Stacey Alleaume as Alexandra Mason pictured opposite Michael Petruccelli as Stephen Goldring and members of the ensemble in Opera Australia’s production of The Eighth Wonder
Credit: Prudence Upton

In much the same way that Manhattan was always the fifth (and most interesting) character in Sex and The City, so too the Sydney Opera House is often one of the most fascinating players in any production set on its hallowed stages.

So when the time came to tell the story of the venue itself through an original opera, it was only fitting that the iconic building should take pride of place at centre stage, in every respect.

Opening last week, Sydney Opera House – The Opera: The Eighth Wonder is the world’s first large-scale, live silent opera. Composed by Alan John and set to a libretto by Dennis Watkins and John, The Eighth Wonder takes a story about Australia in the 1960s and transforms it into something entirely modern through its unprecedented sound design, staging, projection, lighting and even 3D printing. In a feat never before accomplished with classical music on such a considerable scale, the English opera’s singers perform on the steps of the forecourt while an orchestra performs inside. The combined sound is then projected to the 3500 strong audience through the use of Audio Technica headphones transmitting audio to a bespoke FM broadcast system specially licensed for the event, immersing viewers in an origin story familiar to many yet undoubtedly rich in the potential for retelling. 

The steps of the Sydney Opera House have been transformed into a stage for the first time ever
Credit: Prudence Upton

“This is a story for all Australians,” Opera Australia’s Artistic Director Lyndon Terracini told GRAZIA. “It’s about the courage of a great premier of NSW, Joe Cahill; the genius of Jørn Utzon and it’s about a building that changed Sydney and Australia forever. It’s a wonderful story about courage, the making of art and the vision of a great artist.” It’s only natural then that alongside similarly as iconic characters including The Queen and The Architect, that the Hills Hoist should also play a significant part.

Having such grand designs to rival Utzon’s inevitably presented the production with a great deal many obstacles, which considering the subject matter, seems only fitting. “Firstly the scale of the space is massive,” says Terracini. “Secondly, one is totally dependent on the weather – but that is also exciting! Finally, the extraordinary logistics of doing a piece as large as Sydney Opera House – The Opera.

Though relatively young, the building itself is no stranger to growing pains. Utzon famously won the rights to design the building in 1956 – an achievement that would soon be marred by irreconcilable dealings with a corrupt government overburdened by bureaucracy and political manoeuvring, eventually forcing the Danish architect to resign from the project prior to its completion in 1966. Utzon never again returned to Australia to see his defining work completed. As a testament to its innately compelling narrative, planning commenced earlier this year on a feature film to be co-produced by Danish, Swedish and Australian teams committed to telling the story of Utzon and his beleaguered, innovative masterpiece. 

Members of the ensemble perform in an original production directed by David Freeman and composed by Alan John
Credit: Prudence Upton

Innovation then is an apt recurring theme across all three works, one sound designer Tony David Cray was forced to emulate when it came to undertaking production design for the Australian epic. 

“Embedded deeply into the story of the creation of the Opera House, and all throughout the opera itself, is the strong theme of innovation,” says Cray.

“Innovative solutions employed to overcome difficult challenges. The challenge for this project was to ensure the audience had the best possible theatrical experience regardless of where they were seated. The Opera House steps serve as this production’s performance area and it is vast – vast on a scale unlike any previous production. To envelope the audience was going to be a challenge.”

Cray, however, is no stranger to the challenge productions of this scale – and unconventional staging – present, having worked as the Sound Designer on Opera Australia’s productions of Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour, the initiative responsible for the similarly as extravagant ‘floating opera’ productions of La Traviata, Madama Butterfly and Aida, all of which use the Opera House and Harbour Bridge as a backdrop against which to stage ambitious spectacles involving live animals, fireworks and monolithic sets. A production of Carmen – the second after 2013’s run – is slated to run over March and April next year after proving especially popular in its maiden run.

The 2013 production of Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour’s Carmen, due for reprisal next year
Credit: James Morgan

Unlike those productions which take place at the Fleet Steps in the relative serenity of the Botanic Gardens, The Eighth Wonder’s staging at Bennelong Point and Circular Quay necessitated a different approach. After all, it’s rare, says Cray, to have the sound of an ocean liner reversing from its dock upstage a performer. Hence the need for a world-first silent opera approach, which “felt like it was the right path to take for this unique project” committed wholly to celebrating a venue well accustomed to staging similar unparalleled feats.

“Once all the pragmatic challenges such as testing the overall audio fidelity of the headphone system were addressed, the sound design aspect became highly rewarding. It’s rare to be able to mix a performance for so many people, knowing that they are listening to the exact same playback system as you. The only variable would be the personal volume that they had chosen. This has allowed us to create an audio experience that is highly engaging and envelopes the audience in a way that we have not previously seen.

“Despite the immense grandeur of the production’s scenery, the audience feels intimately connected to the singers and the story,” says Cray. It is, after all, a story that is as much Utzon’s as their own.

Tickets for Sydney Opera House – The Eighth Wonder (November 3-5) are available here.

Tile and cover image: Hamilton Lund