Sydney Opera House Steps
October 28, 2016

“Opera, why opera?” The words assail our ears as a cohort of philistine politicians harangue their visionary Premier in the opening scene of Alan John’s and Dennis Watkins’ opera The Eighth Wonder, here temporarily rechristened Sydney Opera House – The Opera. That this should be the third staging of a contemporary opera since 1995 is remarkable enough. But that the audience should be watching the ritual sacrifice of a Danish architect’s dreams on the altar of pragmatic politics played out in front of Jørn Utzon’s billowing sails themselves is nothing short of a modern operatic miracle. Add to that a flawless cast, a smooth running, intelligent production and technological innovation ensuring good clean sound, and what you have is a must see – a genuine once in a lifetime event.

The steps of the Sydney Opera House transformed into a stage for the first time ever in Opera Australia’s production of The Eighth Wonder.

The story of the building of Sydney’s most iconic building is well suited to opera’s high-octane emotional scale. The dream of Premier Joe Cahill – “I want to leave my name on more than expressways” – to create a home for an art form he didn’t even care that much for was matched by the semi-mystical visions of the idealistic Utzon. That his design was pilloried – likened to mushrooms, an armadillo, even copulating turtles – didn’t stop a project initially estimated at around three years and a few million quid getting off the ground in 1958. Eight years later, what would become a $102 million build fell foul of state politicking and rivalry within the very art forms it was intended to elevate. The opening concert wouldn’t take place until 1973, by which time Cahill had been dead for 15 years.

John and Watkins play the historical line pretty straight, but their genius is to interweave the public with the private by interpolating the personal tale of Alex, a young opera singer, confronting the inevitable Aussie career choice to stay, and be a big fish in a local pond, or go and risk being just one among many aspiring artists. Her family life is all Hills Hoists and barbies, and it provides the writers with a perfect ‘common man’ perspective to offset a tale of grand designs and administrative chicanery. The points at which the two narratives collide – when Alex meets Utzon on the opera house building site, and when she pays out her mealy-mouthed former ‘Maestro’ for his dishonesty – land like hammer blows. The libretto is full of little nods and references – Patrick White’s novel has been enjoyed by the Queen’s equerry, while Her Majesty is looking forward to him finishing “Floss, is it?” – but if these might go over the heads of some, they certainly never detract from the admirable storytelling.

David Greco as The Engineer, Martin Buckingham as The Premier, Adam Frandsen as The Architect, Samuel Dundas and Simon Meadows as Reporters and members of the ensemble

John’s score is a peach. Blessed with the lyricism and direct appeal of Britten or early Adams, his orchestrations glitter with ear-tickling tuned percussion. Solo instruments – particularly woodwind – are sensitively sketched in, yet he packs a punch in the intense storm scene (enhanced by the threat of an actual impending deluge on opening night) or Alex’s dramatically charged flight from home and husband. His writing for the voice is melodically astute and always sympathetic. In its mix of the mythic with the ordinary (and the occasionally comedic), The Eighth Wonder ranks alongside Jonathan Dove’s Flight as a modern opera that can be both sophisticatedly constructed yet reach out to ears less familiar with mid-20th-century compositional trends. The idea to play all this out in front of Utzon’s very creation is completely inspired, and gives the lie to anyone who thinks the art form moribund or our arts companies lacking in ambition – in this case Opera Australia is backed by the philanthropic support of Dr Handa (of opera on the harbour fame).

Here, the design and direction fully match the aspiration of the venture. Not since the La Fura dels Baus Madama Butterfly has an epic site-specific work come off so well. Dan Potra’s magical sliding platforms – each one a giant Utzon ceramic roof tile – glide across the tiered steps like a dream, his illuminated balls of crumpled paper reminding us how much must be tried and rejected before big ideas can come to fruition. His costumes too are dazzling affairs, all fifties and sixties chic cuts and primary colours. Trent Suidgeest’s colossally conceived lighting design picks it all out to perfection, the intensity of each scene reverberating against the sandy stone and night sky. Visually, it’s hugely appealing and immensely watchable.

David Parkin as Ken Mason, Michael Petruccelli as Stephen Goldring and Stacey Alleaume as Alexandra Mason

David Freeman takes up the gauntlet of focusing an audience on this vast public stage brilliantly. His staging is focused yet grand, opening out one moment to embrace Utzon’s giant Atztec-inspired stairway – “there are so many steps so we approach like pilgrims” – pulling back the next to capture the intimacy of a dressing room. Given that faces are sometimes hard to make out at a distance, he’s adept at calling on body language to express emotion, while the use of inventive static and animated projection imagery that mixes the archival with the original (Marco Devetak) always enhances and never detracts.

A hardworking cast of 16 is led by a stellar vocal performance from Danish tenor Adam Frandsen. The Architect is a taxing role, demanding stamina and sensitivity and he has both in spades. His voice rings out at the top, crowning his frequent arias of vision and ambition with buckets of glorious, heroic tone. The rest of the cast are appropriately all homegrown. Matching him note for note is a superb performance from rapidly rising star Stacey Alleaume. Her warm, sympathetic Alex has an easy dramatic charm, her delicious lyric soprano showing no signs of strain, even when forced to stand bare-shouldered in a pesky opening night light drizzle.

Adam Frandsen as The Architect

Martin Buckingham and Samuel Dundas are equally fine as Cahill and his successor, the duplicitous and small-minded Robert Askin. Buckingham’s strong, lyrical tenor captures the appeal of Cahill’s no-nonsense man-of-the-people brand of politics. Dundas is commandingly resonant as the ghastly Askin, raising him to the villainy level of a Pizarro. Adrian Tamburini’s rich bass rumbles a treat as the gruesome Maestro, ageing most convincingly over the years, while Jermaine Chau convinces as his conflicted wife, keen for her protégé to realise her own thwarted ambitions. David Greco sings with clarity and power, while capturing the wretched plight of the Engineer, caught between the hammer of the idealistic Architect and the anvil of the wily Politician. Michael Petrucelli’s light tenor is perfect for Alex’s drippy, yet ambitious husband Stephen and David Parkin puts in another fine turn as her fondly occa father. Eva Kong, Anna Yun, Simon Meadows, Zoe Drummond and Nicholas Jones all play multiple roles with impressive ease, and Gerry Connolly has the Queen’s voice and manner off pat, even if he comes across as far too old for the 37-year-old monarch.

Meanwhile, in the pit – wherever it may be – Anthony Legge puts in sterling work leading the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra and the Opera Australia Chorus. The idea to equip the audience with headphones was a clever one, and Tony David Cray’s sound design is pretty good. It favours the voices a little too much, but it ensures that every word comes over load and clear – and for once there’s nary a cough to disturb the avid listener! The loss of immediacy may bother some, but for this critic at least it was all highly successful.

Stacey Alleaume as Alexandra Mason and Gerry Connolly as The Queen

So, “Opera, why opera?” In a week when the National Opera Review has once again raised questions about why Australia needs this expensive 400-year-old art form, with its scale, imagination and sheer breath-taking ambition The Eighth Wonder offers perhaps the most compelling answer. See it.

The Eighth Wonder runs until November 5 on the Sydney Opera House forecourt.