Lou Rosicky would like to bust one myth: the wings of the Joan Sutherland Theatre might be narrow, but there have never been nets to catch ballerinas as they leap off stage. “Ballerinas are amazing professionals,” says Rosicky, the theatre’s integration manager. “They can stop on a dime.”
No nets, but occasionally there have been ‘mecs’. A steep ramp used in a production by The Australian Ballet of Swan Lake gave the ballerinas more velocity than usual as they danced off stage. So ‘mechanists’ – stagehands – were called upon to stand in the wings just in case someone was about to hit a wall. The ramp has since been retired from that production.
Not much can be done about the width of the theatre, which is squeezed into the second of Jørn Utzon’s shells. But Sydney Opera House is doing pretty much everything it can to give the Joan Sutherland Theatre - named after Australia’s greatest-ever singer, and the second largest of the Opera House’s six internal venues - a new lease of life. Its refurbishment is one of the five major building projects that form the centrepiece of the Opera House’s Renewal.
The machinery that lowers and raises the sets and the curtains – much of it 45 years old – is being replaced, as are the giant lifts that move sets onto the stage. The acoustics are being enhanced and accessibility will be improved with a new lift and passageway.
"The Opera House is a masterpiece of creative genius, a work of art that is brought to life every day by the art performed on its stages,” says Opera House CEO Louise Herron AM. “The Joan Sutherland Theatre is one of the world’s hardest working theatres, each year delivering about 330 opera, ballet and other performances. Its 50-year-old ‘engine’ needs to be replaced to create a safer, more reliable and flexible theatre.”
When all the work is done in 2018, audiences will be able to better hear the orchestra and access for those with mobility issues will be improved. Yet the vast bulk of the improvements will be unseen, hidden in those narrow wings and in the cavernous spaces above and below the stage. For the most part, audiences will be none the wiser. But that’s what makes these works so special: they go to the heart of what makes the magic of theatre.