IT took 21 years for Taree-born singer Peter-John Layton to discover opera, but when he finally did, his fate was sealed.
“I really like all music apart from heavy rock. I learnt the piano for years, and was mainly interested in musical theatre. But when I was in Sydney I started looking for a singing teacher, and followed some advice to get a classic technique... I haven’t looked back.”
He was 21-years-old. Seven years later he performed his first public opera at 28, and six years ago the former Firefly local co-founded Opera Bites, a group dedicated to making opera accessible to everyone and anyone.
Last Saturday, those notes made their way across the water from Tuncurry’s John Wright Park, where the group were performing for the first time on Peter’s home-ground.
Schooled at Nabiac Public School then Chatham High School, Peter-John moved to Sydney straight after high school to attend university. There, he completed a science degree at Macquarie University (working at Ton-O-Fun then BiLo in Tuncurry during holidays) which he complemented with a masters in Communication at UTS. Finding his voice through opera under various guises, he now travels the length and breadth of the country bringing both full and abbreviated operas to audiences in pubs, agricultural sheds, outdoor settings, small regional theatres – wherever the bookings take them.
“We’ve organised ourselves so well we can just take the whole show and go. It’s a different market out there. We have handmade costumes, an accompanist, props, and we use the environment we’re in as our stage. We’re fully transportable,” he said, adding that opera’s access is often impeded by its perception of being high brow and expensive.
“But if you can access it at the pub, well, they’re the people who are going to give it a try. And that’s what we try to do, give them that opportunity,” Peter-John said.
Certainly, it’s a step away from what Peter-John’s parents are used to, as Peter’s father Lindsay is well known locally as a country music musician who can beat out a good rhythm in his panel beating business. And as so often is the case, the family’s music lineage is long, with Peter’s grandfather Ken Cause also known locally for his musicianship. It’s unavoidable, music is in the family’s blood.
“My mother was pretty excited. She booked 50 seats,” he said, referring to the performance on Saturday.
“To come home for something of this scale, it’s amazing. It’s such an honour. Hopefully our style will draw people in and more will walk away appreciating opera. I just never thought when I started out doing this, it would lead to the scale that it has.”
It certainly hit a chord. Almost 1000 tickets had already been sold three weeks prior to the event.
“Actually it’s a very different experience. People don’t have to concentrate on the sub-titles,” he laughed.