A History of Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour

Eight years of Sydney's most spectacular arts event.

La Traviata (2012)

The story of Violetta Valéry, the famed courtesan who dreams of being more than Paris's favourite party girl, was the perfect way to launch Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour. Verdi's luscious opera juxtaposes the glamour and excess of Parisian high society with a story of devastation. It's timeless, heartbreaking and features some of the most infectious music ever written.

Designers Brian Thomson and Tess Schofield drew inspiration from the 1950s, with gorgeous, sleek gowns and a set design that forced Violetta to confront her own reflection as she watches her life transform irreversibly before her very eyes.

Facts and figures

  • The chandelier at the centre of the stage weighed 3.5 tonnes and was hoisted in the air by a 22-tonne crane. The nine-metre beauty was covered in 10,000 Swarovski crystals.
  • Sydney's Water Taxis Combined played a starring role, chauffering 16 performers playing guests in the Act II party scene.
  • The gilt-framed mirror floor measured 32 by 24 metres.
  • The stage accommodated 70 performers, with 40 musicians hidden in an orchestra pit below in the space beneath the stage affectionately known as the "Underworld".

The team

Conductor: Brian Castles-Onion
Director: Francesca Zambello

Cast
Violetta Valéry: Emma Matthews and Rachelle Durkin
Alfredo Germont: Gianluca Terranova and Ji-Min Park
Giorgio Germont: Jonathan Summers and Warwick Fyfe

Photo: Lisa Tomasetti.

Photo: Lisa Tomasetti.

Photo: Lisa Tomasetti.

Photo: Lisa Tomasetti.

Photo: Lisa Tomasetti.

Photo: Lisa Tomasetti.

Photo: Lisa Tomasetti.

Photo: Lisa Tomasetti.

Photo: Lisa Tomasetti.

Photo: Lisa Tomasetti.

Photo: Lisa Tomasetti.

Photo: Lisa Tomasetti.

Carmen (2013 & 2017)

Bizet's wildly popular opera throbs with the heat of a sweltering Spanish summer. So where better to stage a new production than by the water of the world's most beautiful harbour? Gale Edwards' production was driven by the rhythms in Bizet's score, while Kelley Abbey's magnificent Broadway-style dance numbers brought Carmen's story to life.

The production was so successful that it returned in 2017 with a new cast telling the story of opera's original femme fatale and the men who dare to fall for her.

Facts and figures

  • Designer Brian Thomson created 13-metre tall blood-red letters, spelling out the name "Carmen" like a giant "Hollywood" sign. The letters could be seen across Sydney Harbour; a bold statement of Carmen's arrival.
  • There were an astonishing 284 costumes on 154 performers.
  • 1,320 metres of LED lighting illuminated the stage.
  • Ellen DeGeneres used our stage and pop-up grandstand as the set for an episode of her popular TV talk show.

The team

Conductor: Brian Castles-Onion
Director: Gale Edwards

Cast (2013)
Carmen: Rinat Shaham and Milijana Nikolic
Don José: Dmytro Popov and Adam Diegel
Escamillo: Andrew Jones and James Clayton
Micaëla: Nicole Car and Sharon Prero

Cast (2017)
Carmen: Josè Maria Lo Monaco and Sian Sharp
Don José: Andeka Gorrotxategi and Arnold Rutkowski
Escamillo: Luke Gabbedy and Michael Honeyman
Micaëla: Natalie Aroyan and Stacey Alleaume

Photo: Lightbox Photography.

Photo: Lightbox Photography.

Photo: Prudence Upton.

Photo: Prudence Upton.

Photo: Hamilton Lund.

Photo: Hamilton Lund.

Photo: Lightbox Photography.

Photo: Lightbox Photography.

Photo: Prudence Upton.

Photo: Prudence Upton.

Photo: Hamilton Lund.

Photo: Hamilton Lund.

Madama Butterfly (2014)

Revolutionary Spanish theatre company La Fura dels Baus brought a confronting new perspective to Puccini's Japanese tragedy in this bold staging of Madama Butterfly.

Director Àlex Ollé tackled the darkness of Puccini's story head-on. Although he retained all the beauty of the score and the idyllic Japanese town where this story takes place, Ollé brought a critical eye to the relationship between the young Japanese girl, Cio-Cio-San, and Pinkerton, the American naval officer who promises a life of happiness but brings only pain and destruction. In this version, Pinkerton was reimagined as a kind of property developer, transforming the natural beauty of the site into a man-made environment.

Facts and figures

  • A grassy hill covering the stage in the first act was covered in 1,300 square metres of perfectly-trimmed artificial grass and a real bamboo forest, grown in northern NSW.
  • We hired a traditional kimono dresser to train our behind-the-scenes staff in the ritual of layering fabrics.
  • The inflatable sun which rose over Sydney Harbour was 12 metres in diameter, while the moon measured six.
  • There was, in fact, a man in the moon: a technician known as the "orb master" tasked with inflating the impressive prop.

The team

Conductor: Brian Castles-Onion
Director: Alex Ollé

Cast
Cio-Cio-San: Hiromi Omura and Mariana Hong
Pinkerton: Georgy Vasiliev and Andeka Gorrotxategi
Suzuki: Anna Whitney and Victoria Lambourn

Photo: James Morgan.

Photo: James Morgan.

Photo: James Morgan.

Photo: James Morgan.

Photo: James Morgan.

Photo: James Morgan.

Photo: James Morgan.

Photo: James Morgan.

Photo: James Morgan.

Photo: James Morgan.

Photo: James Morgan.

Photo: James Morgan.

Photo: James Morgan.

Photo: James Morgan.

Photo: James Morgan.

Photo: James Morgan.

Aida (2015)

Verdi's Egyptian epic seemed destined for Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour with its epic scale. The story of the enslaved Ethiopian princess who is forced to make the greatest sacrifice for her country calls for spectacle.

With a small troupe of camels (and a much bigger troupe of singers and dancers), the production had plenty of awe-inspiring moments — as well as a thoughtful approach to political machinations at play in the story, thanks to director Gale Edwards.

Facts and figures

  • A giant sculpture of Egyptian Queen Nefertiti's head stood 18 metres tall at the back of the stage. It weighed 15 tonnes and rotated at key moments of the opera.
  • The head was unfortunately also popular with the local cockatoos, who ate away at parts of the polystyrene covering the sculpture over the opera's four-week season. Fortunately, they mostly stayed away during performances, and their bitemarks only added to the distressed look we were going for...
  • Latonia Moore, who appeared in our production, has been one of the world's leading Aidas since making her debut at New York's Metropolitan Opera in 2012, stepping into the role with just a day's notice when the original principal became ill.
  • More than 20 metres of authentic Ethiopian fabric were used in each of the costumes worn by Ethiopian characters.
  • Aida was the first Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour attended by Dr Haruhisa Handa, the benefactor who makes the event possible.

The team

Conductor: Brian Castles-Onion
Director: Gale Edwards

Cast
Aida: Latonia Moore and Daria Masiero
Radamès: Walter Fraccaro and Arnold Rawls
Amneris: Milijana Nikolic and Jacqueline Dark

Photo: Prudence Upton.

Photo: Prudence Upton.

Photo: Prudence Upton.

Photo: Prudence Upton.

Photo: Hamilton Lund.

Photo: Hamilton Lund.

Photo: Hamilton Lund.

Photo: Hamilton Lund.

Photo: Prudence Upton.

Photo: Prudence Upton.

Photo: Prudence Upton.

Photo: Prudence Upton.

Photo: Hamilton Lund.

Photo: Hamilton Lund.

Photo: Hamilton Lund.

Photo: Hamilton Lund.

Turandot (2016)

If Puccini's Turandot is known for anything, it's the enduring 'Nessun Dorma', an aria made famous all around the world by Luciano Pavarotti. But there's much more to this fascinating opera about a princess with a heart of ice and the prince who seeks to thaw it. Chinese director Chen Shi-Zheng created a stunning new version of this opera, which is often staged as an exotic fairytale by western directors. He tied the story to Chinese history, and used both contemporary and traditional storytelling methods, including large-scale video projections, in his bold reimagining.

Facts and figures

  • An enormous, fire-breathing dragon encircled the stage, with its tail built to resemble the Great Wall of China. The body was 60 metres in length.
  • The dragon sat alongside an enormous pagoda, standing 18 metres tall, complete with a moving platform to help Turandot make a grand entrance.
  • 78 performers appeared on stage each night, with 58 musicians in the orchestra pit hidden under the stage.
  • 1,000 metres (or one kilometre) of specially loomed crinkle organza was used in the costumes.
  • There are fireworks at every performance of Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour, but the fireworks 'moment' for Turandot was particularly spectacular; the end of 'Nessun Dorma'.

The team

Conductor: Brian Castles-Onion
Director: Chen Shi-Zheng

Cast
Turandot: Dragana Radakovic and Daria Masiero
Calàf: Riccardo Massi and Arnold Rawls
Liù: Mariana Hong and Eva Kong

Photo: Prudence Upton.

Photo: Prudence Upton.

Photo: Prudence Upton.

Photo: Prudence Upton.

Photo: Prudence Upton.

Photo: Prudence Upton.

Photo: Prudence Upton.

Photo: Prudence Upton.

Photo: Prudence Upton.

Photo: Prudence Upton.

Photo: Prudence Upton.

Photo: Prudence Upton.

La Bohème (2018)

When you think of opera's greatest love stories, it's hard to go past Rodolfo and Mimì, the young bohemians who fall hopelessly in love at the height of a bitterly cold Parisian winter. Sydney's autumn is generally pretty warm, but director Andy Morton transformed the harbour-side stage into a slice of Paris, complete with realistic snowfall. With a cast of Australian and international singers, and the Opera Australia Orchestra under Brian Castles-Onion's baton, Puccini's score sounded utterly glorious.

Facts and figures

  • Snow covered the stage and entire site (including the audience) at certain moments in the performance, thanks to six large snow machines.
  • Two chimneys, measuring 18 and 15 metres tall, stood atop the stage, which was fashioned as a Parisian street, complete with cobblestones.
  • The toy seller, Parpignol, made a particularly grand entrance, flying across the harbour in a garbage bin appearing to be suspended by helium balloons.

The team

Conductor: Brian Castles-Onion
Director: Andy Morton

Cast
Mimì: Iulia Maria Dan and Maija Kovalevska
Rodolfo: Ho-Yoon Chung and Paul O’Neill
Musetta: Julie Lea Goodwin
Marcello: Samuel Dundas and Christopher Tonkin

Photo: Prudence Upton.

Photo: Prudence Upton.

Photo: Hamilton Lund.

Photo: Hamilton Lund.

Photo: Hamilton Lund.

Photo: Hamilton Lund.

Photo: Prudence Upton.

Photo: Prudence Upton.

Photo: Prudence Upton.

Photo: Prudence Upton.

Photo: Hamilton Lund.

Photo: Hamilton Lund.

Photo: Hamilton Lund.

Photo: Hamilton Lund.

Photo: Prudence Upton.

Photo: Prudence Upton.

West Side Story (2019)

Our first musical on Sydney Harbour was Leonard Bernstein's 1950s masterpiece. Francesca Zambello, who directed the first Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour, returned to the grand outdoor stage to create a new version of this Broadway classic, which takes the story of Romeo and Juliet to the streets of New York.

Working with Jerome Robbins' iconic original choreography and an enormous cast of singers, actors and dancers, Zambello created a production that transported the audience to New York and captured the romance and ultimate heartbreak at the centre of this story.

Facts and figures

  • A freeway overpass extended over the stage, and was 30 metres long and 15 metres high.
  • Three custom-made graffitied New York subway cars zoomed across the stage as part of the set.
  • The dancers were able to execute Jerome Robbins' extraordinary choreography in all weather thanks to a custom-made, non-slip stage surface and special wet-weather shoes.

The team

Conductor: Guy Simpson
Director: Francesca Zambello

Cast
Maria: Julie Lea Goodwin
Tony: Alexander Lewis
Riff: Mark Hill
Anita: Karli Dinardo
Bernardo: Waldemar Quinones-Villanueva

Photo: Prudence Upton.

Photo: Prudence Upton.

Photo: Prudence Upton.

Photo: Prudence Upton.

Photo: Hamilton Lund.

Photo: Hamilton Lund.