The Wonders and Blunders of Sydney's Opera on the Water

Photograph by Andrew Quilty/Bloomberg Businessweek

People often say the only downside to catching a show at the Sydney Opera House is that sitting inside means you’re missing the best part. Although a controversial survey published last year found that its acoustics were actually the worst of Australia’s top 20 venues, the sight of architect Jorn Utzon’s playfully stacked seashells jutting out over Sydney Harbor still elicits regular gasps from jaded travelers and lifelong residents alike.

So the logic seemed simple when, on a recent (Down Under) summer evening, several thousand spectators sat on the harborside in front of a massive floating stage, waiting for the dress rehearsal of one of the world’s most popular operas, Verdi’s La Traviatta, to begin: If people come to see the Opera House first and hear it second, why not make the building—not to mention Sydney’s modernist skyline—the backdrop?

Opera on the Harbor—Opera Australia’s three-week run of the Verdi classic, performed entirely on a 100-foot-long floating stage—has its pluses. They have already made it the most talked-about opera event in years. This is no small feat in a town that takes its opera (almost) as seriously as the rest of Australia takes its rugby.

There is a 30-foot-high chandelier bedecked with 10,000 shimmering Swarovski crystals, inside which soprano Emma Matthews is lifted by crane over the audience. There is a fireworks display engineered by Fortunato Foti, the company responsible for Sydney’s New Year’s Eve spectaculars. Opera Australia has dropped A$11.5 million (US$12 million) on the project, building restaurants and bars on its temporary home in Sydney’s Botanical Gardens, securing the best operatic talent in the country, and even hiring a lifeguard to rescue anyone who might slip from the stage into the harbor below.

The project is designed to free opera from the formal theater environment, which many people, especially young people, find alienating, says Francis Merson, editor-in-chief of Limelight, Australia’s premier arts magazine. Opera Australia is betting big on events like Opera on the Harbor, he says, to reach a range of audiences that might find a traditional opera setting intimidating. He expresses optimism for the project, which he says is in keeping with general trends in the field. And he pushes back against purists who say the pyrotechnics and other special effects dumb down the highbrow medium.

“We’re seeing a spate of operas around the world staged in pubs, warehouses, etc.,” he says. “The Opera on the Harbor may be a gimmick, but it’s not incompatible with the art form: You can stage a successful opera production in a stadium, on a barge—or even in deep space if you wanted to.”

The hype surrounding this Saturday’s opening suggests Merson could be right, but the rehearsal highlighted at least one key omission that the Opera House has in spades: a roof. Rain buffeted the audience and performers on the night of the final run-through, pushing back the starting time by over an hour and resulting in the cutting of the entire second act.

“It’s a shame because the whole thing has to do with the atmosphere and the spectacle and then you end up with this,” waterlogged concertgoer Prue Todd, 65, said from underneath a dripping blue poncho.

Paying audience members may not be as forgiving as Mrs. Todd, once the show officially opens.

“Staging opera in the open air is nothing new; the Santa Fe Opera does it every day. What’s daring about production is that it’s uncovered. It’s completely at the mercy of the elements,” Merson said presciently, just hours before the rehearsal.

“Given how volatile Sydney’s weather is, this could turn into a tragedy of operatic proportions.”

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