Sydney Opera House

Big, bold and beautiful


By Jo Litson – 27 Oct 2011

With a stage approaching the size of an Olympic swimming pool, a chandelier as large as the Big Pineapple, comfortable grandstand seating in gorgeous garden surrounds, and a view to die for, Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour promises to be one of the most spectacular productions Sydney has ever seen.
Sydney loves a big outdoor spectacle – and it does them spectacularly well.
The opening and closing ceremonies of the 2000 Sydney Olympics set a new benchmark for such events while the New Year’s Eve Fireworks are famous the world over.
Sydney Harbour is a pretty specky location, of course, and Sydneysiders are used to making the most of it from the ferry races on Australia Day to the St George OpenAir Cinema each January on Mrs Macquarie’s Point.
But you ain’t seen nothing yet. Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour: La Traviata combines one of the best-loved operas with one of the world’s most stunning outdoor venues.
Performed on a purpose-built stage over the water, audiences will watch from a 3000-seat grandstand erected on a site at Fleet Steps next to the Royal Botanic Gardens that’s twice the size of the one used by the OpenAir Cinema.
With seating and hospitality areas just metres from the harbour wall, the Sydney Opera House, Harbour Bridge and city skyline will form a breathtaking backdrop.
Outdoor opera on this scale hasn’t been attempted in Australia before.  Opera in the Domain always attracts enormous crowds but that’s a one-off semi-staged version.  By contrast, Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour (HOSH) is a massive, lavishly staged production: opera at its showbizziest.
Backed by Japanese businessman and music-lover Dr Haruhisa Handa, it’s a huge logistical challenge but Opera Australia artistic director Lyndon Terracini has never been afraid of thinking big.
“Well, opera is big and bold and beautiful,” says Terracini. “Sometimes we can be a bit precious about it and hide our light under a bushel.”
There’s no danger of that here.  The $11.5 million event looks set to dazzle on all fronts from the opulent production to first-rate hospitality facilities.
With a range of bars and dining areas serving everything from champagne and snacks to pre-show dinner and post-show cocktails, HOSH will offer audiences a complete and exclusive experience.
When Brian Thomson was commissioned to design the set he knew that it had to be something as big and bold as the event itself.  “You can’t do anything with any detail,” he says.  “It’s got to be a big idea and built to carry to the audience.”
One of Australia’s leading stage designers, Thomson’s recent credits include the musical Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (currently playing on Broadway and in the West End) and Gale Edwards’ new La Boheme for OA.
He is also the bridge effect designer for Sydney’s New Year’s Eve fireworks and was supervising designer for the Sydney Olympics so is used to working on a grand scale.
His minimal but striking stage design is dominated by a giant chandelier, which will sparkle with over 23,000 crystal facets symbolising the world of Verdi’s opera with its glittering Parisian salons.
Nine metres high and nine metres in diameter, it’s around the same size as the Big Pineapple on Australia’s Sunshine Coast.
Thomson recently flew to Abu Dhabi to see the biggest chandelier in the world, which hangs in a mosque there, measuring 15 metres by nine metres.  “It’s pretty amazing,” he says.  “Ours isn’t too small compared to that.”
The chandelier will be suspended from a 26-metre crane, blackened so that it is almost invisible against the night sky.  At the end of Act I when Violetta (played by Emma Matthews and Rachelle Durkin who alternate in the role), sings the famous aria Sempre libera, she will ascend into the chandelier in a transparent capsule as fireworks explode around her.


Tess Schofield has designed gorgeous 1950s-inspired costumes, including decadent outfits for a masked ball in Act II, which will have guests arriving by motorboat.
The stage itself is 32 metres by 24 metres.  In consultation with the production’s internationally renowned director Francesca Zambello, Thomson has designed it to look like an enormous, gilt-framed, antique mirror sitting at an angle on a rake.
The stage, along with the seating and hospitality stand, is being constructed by ESS Australia, a leader in its field, which has worked with OA on the design of the structures.
The main staging contractor for the 2000 Sydney Olympics, the 2003 Rugby World Cup, the 2006 Melbourne Commonwealth Games and World Youth Day in 2008, ESS also supplies staging for the Sydney Festival and most of the outdoor events on the Sydney Opera House forecourt.
For HOSH, ESS has designed a stage, which will sit just above the water. It will be built on 16 piles, sunk into the harbour bed.  Each pile is constructed in two sections.  After the event, the bottom part will be left and the top part removed, then reset whenever the stage is needed.
The orchestra will be housed in a section beneath the stage alongside dressing rooms and waiting areas for the chorus.
The staging will be constructed in Adelaide and transported by road to the site (in sections), whilst the chandelier, which is being built in Melbourne, will be transported to Sydney by road, assembled off site, and then transported to the site by a huge barge.
Meanwhile on land, the site has been designed to give audiences a comfortable and unforgettable experience.  The seating grandstand will be bookended by large hospitality areas.  The northern end is three-tiered with catering outlets on each level, all quite plush – particularly the platinum lounge on the middle floor, which will incorporate motifs from the set design (chandeliers, frames and rich red drapes) in its sumptuous décor.
The southern end will be two-tiered with its top deck nestling beneath a canopy of trees.
Respecting and protecting the gardens and heritage walls is crucial - hence the slightly odd shape of the structure.
“We’ve had a full laser survey of the site, which we’ve been able to combine with CAD, so we can determine exactly where the tree trunks and branches are in relation to the structure,” says Louisa Robertson, HOSH executive producer for OA.  “ESS has designed around the tree branches, that’s why the design is so specific.”
The northern stand has even been built around a tree, whose branches will sprout through two levels of the three level structure.
“It’s a unique project so it’s very exciting,” says Iain Barclay, ESS Australia’s managing director.  “I have worked on a lot of major celebrations and I’m probably more excited by this than any other event for a long time. I think it’s going to be just magical.”