Dusk is falling over Alice Springs, and under the rosy glow of the fading light, the Araluen Arts Centre seems deserted. Behind the doors, however, is a travelling company of singers, musicians, costumiers and mechanics.
“Were you in the opera last night?” an older woman asks. “It was wonderful!”
The scene is nothing glamourous. In shorts and thongs (jandals, for the Kiwi members of the company), musicians are sitting around on bare concrete, eating microwaved soup from supermarket containers. Some people are taking advantage of relatively good phone reception to call home, the technicians and stage hands are playing Frisbee.
The tour manager is ticking 1,000 things off an ever-growing list, and the travelling wigs and wardrobe supervisor is steaming the last of the costumes she has spent the day laundering.
In the dressing rooms, tenors and baritones are sitting around shirtless, as boys are wont to do when the temperature cracks 30. They’re warming up, checking notes and trading jokes, and occasionally stopping to apply eyeliner.
The bathrooms are reverberating with top notes and low notes as singers warm up against the unbeatable acoustics.
Behind the lighting rigs, a violinist is bowing away, practising a particularly fiddly phrase.
It’s 60 minutes until showtime, and before long, the audience will begin milling in the foyers. It’s always a motley crowd, in these small towns. A couple walk past, dressed to the nines in taffeta and bow ties. Tourists have picked out their very best shorts and least-dusty sandals.
Excitable children press against their parents and shyly approach the program table.
“Does anybody die?” a girl asks the baritone selling programs. “Oh, just one or two,” says the singer gently. “But they don’t really. Just the characters.”
“People die?” her older brother chimes in. “Cool!”
The show itself goes well, despite a pre-show spider bite and a splitting headache for one of the singers. People chuckle at Leperello’s sulky comic antics, coo over the pretty 50s dresses of Donna Elvira and Zerlina, and gasp at Don Giovanni’s shocking end. With the last of the applause still ringing, performers are stripping off corsets and high-waisted pants, unpinning wigs and kicking off shoes. It’s a race to beat the record: getting back to the bus.
The mechs and techs have a longer night ahead: bumping out with the local crew.
But the best bit is still to come. Sitting in town having breakfast the next day, or 40km away seeing the sights, people sidle up to the singers. “Were you in the opera last night?” an older woman asks. “It was wonderful!” She’s a grey nomad, travelling with her husband and another couple across the outback. From a small town in rural Queensland, she’s seen the odd opera screening at the cinema. But this was her first live show. “You can’t beat the feeling of live performance,” she says, her travelling companions shyly looking on.
We get a tweet from an audience member. “Leperello adds Alice Springs to Don Giovanni’s list.”
Perhaps another lady for Don Giovanni’s burgeoning book of conquests?
Not this time. The singers are all tucked up in bed, preparing for an eight-hour bus trip in the morning. Next stop: Tennant Creek!