Opera Afloat

Opera Australia has announced its most extravagant, expensive undertaking to date: a lavish La Traviata on Sydney Harbour. But will dazzled audiences new to opera take to the regular indoor season like ducks to water?

A week or so ago, Opera Australia officially launched its latest venture, Opera on Sydney Harbour. The enigmatic tweets leading up to announcement did, I admit, have me expecting a bigger surprise — Lyndon Terracini and Kristin Keneally were both telling media about the so-called "floating opera" as early as November last year, so I had assumed the thing was well and truly launched — but this was the Absolutely Official Glitzy version of the announcement, complete with holograms for those lucky Sydneysiders invited to the launch party.

We already knew that in March 2012, Emma Matthews would sing her first Violetta in a new, spectacular La traviata on Sydney Harbour, directed by Francesca Zambello. Now we know that the show will run for three weeks, that Emma will share her role with Rachelle Durkin in a cast also including Ji-Min Park and Gianluca Terranova as Alredo and Jonathan Summer and Warwick Fyfe as Papa Germont, that the naming sponsor is Dr Haruhisa Handa, whose International Foundation for Arts and Culture has long sponsored the Australian Singing Competition — and that there will be fireworks. During the Act I party, I believe; I hope those attracted to the harbour by that aspect of the spectacle won't be too disappointed by the comparatively melancholy and intimate turn the opera takes in Act II.

Opera Australia hopes this extravagant event will draw in new audiences for opera generally, and I hope they're right, although my personal feeling has always been that for an opera company to truly build up the fan base of its regular season, it needs to make that regular season as attractive as possible. Opera on the harbour will certainly raise the company's profile, which can't be bad; I do wonder, though, whether an evening of opera under the stars, on Sydney's gorgeous harbour, with wine in hand and fireworks in the sky, mightn't actually make some people more reluctant to see a show inside, in a four-walled theatre where you can only bring water into the auditorium. I know — and you probably do too — how brilliant what goes on in that theatre can be, of course, but if you're new to the whole idea, then the congeniality of surroundings could well play quite a big part.

Still, the event is, at least on its own terms, a guaranteed success — Opera in the Domain always does well, and this is at least ten times more appealing a setting, both for residents and for tourists. Barring disastrous weather or technical catastrophe, I don't (knock on wood) see how it could go wrong. And while floating opera probably doesn't lend itself to intimacy or subtlety or non-mainstream works — nobody's going to set, say, Capriccio or Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk on the harbour — for the big spectacular warhorses, there's lots of scope for a director like Zambello to really go to town. Her Carmen, which Sydney audiences have now seen in two seasons, already overflows with activity and colour, so just imagine what she'll manage on this much larger canvas. If even the launch party involved holograms, then presumably the possibilities are all but endless.

Tickets have already been made available to subscribers and, I believe, to previous ticket purchasers; everyone else can book from July 4. There's a list you can sign up for at the official Opera on Sydney Harbour website, which also includes all sorts of other information about the event. I for one won't be there — it coincides directly with TTIML's appearance as Siegmund at the Met, so I figure my absence will be forgiven — but I suspect media coverage will be far from thin on the ground.

Now, over to you, theoretical readers. Are you planning to go? Have you already booked? What do you make of the whole thing? Which other operas would you like — seriously or not — to see staged on the harbour?

And while you mull all that over, here are a few YouTube tastes of floating opera at its most spectacular, courtesy of the Bregenzer Festspiele, which stages super-extravagant productions on the shores of Lake Constance every summer and has benefited previously from Zambello's directorial vision.

La bohème:

Tosca (as seen in Quantum of Solace):

And finally, Il trovatore:

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Sarah Noble
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