Is anyone surprised by the title of this post? Surely not. It has been a recurring topic dating back to the opening of the Opera Theatre in the Sydney Opera House, and more recently over the last 5 years with the plans for the complete demolition of the Opera Theatre followed by the construction of a larger theatre designed with the assistance of Joern Utzon and his son Jan.
With the first production in in the Opera Theatre of Prokofiev’s WAR AND PEACE in 1973, the theatre was found to have a small stage, no wing space, tiny orchestra pit, poor acoustics in both the theatre and from the pit, and insufficient seating.
The Australian Ballet has struggled trying to fit sets constructed for the much larger theatres they use in Melbourne, Adelaide and Brisbane, has had to have matresses lining the side walls of the stage (no wings) and catchers for dancers leaping off stage to prevent injuries, a pit insufficient to contain the required orchestra for Prokofiev ballets scored for quadruple woodwind, and a smaller audience size producing higher ticket costs in Sydney and insufficient seats to meet ticket demand and expand it’s Sydney audience base.
Opera Australia has had similar problems needing to construct sets that can adapt to the much larger stage of the State Theatre in Melbourne, a pit far too small for the orchestral requirements of the big works of Wagner, Richard Strauss, Berg and Berlioz, a substandard acoustic of both the theatre and the sound from the pit, and insufficient seating in the theatre.
Furthermore, it was revealed in the early 2000′s that members of the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra, the primary orchestra used by the Australian Ballet and Opera Australia were at high risk of industrial deafness due to the confined space and loudness of the music they produce in the pit which extends under the stage. If Simone Young did nothing else during her tenure with Opera Australia, her PR machine was able to show us a vision of what operatic programming could and should be like in Australia and more importantly, highlight the deficiencies of the pit size and industrial deafness problems. The pit problems were spectacularly highlighted at the time to the then Premier of NSW, Bob Carr by dragging him personally into the pit to experience the problems for himself. All to know avail as nothing has still been done. To quantitate these deficiencies, consider the following comparison of the major lyric theatres across Australia used by both Opera Australia and the Australian ballet, London and potential alternative theatres available in Sydney:
Lyric Theatre Comparison
Opera pit sizes vary and are surprisingly smaller than expected. The Capitol Theatre in Sydney has the capacity for 110 musicians, Sydney Opera House Opera Theatre 70, State Theatre in Melbourne 70 (it will need to be extended for the 2013 Ring), The Festival Theatre in Adelaide 70 (the Ring Orchestra was extended under the stage), and the Lyric Theatre in Brisbane 90.
Despite these limitations, both National companies have consistently produced excellent productions over the years since 1973, and even many World class performances in spite of these horrific limitations. It speaks volumes of their innovation and absolute mastery of theatrical magic that they have done so.
Over the years various remedies have been applied. Acoustic clouds have come and gone in the theatre to improve the acoustics, the pit has been extended several times under the stage, the lip of the stage has been shortened and the pit wall facing the stalls has been altered to allow more sound through. More radical extension of the pit into the stalls area has previously been though technically impossible as it would involve the removal of large tension cables which run under the front rows of the stalls to stabilise the structure of the largest shells of the Opera Theatre.
Another remedy has been not using the Opera Theatre at all, and mounting productions in either the Concert Hall of the Sydney Opera House or in another theatre. Starting with a startlingly dramatic and sumptuous AIDA in the Concert Hall in 1975, Opera Australia followed with fully staged and equally brilliant stagings of SALOME, LUCIA DI LAMMERMOOR, OTELLO, DIE FLEDERMAUS, NORMA, FIDELIO and TRISTAN UND ISOLDE. Occasionally, the Drama Theatre at the Sydney Opera House has been used for chamber and modern repertoire and both the Australian Ballet and Opera Australia have used the Capitol Theatre in Sydney, with Opera Australia presenting DIE MEISTERSINGERS VON NUREMBERG there in 2003.
In the late 1990′s an approach from the NSW Government resulted in a renewed working relationship with the original architect, the late Joern Utzon. In 1999 he was engaged to prepare a set of design principles to act as a guide for all future changes to the building. Following this, together with his son Jan and leading Australian architect, Richard Johnson of Johnson Pilton Walker, several areas of the building have been redesigned and renovated, including the Recital Hall (now called the Utzon Room) and the Western Foyers. The most radical plans however are for the Opera Theatre.
FUTURE OPERA THEATRE RENOVATION
The proposed solution to the inherent major deficiencies of the Opera Theatre are extremely radical. The plan involves gutting most of the current theatre, removing the tension cables supporting the major shell of the Opera Theatre which is now thought to be technically possible, dropping the stage to the level of the loading dock below – which would allow some wing space under the podium level of the theatre, building a new much larger pit, and building a new stalls area at this lower level. The theatre would then become a three tiered theatre with the current stalls becoming the circle and the current circle becoming an upper circle. This would address either totally or in part the inherent problems of inadequate seating, no wing space, inadequate pit size and due to the larger volume of the theatre acoustics should also be improved. Opera Australia and the Australian Ballet have been fully consulted on the plans, the full details of which have not been released as they remain ‘in confidence’.
DEMAND FOR A NEW LYRIC THEATRE FOR COMMERCIAL MUSICALS
There is also a demand for a new lyric theatre for Sydney for the presentation of musicals. Sydney only has the Capitol and Lyric Theatres available for large-scale musical productions compared to three in Melbourne – The Princess, Regent and Her Majesties Theatres. Theatre producers in Australia are keen to see this deficiency rectified to enable better rotation of musicals between the two major capitals, prevent road blocks or a musical missing out on Sydney all together due to lack of a suitable theatre. The problem is made more acute with plans for Australia, and Sydney and Melbourne in particular being a desired site for off-Broadway try-outs of new musicals as we have recently seen with DR ZIVAGO. A submission by Live Performance Australia in October of last year (Chairman – Donald McDonald) presented to the Barangaroo Authority in October of 2010, recommends the construction of a 1,700 seat lyric theatre at the Barangaroo site. The submission also indicates there is strong evidence that the demand for theatre productions is increasing, with a 5.9% compound annual growth rate (CAGR) in musical theatre attendances throughout Australia from 2004 to 2009. The projected cost is $M 65. The submission also states that this would be sufficient as an alternative venue for both Opera Australia and the Australian Ballet during the years that the Opera Theatre is being renovated/rebuilt, and also be used for long-running musicals for 6-12 months, and shorter ballet or opera seasons for successful productions that could run for longer seasons.
NEW OPERA THEATRES OVERSEAS
Both the Canadian Opera based in Toronto, and the Dallas Opera have had built new opera theatres 3 to 4 years ago. Yes NEW opera theatres are still being built. Both the Four Seasons Centre in Toronto and the Winspear Opera House in Dallas (part of the AT & T Performing Arts Center) have been highly praised, and each built for around $M 40 3 to 4 years ago, and both have in excess of 2,000 seats. Pictures of both theatres are below.
Four Seasons Centre, Toronto
Winspear Opera House, Dallas
The lack of lyric theatres in Sydney has reached a crisis point for a global city. The economic cost to the state of NSW and Sydney is immense with major musicals at least having an estimated $M 100 input into the state economy with a long run. Similar figures exist for opera and ballet. The proposal for one additional lyric theatre of 1,700 seats (recent newspaper articles have seen this figure reduced to 1,500 seats) for Sydney is flawed. Any new lyric theatre usage would be easily mopped up by the musical producers (as well they know) leaving the opera and ballet scratching at nothing for large scale works, and for a temporary home during any future renovation of the Sydney Opera House Opera Theatre. The Australian Ballet in particular needs a larger stage, pit and auditorium similar to the State Theatre at the Victorian Arts Centre for it to really function properly in Sydney, and Opera Australia sorely needs a much larger and similar venue for large scale works such as Wagner, Strauss, Grand Opera and big Verdi works. There is no guarantee that the proposed renovations to the Opera Theatre will occur soon, or even at all, and even if they do they still may never provide Sydney with the lyric theatre both companies need and deserve. If the Opera Theatre renovations are eventually funded, the renovation time will probably extend well past the estimated 3 years considering the complexity of the job and caring for the iconic nature of the building.
What is really needed is TWO new lyric theatres for Sydney. One of 1,500 to 1,700 seats for commercial musicals, and a second with a capacity of at least 2,000 seats, a large pit and stage with appropriate wing space for the Australian Ballet who should leave the Opera Theatre permanently, and Opera Australia for it’s large scale works. The second larger theatre could also be used commercially as well. Opera Australia should not leave the Sydney Opera House due to its name, but continue to present small and medium scale works there. Renovation of the State Theatre in Sydney is not a viable option as the stage is too small (see above) and the eastern wall of the stage recedes drastically towards centre stage. The shape of the State Theatre Stage cannot be altered due to abutting buildings. The Enmore Theatre is similarly unsuitable despite its size as again the stage would have to be considerably extended involving neighbouring buildings and would also require a fly tower. This theatre was built for vaudeville and not opera and parking would be a major problem. A new theatre is the only option.
A golden opportunity exists with the building of the Barangaroo Precinct in Sydney. Initially a new lyric theatre was promised for the area early in the development stage several years ago, but has fallen off the drawing board. It should be restated. In fact both theatres could be built there adjacent to each other sharing storage, office and rehearsal space. This concept would certainly vitalise the area, and make it a vibrant area for night life for this burgeoning global city. In the past commercial theatre entepreneurs have built and owned their own theatres (which is still the case in Melbourne) and funding for a lyric theatre for commercial musicals should be born by producers and/or the Barangaroo Authority. The larger second lyric theatre should be government funded, and is a cheaper option than updating the Opera Theatre (which should still be done) during these times of economic uncertainty.