Fireworks explode over the Sydney city skyline

A SLICE OF New York FOR Sydney Harbour

Brian Thomson reveals his set design for West Side Story on Sydney Harbour.

The Sydney skyline is about to be interrupted, without apology, by some of New York City’s icons.

West Side Story on Sydney Harbour’s gigantic stage and set design offers a delightful visual disharmony.

The Statue of Liberty’s famous torch, the graffitied subway cars, and soaring highway overpasses of New York rise conspicuously against the backdrop of an emerald harbour, the Sydney Opera House’s pearlescent sails and the curve of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

A render image of the set design for West Side Story on Sydney Harbour

A render image of the set design of Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour, designed by Brian Thomson.

It’s all the vision of prominent Australian designer Brian Thomson, who has worked so much on Sydney Harbour he could almost consider its waters a muse. Thomson designed the first ever Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour, creating the giant chandelier that glittered above La Traviata, and returned to design Carmen the following year, complete with 9-metre high marquee letters standing tall at the back of the stage.

Fireworks explode over a neon bull outline on the Carmen on Sydney Harbour set

Carmen, performed at Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour in 2013. Picture: James Morgan.

He designed the New Year’s Eve motif on the Sydney Harbour Bridge for six years running, including the neon coathanger.

And now he’s returning to the harbour to design Opera Australia’s first ever musical in the Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour series, now in its eighth year.

What will the set design look like?

“The idea is that we’re building a chunk of West Side New York, sticking out into the harbour,” Thomson says. “It’s a place where the old subway trains go to die.”

Thomson was inspired by images of New York’s famous subway cars  being pitched into the ocean at the end of their useful life. In this design, the subway cars become locations including Doc’s Store.


The set model for West Side Story on Sydney Harbour shows the set design in minature. Design by Brian Thomson. Photo by Rhiannon Hopley.


A 30-metre wide, 15-metre high overpass stretches over the stage, while the Statue of Liberty’s torch watches over the gangs.

“New York is such a special place, it’s got wonderfully iconic things. Part of it is the colouful subway cars, part of it is the freeway bridges and of course the Statue of Liberty. And even though they might not all be geographically in the same place, I wanted to have those in West Side Story on Sydney Harbour," Thomson says.

He chose the Statue of Liberty as a symbol of justice and immigration, because those are themes that resonate throughout West Side Story. “I think the story is about justice, it is about migrants, it’s about a lot of things that are very current, and very troubling.”

“It’s a musical that has a lot of bright moments,” he adds, “and a lot of dark moments as well. But I wanted the colour and vibrancy of youth, of young people, the kind of people that might have got involved in this story.”

Designing for a unique stage

The Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour stage is two and a half times larger than any Australian indoor stage, which poses a significant challenge. How do you make something spectacular and large-scale and still find a way to make intimate scenes effective?

Thomson addresses this by positioning small scenes at the front of the stage. Maria’s bedroom and the bridal shop, both formed from shipping containers, and Doc’s Store can all truck downstage to be close to the audience. “They have to be close so that everyone in the audience can really feel part of it.”

Small figures and models of the set pieces of West Side Story on Sydney Harbour

A close up of Maria's balcony in the set model for West Side Story on Sydney Harbour. Set design by Brian Thomson. Photo by Rhiannon Hopley.

He is chuffed at the prospect of designing a new West Side Story free from the usual trappings of a theatre. “We’re quite lucky, we don’t have the flies and wings and usual theatre space. We have to make all that up. That will give us a dynamic that the show might not have had before.

“To me, that’s the excitement, actually taking something that has been used to living in a theatre and putting it out there on the harbour.”

By Jennifer Williams


West Side Story on Sydney Harbour


  • More than 150 people work together to build the stage and pop-up opera venue
  • The build takes just over three weeks
  • More than 30 people work together to construct the set and stage scenery
  • It takes nearly 6,000 hours to create the scenery
  • The stage is two and a half times larger than any indoor Australian stage
  • The stage weighs 40 tonnes
  • 16 pylons sunk into the ocean floor support the stage
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