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Sydney Opera House: The Opera (The Eighth Wonder) review

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It’s rare for an Australian opera to receive a revival of any kind. But to be given a revival of the scale of this production of Alan John and Dennis Watkins’ The Eighth Wonder? Well, that’s completely unheard of.

Rebadged as “Sydney Opera House: The Opera”, this dramatically and musically bold piece tells the tumultuous story of what is probably the most recognisable building of the 20th century: the Sydney Opera House.

It’s previously been performed twice under the famous white sails — in 1995 and 2000 — but has now been given the grand outdoor treatment with a production on the building’s Monumental Steps. The audience is seated on the Opera House forecourt, looking up at those steps, as the southern sails of the building peek over the top.

But what is it about this piece that called out to Opera Australia for a revival so strongly?

Well firstly, it is an excellent opera. It gets a little bogged down in dramatic detail in the second half, but it’s still a compelling and fast-moving piece of storytelling with plenty of flair. And John’s score has a sense of adventure, richness, and sophistication, but remains (here comes that dreaded word) accessible. Perhaps the opera’s greatest achievement is how intricately the libretto and score are connected to achieve the same dramatic goals.

Secondly, Opera Australia has had great successes in recent years with its outdoor operatic offerings, and this feels like the perfect marriage of material and setting, and the perfect opportunity to bring a recent Australian work into that format.

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The building itself is awe-inspiring enough, but the story behind it is often just as extraordinary. How did a nation as young as Australia go on to build one of the defining buildings of the decade and shoulder the massive financial and political strain, over 14 years and more than $100 million?

Watkins and John follow the Danish architect Jorn Utzon (Adam Frendsen) from his initial inspirations through to his strained relationship with the NSW Government as he sees his vision diminished by bureaucracy. They also tell the story of Alexandra (Stacey Alleaume) a young Australian soprano who dreams of singing at the Sydney Opera House. Through Alexandra, and her family (the typical picture of a suburban ’60s Australian family), the audience is given a glimpse into how the general public related to this building during its 14-year construction.

Director David Freeman gives a very clear-eyed rendering of this story, which is surprisingly nuanced, given its scale. It doesn’t have quite the bravura as any of the Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour productions, but it’s more dramatically fulfilling than most.

This really is a magnificent staging, utilising Don Potra’s set design — made up of six sliding platforms which move back and forth across the steps, and several large projection screens — translating these characters’ conflicts and internal lives to a huge crowd.

The other big innovation in this piece is the “silent opera” element. Every audience member is given a set of headphones through which they can hear, with great clarity, the singers and orchestra performing live. The orchestra, under Anthony Legge’s baton, plays live in the Opera House Studio, alongside members of the Opera Australia chorus, while the soloists perform live on the steps.

It’s surprising how natural the whole experience feels after ten minutes or so; you can almost forget that you’re hearing the sound via headphones. They also manage to block out most other noise from around the harbour (and any lolly wrapper rustling from your neighbours).

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The opera is brilliantly cast, led, fittingly, by Danish tenor Adam Frandsen as the architect. It’s a massive sing with a pretty high tessitura, but he sounds perfectly at ease. Stacey Alleuame is also superb as the promising Australian soprano, delivering a finely detailed and extraordinarily consistent vocal performance given the opening night wind and rain.

There are fine supporting performances from Martin Buckingham, Michael Petruccelli, Samuel Dundas, and David Greco. Mezzo soprano Jermaine Chau makes a strong impression in her Opera Australia debut, while Gerry Connolly is unforgettable as the Queen, underplaying his role perfectly and to great comedic effect.

This is the sort of experience which should stir a little patriotic pride in any Australian who attends.

Ours is a country with grand cultural ambitions, which are constantly at battle with the naysayers, uncomfortable reaching for greatness or delving too deeply into the difficult cultural questions at our nation’s heart. Too often, those ambitions are defeated and conservatism wins.

This is a story of one of the rare moments in our history when the dreamers won. And all you have to do is look up at the magnificent gift they gave us.

Sydney Opera House: The Opera (The Eighth Wonder) is on the Monumental Steps of the Sydney Opera House until November 5. Images by Prudence Upton

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