The O Word At The Harbour

17.04.2016.jpgTurandot on Sydney Harbour- 9th April 2016

Over the last weekend I was lucky enough to attend a performance of this year’s Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour- Puccini’s Turandot. I love to keep up-to-date with what’s happening in opera right now, and this was a brand new kind of operatic experience for me. Even more exciting is that I now get to share the (O) word on this fabulous production in my first ever blog!

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For the last five years, Opera Australia, together with the Handa Foundation, have been presenting operas outdoors, right on Sydney Harbour, on a floating stage off Mrs Macquarie’s Point. Some of the world’s best-loved works have been showcased in productions specifically designed for this setting. In terms of location, this is pretty much an area that has one of Sydney’s (and arguably the world’s) best views, with the audience looking directly across the harbour towards the Opera House and the Sydney Harbour Bridge- even more magical at night when the city and surrounding areas light up!

This year’s production was of Puccini’s final opera Turandot, shown across a month from the 24th March to the 24th April (at the time of writing there’s still time to make it!). Opera Australia definitely goes out of their way to make the whole evening a special experience from the minute you walk in through a specially lit gum-tree lined pathway. When I attended, there were five options for pre-show dinner and drinks, all with Chinese-inspired dishes to tie in with the opera’s theme. This kind of luxurious audience experience naturally draws a broad range of people to participate in a once-in-a-lifetime occasion. Thankfully the weather was perfect last weekend, with no rain in sight, although a king tide splashing at the water’s edge meant that people in the front row ended the evening with wet feet!

One of opera’s most famous and best-loved arias, ‘Nessun Dorma’ is found in Turandot. It is sung by the leading tenor, Calaf. I can safely say that the aria is so famous that almost everybody has heard it in some form, even if they know it simply as ‘that Pavarotti song’, or from that time it was covered by a pop singer, or when it was advertising something! The aria has taken on a life of its own in popular culture, but there’s much more to Turandot than one glorious aria!

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An ancient Chinese story, an 18th century play, reimagined by an early 20th century Italian composer, performed in 21st century Australia- take a deep breath!

Puccini’s powerful opera is set in ancient China tells the story of the Princess Turandot, who is fiercely determined to remain unmarried at any cost. Suitors who ask for her hand are challenged to answer three riddles (fair enough- if you’ve never met your potential groom, it would be handy to at least make sure he’s intelligent!). But here’s the catch; if a guy fails, he doesn’t walk away with dignity, some cash, and his own spin-off reality show. The penalty is death, without exception. Along comes Calaf, a headstrong foreign Prince. He witnesses a failed suitor executed, sees the ~drop-dead gorgeous~ Princess once (in this production only seen through a larger-than life projection as opposed to in real life), and falls in desperate love with her. A little crazy, I know! Despite the warnings of everyone, including Calaf’s long-lost father, who he has literally just run into after they have been parted for years, and the pleading of his father’s loyal servant-girl Liu (Puccini’s own addition to the story and evidently his favourite character), Calaf proceeds to sound the ceremonial gong (here a fire-breathing dragon)and in order to attempt the riddles. He is the first man to succeed, but of course Turandot still doesn’t want to marry him (surprise!). The story doesn’t end there, but I won’t spoil the rest of it for those who might not be familiar with it. It is important to note that Puccini died before he could finish the work, and an ending was written by Franco Alfano, a shorter version of which we usually hear in performances today. BUT… before delving into the finer points of the Harbour production, let’s just take a moment.

I wouldn’t be the first to suggest that the story of Turandot makes the opera fundamentally challenging to present in any setting, no matter the size of the budget. Alfano’s ending, and the numerous other alternate endings by many composers that followed, are notorious for just not quite managing to finish the piece in a satisfying way. In my imagination, this would be at least partially because of the way the story is structured and the way that the leading characters are presented. Turandot and Calaf are most definitely flawed individuals, and from the point-of-view of a director or singer, making them sympathetic in the conventional way would not be easy.

While Turandot’s determination not to submit to any man is admirable and justified (hooray for strong female characters!), she is incredibly harsh in her treatment of the numerous men who do ask for her hand. It’s pretty hard to be cheering her on while she sentences them all to death in a brutal public execution, despite pleas for mercy from just about everyone. As for Calaf, he can come across as selfish and perhaps even (dare I say it) misogynistic – he places his own physical desire to be with Turandot above everything – reason, his own life, not to mention Turandot’s needs and wants- without asking her Calaf decides that Calaf would surely be the best thing for her, she just doesn’t know it yet. And in the process he compromises the safety of his father and Liu, who is in turn hopelessly in love with Calaf, who in typical tenor fashion is too distracted with his fabulous high notes to notice or care. Who said opera psychology isn’t fascinating?!

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These issues within the story raised some serious questions for me leading up to attending this particular production. Things like: how would the production team manage to present the opera in a way that the characters and their motivations made sense to the majority of the audience? Would the integrity of the story and the sheer gorgeousness of Puccini’s music be outshone by literal and figurative fireworks? Was this type of grandiose, outdoor production helping or hindering the general population’s views on opera? Would my Dad stay awake for the whole performance? (He did, thank god!)

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One of the many admirable qualities of this production is that it meets its challenges head on. In order to wow the audience enough for them to feel justified paying the ticket price and leaving he couch for the night, the opera’s set naturally included a 60 metre fire-breathing dragon, which really breathed real fire, and served to double as the Great Wall of China, as well as a giant tower from the top of which Turandot sings and later descends. Even the presence of a very visible industrial crane at the back of the stage is justified within the first five minutes of performance, when a soloist is flown in over the harbour and the audience as he sings the show’s opening. It later suspends a flying lounge for the Emperor to luxuriate in. Singing suspended from a crane over Sydney Harbour has definitely been added to my to-do list before I retire!

But all these visual effects were balanced by a thoughtful design that was in every other way, quite minimalistic. There was simple storytelling, breathtaking choreography, and plenty of mental room left to enjoy Puccini’s richly satisfying score. This allowed the production to be accessible and engaging. What was perhaps lost in moments of character development and intimacy was gained in a sense of clarity and expansiveness that embraced the unique setting.

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As a young singer myself, it doesn’t take much more than good singing to get me excited about the performance of an opera, and this production certainly had that in spades. But of course we all know that simply a pretty voice or 60 does not opera make. As opera fans we are constantly told about the decline of our art form, and are sadly forced to question the importance of it in modern society. We are constantly aware of everything we think that people think is wrong with opera- foreign languages, cultural elitism, heavy vibrato… the list goes on.

With this at the front of my mind, it was intensely satisfying to see opera advertised en masse throughout a major city, and a production thriving on one of many performance nights. There were no empty seats, people clapped and cheered, fireworks went off at the end of ‘Nessun Dorma’. This all seemed suspiciously like a celebration of opera in a truly unique and special setting. It was then that I realised how good this large-scale annual production could be for the future of opera in Australia. Is there substance behind the spectacle of the opera on the harbour productions? My answer to that question after last weekend it yes. But! I now challenge that question with another: should we care?

Even if people were drawn by the spectacle of it all, rather than opera itself, we hope that seeing an accessible, exciting production like this will help people fall in love with our art form. An art form that I believe is vast and diverse enough to provide something for everyone, whether that’s a mass- appeal spectacle or a smaller, progressive production. Opera has the power to communicate emotion, break down barriers, and entertain an audience like no other. Anything that makes it possible for people to fall in love with opera and interested in explore further can only be working for good!

Written by Emma Ashton

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