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Enjoying Opera Up, Down and All Around in Sydney

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Opera is playing by the harbour and under the night sky, in a fine concert hall inside the Opera House and reverberating underground in a cave at the end of a sandstone tunnel. This isn’t Vienna, it’s Sydney, and the arias are everywhere.

Music lovers have been loving Lakme and thrilling to Tosca inside the Sydney Opera House since 1973, the year the performance spaces opened beneath the iconic shells. In 2012, Opera Australia partnered with Japanese philanthropist Haruhisa Handa to take the party outside. The elaborate staging for Verdi’s La Traviata, the premiere season of Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour, included a 30 foot by 30 foot chandelier sparkling with tens of thousands of Swarovski crystals and swinging from a giant crane over the dramatically raked stage, jutting out over the water. Each season since, audiences have been treated to elaborate sets and the flamboyant backdrop of the Sydney skyline twinkling across the night-inked waters, with the Sydney Harbour Bridge and those famous white sails illuminated like showy cameos.

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Producing this full-scale opera en plein air is an enormous undertaking. Restaurants, bars and bathrooms are artfully assembled around the harbour frontage, seating is tiered into the hill of Mrs Macquaries Point and the orchestra pit is submerged in Farm Cove, beneath the enormous over-water stage. At the end of each season, the entire construction is carefully dismantled and vanishes until next year.

The staging is much less elaborate, but there are other obstacles to overcome in taking arias underground, which is exactly what The Underground Opera Company did this May, with the premiere season of Opera in the Cave in a man-made cave right under Bennelong Point.

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This surging chorus of opera in Sydney is no accident. “We’ve been making a conscious effort to play to a much wider audience,” says Lyndon Terracini, artistic director of Opera Australia (and a baritone whose professional operatic debut was at the Sydney Opera House in 1976). “For Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour, about half of the people who come are new to opera … and of course it’s not just the opera, it’s a complete experience and people have a fantastic time.”

Back at the Opera House, in the recently renovated Joan Sutherland Theatre (named in honour of Australia’s most famous opera star), Terracini has led the company’s revival of several classic musicals, such as South PacificMy Fair Lady and, coming this September, Evita. For those lucky enough to spend New Year’s Eve in Sydney, when the fireworks spectacle over the harbour is among the world’s most extravagant, Terracini recommends the performance of La Bohème or the gala concert of greatest hits.

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Hummable hits are Underground Opera’s mainstay. The subterranean singing is the brainchild of tunneling professional Bruce Edwards, who produced his first such show in an old gold mine in Queensland in 2007 and teamed with the Sydney Opera House’s car park contractor to “activate the space” for his company this year. “We have world-class singers performing the most recognisable opera pieces, because that’s what anyone who goes to the opera wants to hear,” says the quintessentially Aussie Edwards, who does double duty as MC and director for the performances. “We throw a bit of musical theatre into the mix, too.”

The May premiere featured hits from CarmenRigolettoLakme and The Pearlfishers, with a smattering of Sondheim and Gilbert and Sullivan, closing out with that aria for the ages, ‘Nessun dorma’ from Turandot. With only 200 seats — comfortable dining chairs arranged around a small stage with a single piano — the performance is so intimate that the audience can feel the voice vibrations of the singers — a soprano, mezzo soprano and two tenors, including one who’d just finished the Opera on the Harbour season. The tunnel walk to reach the man-made cave (which is easy, though not wheelchair-accessible) is part of the adventure and makes for a memorable night. Underground Opera will return with a Broadway show tunes show in August and another opera turn in September.

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Opera Australia’s Terracini thinks the more companies hitting the operatic notes in Sydney, the merrier. “The variety is terrific,” says Terracini, who says his own company is bringing in the best singers, conductors and directors in the world, as well as nurturing local talent. He makes certain to include some of the more obscure operas each season to please aficionados, too. “The feedback I’m getting from international visitors is that Opera Australia is now one of the greatest opera companies in the world — we’re getting people coming from all over who’ve heard from friends that they’ll hear wonderful singers in a stunning setting.”

All of this operatic excellence clustered around Sydney’s spectacular harbour is a short stroll from the InterContinental Sydney (indeed, the hotel is one of those backdrop buildings in the audience’s line of sight when Opera on the Harbour plays for four weeks each autumn). On level 31, Club InterContinental has an unparalleled 270-degree view of Sydney Harbour and the Opera House, the only hotel in the city to offer a rooftop terrace and balcony. Club InterContinental guests can survey ferries and ships plying the harbour and enjoy the changing light throughout the day, with a deluxe buffet breakfast served from 6.30am. A glass of fine Champagne on the wrap-around terrace at sunset is the perfect overture before heading down the hill to enjoy a night at the opera.

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