Opera Australia’s touring arm finds a culturally aware and appreciative audience in Katherine, NT.

Story By Patricia Maunder

It was 2007 when Anne Weygood first encountered Oz Opera. In her second year as principal of St Joseph’s College, the company’s Katherine venue, a crew member bowled up, asking “Where’s the phase-one plug?”
Once that challenge was overcome (it turned out there were three phase-one plugs), a magical night unfolded. “So many people dressed up it was quite exciting, and being outside added another dimension to it,” Anne says. “It’s quite amazing. You think it’s a schoolyard, but when they first sang that night I thought, ‘Wow! This is incredible!’”
After wowing Katherine with Carmen in 2007, Oz Opera’s fourth performance here since first visiting in 1999, Opera Australia’s touring arm returned this year with another popular opera in English, Madame Butterfly.
Their annual regional Australia tour is hard work for cast and crew. In a new town every few days, they must adapt to diverse venues, from hay sheds to gyms. But it’s no easy matter for the locals who make it happen, either.
Meg Geritz, manager of Katherine Regional Arts, and her part-time offsider Adrienne Kneebone were flat-out in the lead-up to Oz Opera’s latest visit. “Before we’d even finished hanging up the posters we were getting phone calls about tickets,” she says.
By the big day, all of the 300-plus seats were sold, but two days earlier things were grim when the set-up crew Meg had hired pulled out. Some local seniors and a few brawny young men responded to her SOS. Then, the day before curtain-up, the winch broke. “I made a few phone calls to some farmers and old Stewart Beckett up Florina Road, he had the gear so he brought it in,” she says with palpable relief. “‘It’s an indication of the great community Katherine is.”
Anne, who leads her school community in ensuring St Joseph’s facilities are ready for the show, concurs. A relative newcomer to regional life, having moved to Katherine from Adelaide five years ago, she “just loves” the way people here “give a little bit more”. “You’re part of a group that wants to work together and wants to experience new things, and to do that you have to co-operate,” she says.
Denis Coburn, administrative assistant at the Northern Territory Chief Minister’s Katherine office, says there are “a lot of challenges” in his hometown. “But you can’t walk away from challenges ... in small towns, otherwise there wouldn’t be anyone in small towns,” he says. “You basically have to stand up and try and work your way through it, and that makes for a strong community.”
One of the best opportunities for the community to come together, says Denis, is “when culture comes along”. When Oz Opera visits, for example, or through efforts to get the green light for Katherine’s cultural-precinct project. The precinct, construction of which is due to commence soon, is “a sign that the town is growing up”. “It’s starting to attract people and not just for short periods of time,” Denis says.

This story excerpt is from Issue #68

Outback Magazine: Dec/Jan 2010