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How to get the Butterfly on the Harbour

Rome mightn’t have been built in a day, but the crew behind Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour (or ‘HOSH’ as it has now become known) has only three weeks to create an opulent outdoor venue for 3000 guests. In previous years, the site at Fleet Steps has been transformed into a lush 1950s Parisian city for La Traviata, a fiery Spanish Civil War scene for Carmen, and this year will become a slice of Japan for Madama Butterfly.

Production managers Paul Bearne and Clif Bothwell started work on the project in July, putting the intricate planning in place so that they could snap into gear come late February and bring the mammoth artistic vision of creative team to life.

“We have three weeks of construction to build a temporary opera house on the other side of the harbour with five catering outlets, dressing rooms under the stage with air-con, plumbing and sinks, wardrobes, wigs, cleaning facilities, three washing machines and driers,” Bearne says.

“There’s the entire cast out there on the stage as well as 55 orchestral players, so the experience we try to deliver for them is as close to the standard they have to a conventional venue as possible.”

Image by Limuel Martine
Image by Limuel Martine

Spanish group La Fura dels Baus is creating HOSH for the first time this year, and they’re no strangers to epic, outdoor productions. They’ve been creating large-scale theatre in unusual locations since they were established in 1979, from their recent production of Aida in Arena di Verona to the Naumon, the company’s ship, which floats around Europe as a performing arts centre. Local audiences will remember their production of A Masked Ball for Opera Australia last year.

La Fura dels Baus director Alex Olle and set designer Alfons Flores have put their own stamp on the HOSH design, growing the stage by twelve metres and bringing it closer to the audience so that it now sits right at the base of Fleet Steps, rather than floating out in the water. The set is a large hill, covered with fake grass, a bamboo forest (made of 130 pieces of real bamboo) and natural contours. An inflatable 12-metre yellow sun will rise out of the harbour, and a six-metre white moon will rise at the back of the stage thanks to a devoted forklift.

It’s been a set-build with its own difficulties, but the lessons learnt in the first two years of HOSH and the preparation put in place have meant that things have stayed on track. Even the rain which covered Sydney for the first few days of construction wasn’t cause for concern.

“It’s not a huge hindrance to what we do,” Bearne says. “The schedule we run to for the construction phase allows for a few hiccups along the way anyway.”

Back in 2012, Opera Australia installed 16 pylon sockets into the harbour bed, into which a new stage is anchored every year. In that first year, they moved in most of the set pieces and construction materials via the one road into the site, but soon found it to be inefficient. It became clear that the best way for many of the materials was via the water.

Image by James Morgan
Image by James Morgan

“We’ve set up a staging yard at White Bay,” Bothwell says. “So we’re able to truck into the bay, cross-load onto barges, and then tug the materials across and crane it onto land or the stage area. Our trucking schedule includes a barge column to make sure everything comes in at the right time. If we only relied on trucking, we wouldn’t be able to deliver it in the timeframe we have.”

At the back of the stage sit two 250-tonne cranes which play an integral role both in the construction phase as well as the performance, when they’re used to move set pieces on and off the stage.

During intermission for Madama Butterfly, the fake grass which covers the stage is stripped back and buildings are dropped in via the cranes, to change the stage from a natural paradise into an industrial city. The grassy knoll itself underwent vigorous testing; a test build of a 12-metre section of the stage was carried out months ago to ensure that the surface would be safe for the performers, even in rain, and that they could effectively waterproof the lining. Given that the facilities underneath the stage house expensive equipment and an entire orchestra, waterproofing is essential.

Adding to the natural paradise motif is the gigantic sun which rises from a low-profile barge out on the harbour. The barge itself (which was subject to extensive research and development) is never more than half a metre out of the water and a system of winches and wires ensure that the 12-metre sun inflates in a way that creates the illusion that it’s rising out of the water. At each performance there’ll be a person out on that barge (dubbed the “orb master”) whose job it is to ensure that everything goes to plan.

Final test of the sun in Spain
Final test of the sun in Spain

For Bothwell and Bearne, turning HOSH into reality is an eight-month process, but with so many elements to be coordinated in the three-week long site build, the pressure is on.

“Pre-production on an event of this scale is really key,” Bearne says. “The team expands very rapidly from a core team of five up to a full site operational team of up to 100 or 200 players at various stages. The pre-production allows us to diversify if things go wrong.”

Rendering of set design by Alfons Flores
Rendering of set design by Alfons Flores
Testing the sun on Sydney Harbour. Photo by James Morgan.
Madama Butterfly is at Fleet Steps, Mrs Macquaries Point from 21 March to 12 April. Tickets are available at

2 responses to “How to get the Butterfly on the Harbour

  1. Cannot wait for the day! Have booked tickets and the excitement is profound and all- consuming. This will be a a memorable occasion and with the Sydney Harbour as a backdrop what more could a mortal ask for…

  2. WOW!! This looks fantastic – you should all be extremely proud of yourselves – just wish I was able to attend the production. Break a leg!! and best wishes to Paul Bearne.


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