The way Lyndon Terracini sees it, there’s some sort of middle ground in the battle for bums (on seats); an axis at which the finer arts develop a pop following. The Dutch fiddler effect, if you will.

“It will have a very, very broad appeal in the same way an André Rieu concert has,” Opera Australia’s artistic maestro says about his ambitious new project.

It will be opera watered down, quite literally; not as cheesy as a Rieu concert, hopefully, but at least as popular. Imagine: 3000-odd people — many of them tourists, NSW government benefactors hope — watching a Verdi masterpiece floating on the most photographed harbour in the world. With any luck, they may just head next door to take in a future production under the sails of the Sydney Opera House.

It’s not an entirely new gimmick: opera is performed alfresco across the world, including an Australian stadium tour of Aida not that many years ago. But the logistics of a harbour-side performance — a floating stage (in fact, tethered to the seabed to ensure the performers don’t get seasick), the orchestra below deck, the conductor communicating to his players via television, all performers miked and mixed through a vast sound system, sets shipped on stage via barge, a giant chandelier floating overhead with fireworks exploding in the sky — are extraordinary. And the setting, the Royal Botanical Gardens with the iconic Opera House and Harbour Bridge in the background, majestically distracting.

For Terracini, in his first year at OA after successfully programming the Brisbane Festival, this — along with the announcement in August of a Melbourne production of the four-night epic Der Ring des Nibelungen in 2013 — is his first indelible stamp on the national opera company. Even then, opera fans will have to wait until March 2012 to see the harbour spectacular — Verdi’s romantic tragedy La traviata.

Crikey first spoke to Terracini in May, after the heavily subsidised company’s first financial loss in six years (about $1 million) and ahead of successful seasons in Sydney and Melbourne. He said then: “We need to find a way of delivering a form of theatre that’s as exciting and revolutionary as CinemaScope and colour were in television.”

As making a splash goes, this is drenching; a grand idea that somebody, Terracini says, really should have thought of sooner “given we’ve got the most fabulous natural theatre in the world, which is Sydney Harbour”.

NSW Premier Kristina Keneally pledged her donation on behalf of Events NSW on Tuesday (a figure jealously guarded), though Terracini says OA will take on much of the risk from a $9 million project. A major offshore sponsor will be announced next year.

There’ll be 22 performances of La traviata, with 60,000 tickets on sale. Half will be bought by interstate visitors, Keneally predicts, generating $20 million in economic activity. The plan is to stage a new work annually.

Terracini sees the opera glasses set joined under the stars in the bleachers by opera virgins. “I’m not being evangelical about it,” he says, “it’s not really about that.” But it is about broadening the company’s reach and revenue beyond ageing enthusiasts, certainly, legitimising a European art form for a wildly shifting Australian audience demographic.

“It’s about that whole thing of rethinking exactly what an opera company is in the 21st century,” he says. “The fundamental is how you relate to the culture in which you’re living.

“It’s a different type of performances, it’s large-scale, it’s more of a contemporary Australian performance. I’m not saying it’s a rock concert; the sound quality will be fabulous.”

Terracini is fond of the art gallery exemplar: the company should preserve classic works while investing in contemporary forms. He’s previously hinted at injecting more Asian and indigenous influences, while offering more opera-lite Broadway-type fare and lesser-known works from Russia and beyond.

But nothing is likely to have the majesty of the harbour setting. And if it rains? March and April are traditionally the driest months of the year, Terracini is quick to point out, and spare days will be scheduled if the heavens do open.

The show will go on, in a way traditional opera audiences can’t even imagine.

Peter Fray

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