A Night (and a Day) at the Opera
March 16 & 17, 2019, Sydney, Australia — Fellow solo traveler Dietmar and I dodged the raindrops to attend the Sydney Opera House production of Puccini’s Turandot, which I had never seen. Several years ago, I had seen original costumes from the original production on display in Puccini’s birthplace in Lucca, Italy, and vowed that someday I had to see this ‘Chinese’ opera.
The lovely lady between us is Emily, one of the Viking Vocalists, who was doing double duty as a costumed ‘Norwegian’ welcoming all the new passengers who embarked in Sydney for Leg #4 of the 5-legged world cruise.
I wasn’t familiar with much of Turandot, though I think you’d all know Liù the slave girl’s aria in Act One and the tenor’s ‘Nessun Dorma’ in Act III. It was an excellent production with very some excellent voices and effective costuming, scenery and stagecraft. This stage is small by grand opera house standards, so they need to make good use of their square footage. Photos are allowed before curtain and during the interval but not during the opera. This is all I can show you from out front in the Dame Joan Sutherland (opera) Theatre... you’ll get a better view from the pit soon.
Afterwards, while waiting for the water shuttle back to the ship, we noticed this fern leaf on the Opera, which projects images (often Aboriginal) onto the building every night. I learned the next day that the fern is the symbol of New Zealand, which had experienced the brutal mass shootings at Christchurch the day before.
The next morning I was on a 3-hour backstage opera house tour that started at the break of dawn... we had to be out by 10, when stage prep and rehearsals began.
Now one of the most iconic performance halls in the world, its conception began in 1956 when a design competition was held for an opera house that would comprise 5 theatres for performances of opera, symphonies, ballet, theatre and other arts. There were 220 submissions. Some were winnowed out for the final judging, to be done by Eero Saarinen, famed architect of the TWA terminal at JFK Airport and the St. Louis Arch, among others. Saarinen didn’t like anything he saw, so he went through the pile of rejected designs — and picked Danish architect Jørn Utzon’s homage to the Sydney Harbor — a building that looks like overlapping sails.
Its location is on a small peninsula sticking out into the harbor, where the city tram depot once stood. The original budget was $7 million and it was to be completed in 3 years. Sixteen years later, Queen Elizabeth officiated at the grand opening of the $102 million Sydney Opera House, in 1973.
It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Which means nothing can be changed — only maintained. I.e., the fog machines — for atmosphere — can use only pure water, nothing with chemicals, since that might damage the property.
There are 29 pianos, mostly Steinways made in Hamburg, valued at around $300,000 each ($200K US). Wigs will cost you $4,000 ($2,666) a pop.
Here’s what the orchestra conductor sees from the pit located under the opera stage. Between 7:30 curtain Friday evening and final curtain Saturday night at 10:30, there had been three different productions on that stage: Salomé, La Bohème, and Turandot. We saw all the sets, stockpiled behind that wall at the back and elsewhere.
The Concert Hall can hold 1,800. With 5 keyboards, more than 30 pedals, and 10,151 pipes, its organ is the second largest in the world — the first is in Passau, Germany. The day I was there, there would be an afternoon performance of ‘Pictures at an Exhibition,’ aimed at young people. (Shades of Leonard Bernstein, for those of us of a certain age.)
While we were standing on the Concert Hall stage, our guide asked if anyone wanted to test the acoustics. No one else stepped up, so I sang a verse of ‘Danny Boy’ — it was St. Patrick’s Day after all!
When we’d moved on to the Joan Sutherland Theatre, the guide told me that, this time, I had to sing opera. Unable to remember the words to any Puccini aria, I sang a bit of ‘Summertime’ instead, to a full house... of empty seats.
The Opera House produces about 15% of the productions in all its venues. The rest are produced by other companies, who pay as much as $45,000 a day for use of a hall. That does not include, for example, turning on the lights. Speaking of lights, when they switched their lighting to LED, the opera house reduced the annual electric bill by 70%.
The SOH 2018 budget was $121,000,000. Ticket sales, rentals, food and merchandise sales brought in $117mm, leaving only $4mm, which the state covers. Considering what an international tourist draw it is, that’s $4mm well invested. We were told it is the most financially successful opera organization in the world.
Each year, there are 185 opera performances. In all, 2,000 performances a year in the 5 venues — up to 18 in one day.
Of course as soon as we walked out of the opera house, the clouds burst. Which they continued to do all the way back to the ship. Keep your eye on the blue umbrella.
Rain let up in time for sail away for this ship… and ours. On to Tasmania, which prides itself in being Australia’s only island state! #