The tragedy of Ben­ne­long Point

The Monthly (Australia) - - NEWS - Dar­ryn King

The tragedy of Ben­ne­long Point

When the ac­tor John Malkovich ap­peared in The Gi­a­como Variations, a cham­ber-opera bio-play of Gi­a­como Casanova, at the Syd­ney Opera House in 2011, he wasn’t ex­actly se­duced by the venue. “It’s lovely to drive by on a mo­tor boat and it has a very nice crew and very ca­pa­ble, but the acous­tics are hideous,” he told the Daily Tele­graph. “For a catholic­ity of rea­sons, it’s not the wis­est place to put on any­thing … with the pos­si­ble ex­cep­tion of maybe a cir­cus.”

Malkovich’s com­ments hit a sore point, not just for the Con­cert Hall, the Syd­ney Opera House’s largest per­for­mance space, but also for the build­ing as a whole. Since be­ing dreamed up 60 years ago, the site has in­spired breath­less arias of adu­la­tion (“On a moon­lit night,” wrote Ruth Crack­nell in her mem­oir, “one could die of ex­cess”), coun­tered by basso-pro­fundo grum­bles that its splen­dour is only as deep as its Swe­den-sourced ce­ramic skin.

Con­duc­tor Sir Si­mon Rat­tle com­plained that the sound in the Con­cert Hall lacked rich­ness and clar­ity, and came “from all sides”. For­mer Syd­ney Sym­phony Orches­tra chief con­duc­tor Edo de Waart de­scribed the sound as “bar­ren”, “cold” and “not alive”, and threat­ened to boy­cott the “ugly” venue. “[It’s] like you’re in a barn,” he said.

The same year as Casanova dropped in, the Con­cert Hall’s con­joined smaller sib­ling, the Opera Theatre (since re­named the Joan Sutherland Theatre), was voted the worst of Aus­tralia’s 20 ma­jor clas­si­cal mu­sic venues in a Lime­light mag­a­zine in­dus­try poll. (The Con­cert Hall it­self came in 18th.) The Opera Theatre was in­ad­e­quate for any­thing big­ger than a Mozart opera buffa, said Scot­tish opera di­rec­tor David McVicar.

Brian Thom­son, a reg­u­lar scenic de­signer for Opera Aus­tralia, has rec­om­mended that the whole build­ing be gut­ted. Even Dame Joan likened the in­te­rior of the build­ing to an air­port ter­mi­nal.

The fact that one of ar­chi­tect Jørn Ut­zon’s in­spi­ra­tions was the cas­tle Kron­borg in Elsi­nore – Ham­let’s cas­tle – aligns with more than a few theatre artists’ and tech­ni­cians’ feel­ings about the fa­tal flaws of the build­ing.

Thom­son calls it a “mad opera … It’s a mir­a­cle it was built. As a build­ing, it’s the great­est in the world. But as a theatre, it’s al­most the worst.” Light­ing de­signer Nick Sch­lieper agrees, call­ing the struc­ture “a spi­ralling tragedy”.

Even when tak­ing tall poppy syn­drome into ac­count (“Peo­ple who’ve never been in there have an opin­ion,” says Opera Aus­tralia’s artis­tic di­rec­tor, Lyn­don Ter­racini), no one very fa­mil­iar with the Syd­ney Opera House will deny that, as a per­form­ing arts venue, it’s a dif­fi­cult one.

On Satur­day, 20 May, lav­ish Tchaikovskian chords

rang out as the lights dimmed on the Opera Theatre stage for the grand fi­nale of the Aus­tralian Bal­let’s Nutcracker: The Story of Clara. That night’s clean-up and bump-out was more com­pre­hen­sive than most. As well as clear­ing the scenery, props, cos­tumes and stage lights, a crew be­gan emp­ty­ing the theatre of its her­itage-listed, hot or­ange–clad seats, to make room for scaf­fold­ing and equip­ment – a mighty ex­ha­la­tion wor­thy of La Stu­penda her­self. This was the first ob­vi­ous sign of the Syd­ney Opera House’s $273 mil­lion ren­o­va­tion pro­ject, an­nounced in 2015. It will be the build­ing’s most ex­ten­sive up­grade since its open­ing in 1973.

“Ex­pec­ta­tions of great per­for­mance have moved a long way,” says Syd­ney Opera House chief ex­ec­u­tive Louise Her­ron. “Just as it was a revo­lu­tion­ary place when it was fin­ished, we need to bring it back to that stan­dard. Be­cause it’s the sym­bol, the icon, of Aus­tralia, and the sym­bol of Aus­tralia needs to be for­ward-look­ing, and magic, and per­fectly fit for pur­pose.”

“To me, and to my ears, it’s got too much air to it,” says the Aus­tralian Cham­ber Orches­tra artis­tic di­rec­tor, Richard Tognetti, of the Con­cert Hall’s acous­tics. “The sound is ‘boomy’ and not di­rect. It’s not the most present sound.”

“[A build­ing is] like an in­stru­ment,” he con­tin­ues. “They al­ways seem to sound how they look. And the Con­cert Hall is no ex­cep­tion.”

Orig­i­nally, the au­di­to­rium was in­tended to ac­com­mo­date large-scale opera as well as sym­phonic mu­sic. Long after Ut­zon with­drew from the chaot­i­cally man­aged pro­ject in 1966, the de­sign of the Con­cert Hall was be­gun anew by a team of lo­cal ar­chi­tects led by Peter Hall – iron­i­cally, as it seems now, to serve the needs of the Syd­ney Sym­phony Orches­tra. Yuzo Mikami, a mem­ber of Ut­zon’s team, called the re­sult­ing space, with its 22-me­tre ceil­ing crown, “a skull with­out a brain”.

Part of the prob­lem, notes David Robert­son, the Syd­ney Sym­phony Orches­tra’s cur­rent chief con­duc­tor, is that the qual­ity of sound varies so greatly de­pend­ing on where you are in the au­di­to­rium. “The large shell above the au­di­ence and the main part of the stage is where most of the sound goes,” he says. “It’s a huge space, where I imag­ine the sound must be very beau­ti­ful. But no one’s sit­ting up there. Un­less you hang them from a rope.”

Asked if there’s a par­tic­u­lar mode in which an orches­tra might still es­pe­cially shine in the space, Robert­son says, laugh­ing, “No, I find it all suf­fers equally, to be re­ally frank.”

There have been in­nu­mer­able ef­forts to im­prove the acous­tics of the hall. A con­stel­la­tion of clear acrylic dough­nuts – “clouds”, of­fi­cially – has been sus­pended nine me­tres above the play­ers since the first test per­for­mance in 1972. (The clouds are vis­i­ble be­hind a flex­ing Arnold Sch­warzeneg­ger on the cover of Mus­cle and Fit­ness mag­a­zine, in a pic­ture taken when the Mr Olympia body­build­ing con­test was held at the Con­cert Hall in 1980.) Edo de Waart, for one, was not con­vinced of the clouds’ ef­fec­tive­ness: “They might as well be toi­let seats,” he said. “They do noth­ing what­so­ever.”

There’s no muck­ing around this time. With Ger­man acous­tic en­gi­neers Müller-BBM over­see­ing the process, and a price tag of $202 mil­lion, the Con­cert Hall will boast a new ad­justable stage (play­ers won’t have to play “over” each other as much), a sound­wave-di­rect­ing acous­tic ceil­ing and re­flec­tors, and less un­wanted noise from the over­head air­con­di­tion­ing sys­tem, by late 2021.

“What I’m hop­ing,” says Robert­son, “is that one of the most iconic halls out­side will have an acous­tic in­side com­men­su­rate with the amaz­ing idea of the build­ing.”

Slot­ted in beneath the seats of the Con­cert Hall is a re­hearsal room; crammed beneath that is the Drama Theatre, which is an oc­ca­sional venue for Bell Shake­speare, Syd­ney Theatre Com­pany and Ban­garra Dance Theatre. It’s a space that has ec­cen­tric­i­ties of its own. The au­di­to­rium is rec­tan­gu­lar, with an ab­nor­mally wide stage un­der an ab­nor­mally low ceil­ing – the di­men­sions of an art­house cinema rather than a theatre.

But if the Drama Theatre is awk­ward for drama, that’s noth­ing com­pared to the Opera Theatre’s down­right hos­til­ity to opera.

“[It’s] one of the tough­est spa­ces to crack in Syd­ney,” says Syd­ney Theatre Com­pany’s artis­tic di­rec­tor, Kip Wil­liams, “es­pe­cially with re­gards to cre­at­ing in­ti­macy, or the re­la­tion­ship that an ac­tor has be­tween heaven and hell that a high prosce­nium cre­ates.”

One of the pe­cu­liar as­pects of the Drama Theatre is that performers are in danger of col­lid­ing with clean­ers, cater­ers or ad­min­is­tra­tion staff in its rel­a­tively pub­lic “back­stage” pas­sage­way. Ac­tor Jack Charles caused quite a stir when, play­ing Ben­ne­long in Michael Boddy’s play Cra­dle of Her­cules in the 1974 open­ing sea­son, he tra­versed the thor­ough­fare in be­tween scenes in the nude. More se­ri­ously, it’s a dis­tract­ing ar­range­ment for in-the-mo­ment performers. (Writer-ac­tor Jonathan Big­gins: “[On] mati­nee days you are try­ing to con­cen­trate while peo­ple in se­cu­rity tags walk to and fro.”)

But if the Drama Theatre is awk­ward for drama, that’s noth­ing com­pared to the Opera Theatre’s down­right hos­til­ity to opera.

“Oh, I think it’s very straight­for­ward,” says theatre and opera de­signer Michael Scott-Mitchell, on why the Opera Theatre is so sin­gu­larly tricky for artists. “It’s a space that con­forms to the shape of a shell. Sim­ple as that, re­ally.”

One of the snooty early crit­i­cisms of Ut­zon’s over­all de­sign was that it was “dis­hon­est”; Amer­i­can critic Lewis Mum­ford wrote that it epit­o­mised the ar­chi­tec­tural trend of “daz­zling Christ­mas pack­ages that have no re­la­tion to con­tents”. But, in the case of the Opera Theatre, the re­al­ity is even more con­cern­ing than that: a case of form not just pri­ori­tised over func­tion but ag­gres­sively in­hibit­ing it.

“A func­tion­ing opera house,” says di­rec­tor David McVicar, “al­most uni­ver­sally fol­lows the pat­tern of a prosce­nium theatre with a fly-tower to ac­com­mo­date flown scenery, and back­stage space for stor­age. The shells sim­ply weren’t de­signed to ac­com­mo­date those. It’s a very lim­it­ing blueprint.”

The Syd­ney Opera House has spe­cial needs that no one could have an­tic­i­pated 50, 60 years ago: that, ev­ery five years, its 1,056,006 roof tiles re­quire in­di­vid­ual in­spec­tive prod­ding with a rub­ber hammer, a process that is un­der­taken man­u­ally; or that a three-per­son team needs to be per­ma­nently oc­cu­pied with the main­te­nance of the build­ing’s bronze, ap­ply­ing end­less pro­tec­tive coats of olive oil mixed with methy­lated spir­its to sur­faces be­sieged by sea air. There is also the need to de­fend the build­ing against the in­de­cent amorous at­ten­tions of the oc­ca­sional too-en­thu­si­as­tic vis­i­tor, for whom the con­crete crevices are, it seems, erot­i­cally ir­re­sistible. (Louise Her­ron de­clined to dis­cuss the is­sue of “ob­jec­tophiles” on the record.)

The tremen­dous com­pli­ca­tions in­volved with the Opera Theatre, though, ought to have been an­tic­i­pated.

In 1956, a young, vi­sion­ary Dan­ish ar­chi­tect en­tered the “In­ter­na­tional Com­pe­ti­tion for a Na­tional Opera House at Ben­ne­long Point”, seem­ingly for kicks. At that time, Jørn Ut­zon’s only re­alised de­signs were for low-cost hous­ing. His pre­lim­i­nary sketches for the com­pe­ti­tion in­cluded that of a clus­ter of puffy cu­mu­lus clouds hover­ing above a hor­i­zon­tal plane. The draw­ings he fi­nally sub­mit­ted were mind-blow­ing but, in de­fi­ance of the com­pe­ti­tion rules (he de­fied a few), es­sen­tially con­cep­tual.

It has been said that Ut­zon was as taken aback as any­one when he was an­nounced the win­ner. It wasn’t un­til sev­eral years later, with the con­struc­tion of the podium well un­der way, that he fi­nally fig­ured out how the sails might ac­tu­ally be built. (Though he was a sailor, and the son of a naval ar­chi­tect, Ut­zon pre­ferred to think of them as more like or­ange seg­ments.) An ex­tra­or­di­nary amount of time, en­ergy and money was spent on con­ceiv­ing and re­al­is­ing those con­crete vaults. Even a dis­play scale model cost $12,000 to pro­duce.

Those ef­forts, laud­able as they were, may have dis­tracted from how well those fan­tas­tic shapes would serve the most ba­sic but spe­cific needs of a per­form­ing arts com­plex. Around the same time, one of ar­chi­tect Wal­lace Har­ri­son’s many re­jected de­signs for the New York’s Metropoli­tan Opera House in­ten­tion­ally em­u­lated Ut­zon’s ex­otic curvi­lin­ear­ity. But, as Har­ri­son would later lament, he was ham­mered down by “opera peo­ple”, and box-shaped con­ven­tion­al­ity pre­vailed.

It’s tempt­ing to think that the op­po­site was the case in Aus­tralia: a short­age of ex­pe­ri­enced opera peo­ple on hand to of­fer con­struc­tive, ef­fec­tive cri­tique of Ut­zon’s ide­al­is­tic vi­sion. “To have a pesky theatre tech­ni­cal per­son say­ing ‘By

the way, that’s not go­ing to work’ would have been the last thing that team of en­gi­neers and ar­chi­tects wanted at the time,” says Nick Sch­lieper. “But we are now pay­ing the price.”

“All it would have taken was for some­one to say you can’t put two the­atres side by side,” says Brian Thom­son. “I’m sure that [Ut­zon] would have solved the prob­lems.” Thom­son is scep­ti­cal of the cur­rent Syd­ney Opera House ren­o­va­tions for some­what sim­i­lar rea­sons. “The peo­ple who ac­tu­ally have to cre­ate the scenic el­e­ments for these places – none of them were talked to or brought in, as far as I know.”

In fact, Ut­zon con­sulted dozens of theatre ex­perts, in­clud­ing two key ad­vis­ers, but ap­par­ently not with the in­ten­tion of al­ter­ing the lay­out of the shells; the pri­mary con­cerns were au­di­to­rium acous­tics, re­ver­ber­a­tion times. When the team of ar­chi­tects led by Peter Hall took over, Hall com­mented that they had no op­tion but to “treat the build­ing as a ‘found ob­ject’ which dic­tates the char­ac­ter of what is built in it”. One might rea­son­ably ar­gue that Ut­zon had taken the same ap­proach.

The $71 mil­lion ren­o­va­tion of the Opera Theatre will re­place an­cient ma­chin­ery, pro­vide bet­ter sound and light­ing, im­prove ac­ces­si­bil­ity, and pro­duce six ad­di­tional fe­male toi­lets for pa­trons. (“I fought for that,” Lyn­don Ter­racini says of the lat­ter.) But it won’t, and can’t, fix the fun­da­men­tal prob­lem of the shell.

Pic­ture a par­a­bola, ta­per­ing to a point. Now, within that par­a­bola, imag­ine the var­i­ous rec­tan­gu­lar shapes re­quired for an opera theatre: the pic­ture-frame prosce­nium arch, the fly-tower for the grid and tech crew above the stage, ex­tra space on the sides of the stage. Un­less the par­a­bola is dis­pro­por­tion­ately huge, that ge­om­e­try is tricky at best – and brings to mind square pegs and round holes.

The Opera Theatre stage is crush­ingly small: 19.5 me­tres wide, wall to wall – a foot­print that gets smaller and nar­rower the far­ther one is up­stage. (In com­par­i­son, Mel­bourne’s State Theatre stage is al­most 46 me­tres across.) In the early 2000s, a pro­posal to ex­tend the 11.4-me­tre width of the Opera Theatre prosce­nium by one me­tre was priced at $1 bil­lion. It was not pur­sued.

Those di­men­sions are a sig­nif­i­cant con­straint for art forms that tra­di­tion­ally make use of scale, spec­ta­cle and sur­prise. The ac­claimed 1991 tour­ing pro­duc­tion of The King and I, for ex­am­ple, down­sized its ele­phants when it was re­vived in the Opera Theatre in 2014. More of­ten, whole chunks of the set, usu­ally cen­tre­pieces, are re­moved.

The ef­fect can be stul­ti­fy­ing. “La Fille mal gardée in

Syd­ney re­ally does look like a farm­yard or court­yard,” the Aus­tralian Bal­let’s artis­tic di­rec­tor, David McAl­lis­ter, told the Syd­ney Morn­ing Her­ald in 2006. “In Mel­bourne, it looks like a town square.”

The ex­tra cost of cre­at­ing two dif­fer­ent sets for the Aus­tralian Bal­let’s 2007 pro­duc­tion of The Nutcracker was re­ported to be $500,000. (It’s the same story in the Drama Theatre: the sets for Ban­garra Dance Theatre’s tour­ing pro­duc­tion of Ben­ne­long were un­us­able any­where else, re­quir­ing scenic ex­ten­sions after the Syd­ney run.) A po­ten­tial so­lu­tion for Opera Aus­tralia, says Ter­racini, will be less re­liance on built sets, and more pro­jec­tions and dig­i­tal tech­nol­ogy.

As it is, it gets crowded up there. Bal­let dancers some­times bump into sets, or snag tiaras and cos­tumes. Chore­og­ra­phy is reined in, par­tic­u­larly for busy corps de bal­let scenes, or fewer performers are used. Even then, it can be a squeeze.

“There’s been times where I’ve done half the ma­te­rial in the wings,” says Aus­tralian Bal­let dancer Alice Topp. Fel­low dancer Richard House agrees: “Some­times it’s like, you may be half off­stage, but half on, so that half of you still has to dance.”

Par­tic­u­larly in Swan Lake, bal­leri­nas are in danger of ca­reer­ing into walls when they flock from the stage at high speed, so back­stage per­son­nel stand on the side­lines, as vig­i­lant as slip field­ers in cricket.

“The girls would race off the ramp in the sec­ond act, and we’d have some­one there to catch them and push them off to the side,” McAl­lis­ter said in 2006, “so the girls didn’t go smashing into the wings.” At other times crash mats are used.

It’s a cute story that mo­men­tar­ily dis­tracts from the most de­bil­i­tat­ing, mad­den­ing fea­ture of the theatre. Ideally, opera houses boast wings and rear stages as lux­u­ri­ously spa­cious as the stages them­selves. House de­scribes the wings in Mel­bourne’s State Theatre as be­ing like “a cou­ple of foot­ball fields”. At the press of a but­ton, a scene might sim­ply glide off the stage; at the press of another, a new scene will take its place, drift­ing in from the op­po­site di­rec­tion. There’s am­ple space for crew, props, cos­tumes, and dozens of dancers or cho­rus mem­bers to as­sem­ble and wait their cue. By com­par­i­son the Opera Theatre’s wings are, in one de­signer’s es­ti­ma­tion, “a cou­ple of me­tres on one side, a lit­tle bit less on the other”.

In plac­ing the Con­cert Hall and Opera Theatre side by side, Ut­zon left vir­tu­ally no space for the wings to be ex­tended. Even a decade be­fore the build­ing’s open­ing, Martin Carr, a vis­it­ing stage di­rec­tor from the Royal Bal­let Com­pany, re­marked pre­sciently that “the wing space pro­vided in Syd­ney is, to say the least of it, lu­di­crous … I can only think that the au­di­ences will be so over­joyed at the ex­cel­lent bar ac­com­mo­da­tion that they will not mind lengthy scene changes.” Fifty­five years on, Carr’s con­cerns still ring true: as a dancer, House has ex­pe­ri­enced this lim­i­ta­tion first­hand. “It’s re­ally tight, es­pe­cially when you’ve got techies, stage crew, cos­tumes.” He says that the is­sues are com­pounded with a show such as Sleep­ing Beauty. “The cos­tumes are mas­sive. You have one girl and a tutu down there and it’s like, all right, we’re full.”

The space above the stage is also too small (again, think of that shrink­ing space to­wards the top of a pointy par­a­bola) to ac­com­mo­date large set pieces out of view of the au­di­ence, as would nor­mally be the case. In the ab­sence of stor­age op­tions along­side, be­hind or above, Ut­zon’s idea was to con­ceal the scene dock and back­stage op­er­a­tions be­low the theatre. It was a brain­wave that’s caused a lot of headaches since.

Scenery in the Opera Theatre is hauled up from be­low, via a mal­func­tion­ing 45-year-old me­chan­i­cal lift, and ca­joled into place. That lift will be re­placed by De­cem­ber, but the new ver­ti­cal-load­ing sys­tem will still be in­cred­i­bly time­con­sum­ing, re­sult­ing in ex­pen­sive tech­ni­cal re­hearsals crammed into short, pun­ish­ing sched­ules that are ex­haust­ing for tech­ni­cal staff, performers and creatives alike.

“There’s a lot of peo­ple that come to the Opera House, ei­ther tour­ing or with a short turn­around here,” says the theatre in­te­gra­tion man­ager, Lou Rosicky. “They kind of walk away with the scars of it. If you try to wedge in a show as you’ve done it ex­actly else­where you’re go­ing to come up against walls. Lit­er­ally and fig­u­ra­tively.”

It was the scarcity of back­stage ar­eas that ar­chi­tect Richard John­son, who col­lab­o­rated with Ut­zon, had in mind when he de­scribed the build­ing as “in­ter­nally haem­or­rhag­ing”. How­ever mod­ern the new equip­ment will be, the fun­da­men­tal level of dif­fi­culty for the tech crew will re­main.

“We’re not able, out of this process, to solve the space is­sues,” says Rosicky, re­fer­ring to the wings and stor­age spa­ces off­stage. “Those ar­chi­tec­tural fea­tures of the build­ing are still there. Quite quickly we’re go­ing to find our­selves in a sit­u­a­tion where the di­rec­tors and the de­sign­ers are push­ing the lim­its of what the equip­ment can do.”

The con­ven­tional wis­dom is that the tribu­la­tions of the Opera Theatre are the re­sult of the post-Ut­zon de­ci­sion to shunt opera to the smaller of the two main shells (in order to let the Syd­ney Sym­phony Orches­tra have the larger shell to it­self). If only Ut­zon had been al­lowed to com­plete his in­te­ri­ors, some be­lieve, all would have been fine.

Oth­ers will point out that, ma­jor hall or mi­nor hall, the sit­u­a­tion would be fun­da­men­tally the same. “All the same prin­ci­ples ap­ply,” says Nick Sch­lieper. “It’s not like the Con­cert Hall is that gi­nor­mous com­pared to the Opera Theatre shell. You would still have the same is­sues be­cause you’d nat­u­rally have a wider and higher prosce­nium arch in that space. Yeah, you might gain a lit­tle bit of space on the side, and a lit­tle bit of height. But you’re still fight­ing the ta­per of the curve and the shape of the build­ing.”

The mu­si­cians in the orches­tra pit might have it worst of all. Even un­der nor­mal cir­cum­stances, pit play­ers per­form

for longer than their stage-play­ing coun­ter­parts, mak­ing them more sus­cep­ti­ble to fa­tigue-re­lated in­juries and men­tal­health is­sues. But the con­di­tions en­dured by the Opera Aus­tralia Orches­tra are es­pe­cially dire.

Here, again, the Syd­ney–Mel­bourne com­par­i­son is un­avoid­able: Mel­bourne’s State Theatre orches­tra pit has an area of 88.3 square me­tres, com­pared with the Opera Theatre’s 28.7 square me­tres. The play­ers in Syd­ney are al­most en­tombed beneath the stage, where space is tight and vis­i­bil­ity is low, re­sult­ing in dam­ag­ing adap­tive pos­tures and awk­ward move­ment chal­lenges for con­duc­tors and mu­si­cians alike.

Not only do the play­ers lack cru­cial con­tact with the singers on­stage, but many of them, shoe­horned un­der the plat­form, de­pend on mon­i­tors to main­tain con­tact even with the con­duc­tor, and en­dure ex­tra re­flected noise from above, such as the thud­ding of dancers’ feet on­stage.

Un­sur­pris­ingly in those cramped quar­ters, noise level read­ings reg­u­larly ex­ceed the Work Health and Safety– stip­u­lated 85-deci­bel aver­age daily limit. Ef­forts to min­imise harm to mu­si­cians have been im­ple­mented: per­sonal sound shields, sec­tional sound shields, “ac­tive earplugs”, al­ter­na­tive seat­ing plans, tag-team­ing mu­si­cians switch­ing out at in­ter­val. But, more of­ten than not, the so­lu­tions them­selves cause prob­lems. Sound shields that pro­tect the string play­ers from the thun­der­ing of the brass sec­tion, for ex­am­ple, will com­pel those brass play­ers to ex­ert more phys­i­cally, in order to push their sound out to the au­di­ence who, by the way, ends up hear­ing the mu­sic, the fruit of con­sid­er­able labour, as muf­fled and boxed in.

For opera singers, the de­sign of the au­di­to­rium, with no res­onat­ing ceil­ing or dome above, means that their voices are ab­sorbed by a steeply raked wall of au­di­ence mem­bers. They de­pend to­tally on elec­tronic fold­back, even to hear the orches­tra.

Even count­ing the side boxes with their dis­mal views of the stage, the Opera Theatre’s of­fi­cial 1507 seat­ing ca­pac­ity is measly by world stan­dards, lead­ing to ad­di­tional strain on ev­ery­one in­volved. “It ne­ces­si­tates us do­ing more per­for­mances,” says Ter­racini. “If we had 2000 seats we could do fewer per­for­mances, and the per-per­for­mance fee would be much lower.”

“The seat­ing ca­pac­ity is one of the rea­sons that opera tick­ets are so ex­pen­sive,” says Sch­lieper, who con­tends that, due to sight­lines, far fewer seats are sell­able than the Syd­ney Opera House likes to let on. “When you’ve only got 1100 or 1200 seats at best to sell, a lit­tle more than half of what you need, your only op­tions are to cut your pro­duc­tion costs in half, which is not par­tic­u­larly vi­able, or dou­ble your seat prices.”

Pity, too, the au­di­ence mem­ber forced to as­cend to the back of the au­di­to­rium – an odyssey the equiv­a­lent of climb­ing to a build­ing’s sixth floor – who must then squeeze past

up to 25 pairs of knees due to the ab­sence of lon­gi­tu­di­nal or ra­dial aisles in the seat­ing plan.

On the plus side …?

De­spite and due to the mis­eries above, a pro­duc­tion at the Opera Theatre is a supreme show­case of the tire­less ef­forts and in­ge­nu­ity of di­rec­tors, de­sign­ers, performers, tech­ni­cal crew and count­less oth­ers. The in­ti­mate scale is fine for smaller op­eras, and some performers ac­tu­ally like be­ing able to make eye con­tact with the first six or seven rows of the au­di­ence.

“And it’s less dis­tance to cover in a very car­dio-based bal­let, so you’re not as puffed out in Syd­ney,” says Alice Topp. “Not as far to travel!”

But the re­cur­ring mo­tif at the Opera Theatre, whether au­di­ences on the whole are cog­nisant of it or not, is of in­hi­bi­tion, en­cum­brance and short-chang­ing at ev­ery turn.

To top it all off, and per­haps most cringe-in­duc­ing of all, there’s the name of the thing. The colos­sal mis­nomer of the “Syd­ney Opera House” would have been un­help­ful enough as it is, with­out draw­ing at­ten­tion to pre­cisely the most com­pro­mised art form of­fered in the build­ing. “[N]ot a very for­tu­nate name, per­haps,” ad­mit­ted one of the in­te­ri­ors ar­chi­tects in 1972, “but it is too late to change it now.”

In 1964, Ut­zon de­signed a theatre in Zurich. It was never built, but the dis­sim­i­lar­ity with the Syd­ney Opera House speaks vol­umes: straight lines, right an­gles, and am­ple, gen­er­ous space al­lo­cated for the wings and back­stage. Of course, it would’ve had noth­ing on the build­ing at Ben­ne­long Point.

Maybe it’s the Syd­ney Opera House’s outer mag­nif­i­cence – on show from ev­ery di­rec­tion, poised mirac­u­lously be­tween ex­panses of sea and sky – that makes the griev­ances in­side feel all the more ag­griev­ing. But then even the build­ing’s tough­est crit­ics will ad­mit that the damned thing can cause them to mo­men­tar­ily for­get their com­plaints. “Some­times I ar­rive at the Opera House with a feel­ing of dread over the prob­lems I have to solve that day,” says Nick Sch­lieper. “Prob­lems that are pre­sented largely by the short­com­ings of the build­ing. But I still some­times catch my­self look­ing up at that build­ing and go­ing, ‘This is just so fuck­ing beau­ti­ful.’”

When bluntly asked if, in the pres­sure-cooker heat of a gru­elling pro­duc­tion, there’s any curs­ing of Ut­zon’s name in the fly-tower, Lou Rosicky chuck­les. “Oh look, there’s a lot of, you know, grum­bling about it. But at the same time, [when] I started work­ing here as a teenager the one thing I got told, but didn’t re­ally be­lieve un­til I went off and started work­ing in the UK and other the­atres: if you can put a show on here, you can put a show on pretty much any­where.”

As for why Opera Aus­tralia has stuck with the Syd­ney Opera House (it’s hinted, by some, that the com­pany has con­sid­ered al­ter­na­tive venues in the past), Lyn­don Ter­racini cites prac­ti­cal, com­mer­cial rea­sons rather than artis­tic ones. “We can prob­a­bly as­sume that 30% of our busi­ness comes from tourists. When we play in other places, we lose that busi­ness.” One might also won­der if a na­tional opera com­pany would at­tract the same gen­er­ous gov­ern­ment sub­sidy if it set up shop some­where else.

A for­mer Opera Aus­tralia chair­man sug­gested that a sec­ond opera theatre might be added to the eastern side of the build­ing, ex­tend­ing over Farm Cove. “I won­der how he would feel,” Ut­zon said of the idea in 1993, “if I sug­gested that another move­ment be added to Beethoven’s Sixth Sym­phony.”

Ter­racini, how­ever, does en­ter­tain a dream of a larger opera theatre, tak­ing the place of the car park un­der­neath the fore­court. “You could do Mozart, Rossini, mu­si­cals, et cetera, in the [ex­ist­ing Opera Theatre], and we could do the big things, The Ring, Don Car­los, Aida, and so on, in the big­ger theatre. That would solve all of our prob­lems. It would be a won­der­ful leap for­ward for opera, not only in Aus­tralia, but in­ter­na­tion­ally.” He adds, “But, of course, the in­come from the car park is enor­mous.”

Scenic de­signer Brian Thom­son main­tains that the Syd­ney Opera House ought to have its in­nards re­moved en­tirely, with new in­te­ri­ors de­signed from scratch. He, too, fan­ta­sises of a larger opera theatre close by, carved into the low sand­stone cliff across the fore­court, beneath the Ben­ne­long Lawn in the Royal Botanic Gar­dens. One of the at­trac­tions of such a theatre, he prom­ises, would be the view dur­ing in­ter­val, surely one of the great­est from any theatre in the world.

“The view would be the Syd­ney Opera House,” he says. “Beat that.”

The re­cur­ring mo­tif at the Opera Theatre is of in­hi­bi­tion, en­cum­brance and short-chang­ing at ev­ery turn.

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