In its seven-year history, Opera Australia’s Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour (HOSH) has become one of Sydney’s high profile cultural events. It will return in 2019 – but with its first musical, the iconic West Side Story, featuring music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by Arthur Laurents.

American director Francesca Zambello, who staged the very first HOSH in 2012 – an acclaimed production of La Traviata – is returning to direct the show. Brian Thomson who designed Zambello’s Sydney Harbour Traviata and Carmen, directed by Gale Edwards for HOSH in 2013 and restaged in 2017, will design the set. Jennifer Irwin designs the costumes, with Guy Simpson as Musical Director.

West Side Story premiered on Broadway in 1957 and was a modern-day telling of Romeo and Juliet set in New York. Though most casting will be announced later, the lead lovers will be played by Alexander Lewis and Julie Lea Goodwin. Lewis recently played Count Danilo in The Merry Widow and The Nose in Barrie Kosky’s The Nose for OA, and has also played Raoul in The Phantom of the Opera. Goodwin played Maria in the previous Australian tour of West Side Story and her roles for OA include Musetta in La Bohème on Sydney Harbour and Hanna in The Merry Widow.

Francesca Zambello. Photograph © Claire McAdams

Speaking to Limelight, OA Artistic Director Lyndon Terracini says: “I’ve wanted to do [West Side Story] for a long time. It’s hard to get the rights to it but I’m really happy that we can do it now. It will be perfect on that stage with the city backdrop and terrific people in it, and with Francesca directing it and Brian designing it.”

As for a move from opera to musical, Terracini doesn’t see it that way. “I suppose it’s part of that argument is it an opera or is it a musical? As you know I think that is a silly debate to have because there are so many operas that are of really poor quality, and there are things that are called musicals that are masterpieces like South Pacific and My Fair Lady that are far more important pieces than many operas that have been written,” he says.

“For me, I don’t see a division, I just see whether I think it’s a great piece or not. This is a wonderful piece and I think it’s so right for Sydney at the present time. It’s fantastic music, really well crafted, and I think it has a great effect on the public too. HOSH has been on since 2012 and like everything else that we do it’s expanding – like the Aida that we’re doing [directed by Italian Davide Livermore, using a purely digital set]. Next year, we’ll have three digital productions. It’s really about defining what an opera company should be in the 21st century.”

Terracini believes that Zambello is “someone who crosses over very well into this sort of repertoire. She’s done [West Side Story] before in Bregenz on the lake. She’s got a real feel for this sort of piece and  I think Brian Thomson is the perfect designer for it.”

When OA remounted the HOSH Carmen in 2017, a controversy brewed when Edwards, Thomson and costume designer Julie Lynch complained when they were not employed to restage it. Asked about that now, Terracini says: “Look, it was very silly all of that because as with all of the operas that we do we have staff producers that do the revivals, and that’s what that was. For whatever reason, they made a mountain out of a molehill but I’m not one to hold grudges. I might sound off and get pretty angry about something initially but I get over it pretty quickly. And anyway, it has nothing to do with whether I think he’s a good designer, I think he’s a fantastic designer.”

Musical Director Guy Simpson is currently involved with OA’s production of Evita, produced with John  Frost, which opens in September. He was also MD on the OA/John Frost production of My Fair Lady directed by Julie Andrews.

As for the casting of Lewis and Goodwin, Terracini says: “They will be great. They will be terrific together. They can both act and sing and dance, and they will do it really well. The rest of the cast will audition.”

There has already been some criticism of the casting of a Caucasian performer as the Puerto Rican Maria. Earlier this year, Broadway star Sierra Boggess withdrew from a BBC Proms concert version of West Side Story in London after claims of “white washing”.

Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour, West Side Story will play March 22 – April 21. Tickets will go on sale to the public from September 3

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