Many of us have experienced the world of opera, whether we’re singers ourselves, avid spectators or only watched it on television. However, few people can say they’ve had the privilege of viewing opera in an underground mine, cave, or abandoned reservoir. This is where Bruce Edwards and the Underground Opera Company comes in.
The Early Stages
The Underground Opera Company began in 2007 when Bruce Edwards, a former miner of 25 years, stumbled upon the incredible potential that mines and underground caves have to offer in the world of opera.
The choice to change from a miner to the founder of an opera company seems to be a leap of the imagination, but Edwards explained his early exposure to the world of the arts.
Since Grade 10, Edwards had played drums in a band, and after a short stint in university he became a representative for Brady Drums. Through this, he recounts meeting Prince, Billy Joel and INXS, reminiscing on what was an exciting time in his life in his early 20s.
However, the rise to stardom would stop short when Edwards decided to enter the mining industry as a means of earning good money. He recalls the startling difference between the 9-to-3 school day with frequent breaks compared to the harsh ’12 hours a day, 7 days a week…23 days on, 5 days off’ regime the mines had to offer.
It was during this long haul in the mines that Edwards discovered the theatre. In the mid-90s Edwards moved to Sydney and began his own company specialising in ground support for tunnels and mines. At this time, his girlfriend was involved in an amateur theatre company and persuaded him to audition for their show Carousel. It’s obvious this experience stuck with him, as he continued this creative path in Brisbane. In 2001, he performed in the chorus of a musical theatre piece, and claims that it was his ‘first introduction to musical theatre and opera’. By the time he landed a leading role in his third show, Edwards was gaining a strong interest in the opera scene.
Edwards had a longing to produce his own concerts, and this lead him to running a local musical theatre company for a short period of time. Meanwhile, word slowly spread around the mine of his involvement in the theatre. It was at this point that he was told about the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra conducting a show at Renison Mine. Edwards was immediately enthralled by the idea of bringing music into the deserted areas the mines occupied. His wonder was only intensified when the orchestra’s show was mentioned to him again whilst working a remote job between Darwin and Kakadu. It was the popularity of the Renison Mine show that sparked Edwards into action.
From this point, Edwards went into a partnership with a friend in the opera industry. ‘He was with me for my first show…and he’s basically been my tenor for the last ten years’, Edwards enthused on his friend. Their first show was at a small gold mine in Kilkivan and was extremely well-received, which led them to pursue other spaces to perform. The ensuing destinations involved the Jenolan Caves in the Blue Mountains, the Spring Hill Reservoir, the Swan Bank power station and the Rockhampton Capricorn Caves, which Edwards claims were the ‘closest thing to a perfect acoustic [he’d] found anywhere in the country’. It was the high-quality performances paired with the stunning natural stages that had both local and international audiences travelling to experience Edwards’ shows.
Carols in the Reservoir
When asked about his upcoming projects, Edwards outlined the Carols in the Reservoir that takes place between December 1stto the 17th this year. Funnily enough, despite its annual occurrence, this show is the one that Edwards looks forward to the most. He loves Christmas and states that a simple snow machine in the roof ignites smiles on the faces of everyone in the audience, regardless of age. He recounts the hands of spectators reaching into the air in hopes of snatching a snowflake and the grins on their faces. It’s obvious that audience experience plays a huge role in Edwards’ passion for performance.
The Place of Dreams
Australia offers an incredible range of caves, mines and tunnels to perform in, but Edwards also has endless aspirations for overseas shows. His list of dream destinations includes the Roman catacombs, overseas salt mines and the Batu Caves in Malaysia.
Edwards also speaks fondly of the United States and is drawn in not only by the possibilities it holds for staging his operatic pieces but also by the kindness of the people he met while vacationing there.
Of course, he also couldn’t go past the ‘older civilisations’ such as Europe and China, which he believes would host some of the most amazing stages he could imagine.
Unsurprisingly, Edwards proves to be a trendsetter when it concerns his choice of staging. He dislikes ‘going into something that’s already there’, such as performing in an underground cave that exists only to hold concerts, plays and other shows. Instead, Edwards thrives in ‘turning these spaces into venues’, such as the Swan Bank power station, which had never seen anything akin to an opera show before Edwards and his company discovered its potential.
The Audience is What Matters
Bruce Edwards thrives in ‘creating experiences for people’ by taking them from the ‘sterile’ theatres. One of Edwards’ pet peeves are singers who simply stand and sing and expect audiences to be entertained. Because of this, Edwards says that he can hardly sit through an opera without taking a nap halfway through. This may seem odd for the founder and director of the highest-ranked opera company in Australia, but it’s this peeve that inspires Edwards to make the best shows he possibly can.
By placing his audience as his top priority, he constantly delivers world-class entertainment. Due to the size of Edwards’ venues, audience numbers are often limited to approximately 90 people. This makes for an intimate, close-up view of the singers, who Edwards describes primarily as ‘performers’. Because of this intimacy, audiences experience a ‘personal interaction’ between themselves and the onstage performers, hence breaking down the fourth wall and creating a mutual ‘relationship’.
Many people dread the question, ‘where does your inspiration come from?’, but it had to be asked. Edwards admits that his cast has a far broader knowledge of opera than he does, and when he is seeking to create a new show he will often consult them. Through viewing videos that his cast send him, Edwards sifts through until he finds one that is just right.
‘I certainly use myself as a demographic for our shows’, he claims. Edwards’ theory is that if he can enjoy his shows then most concert-goers certainly will.
This tactic certainly seems to have worked in his favour, as the Underground Opera Company has earned itself the Best Arts, Music or Cultural Event Award and a Silver Award at the National Trust Heritage Awards. These achievements are well-deserved when considering the company’s stunning settings, intimate performances, world-class singers and overall dedication to entertainment.
Be sure to book tickets to the Underground Opera Company’s Carols in the Reservoir, which begins Thursday 1th December.