“Right… where shall I start?” says Dan Potra when I ask about the challenges of staging an opera on the harbour. The work to get the HOSH treatment this year is Puccini’s bums-on-seat La Bohème. Having done the sets and costumes for Turandot on Sydney Harbour, as well as Sydney Opera House – The Opera, Potra’s certainly not afraid of working in unconventional spaces. His matter of fact manner tells me as much.

La Bohème, Handa Opera on Sydney HarbourDan Potra. Photo © Bridget Elliot

“First and foremost, we have an obligation when we’re working in that amazing space [to remember that] the experience is totally different to that inside a theatre, and that we’ll be putting on a show for people who will be experiencing opera for the first time in many cases,” Potra explains. “So one of the challenges is the fact that we’re in the open air and are facing the Harbour Bridge, one of the most famous sights in the world. Of course it’s going to dwarf anything we do, but if we respectfully insert our own little project within that world, we can actually be part of that space and enhance the experience for the audience.”

Another problem that Potra and director Andy Morton have had to grapple with is the layout of the venue. As the seating is not particularly deep, the audience is stretched out quite far, so ensuring good sightlines has been a priority, “so no one misses out on any of the special effects and visual storytelling.”

And a perennial problem for opera on the harbour has been battling the elements – ponchos are sold at the venue, so likely is the chance for rain. “Costumes have to be able to withstand the rain and also dry out in three or four hours to be ready for the next day. We also have to make sure that the set doesn’t get warped by the rain, or attacked by cockatoos, as has happened in the past.”

“So the challenges are multiple, and it’s the first time where I have had to sign a contract where it has said that a costume has to look right with an umbrella held overhead.”

La Bohème, Handa Opera on Sydney HarbourAct I set design. Photo © Dan Potra

While Puccini’s opera has an undeniably busy stage picture in act two – directors like Franco Zeffirelli have certainly not shied away from playing up the spectacle of Café Momus – it’s still a remarkably intimate piece. How has Potra preserved intimacy in this instance?

“You put your finger on the most challenging aspect of the opera. It’s nearly a chamber opera despite the fact that it has a chorus, but it’s written like a psychological music piece. We have to make sure that we focus the audience’s attention on telling a story of this isolated, poverty stricken studio where the four artists are living, but also follow that with a believable, luxurious Momus shortly afterward.”

So to tackle this tricky balancing act, Potra has created a slightly more abstract Paris, what he calls a “Paris of the mind”. “It’s not a Paris that still exists – it’s more of a Paris of the imagination and of what we’ve seen in the movies.”

Moving the action to 1968 to coincide with the febrile atmosphere of the student riots, in which student demonstrators and workers waged a general strike that brought French society to a virtual standstill, Potra refers to works like Doctor Zhivago and Anna Karenina. “In order to tell the story of this rather domestic drama, we’ve borrowed a little of the devices from those big Russian pieces where a little story is painted against a background of big social upheaval. In doing so, it helps the story to become a poignant one while at the same time allowing us the big brushstrokes, if you will.”

“For moments where we need to be isolated, such as the artists’ studio, we’ve built a little space that is dwarfed by a giant window, inspired by 19th-century studios from Paris and Montmartre where in order to allow natural light, they used to build entire rooftops out of glass.” The window is a surface on which “60s retro-inspired graphic animation” designed by Marco Devetak, will be projected, giving the audience an insight into the characters’ states of mind.

La Bohème, Handa Opera on Sydney HarbourAct II set design. Photo © Dan Potra.

Designing the costumes for this opera has been a joy for Potra, even with all the provisions around weatherproofing them.“I love working with what I call ‘psychological costumes’, something that actually is helping us to contradict the character, or go with it and explain it further, or just give us twists in the storytelling. I think these characters are contradictory, they’re full of self-doubt, they’re very interesting and complicated human beings. I think for us that’s a joyful challenge.”

“We have to make sure that visually we differentiate the characters on such a big stage so they don’t look like a dot. So the detail, we need to make sure that works both for the camera – because we’ll be filming – but also from 20 metres away. It’s a situation of making sure that the balance is struck in a way that it works for a micro and macro perusal of the show.”

Potra admits that it’s impossible to tackle Bohème with anything like a blank slate, describing it as “the workhorse of the opera”. “I did one previously in Berlin in 2011, so obviously I’m already tainted! And everybody’s trying to bring a new aspect to it, including the one in Paris where it was happening in outer space.”

“It’s interesting… I suspect the more outlandish the aspect you attach to it, the fresher the story can feel, if done well. And I think that’s what we tried to do, to avoid the hackneyed, done to death, helpless heroine. I think it’s time to bring it up to the condition of the modern woman and modern relationship, rather than an antiquated 19th-century story.”

Potra and director Andy Morton have therefore endeavoured to bring out more of Mimì’s inner life, as well as give her a bit of an edge. Admitting that it’s all too easy to reduce Puccini’s seamstress to a one-dimensional, overly humble figure “awed by the genius of Rodolfo”, Potra says with a laugh, “we’ve kind of gone against that. Rodolfo is a bit of an arsehole – he’s more interested in his looks and success with women rather than necessarily Mimì.”

La Bohème, Handa Opera on Sydney HarbourCostume design inspiration for Mimì, Act III. Photo © Dan Potra

“[In this production] Mimì is much more someone who can stand her ground, who lives by herself, and has gone for this crazy life of the bohemian. She and Musetta have a certain kind of solidarity if you like – they obviously have totally different personalities, but it doesn’t mean that there isn’t some mutual looking out for each other.”

Musetta is one of those characters that can be easily reduced to a caricature – big bonnet, loud laugh, surrounded by suitors is how she’s normally played. But she also goes through more of a journey than one might expect. Her obvious empathy for Mimì, as well as the lives both women lead offstage in between acts three and four, makes her a rich character to develop, something that Potra and Morton have tried to do in this production.

“Both women have quite strong characters, and also a much more powerful and developed storyline… there’s a sense at the end of the opera that yes, she’s a real woman, and she’s grown up. This experience of becoming an adult and experiencing mortality firsthand, it’s part of the ritual we all go through and what we’ve tried to bring out of Musetta.”

La Bohème, Handa Opera on Sydney HarbourCostume design inspiration for Musetta, Act IV. Photo © Dan Potra

Throughout our conversation, Potra’s enthusiasm for the project and feeling for the characters is palpable. “I think especially with these kinds of operas, they’re cathartic. Like the Bible, we all know this story and know where it’s going, so to some extent we can take liberties and bring out extra aspects of the characters that could make things interesting.”

“And obviously we all want the audience to be enchanted and go on a journey. We want the evening to rekindle a love for opera in everyone.”

La Bohème on Sydney Harbour is at Mrs Macquaries Point March 23 – April 22