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Celebrating New Year's Eve at the House

While the fireworks crackle outside, the Joan Sutherland Theatre reopens in grand form

Justin Tam

One million punters travelled into Sydney city—from Australia and across the world—to settle in with their picnic rugs, deck chairs and eskis to prepare for the night ahead. Hundreds of boats bobbed in the harbour for a chance at a better view. As the clock ticked past nine, the sky was lit with rockets of light that shot from the Harbour Bridge. The wall of sound of an epic orchestra boomed across the water and into millions of TVs across the country. A shower of purple rain fell from the Bridge in honour of the late Prince, and lights in the shape of Saturn’s rings, the sun and stars paid homage to David Bowie, another legend who had passed away. A grand way to celebrate 2016.

Last year, the Opera House celebrated its fourth year as the centrepiece of the New Year’s Eve fireworks (2013 was the first time in a decade that fireworks were launched from the top of the iconic sails). 12,000 shells, 25,000 comets and 100,000 individual pyrotechnic effects lit up the night sky.

Between the Opera House’s team, City of Sydney and Italian specialists Foti Fireworks, fireworks are conducted like a symphony across the city. Dean Jakubowski, Building Operations Manager at the Opera House, is charged with making sure the fireworks are installed safely and securely on top of four of the iconic sails.

“It takes five working days to install,” said Jakubowski. “A total of 832 crackers—at approximately 600 kilograms, including equipment—being launched from Utzon’s building itself.

“A total of 832 crackers—at approximately 600 kilograms, including equipment—being launched from Utzon’s building itself.”
Dean Jakubowski

“The company design the fireworks orchestrated to a soundtrack, and then it’s choreographed so we all launch through the city at the same time … it’s the whole city’s design. The entire display goes for twelve minutes, and our fireworks go off at various times throughout.

As Jakubowski took me through the designs—phone footage of him lying down on the sails watching fireworks shoot up from in front of his feet, a shot of Play School mascot Humpty Dumpty being abseiled up the side of the Opera House’s largest sail for an ABC TV live broadcast—he demonstrated the squeeze in fitting the fireworks, and himself, up there.

“There’s only about 600 kilograms we can put up there. 256 manhours that goes into hauling it up, and you have to remember that the spine of the building is only a hip-width apart, and there’s only so much you can fit up there.”

While the crowds outside prime their picnic rugs for the 2017 New Year's Eve spectacular, another 1500 people will sit in anticipation inside the Joan Sutherland Theatre as it roars back to life for a special performance of The Merry Widow. For the first time since the JST closed in May, the crew will be back behind-the-scenes putting the new machinery to the test, the musicians will perform in the upgraded orchestra pit, and over a thousand ticketholders will hear the JST's refined acoustics as part of a $71 million-dollar upgrade to improve the reliability, functionality and safety in the world-famous theatre. The project was completed over the last seven months while the rest of the Opera House remained in operation.

For James Wheeler, Opera Australia’s Production Manager, getting the show onto the stage is his job: from artists in makeup and costumes in place, to the lighting being set, to walls, makeshift houses and set pieces lifted onto the stage. 

“The new machinery is essential, we had to have it. It’s timely. But that doesn’t replace the work of individuals working as a team on that stage. It makes their job safer, makes the productions more efficient, makes them look better."

He pauses to quote an old colleague. “Theatre is a handmade business, it’s a handmade industry. Even when we automate certain systems, improve machinery or lighting, you still need people to actually do it.

“When we came back unloading La Traviata we thought ‘Right, this place is becoming a theatre again.’ And that feeling was there with the crew as well. They were really looking forward to after it being a drilling site for so long to actually having scenery come in, using the cranes for what they’re designed to do, using the lifts, hanging stuff on the flybars, that sense of putting a show on.”

2018 is going to be a big year, he says, when OA’s repertoire is in full swing.

“For Merry Widow the rear lifts will be going, chain hoists are going to be flying. We’ll be going from an interior scene, pushing trucks out of the way, setting it back—so there’s quite a lot of work done in the interval breaks. I think it’ll be us using the hoist equipment, getting used to how it all works, the operation of rear lifts which are quicker now.

“We won’t be realising the full potential of the new machinery with one production … we’ll really test the system in 2018, when we start bringing in Carmen and The Nose and the rest of La Traviata, and when we bring in Don Quichotte. And we do our repertoire season and we start changing things over, going from Saturday matinee into an evening performance in two and a half hours. That’s when we’re going to be really pushing the system. That’s when it will come into its own."

Lou Rosicky, Theatre Integration Manager at Sydney Opera House has been overseeing the theatre machinery upgrade since its inception. He believes the project will open up new opportunities for creativity between both the artistic companies and the technicians.

"It's a generational change in terms of the stage machinery. It's a real shift for the technicians, both in how they operate the equipment and how they approach it—how they respond to the challenges that the directors and choreographers put in front of them.

"It future proofs us and gives the performers and staff confidence in how to stage shows that would have been a lot more technically demanding in the past. It's really going to change the way we do shows."

As crowds descend onto the Forecourt, the fireworks team prime their grand show across the harbour—on and under the Harbour Bridge, atop the Opera House's sails. Inside, the theatre lifts and machinery will churn, hauling stone walls and lavish art deco facades onto the stage, from the early hours of dawn until the curtains rise at night to rapturous applause. This New Year's Eve, history will be made in a grand celebration on the stage, behind the stage, and in the sky.

“Theatre is a handmade business, it's a handmade industry.” 

James Wheeler

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