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OPERA AUSTRALIA'S outdoor stage in Sydney Harbor, HANDA OPERA, will present Turandot this month.
by Mario R. Mercado. 

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The set in place for Handa Opera’s Aida, 2015
© Hamilton Lund
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Hamilton Island, Great Barrier Reef
Once a year, Australian Ballet alights at the Qualia resort on Hamilton Island, Great Barrier Reef—a ninety-minute flight from Sydney—for a weekend of performances on a specially built outdoor stage, with the Whitsunday Islands as backdrop. September 23–25, 2016; qualia.com.au

Courtesy Qualia
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A vacation in Sydney—the exciting and sophisticated capital of New South Wales—should include some of the myriad attractions that lie just a short journey outside the city.
This famous range, whose blue haze arises from the vapor of eucalyptus trees, is thirty-one miles northwest of Sydney. One of the best ways to take in its landmarks, plateaus and valleys is via helicopter. sydneyhelitours.com.au
Renowned for Semillon white wine, the region also produces Chardonnay, Shiraz and Verdelho. A variety of tours includes visits to some of Australia’s leading family-owned vineyards, such as Tyrell’s and Audrey Wilkinson. winecountry.com.au
This 37,000-acre park, forty-five minutes north of Sydney, offers a glimpse of Australia’s natural diversity and has the greatest concentration of Aboriginal Heritage Sites and rock engravings in Australia. sydneyoutback.com.au


Its distinctive profile, sails unfurled, set on a promontory extending into Sydney Harbor, remains one of the world’s most recognizable landmarks—so notable it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2007. Designed by Danish architect Jørn Utzon, the Sydney Opera House was completed in 1973, after twelve years of construction. It has a concert hall and various performance spaces, including the 1,507-seat Joan Sutherland Theatre, the principal stage for Opera Australia. The country’s national company, based in Sydney, also has a season in Melbourne and tours the Australian continent.

Also notable is nearby Harbour Bridge, linking the Central Business District to Sydney’s North Shore. Anyone who has watched New Year festivities play out on television will know the bridge as the source of a brilliant fireworks display that distinguishes Sydney as one of the first of the world’s major cities to welcome the nascent year. A new landmark of a different kind is Handa Opera on Sydney Harbor—Opera Australia’s outdoor stage, which rises each March on harbor waters with a full production that runs for most of April. Puccini’s Turandot, this year’s opera and the fifth supported by the Handa Foundation, is set waterside at Fleet Steps, on the edge of the lush seventy-five-acre Royal Botanic Garden, just southeast of the Sydney Opera House.

“Even though the opera house is arguably one of the most famous buildings in the world, there was still reluctance on the part of many to come inside to attend a performance,” says Lyndon Terracini, Opera Australia’s artistic director. “So we needed to find another way to connect the larger public to what we were doing—and that was opera outdoors. One day, I was walking from the opera house along the Royal Botanic Garden, and as I stood there, looking across the bay, facing the opera house, the bridge and skyline, I thought opera in an outdoor setting would be the perfect way to reach a new public. Audiences would have extraordinary views of the opera house, the harbor, city—and a fabulous show.” In addition to presenting opera with superb casts, imaginative directors and visually compelling stagings, Terracini believed from the outset that food and drink should form an essential part of the experience of Handa Opera on the Harbor. Australia, at the crossroads of the Pacific and Asia, is acclaimed for its produce, innovative chefs and sophisticated but unfussy cuisine, including a fusion of regional cooking styles. It is also distinguished by superb domestic wines. At Handa, audiences have five choices, from fine dining to distinctive take-out.

Even in the colorful context of opera patrons, Dr. Haruhisa Handa is unusual. A Japanese entrepreneur, businessman and philanthropist, Handa owns more than a dozen specialized companies in Japan, Australia and the U.K. Through a foundation, he supports humanitarian and cultural development in Cambodia as well as professional golf in Australia. Handa, who studied voice after obtaining a degree in economics, is an avid amateur and the key individual funder of Handa Opera on Sydney Harbor, which was inaugurated in 2012 with La Traviata. Since then, Handa Opera has presented Carmen, Madama Butterfly and Aida. Handa himself, an ordained Shinto priest, is a somewhat mysterious benefactor: “Although he has supported our outdoor opera from the beginning,” says Terracini, “he has yet to attend one of the performances.” 

The only outdoor venue comparable to Handa Opera is the Bregenz Festival, which takes place in summers on Lake Constance, Austria. It, too, encompasses a large-scale stage platform on a body of water, but this is the only characteristic both share. The Handa platform is two-and-a-half times as large as Sydney Opera House’s Sutherland Theatre. Though April is an autumn month in the antipodes, temperatures are mild in Sydney, with average daytime temperatures in the lower seventies, falling to around sixty in the evenings.

CHEN SHI-ZHENG, a China-born, New York City-based stage and film director, seems the ideal candidate for a reimagined production of Puccini’s last work, with its challenging dramaturgy. (Dragana Radakovic and Daria Masiero alternate in the title role, with Riccardo Massi and Arnold Rawls as Calàf.) Zheng is known for his production of the Shanghai Kunqu opera The Peony Pavilion and, more recently, the pop-inflected Monkey: Journey to the West, both at Lincoln Center Festival, as well as Nixon in China at the Châtelet in Paris and L’Orfeo for English National Opera. Along with Australian set and costume designer Dan Porta, Chen has conceived a production on a spectacular scale that strips away the exoticism. Wrapped around the stage is a stylized 197-foot Chinese dragon whose tail is transformed into a structure suggestive of the Great Wall of China. It extends to the opposite side of the stage, where it rises to become a fifty-three-foot iridescent pagoda. Much of the set becomes a surface onto which video images of Chinese history are projected. “Puccini’s score, both in its emotional power and subtlety, possesses particular sensory richness,” Chen says. “For our modern sensibility, it draws forth images in a cinematic sweep.

“Because the setting is, by definition, outdoors,” Chen continues, “we draw from it for this Turandot. We sought not to illustrate the plot in any traditional sense but in fact to borrow the entire view of Sydney Harbor to amplify the story’s dimension, providing a particular backdrop for Turandot and Calàf against a larger narrative of Chinese dynastic empire. Our aim is to give justice to a story that extends beyond the principal roles.” 

Handa Opera on Sydney Harbor is one of several initiatives Terracini has created to reach and develop new audiences for Opera Australia. Like U.S. companies such as Houston Grand Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago and Glimmerglass, Opera Australia employs its full resources, notably its symphonic orchestra, in the presentation of classic American musicals such as South Pacific and The King and I throughout its fall season at the Sydney Opera House. These productions are cast with leading musical-theater actors and the occasional opera singer, such as Teddy Tahu Rhodes. In recent seasons, Sydney audiences have seen the Bartlett Sher production of South Pacific and the Christopher Renshaw staging of The King and I, presented on Broadway in 1996. This year marks the sixtieth anniversary of Opera Australia and coincidentally the sixtieth anniversary of the premiere of My Fair Lady on Broadway. To mark these milestones, Opera Australia is re-creating the original lavish sets and costumes by Oliver Smith and Cecil Beaton. Julie Andrews, who created the role of Eliza Doolittle on Broadway, will stage the work.

BY ANY MEASURE, Handa Opera has been a success. In 2012, 66 percent of audiences who attended La Traviata had never bought a ticket to an Opera Australia production. Since then, the quotient of first-time ticket-buyers has hovered around 50 percent. Perhaps even more impressive is that in this age of diminishing season subscriptions, Opera Australia’s are on the rise. It remains part of a strategy, as Terracini puts it, “not to think of playing for one audience, but to play for many, varied audiences—whether Handa Opera in the Harbor, the musical, or the Sydney Opera mainstage, both popular repertoire and works less familiar.” 

Regarding audiences, Terracini notes the importance of Asia for Australia. China accounts for the largest number of international visitors to the continent, and almost 70 percent of them take in some type of cultural experience, be it a concert or a museum. It comes as little surprise, then, that for the first time, Turandot will offer a special feature—projected titles in Chinese.  spacer 

Mario R. Mercado , author of The Evolution of Mozart’s Pianistic Style, writes on music, dance, theater and art. 

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