A Cunning Blog

Long words. Short words. Words that say something.

Live music in Dead City


Went to Die Tote Stadt first night on Saturday. The much anticipated ‘Australian premiere’ production by Bruce Beresford, starring Cheryl Barker and power-tenor Stefan Vinke. At the season’s launch back in August 2011 there was much talk of technology and vague promises of holograms to create the Maria/Marianna doppelgänger. That idea obviously got binned, but the production had one significant technology-dependent innovation, the remote orchestra.

Opera Australia has battled with the physical infrastructure of the Opera Theatre ever since the building opened – not an uncommon problem for opera companies / houses, but particularly intractable in this case, not least because the building is a national icon, World Heritage, and built on water and political stuff-upperies. The company gets by with a rather thin serving of strings and liberal use of earplugs for romantic repertoire, but there are some scores which simply won’t fit. Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt, even with parsimonious string allocations, is one such. Multiple keyboards, two harps, and a barrage of percussion require real estate.

Conductor Christian Badea has plenty experience in delivering non-traditional concert presentations such as live music to film, so he was a willing and thoroughly competent collaborator Opera Australia’s solution, putting the orchestra in a room on the other side of the Opera House and piping the music in. It was superbly executed: close your eyes, and it sounded just like the pit was full of musicians. Indeed, it sounded better than usual, perhaps because there were more strings. The orchestra, reportedly, love playing in their own little studio – the conditions are much more comfortable – and they get an onstage bow at the end. The downside, for the audience, is the black hole of the pit — there’s no-one there, and speaking as someone who loves watching the orchestra, that’s miserable. That, and a few notable moments when the sound system could not reproduce the visceral, raw complexity of a grand romantic tutti. But top marks for trying.

I have to admit I was, in the end, a bit nonplussed by the whole experience, and it got me thinking about whether there are other solutions to the pit apart from this hi-tech approach. I came up with three (with lots of help, it must be said, from @prestontowers and @Stufromoz). There must be more…

1. Spend gazillions on making the bugger bigger. I can just see the builder standing in the pit, sucking through his teeth and saying, “you’d be better off to pull it down and start again, luv”. Given that it’s a State-owned building and NSW ain’t exactly flush right now, I would not be holding my breath.

2. The pragmatist’s approach: use less players, rescoring the work if necessary. That’s what will happen for Strauss’s Salome later in the season. Strauss wrote for an even bigger orchestra than Korngold (although not quite as many offstage players). Opera Australia uses a (composer sanctioned) cut down version.

3. The absolutist approach. Don’t do big romantic repertoire in Sydney Opera House’s Opera Theatre. In fact, be more flexible about venues in general, fitting the repertoire to the space as demands. Baroque works brilliantly in City Recital Hall. Wagner works well in the Capitol. Mozart and Britten can be great in the Opera Theatre.

Many people do not realise that Opera Australia is *not* the same company as the Sydney Opera House. They are Australia’s national opera company, resident at the Opera House. But if the Opera House cannot meet the company’s needs, why should it not seek more suitable performance spaces in the service of its art?

Maybe it is because art is not the only master Opera Australia serves. And whether you are a cynic, a pragmatist or an idealist, that is the real concern behind the current ‘solution’ to the Sydney Opera House pit.


  1. You should get a big comment run to this one H.

    “But if the Opera House cannot meet the company’s needs, why should it not seek more suitable performance spaces in the service of its art?” Of its own admission, the company says it needs the tourist bums which ritually need to sit in the famous Sydney Opera House (been there sat that) which sounds to me like an understandable but nonetheless double indictment – that the company can’t draw tourists in its own artistic right, and that Sydney can’t fill the puny hall with its own numbers. That said, Sydneysiders might just do just that if the damn thing worked like a decent opera theatre should.

    The Capitol gets booked by long run shows making a several week, or even month, season by OA pretty hard to organise I suspect. Then there’s the Lyric trapped in the awfulness of the casino and its precinct.

    As for making it bigger, going down so the current stalls become the circle, if I undersand the concept, and costing somewhere between 600 mill and a cool billion, the new appointee seems keen to at least get it back on the agenda.

    Another option (which may predate your time here) is the Concert Hall (now solving its own acoustic problems and about which I hope you may comment) where I have to say I’ve had my most satisfying opera experiences in the city (Britten excepted), both fully staged (Lucia, Salome, Aida, T&I, Borgia) and concert performances (most memorably the tile cracking Turandot of Rita Hunter). And the SSO are moving in here, doing Queen of Spades this year and the new music director saying it is one of his priorities .

    My dream solution would be the reversion of the main hall to opera theatre and the building of a new purpose built concert hall. We’ll see a casino at Barangaroo well before that.

    As for relayed sound, its only as good as the speakers, whatever else happens, and you described it perfectly.

  2. Of course, wanderer’s dream solution doesn’t account for the fact that the orchestra also needs the tourist bums and thus the Sydney Opera House venue. Personally, I would love to see opera and ballet take over the Capitol (send the long-running shows to the Opera Theatre instead!). But that venue has its clients and established operating patterns as well as its own (backstage) challenges. And I also hear that there are regular opera goers who perceive the district around Central Station as an undesirable destination.

    • Efterklang was brilliant in the Opera Theatre. Maybe Sydney’s newest upmarket band venue. Get Fergus L to fill out the gaps between Mozart and Britten with wacky indie bands, put the musicals in the Lyric, and open an Opera Bar in World Square with a covered walkway straight into the Capitol. Get a designated bus from 2088 and 2025 doing the Opera Circle (OH, CRH, Capitol). *glib alert*

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