YEAR OF THE DRAGON
Preparing the set for Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour’s Turandot entailed an industrial-scale enterprise, writes Sharon Verghis
What do fibreglass cockatoo deterrent shields, a Myanmarese political cartoonist turned sculptor and 39 sections of a dragon’s head have in common? They’re all sharing floor space on a steamy Sydney morning in an inner-city warehouse the size of a small European cathedral. The dragon’s head sits apart from the rest of its body; giant polystyrene shapes cover the floor like foamy icebergs. You can make out an outstretched claw here, a cresting tail there.
A crew of scenic design workers manoeuvres pieces into place, locking upper and lower jaws and other anatomical structures together like a giant jigsaw puzzle.
It is suffocatingly hot. Designer Dan Potra is a quiet figure amid the chaos of jackhammers, buckets of white paint, blue tarp, rollers and huge metal scaffolding. Nuts and bolts roll gently, unnoticed, underfoot. Framed by a monster mandible, a foot-long tooth, a glaring nostril and a staring empty eye socket, Potra swipes a sweaty brow and sighs, “I never should have gotten out of bed today.”
Earlier, riding out to Homebush in Sydney’s west this morning to meet with the cast of the Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour production of Puccini’s Turandot, his motorbike gave up the ghost mid-traffic. Kaput. Luckily, an Opera Australia props van was nearby and designer and bike were rescued.
A mechanical mishap is the last thing he needs. Potra, a compact, owlish figure weighed down by a large satchel bulging with pencils and sketch pads, has a big load to carry as the set and costume designer for Turandot, a $12 million feast of complex moving parts.
Climbing nimbly over the dragon’s hulk is Myanmarese sculptor Soe Pai Aung. Carving dragons is second nature to the master craftsman, Sydney’s go-to man for large public spec- tacles. This is the 27th dragon he’s worked on “and also the biggest”. He scrutinises his delicately hand-carved finishing touches — a scale, a scroll, a lily, a frill, a wrinkle in the knuckle. “I do dragons for other shows, Anna and the King, smaller shows. But this is hardest.”
There is a sense of controlled chaos and ticking clocks in this Alexandria warehouse. The 6m-high dragon’s head is in 39 pieces, waiting to be assembled before being locked on to a steel structure — a giant steel spine that snakes across the warehouse — ahead of a monster paint job and then transportation via flatbed semitrailer to Glebe Island.
There, a barge will transport it across Sydney Harbour to Fleet Steps, off Mrs Macquarie’s Chair, where the completed structure will be lifted by two cranes on to pylons in the water to create what appears to be a floating raked stage facing a bank of 3000 seats.
On this giant disc, this morning’s disarticulated dragon will come to full prowling life, a fire-breathing 60m ivory monster trailing a giant tail resembling the Great Wall of China. It will share space with an 18m tall iridescent silver pagoda tower, the other key visual marker in the fifth opera to roll off the Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour series production line since it began in 2012 with La Traviata, followed by Carmen, Madama Butterfly and Aida.
Funded by Japanese businessman, artist and Shinto priest Haruhisa Handa in partnership with Opera Australia and Destination NSW, the HOSH series has grown to become a glitzy cultural fixture on the Sydney arts calendar, attracting more than 37,000 visitors since 2012. Last year’s production, an extravagant, blingy Aida directed by Gale Edwards, sold more than 55,000 tickets. Each year, HOSH has grown bigger and shinier and louder, with everything from giant chandeliers to last year’s 15-tonne head of Nefertiti (carved by Aung).
Special effects details for Turandot are under tight wraps but Review understands it involves singers flying through the air in safety harnesses (“there’s plenty of aerial work”, an OA worker reveals), a giant lotus sprouting from the top of the tower, secret doors and two-tonne drawbridges, and flames shooting from the dragon’s nose — courtesy of Foti Fireworks, the firm behind Sydney’s New Year’s Eve fireworks.
David Comer, managing director of Sydney company Staging Rentals & Construction, stands by Potra watching the build. Comer’s company made the giant Nefertiti head for Aida last year; this year it’s responsible for the entire set. He winces; the company has worked on big projects such as the NRL grand final “but this without doubt has been the most testing. It is three times the scale of Aida for us.” Up to 40 of the company’s workers have been labouring away on the project for the past three months.
“OA said essentially that it must be built in a way so that it can be packed into a shipping container, which is why it breaks down into so many pieces, and it must be labelled in a clear way so that in 10 years if we take it out, we can put it together again,” Comer says.
Like Comer, the award-winning Potra is no neophyte when it comes to large-scale public spectacles: his credits include the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa and the opening ceremony of the 2000 Sydney Olympics. But with Turandot, there is a wealth of detail to get across, from engineering the hexagonal pagoda Designer Dan Potra in the setbuilding ‘factory’; the dragon’s head is loaded on to a barge, below; male lead Riccardo Massi, left, and female lead Dragana Radakovic, below right tower (“We have all kinds of tricks that are happening, things opening and doing stuff — we will tease you,” Potra says) to coating the dragon’s “nice and crunchy” polystyrene head with a fibreglass shell to protect it from Sydney’s rapacious cockatoos.
Potra has learned well from the past. A kind of Hitchcockian terror from the skies was the fate that befell the giant Nefertiti head during Aida last year. Handa, on his first visit to see one of his operas, was none too pleased when he spotted jagged holes in his multimillion-dollar investment, courtesy of flocks of cockatoos. Potra grins. “I used have a cockatoo myself, and he was a pest. So I know what they can do.”
The deadline to opening night is tight. Chinese-American director Chen Shi-Zheng arrived on Sunday and delivered an “astonishing” presentation to the full cast and crew on Monday, Potra says. The first day of a three-week rehearsal period kicked off the day before at Homebush with the two casts, led by Riccardo Massi and Arnold Rawls sharing the role of the intrepid warrior Calaf, and Dragana Radakovic and Daria Masiero as the ice queen Turandot.
The three-month build has stretched from a site in Kurnell, in Sydney’s south, where the pagoda tower was test built, to the nearby headquarters of Staging Rentals, where a seven-axis robot was flown in from Germany to precisioncarve the dragon’s head out of polystyrene.
At Opera Australia’s headquarters in Surry Hills, a team of 30 seamstresses and various milliners has been busy churning out more than 180 costumes and 60 wigs; prop-makers, meanwhile, have been hammering out everything from parasols and palanquins to aluminium crescent spears, daggers, swords and even a traditional Chinese torture device — a bamboo finger crusher (“It doesn’t really do what it says,” OA props co-ordinator Rodney Grant grins as he mimics a pair of clenching jaws).
Inhabiting the vast hive that is Turandot are riggers, mechanists, freelance art finishers,