YEAR OF THE DRAGON

Pre­par­ing the set for Handa Opera on Syd­ney Har­bour’s Tu­ran­dot en­tailed an in­dus­trial-scale en­ter­prise, writes Sharon Verghis

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature -

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,

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