When Peta and Bill Blyth started Opera in the Paddock at their Delungra property eight years ago, they had no idea it would grow into a major regional event with such a devoted following.
On Saturday, March 14 the eighth popular concert under the stars at Mimosa will have its biggest line up of artists yet, and many of them will be regional artists and technical staff.
> Peta how did it all begin?
I have a background as a singer, having studied and performed in the United Kingdom and for major productions with Opera Australia, in Hong Kong, New Zealand and with Opera Queensland.
I married Bill, who is a farmer, and we returned to the family farm at Delungra after several years absence in the late 1980s. It was not a brilliant time for farming, with high interest rates and tough weather conditions.
After selling part of the property, we moved to Mimosa ‘the Paddock’ and started to renovate Bill’s grandfather’s house. It was while Bill and I were doing the renovations that I took a break from the hard work and tried out my lungs with a song in the paddock in front of the house. The acoustics were superb.
The idea grew from there, and I started talking about the idea of a concert to some of my opera singer friends. After much deliberation, our first Opera in the Paddock was held in 2002. I have a passion for the art form and love the serenity and beauty of the Paddock and surrounding countryside, and we both wanted to share those things with other people and make a contribution to the community.
I actually thought we would do it once and would have about a hundred people, and that would be it. Bill had more vision. He is the perennial optimist. His idea was to start small and do it well and grow along the way … not being too adventurous at the start. This is pretty much the principle that has been applied all along.
> Who will be performing and what is the program for this year? How will it be different from previous years?
This year is our most ambitious – with more instrumentalists, a conductor and a larger stage. We have moved from four artists in 2002 to 22 artists in 2009. I believe we have to keep developing, and there is so much repertoire to do. We would never run out of choices or possibilities.
I like to look at combinations of singers, different works, a mix of known and not so well known repertoire, entertaining and more serious, grand opera and lighter works.
This year we will have six singers, a pianist, 14 orchestral players and for the first time a guest conductor, the multi-talented Timothy Sexton, Head of Music at the State Opera of South Australia, conductor of the Adelaide Art Orchestra and a ABC Classic FM announcer. He will also double as compère, and as he is a singer, will join in for some numbers.
Young Bingara soprano Lexi Hutton will join us again on stage this year, along with Elizabeth Campbell (mezzo soprano), Richard Greager (tenor), Shaun Brown (tenor), David Hibbard (Bass), pianist David Miller and me. Elizabeth, Richard, Shaun and the two Davids are real veterans of the Paddock, and although they are so busy with their professional careers, they make time for us each year when they can.
The 2009 program includes excerpts from Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Bellini’s Norma, Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann, Puccini’s La Bohème, with the final act of Verdi’s Rigoletto as a focal point. Operetta excerpts come from the music of Sigmund Romberg, The Student Prince, The Desert Song and The New Moon. Selections from Kismet and The Phantom of the Opera will also feature.
We are also having a recital of German Song at the Inverell Town Hall on Friday at 6.30pm, as a precursor to the opera concert. The Recital, which features our visiting singers, is sponsored by the German Consul, and he and his wife will be here for it. This is a fantastic repertoire that sadly is just too often neglected. It is quite a different repertoire to the operatic repertoire, but one which we are all passionate about.
> How do you select the singers, performers and programs each year?
The singers and performers are selected on their availability and their ability to get on together, work as a team and enjoy the uniqueness of the situation! We have found they contribute much more than required in many ways. They all put forward ideas. It is a very democratic process, and it takes time to mould a program that works.
The singers this year will come from Adelaide, Wellington New Zealand, Brisbane and Sydney, so rehearsals are always tight. We are fortunate to have a strong regional basis with the instrumentalists – Julie Fawcett, violinist from Narrabri, Nick Negerevich now living in Armidale – both professional players having performed with the Elizabethan Trust Orchestra. Young performers include oboist Li Ling Chen from Manilla, young string players from Armidale and Wendy Champion, now teaching at the New England Conservatorium of Music in Inverell.
It is important for singers and musicians to keep a professional profile. Teaching is one thing but performers have to hone their craft, so Opera in the Paddock is a really good professional performance outlet. The technical side also has a regional basis, with Bingara’s Martin Hansford, audio engineer, and lighting expert, Roy Jeffrey, former head of ABC who has family living in Inverell. In addition, Andrew Sharp from the Playhouse Theatre in Barraba will assist this year’s production.
> How do the singers and musicians who normally perform in big city concert halls feel about performing in a paddock on a country property?
They all enjoy the atmosphere and the enthusiasm of the audiences. After our first concert, we got so many letters from people who had loved the concert and wanted it to continue. That really thrilled the artists and keeps them returning again and again. They enjoy the country as an escape from the normal routine and as a performance challenge.
The outdoors is quite a different scenario, and is not that easy for performance in many ways. We are fortunate to have found the very experienced sound operator Martin Hansford. He has provided professional sound for all the Paddock concerts, and it is always excellent.
> How did you and your husband meet, and how do a farmer and a professional opera singer manage to combine careers and fit it into the busy farming schedule?
Bill and I met in 1975. I had a short farm holiday after I had attended a wonderful opera workshop at Armidale University. Coincidently, it was also my introduction to opera! We married in 1978 and travelled to London four days later, where I commenced postgraduate study at the Royal College of Music, London.
Bill has always been very supportive of my career. It has meant much travelling over the years. I have never tallied up the kilometres, but I would hate to think how much it all adds up to! For us it is just par for the course. If you want to keep a career of some sorts going and live where we do in the country, it’s what you have to do.
The Opera in the Paddock means that the ‘lull’ in the farming calendar is now well and truly filled. So, we have no summer holidays while this event is happening. Bill has been marvellous, as he takes on all the logistics and planning. He designed and helped to build the stage, which keeps getting extended as we grow, and he organises the transport, the parking, the portaloos, the helpers and the myriad other things that crop up.
The farming calendar is a precise one, so there is never a dull moment. Harvest time pre Christmas is frenetic and also a busy time with many opera deadlines. Phone calls can vary from queries about grain prices and grain delivery trucks to opera scores and artists’ flight bookings. We both work very well together and are committed to the project – it wouldn’t work otherwise.
> What support do you receive to keep the concert going and what are your plans for the future?
First of all, it is the patrons who have come from its inception – they are amazing. They are very loyal and appreciative. Our sponsors Country Energy, New England Credit Union and Allianz have been with us pretty much from the beginning. The Inverell Mayor Barry Johnston, the Council and Inverell Tourism Manager, Les Moulds have been really supportive.
A grant from the Department of State and Regional Development has assisted over the past two years. We are very grateful for the help we have received from our local Member of Parliament, Richard Torbay in accessing funding. He and his wife Rosemary come with a party every year, and he is always one of our most enthusiastic patrons.
New sponsors over the past few years are: Qantaslink, Malachite Resources and the German Consulate General. This year we were also fortunate to gain a Tourism NSW flagship grant for promotion.We would like to achieve sustainability. Opera North West, which produces the event and concert is a non profit company with Deductible Gift Recipient Status. We have a pool of performers and a stock of excellent programs that can be transported to other venues, and this is something we are considering.
This will be our eighth concert. There are always lots of plans for what we can do in the future, but they depend on the time we have available and the financials. We both believe that we are contributing something to the cultural landscape of the area. Bill and I are very grateful to have a very dedicated team of artists, sound and lighting people and volunteers. I think they all have a sense of pride and commitment to the project.
> Thank you Peta.
For more information readers can visit www.operainthepaddock.com.au