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Behind the scenes with Underground Opera's Bruce Edwards

While working as a miner, Bruce Edwards noticed that underground mine spaces had some pretty impressive acoustics. He was not yet an opera convert, but he was involved in Brisbane’s local theatre scene and his discovery inspired him to take a leap of faith and launch Underground Opera Company.

Now ten years in, he’s an avid opera fan and he has staged productions in spaces ranging from a mine in Mount Isa to the Capricorn Caves and an aircraft hangar. In our Behind the Scenes chat, Bruce discusses what it takes to stage an opera outside of the theatre and why he is so passionate about this artform.

Before starting Underground Opera you were a miner – what drew you to opera?

When I started the Underground Opera Company, I wanted to make the most of exquisite and unique spaces, and I was drawn to opera by an appreciation of great voices! I guess it is because in spaces such as the Capricorn Caves or what we call Brisbane’s Underground Opera House – the Spring Hill Reservoir – the acoustics really lend themselves to a resonating opera voice.

As you know, I was a former miner, so it’s been a very strange career change. I never was actually interested in opera or musical theatre – I had been a drummer in a past life, so I guess the interest in music was there. I just saw an opportunity to present opera in the most unlikely spaces and to be honest, like a number of our audience members, I’m an opera convert!

What is your favourite opera and why?

My favourite opera would have to be La Bohème. It is a great story of love, embracing the true bohemian, poor artist spirit. The arias, duets and ensemble pieces are engaging and uplifting with a storyline that is as prominent today as it was when it was written. The duet O Soave Fanciulla between Rodolfo and Mimi is amazing!

How do you select operas to perform at Underground Opera?

Our performances, whether they be musical theatre or opera, are made up of a carefully selected set of pieces from a wide variety of operas or musicals, to be sung by our world-class cast members. Our cast has a lot of say in what they perform, but I will always ensure some of my favourites are in there, such as the Flower Duet from Delibes' Lakmé or the The Pearl Fishers Duet from Bizet’s Les Pêcheurs de Perles. I can’t really have an opera concert without an impressive finale and love Nessun Dorma from Turandot. Our goal is to captivate our audiences through the repertoire we choose as they are inspired to laugh, cry and cheer.

You have held performances in a number of unusual spaces – how do you find your venues?

Finding new venues is always on my radar and a number of spaces were known to me through my previous life as a miner and tunneller. As Underground Opera has grown, we’ve also been asked to check out venues. This was the case in Brisbane when the former CEO of The National Trust of Australia (Queensland) Stewart Armstrong invited me to look at the Spring Hill Reservoir in 2011.

The 150-year-old Spring Hill Reservoir used to provide Brisbane with its water up until around 50 years ago and the doors hadn’t been open since. I looked inside and I just said, 'I’ll take it!' We now produce around seven seasons a year in this space, while hosting exclusive corporate events.

What is the process like of preparing these spaces for a performance?

Some spaces are easier than others to activate! In the case of the Spring Hill Reservoir, which hadn’t been touched for 50 years, activating this unique location was an arduous three-year process. The space had been occupied by local wildlife, so it was a long process to clean it up. I also had to ensure the ventilation was spot on, while installing stairs. There were many liaisons with Brisbane City Council and The National Trust during that time and I also received fantastic support from Ghella, AECOM and Archipelago Architects to get the project across the line.

Other venues we’ve performed in have been a lot simpler. The Capricorn Caves in Rockhampton is a good example – everything is already in the Cathedral Cave. There’s a small stage, we utilise the natural acoustics, which are close to perfect, and it even has its own green room for our cast, which is another cave. We add in chairs and some lighting!

This year Underground Opera is celebrating ten years, what’s in store for the future?

It’s been an incredible ten-year journey and we’re grateful to have received fantastic support from our audiences and our venues. We have a number of plans for the future – this includes finding more unique locations to hold breathtaking performances and I’d like to do more interstate. We are also thinking about staging a full opera ... but more about that soon!

Where is your favourite place in Brisbane to hold a performance?

I just can’t go past Brisbane’s Underground Opera House, the Spring Hill Reservoir! Nothing beats venturing six metres underground to be entertained by world-class performers, whether you attend Opera in the Reservoir, West End to Broadwayin the Reservoir, Carols – in the Reservoir, or another show! There’s something so special about being in this intimate space, which seats just 126 people and you’re underground while the city is buzzing above you! The set-up is also uniquely styled, with hand-laid brick archways creating nine chambers, and four wings with a small stage at its centre. There’s nothing like it!

What upcoming shows are you looking forward to seeing in Brisbane?

I'm looking forward to supporting a number of shows around Brisbane this year, especially seeing Ipswich Musical Theatre Company take on Les Misérables in September. It's a massive show but they have an incredible cast, including one of our regular baritones, Lionel Theunissen, as Javert. I've done a few shows with Ipswich in the past, including The Sound of Music, so I enjoy continuing to support them.

Underground Opera's next show is West End to Broadway, from 11–27 August at the Spring Hill Reservoir.

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