Sydney Opera House

Keeping things from going bump in the dark

When the curtain goes up on an opera performance, not too many audience members take a moment to consider the mechanics of the set. And just as well that they don’t – it’s often when spectators begin to notice the seams that hold a production together that things go out of whack...

Making sure that this never happens is OA’s Technical Department, headed by Technical Director Chris Yates. The Sydney summer season, which draws to a close this month, is traditionally its most hectic, as it involves looking after a number of productions each witha unique set of challenges.

2011’s first production – Madama Butterfly – features water, usually a technical nightmare. But fortunately, says Yates, in Moffatt Oxenbould’s production “the water just sits there”. Dealing with waterfalls and running water is not so simple. “You have to have pumps, regulators and a catchment, and you have to deal with the noise that running water creates.”

2011’s Carmen will be remembered for mezzo-soprano Rinat Shaham’s breath-taking performances in the title role. It will also be remembered for her allergy to horse hair, which caused the first part of the 2011 run to be horse-free. After Shaham’s departure the horse had to be rehearsed with the cast, chorus and the principals. “It was a three-day process,” says Yates, with a laugh. “But we had to put it back in – the production had become known for it.”

The third show to open in Sydney was the revival of Elijah Moshinsky’s The Barber of Seville. Moshinsky’s production had been put away for a couple of seasons, and, says Yates, with a grin, when it was revived, “I had a feeling that a few departments thought that it had been cut from the repertoire, because we struggled to find some of the elements…” In fairness, he adds, OA has some 90 operas in storage and for seven years the Company had two Barber productions, so that it is hardly surprising that the odd item had gone missing.

As is customary with productions that came into being in an era when Occupational Health and Safety regulations were less stringent than they are today, Barber had to be kitted out withnew barriers and proper access ramps, and hand rails for the top floors. 

This was not necessary in Partenope, a new co-production with English National Opera, which like Opera Australia, works in repertory. However, its set, which had had a season at London’s Coliseum, had been “a bit knocked about” and needed some repairs. Moreover, since it was coming to a smaller theatre with different sightlines from those at the Coliseum, OA had to rebuild the floor. 

By mid-summer, Technical was also building the new Bohème set for the production’s première in Melbourne this April. 

For Yates and his colleagues, Bohème’s biggest challenge is its massive prop build. “ACT II, which features the market and the Café Momus scenes, is one of the busiest acts in opera. It opens with flower sellers, toy sellers, a potato seller, all in costume and requiring a variety of props, and this market scene transforms into Café Momus. We are very lucky to have a fantastic Head of Props Manufacture in Mat Lawrence, and thanks partly to him and his team, these scenes are going to be terrific.”

In all, says Yates, summer of 2011 has not been too hair-raising.

Next January, with two new productions and Opera on the Harbour…”Now that will be a different story.”