Celebrate spring in Sydney with an al fresco performance of Alan John's 1995 opera about 'the eighth wonder' of the world
Staging Dennis Watkins and Alan John’s 1995 opera about the Opera House on its steps, where audiences can contemplate its architecture, is such an inspired idea it’s no wonder Opera Australia went to extreme lengths to make it happen. Like its architect, Jørn Utzon, they had a dream; they were determined to make it come true – despite noise restrictions, staging constraints, and the threat of bad weather.
And so it is that we have this extraordinary technical and imaginative feat, helmed by expat director David Freeman (founder of London’s Opera Factory): a ‘silent’ opera outdoors, where the audience listen through wireless headphones to a live mix of the singers’ mic’d vocals and the orchestra performing inside the House.
Dan Potra’s design is modular and ‘free-floating’: stage components, shaped like the Opera House’s chevron-shaped tiles, glide across the space (pushed by teams of stage hands), and visuals are projected onto a large inflatable screen. Scattered amongst these bits of set are large luminous sculptures resembling crumpled paper.
Twenty-one years after it premiered, The Eighth Wonder still reads like a love letter to the Opera House, its architect, at the art form itself. But in the wake of Opera Australia’s announcement that it will have to vacate its home from June next year because of renovations, this opera also feels like a timely spruik; the libretto contains plenty of in-jokes about the Opera theatre’s inadequate orchestra pit, and the building’s acoustic quirks.
This is an eminently accessible opera, however. Watkins and John cannily married the ‘public history’ of the Opera House (the political stoushes, blown out budget, and Utzon’s trial-by-media and eventually resignation) with a winsome story about a young singer trying to find the courage to pursue her dreams of excellence.
In her career quest, Alexandra is pitted against an unambitious husband and a society of ‘good-enough-ers’. The vision of Australia presented by The Eighth Wonder is one popularised by ’90s blockbusters Muriel’s Wedding, Strictly Ballroom and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert: a place of cheerful bogans, petty bureaucrats, soulful dreamers, and the duelling impulses of xenophobia and cultural cringe. Alex’s dad Ken is fall-over drunk who loves a BBQ and thinks his daughter’s a bloody ripper. Her boyfriend Stephen wants her to downsize her dreams and stay in Australia where they can raise a family and have a career. Her Hungarian singing teacher, Madame Magda, wants her to take a scholarship in Zurich.
A third element running through the narrative is a symbolic struggle between pragmatism and dreams, as symbolised by the presence of two Angels of Earth and Sky. These mystical elements are tied to Utzon’s journey to South America in the late 1940s, where he took inspiration from the Aztec ruins that influenced his design for the Opera House’s ziggurat-like podium steps (if you feel like you’re having a spiritual experience when you enter the House, it’s no coincidence).
Besides the outdoor setting, the only ‘new’ element for this production is the addition of projected imagery that ranges from Utzon’s architectural plans to original photographs of the site in development, Aztec ruins, and animations.
It’s unlikely that many are coming for John’s score, given that it’s relatively unknown – but it’s a good one, which bowerbirds from different styles (it’s possible to hear echoes of Benjamin Britten, George Gershwin, Philip Glass and Leonard Bernstein), and contains some spectacular moments, including the final duet between Alex and Utzon.
It’s beautifully sung here by a large cast, with plenty of highlights: David Parkin singing Alex’s dad Ken; Samuel Dundas as the scheming Politician; Jermaine Chau singing Madame Magda. But the lion’s share of the singing and praise goes to Stacey Alleaume, singing Alex, and Danish tenor Adam Frandsen, singing Utzon. They marry clear, rich tones with controlled vocals and expressive performances. Alleaume takes Alex from a young vocalist whose confidence doesn’t match her ambition, to an internationally acclaimed star, and gives you someone to root for.
While the production is excellent, the experience as a whole leaves a little to be desired. The main issue is the headphones, which sit on (rather than around) the ear, and are quite tight – and consequently uncomfortable to the point of giving you a headache.
The second issue, admittedly unavoidable, is the weather. If you’re lucky, you’ll see this show on a balmy night with clear skies and no wind. On opening night, the 17-degree temperature coupled with light wind and rain meant that audience members spent much of the show cold and the last hour of it wet. Definitely dress for comfort with these elements in mind, to get the best bang for your buck.
The Eighth Wonder plays out as a battle between culture and pragmatism in a country where, as one character sings, “we know how to live – there’s no place for dreamers.” It pits the vision of characters like Utzon and his early supporter, Premier Joe Cahill, against those who would have preferred that Bennelong be a “car park” and that the construction budget be spent on “sewered blocks and bitumen”. With hindsight, as the Opera House grew to be one of Australia’s most iconic landmarks, those doubters probably felt certain chagrin.
Given the current landscape of funding cuts to the arts and rampant development, one can only hope that there were plenty of politicians and government big wigs present and listening on opening night.
See what is in the Opera Australia 2017 season.