Talented locals steal the limelight as OperaQ’s La Bohème tours regional Queensland.

Nearly 400 ordinary Australians have been chosen to be performers in Opera Queensland’s latest production of La Bohème. The singers, who were chosen from 800 initial applicants, will join forces with OperaQ’s principal members and the Queensland Symphony Orchestra as part of Project Puccini, Australia’s biggest regional performing arts initiative.

The talented locals look likely to steal the limelight when the fully staged production tours through regional Queensland in August. At each destination, a diverse cross-section of the Australian community will make up the opera chorus – from a WWII veteran, Member of Parliament Rob Katter, and a sparky who has never sung before. Lindy Hume, Artistic Director of Opera Queensland said the initiative was spawned from a lack of engagement between arts organisations and regional audiences.

“The idea came when my General Manager Russell Mitchell and I went out on tour with The Mikado. It was a great little show and everyone who came had a great time, but we just didn’t seem to be making a big impact in terms of getting people through the door,” said Hume. “It just seemed to me that regional Australia had got so much more culturally confident and so much more sophisticated but all we were doing was turning up at a tour date and doing our thing and leaving.”

During their regional tours, OperaQ has previously relied upon what Hume describes as the ‘spray and pay’ technique: a couple of radio interviews and a handful of posters stuck up in local shops. But, as she explains, audiences have begun to yearn for a greater sense of ownership of their state arts companies.

“I know from my own experience that people participating in projects rather than passively watching is a really powerful force, and we also know that in regional Queensland there are already well established musical communities and very strong social bonds around those musical communities. So we just thought why don’t we just trust that in each of these towns there’s a Bohème chorus somewhere.”

Giacomo Puccini’s enjoyed immediate successat its world premiere in February of 1896, and has since become one of the world’s most frequently performed operas. OperaQ transports the familiar story to the eve of World War I, where an entourage of carefree bohemians are feigning adulthood in an artist’s garret. While the Italian libretto and ambitious choral writing might have posed some challenges to the local choristers, Hume said that the opera was an obvious and achievable choice.

“I think we’ve tapped into some rich vein of cultural consciousness, people want to push themselves and extend themselves, and I have to say, it’s been one of the greatest joys of my career watching how people have responded to this,” she said. “It’s something that people are quite ambitious about and committed to doing, and we’ve been really astonished and really impressed by the standard and quality of people auditioning and the seriousness with which people are taking this.”

Each of the regional choruses has begun its ten-week rehearsal period, which will be followed by production rehearsals with Assistant Director Jason Barry-Smith. Then as opening night approaches, the full company and orchestra will arrive in town for an intensive period of dress rehearsals. OperaQ have also established an online support and communication network, and a local chorus director and coordinator provide grass roots assistance in each of the locations. It might seem like a logistical nightmare, but is actually an operation as smooth as a well-oiled machine.

“It’s a big unknown adventure, but I think there’s huge scope – and we definitely intend this to be the beginning of the way we do things. We don’t want to just go back and ‘spray and pay’ and tour in the time honoured way,” said Hume. “We’re exploring a lot of options now because we think it’s a fantastic resource to have and we think a lot of other companies would be very interested in it. We’ll learn a lot from this process and we’ve got a research project going with Griffith University about the impact it will have on the community.”

It’s not just the Queensland community who have embraced Project Puccini, but also some of the biggest names of the Australian music industry. In addition to a slew of familiar principal performers like Hyeseoung Kwon and Bradley Daley, Richard Gill has completed unique orchestrations, Guy Noble will wave the baton as conductor, and the acclaimed Craig Ilott will oversee each facet as director. The State of Queensland Government has even committed to the project, investing $400,000 as part of its Playing Queensland Fund.

“This is a really radically different way for a major performing arts company to connect with its constituency, and I have to say the Government is very aware of the needs for the arts to be more diversified and more spread across the whole of Queensland,” said Hume. “We’re not mucking around, this is a beautiful new state of the art production with animation and all these gorgeous costumes and a fabulous director. I don’t think that anyone’s here for some game, everyone’s here to sing and be part of something that’s very high standard. So that is so exciting.”

Project Puccini tours Queensland from August 9-September 4.