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The work that makes magic

Renewing the Joan Sutherland Theatre

Sydney Opera House

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. 

With 330 performances each year, the Joan Sutherland Theatre is one of the busiest in the world.

“I think it’s extraordinary that this theatre is still in great working condition after having such an incredible workload,” says David McAllister, artistic director of The Australian Ballet. He recalls dancing as Mercutio in a performance of Prokofiev's Romeo & Juliet when, on opening night, a machinery breakdown meant the Opera House’s general manager had to tell the audience that the show would continue without any scene changes. “We’ve been lucky not to have any show stops in the last couple of years,” McAllister says.

When the curtain falls on the 20th of May on the final performance of The Australian Ballet’s The Nutcracker – The Story of Clara, builders will move in for seven months of construction. Because the works are so essential, the Opera House is self-funding the stage-machinery upgrades to the tune of $45 million from its reserves.

“A stage can be a very dangerous place,” says McAllister. “There’s tonnes of machinery above you. There are quick scene changes, things flying in and out, lights that hang above your head. For us to be able to do death-defying things on stage, we are so reliant on all the people backstage to make sure we’re safe and secure.”  

Lou Rosicky is one of those backstage people. He’s immensely proud of the theatre’s safety record, and of the ingenuity of the team who work behind-the-scenes to make productions come alive. Nutcracker is his favourite production. Its quick scene changes - whisking the lead role of Clara from an Australian summer to the depths of a Russian winter, the Tsar’s Imperial Court and through the Bolshevik Revolution – mean the backstage crew have to move in a manner almost as choreographed as the dancers below.  

“You’re working incredibly fast,” says Rosicky. “It’s one of those shows that’s never quiet on headsets. It’s always the next thing and the next thing. You live on the adrenaline.” 

Backstage of the theatre resembles a jungle, with ropes and steel cords hanging from high above and laced through cages on black walls.  Most of the theatre machinery is original from when the building opened in 1973 and has reached the end of its working life. The control system was upgraded 25 years ago and that’s at the end of its life too. Ten of the 60 bars use handlines that need to be manually loaded with heavy counterweights and pulled. Whereas most theatres have space in the wings for sets to be rolled on and off stage, the narrowness of the Joan Sutherland means sets are instead brought up on a giant lift that covers the entirety of upstage. Staging a production is, Rosicky says, a logistical nightmare. 

Somehow, everything is made possible. The backstage crew find a way to accommodate every movement and change of scenery so that audiences never miss out. But fulfilling the magic promised from each production extracts a toll on machinery and manpower. “There’s a lot more moves that go into one of our scene changes than what you would have at Convent Garden [in London],” says Rosicky. “What they can do in two steps we have to do in four or five.” 

The building works involve removing tonnes of steel, including the grid deck and the mechanical pulleys above the stage, and replacing everything anew (a few machines will be preserved for heritage).  A new lift will be faster and quiet enough that it can be used during performances. Whereas the old lift is only used for sets the new one can take people on and off the stage. It will also be able to carry horses, used in the odd opera such as Carmen. “Horses like it smooth, says Rosicky. “They’ll love the new lift.” 

A new acoustic enhancement system will better distribute sound around the theatre and enable the audience to hear more of what the orchestra hears. A new follow-spot room will allow the spotlight to reach performers across the entire stage (incredibly the current follow-spot cannot reach upstage.)

And a new lift and passageway on the western side of the theatre will allow people with limited mobility to access, for the very first time, the Northern Foyer with its sweeping views across Sydney Harbour. 

What Covent Garden can do in two steps, we have to do in four or five.

"We do not close this theatre lightly or easily," says Herron.  "This is a 363-days-a-year operation. Its only scheduled days off are Christmas Day and Good Friday. We are very mindful of the disruption it causes not only the Opera House but also importantly Opera Australia and the Australian Ballet." 

"We wanted to do as much as we could in these seven critical months," the Opera House CEO says. "Which is why we are so thrilled that the NSW Government has supported $26 million-worth of additional upgrades to improve the theatre’s accessibility, functionality and acoustics, which will be finished by mid-2018."

Lyndon Terracini, artistic director of Opera Australia, says the temporary closure of its Sydney home means the company has had to be creative in finding venues for the rest of its 2017 season. Productions will be staged in Sydney Opera House’s Concert Hall and Playhouse as well as the Sydney Town Hall, the City Recital Hall and the Capitol Theatre. “We’re looking forward to those productions, but we’re very much looking forward to getting back into the Joan Sutherland Theatre,” Terracini says. “To know that the best technology in the world is being used in the theatre gives everyone a feeling that they can do their best work.”

The sentiment is shared by The Australian Ballet’s David McAllister. Audiences might not be able to see much of the changes. But over time, he hopes there’ll be something different to what they feel. “When you do have that technology, you have the opportunity to do bigger and better things,” he says. “The designers, the choreographers and the lighting designers, they’re always pushing boundaries. This Renewal project will inspire them not only on the technical side of the company, but also on the artistic side, because it will give them the opportunity to dream even bigger than they have in the past.”

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