LA SCALA on the Campaspe. The MC pretty well hit the nail right on the head when he drew that clear line between the heart of opera and Mia Mia, somewhere in the back blocks of downtown Victoria.
But there was something strange afoot here.
It was one thing to have a legion of country folk putting the show together.
Days of volunteer cooking, carving and creating had gone into the pre-dinner nibbles and post show extravaganza.
There may even have been a fatted calf or prime porker plucked from someone’s back paddock for the occasion.
Months of planning by the Mia Mia Hall committee to make sure the show was promoted and that all 150 (give or take someone standing in the doorway) seats were sold.
Then there was Rowanston on the Track, a humble little B&B at a local winery, making accommodation available for the international guests.
If it all sounded a little like entering a kangaroo in the English Derby; well, a lot of people first thought something like that eight years ago when the idea was first mooted.
But the Twilight Opera at Mia Mia has become a fixture – not just on the local country calendar but also amongst the smart set in Melbourne and Bendigo and places in between.
For 2018 it was not a matter of would the tickets sell, it was all about who would miss out.
Because plenty would.
That, however, is not where it is all going a bit wobbly around the edges.
Italian opera singer and impresario Mattia Campetti was making a return appearance at Mia Mia – until he announced he wanted to be a farmer.
His wife, Melbourne-born soprano Michelle Buscemi, let slip in a pre-show interview she fancied making jams (with apricot her favourite).
The show was just hours away and the stars of the night had their heads in the clouds with fanciful dreams of a bucolic destination where they could get some dirt under their fingernails and feel at one with their surrounds.
And sitting at a winery, just outside Mia Mia, was making a pretty strong argument that this epiphany re farming was going to be a hard argument to overcome.
Until someone started spelling out the rudiments of crutching and lamb marking; and pulling stuck calves and the other strange places a farmer’s arm goes.
The pre-show interview was terminated immediately; voices needed a rest before the curtain went up.
The rising star and the impresario would not fail their public and the show would go on – as it always must.
And when the couple did take the stage everyone (audience and performers), putty in the hands of MC and retired Supreme Court judge Howard Nathan, got a laugh out of that momentary aberration about singing or sowing.
“We first came to Mia Mia in 2012,” Michelle said.
“We love it — love the setting, the people and everyone connected with putting it all together. Our time in Australia each year has become such an important part of who we are,” she said.
The couple’s commitment to opera as well as Oz was emphasised this year when they launched a national aria award in partnership with the Limestone Coast Opera (from Mt Gambier in SA).
Make no mistake, this is no lip service setup; the LCO/Lucca (the opera program the couple run at their home in Tuscany) Opera Aria Award wasn’t as simple as ‘tell us in 25 words or less why you should win’.
“The award provides a $10,000 bursary plus a trip to Italy for the winner to further their development as an opera singer,” Michelle explained.
“It was open to people aged 18-40 and we needed to hold auditions in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide to just get it down to the finalists,” she said.
“What I most enjoyed was the opportunity to work with the singers as they prepared for the final – each singer had to perform two arias.”
The winner was Sydney soprano Jessica Harper.
That was decided on March 11, just giving the couple time to get packed up and down to Mia Mia to grace the stage of the 111-year-old local hall.
While Mattia jets around the world – singing as well as staging shows – Michelle maintains such a strong link to her country she still relies on singing coach Gary Nardella for guidance and her own development.
But perhaps the prime reason this couple and other singers who have come, and will come in the years ahead, is Lynne McDonald and her late husband, David.
In 2006, a bequest from his mother, Alice, provided the capital to found the Alice Amy McDonald Scholarship Trust to help support the future of young singers.
Lynne said a focus of the trust’s program also had to be trying to provide country/rural settings for taking quality opera to regional populations.
She said to date 22 students have been through the program and that was how Mattia and Michelle came to be involved.
“Mia Mia grew from an idea, and the lovely wood-lined hall was there and available and it all seemed to fit,” Lynne added.
“For something built in 1907, the Mia Mia Mechanics Institute hall has beautiful acoustics and meshed perfectly with what the trust planned and what Michelle could see,” she said.
“We have also been able to take opera to primary school students, most of whom had probably never heard opera before, and that was something special.”
And something special also took place on Saturday night when the talkative crowd was finally seated and the show began.
Particularly special was the stunning transformation of Michelle.
Only a few hours earlier she was a girl from Reservoir sitting at a kitchen table and chatting about her career.
When she strode onto the tiny stage in the hall she had amazing presence, poise and panache. She was living the character of each song and doing it with such subtlety you missed it if you blinked.
As she had confessed while at that kitchen table: “Even as a child I knew I wanted to perform and when I discovered you could sing the words that suddenly became a whole lot better.”
“I don’t think I could have been a straight actress, I don’t like operettas where you talk and sing but opera; that is the ultimate – I get to be an actress who sings.”
And sing she did. Along with Mattia, who proved delightfully multifaceted – he sang, he entertained, he cajoled and he had the audience singing along. The complete showman.
For 2018 he even brought an ‘orchestra’ – pianist/composer Stefano Teani and flautist Agnese Manfredini whose own talent put the final polish on the evening.
Michelle left Australia as a 25-year-old, her mother’s lamentations ringing in her ears.
“She said I would meet an Italian singer, get married and never come home again,” Michelle said.
“And she was almost right,” she agreed.
“Except I come home every year; I have been in Australia this time since December.”
Mind you, the Twilight Opera at Mia Mia committee are pretty light on their feet as well. They made sure Michelle’s extended family — from Nonna to her nephews and nieces — were invited for the evening and given the front row for the show.