured Queensland in more conventional productions. Working with local choruses, she says, “changes almost everything. The chorus is completely different in each place, and it just engages with the community on a totally different level.”

“It was amazing,” she says, “the choruses were just brilliant, their Italian was brilliant; I was just astounded in every single place. The audience is full of their family and friends so that changes the whole dynamic. And of course, that gives the community much more of a reason to come.”

“There was one lady who drove several hours for every rehearsal,” Burke says, “She didn’t miss any of them, and she brought her husband and a couple of friends to the performance. She came up to me afterwards in tears, and she said, ‘Without a doubt, this has been the greatest night of my life.’ That story is echoed in every single place we visited. I just think that makes it all worthwhile. I can’t wait!”

Opera Queensland’s Project Rossini will tour Queensland July 29 – August 24