Upon the somewhat bumpy approach to the mountain town of Milo, in the Catania region of Eastern Sicily, the real headliner of Opera festival is already visible. No, it’s not Mykki Blanco, Soichi Terada or Ukrainian pop star Alina Pash — though all three are huge draws. It’s the 11,000ft, 500,000-year-old stratovolcano quietly smoking away at just about every vantage point in the region.
In the literal sense, Mount Etna — Europe’s most active volcano — is a huge theme of this intimate four-day celebration of arts and music. The ash it near-constantly scatters over the town covers all dancefloors, and stand around too long enjoying the warm evening air (or an ice-cold Messina beer) and you’ll start to see tiny specs of it over your skin. In a symbolic sense it's present too: it’s in the fiery-yet-stripped-back aesthetic of the festival’s spaces, the clear reverence for nature and the unabridged way the crowd interact with the music. It’s even seen in the cone-like shape of the festival’s unofficial-yet-official snack… the arancini.
Now in its second year, Opera festival offers an alluring combination of unique stages, once-in-a-lifetime experiences, sets from local favourites and internationally renowned talents — plus the chance to get a real taste of life in rural Sicily. This year’s line-up explores the width and breadth of the leftfield sphere. On the bill are live shows from US rapper and cross-disciplinary artist Mykki Blanco, composer and producer Oklou, Italian indie pop star Ditonellapiaga, instrumental jazz from Addict Ameba and disco-funk from Dutch band YĪN YĪN. While gracing the decks are Jossy Mitsu, Louise Chen, So-fi, Blatta, Paula Tape, Reptant, Roza Terenzi and Gianmarco Orsini.
Attendees are offered the option to camp or stay in a hostel at a site just outside of the town centre that usually functions as a base for hikers looking to tackle the numerous trails around Etna. Though many seem to have opted to stay in the handful of B&B’s in Milo, or taxi in from a nearby town. Due to the festival's ticket structure — offering the opportunity to pay entry to individual events as well as a "Golden Pass" which covers the entire festival — there is a different selection of faces, and overall vibe, at every stop. The crowd is primarily made up of headsy Cav Empt-donning music enthusiasts, ardent hippies with shell necklaces and young Sicilian natives unable to pass up the opportunity to catch big names on home turf. Most have come from Catania, however many I speak to have travelled from the mainland... some even from as far as Paris and The Netherlands. One crowd member, brandishing an oversized backpack with an unmistakable American accent explains: “I’m actually travelling through Sicily right now, I was staying in Riposto and I saw the poster and thought I’d check it out. I’d never thought this area was very party-friendly, so it’s a welcome surprise.”
In a gracious move, Opera has minimal clashes. Usually, the action takes place at one stage at a time — great news for those not wanting to have to make a Sophie’s Choice, and of course to provide respite for the sleepy town below as the party carries on into the night.
It makes sense that Opera would make as many accommodations for the people of Milo as possible — even going so far as to offer locals 50% off all tickets. The town really is at the centre of everything Opera is. Milo, a tiny commune with a population of just 1,072, is undeniably beautiful — all baroque architecture, breath-taking views of the island’s east coast and that patented, laidback Sicilian charm. The town hall has been temporarily remodelled into an information point and it is here the festival puts on a series of free performances in the early afternoon and late evenings — while the handful of restaurants and cafes are populated by worse-for-wear attendees.
Over the weekend, the locals come out in force, with all-ages gathering over beer and panelle around the Saturday night jazz offering until late at night. During the day the Opera Radio Stage sits at the centre of a busy thoroughfare in the town centre, attracting as many Milo dwellers as festival goers.
For a sleepy town with a higher-than-average median age, it’s refreshing to see how open the locals are to this eclectic musical offering. As Fritto FM resident Bräga Bojuda (Boiled Trousers) shells out bass offerings from the likes of PinkPantheress, Coco Bryce and Mani Festo on Saturday morning, pensioners queuing up at a butchers around the corner find themselves unable to resist walking over to take a look. Likewise, during some blissed-out house courtesy of DJ Rou, families happily tuck into some street-side calzone by the speaker stack — with a small boy even joining the L'Archivio 40100 boss behind the decks to sing along.
Beyond the town limits, there are even more pinch-yourself opportunities to be had. The sunrise “Etna Morning” which features the atmospheric synths and minimal vocal stylings of Cucina Provera is a particular highlight. Taking place at 5:AM at the Vigneri vineyard, during the Finnish-born artist’s set the sun slowly rises over the mountain above, bathing the entire valley in light. Likewise, a “secret” set beneath Ilice Carrinu, a majestic 700-year-old oak tree, from Italian singer-songwriter Marco Castello is pretty special. Accessible only by a hike through the volcanic forest, or a local off-road jeep taxi (an option we don’t recommend if scaling down a rock face in a four-wheeler isn’t your thing), the late-afternoon set features no sound equipment — just a voice, a guitar and quietly-poured cups of local rosé.
The majority of the action at Opera takes place across two stages, The Odar Ballroom and Teatro Lucio Dalla. The first is a forest clearing close to the camping and hostel site, a short 15-minute walk out of town, featuring a mirrored DJ booth to reflect back the view of cavorting bare feet kicking up ash from the canopy floor as the crowd dances. The majority of the festival’s DJ sets are hosted here in the late afternoon — meaning the vibe is slightly more loose compared to the evening headliners. It’s a clever set-up, the crowd remains at a pretty consistent (if not slightly waved) energy throughout the afternoon as beloved local selectors mingle between big-name imports. Returning after a 10-year hiatus Blatta (of Blatta and Inesha fame) has the bleary-eyed Friday throngs wafting to Red Axes ‘Musica Electronique’ and Nude Disco’s ‘Perfect Motion’, before Jossy Mitsu digs deep for a three-hour journey into Chicago house, UK bass bangers and pop edits — with a cheeky closer serving up Sound of the Summer 2022 ‘B.O.T.A’. to send the masses on their merry way. While on Sunday the woozy synths and Balearic sensibilities of Chilean Italo aficionado Paula Tape brings everyone back to life — dishing out Avalon Emerson’s ‘Poodle Power’, Ambiguity’s ‘In Flagranti’ and ‘Daniele Baldelli’s ‘Krebs Cycle’. Sicilian femme-collective Fluidae are a particular highlight, kicking up the tempo for an extended set that spans everything from electro, to silly techno to UKG. The four women laugh at each other from within the booth as they mix Joy Orbison and Overmono’s ‘Bromley’ into ‘Rhythm N Gash’.
Upon first entering Teatro Lucio Dalla on the other hand, the mood seems much more restrained. But for only a second, as crowds flock down the stairs of the amphitheatre as Saturday headliner Mykki Blanco appears from the side of the stage. Piles of ash coat the floor of the Teatro, providing a dramatic backdrop for the headliners to perform before, each making it their own — Blanco jumps straight into the crowd following a spine-tingling rendition of their new single 'French Lessons', Oklou brings out dried tree trunks to really lean into the retro-futuristic setting and Louise Chen invites everyone up on stage with her to sign off with a colpo. For his headline set on Friday, Soichi Terada takes the opportunity to really move around, gleefully standing astride a speaker stack during a live rework of Yasushi Fujimoto's 'I Was Made For Loving You', returning to his equipment for 'We Came Together' and 'Bamboo Fighter' from his 2021 release 'Asakusa Light'.
Ukrainian X Factor finalist turned experimental pop star Alina Pash's set on Sunday evening toes the balance between being deeply emotional and undeniably badass. The self-described "sexy witch" stalks around the Teatro demonstrating her unique blend of Ruthenian folk rap and electro-pop, dropping tracks such as ‘Ласки дівочі’, 'Gentleman' and 'ACCENT', all while telling stories of her country, and urging the crowd to stand against Russian atrocities. In a particularly poignant speech she holds a hand out to the DJ to pause: "In Kyiv, we don't even bother going to Berlin... because all the good techno is already there," she laughs breathlessly into the mic. "The clubs will be open once more when we win this cruel war. We’re not gonna have our electronic culture if we don’t fight for it."
Over Friday and Saturday, revellers looking to continue into the night have the option of grabbing a cab into the hills and heading to an "after show" at Punto Base 13 — an ancient mill, hidden from view of the road by surrounding forests and vineyards, making the long winding path through the growth onto the dancefloor feel a bit like sneaking into an illegal rave. The production over at Punto Base is simple: a cracking soundsystem and a pair of blinding LEDs formed into a pyramid above the DJ booth — tinging the weathered stone walls in an orange-purple hue. The line-up for Punto Base consists primarily of local bass and techno acts, a take-over from Milan-based imprint Bosconi Records sees a sublime acid voyage from Giammarco Orsini, hypnotic grooves from Funclab Records founder Ayce Bio and some deep winding house from boss Fabio della Torre. While Friday night sees electro slammers from the Lizard King of Melbourne himself, Reptant – followed by fellow Melburnian-turned-Berliner Roza Terenzi, who drops a hearty selection of bass bangers à la Joy Kitikonti 'Joyenergizer', a speedy edit of Angelina's 'Release Me' and has every wrist shaking with frenzy as the bolshy synths of Breeder's 'Beetlejuice' blast into the early morning sky.
Despite operating over various venues scattered all over the mountainside — the festival itself feels fluid. The quality of the soundsystems appears just as good at the tiny Opera Radio Stage as it does during the all-out wallop being handed out by the techno DJs at Punto Base. Little details like the use of reusable cups, morning yoga classes and industry talks really tie everything together and make you feel as if they've thought of everything. Despite much of the festival guidance being in Italian, there are few issues you can run into at Opera that can't be fixed with a quick look at Google Translate or a phrase book. However, the area's lack of infrastructure does become an issue when trying to get between stages — with just a few taxi services (no Uber here) dedicated to ferrying attendees between five different locations, and three towns. Particularly during the late evening sets, the lack of travel options results in people rushing to try and secure a taxi seat versus a long wait — and there seems to be more than a handful of partygoers stranded in Milo's centre on Sunday morning.
What Opera really nails is what many festivals with this kind of impressive setting seem to miss — you can really see Sicily while you're here. As a result of both the remoteness of Milo and the festival's all-embracing approach to their host town, you'll quickly have sampled many of the local delights; while the varied stage locations provide a diverse perspective of the island's landscape. Opera provides the opportunity to witness intimate performances from a coveted selection of off-kilter acts, while simultaneously demonstrating what the Sicilian underground scene - and its buoyant, receptive crowd - has to offer, leaving you with a new list of favourites to follow when you get home.
To really sum up Opera festival, we need to quote Plato: “Sicilians throw raves like they will live forever and eat like they will die tomorrow.” Pretty sure that's what he said?
Megan Townsend is Mixmag's Deputy Editor, follow her on Twitter