Opera Australia has revealed that there will be flurries of snow as well as the customary fireworks at its 2018 Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour (HOSH) production of La Bohème.

The new production is directed by Andy Morton, who staged the revival of Gale Edwards’ Carmen on Sydney Harbour earlier this year, and designed by Dan Potra who was the designer for Turandot on Sydney Harbour in 2016.

Their La Bohème will be set in the 1960s and feature a wintery Parisian streetscape with cobblestone laneways, glowing street lamps, bohemian costumes and magical falls of snow.

Costume design for Mimi in La Bohème on Sydney Harbour © Dan Potra

Asked by Limelight if he can reveal what the “snow” will be made of and where it is coming from, Morton says: “I’m afraid not. With snow so rare here in Sydney, I’ve been sworn to secrecy. I can tell you that it is being sourced in the UK (no, it really is), and weather watchers will know that with the cold snap the poms are experiencing at the moment, it really is the best time to buy.”

As to whether it will be affected by rain – given the tendency of the heavens to open during the HOSH season – he says: “This is the first time that snow has been seen on Sydney harbour so the honest answer is that we expect that the rain might affect it, but we are confident that it will still be magical. What’s wrong with sleet anyway?”

Morton and Potra have decided to update Puccini’s much-loved opera from 1830s Paris to the 1960s. “There are both practical and artistic reasons for moving a production away from the epoque that it was originally created for,” says Morton.

“Artistically, we have tried to find a period that has some resonance for a contemporary audience. After all, few people can say what the political and social atmosphere was like in 1830 in Paris. But the sixties? Quite a lot of people will have personal memories of how it felt, with the ongoing battle between the Communist East and a nascent West still recovering from the war, and also how it looked, with its fashion – as much an art form as Warhol’s Soup Cans.”

“Even those born well after the sixties have some appreciation of the period and as soon as the opera begins, that recognition will give an audience an immediate sensation of place and time far more effectively than if we set it in the 19th century. So the strangeness of this superlative art form that is opera, with its beautiful singing and emotional outpourings becomes a little less daunting simply because the audience start off in a position of knowing where they are,” says Morton.

“Practically, we know that at some point it is going to rain. And as we only stop for heavy rain, more often than not, it means some very wet costumes. If you have 38 chorus members dressed in multiple layered 19th century costumes, it actually becomes impossible to dry them out overnight before the next show. So for HOSH we like single layer costumes in fabrics we can dry quickly. They are also cheaper because they are far less labour intensive and use less fabric which is a serious consideration these days when we are rightly expected to do as much as we can with the budgets we have.”

Costume design for Marcello in La Bohème on Sydney Harbour © Dan Potra

OA has revealed some of Potra’s costume designs, which reflect the counterculture aesthetic of the ear and include a range of pea coats, flower-power dresses and mariniere sailor tops, and they certainly look bohemian, colourful and a lot of fun.

“Dan Potra is a phenomenal designer and he has outdone himself both with the beautiful set, which is so redolent of Montmartre, and the costumes, which reek of the period and its joyous colour. It’s important, on that big stage, to have a powerful sense of place and also to use a strong palette which identifies characters from a distance. It’s the best way to take advantage of the incredible singers we’ve been given for this project and give Sydney a production that lives up to their talent in one of Puccini’s greatest operas,” says Morton.

Morton has worked on the past five Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour productions. This year he restaged Gale Edwards’ production of Carmen – which was not without controversy, with Edwards and her original creative team critical of OA for not inviting them back to restage it themselves and for making changes to the production. Despite his contribution to the past seasons, this is the first time that Morton has taken the reins of a new show.

“On the one hand it is of course extremely exciting. I have to pinch myself occasionally. On the other hand I have seen first-hand how Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour is put together and the amount of preparation that goes into it, so I’m under no illusions about what a challenge it is,” said Morton in an OA press release.

“It’s my job to tell the story and, above all, obey the first rule of theatre: ‘thou shall not bore!’ So expect amazing lights and projections, soundscapes, bangs, flames, performers flying and the rather singular sight of freezing snowy weather in the middle of Sydney harbour. And fireworks? Well that goes without saying.”

Hailed as one of the great outdoor opera events in the world, Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour is a highlight of the cultural calendar event not just in Australia, but internationally. Across the past six years, Handa Opera has attracted more than 250,000 people worldwide.

La Bohème on Sydney Harbour plays March 23 – April 22


Limelight, Australia's Classical Music and Arts Magazine