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Opera House yarns

5 books to fill the void

Katie Hryce & Dominic Ellis

Reading is respite in turbulent times. It can enliven, placate, nourish and inspire, and sometimes just run down the clock. These five books have the Opera House as a centrepiece – of treasured memories, bumpy journeys, and triumphant careers. 

The book cover of The Shape of Sound by Fiona Murphy

On Shakespeare 

by John Bell

In 2020 it was often remarked upon that William Shakespeare wrote King Lear during a plague. Whether accurate or not this became one of the catch-cries of the lockdown productivity squad, ultimately reminding the world of the enduring power and influence of the Bard. Actor and director John Bell’s 2011 book is a wonderfully personal ode to Shakespeare and a life in the theatre, detailing Bell’s illustrious career and connection to one of the greatest writers in history.

Thespians will love Bell’s personal anecdotes interwoven with musings on language, leadership and humanity. There are reflections on the cruel and fleeting nature of theatre, with its undeniable parallels to life itself, and pro tips for personal development such as playing Hamlet every ten years “as a barometer of where you’re at in your personal life and relationships”.

Those desperately missing the comforting heartbeat of iambic pentameter will delight in Bell’s vignettes and details of past stage productions (including one idea to take out all the seats and cover the Sydney Opera House Playhouse stage with six inches of mud for a season of Troilus and Cressida) and the ongoing timelessness of the Bard’s canon.

Book cover for My Year of Living Vulnerably

Soar: A Life Freed by Dance 

by David McAllister with Amanda Dunn 

David McAllister is no stranger to the Opera House - his tenure as longest running Artistic Director of The Australian Ballet (passing the baton after twenty years to American dancer David Hallberg as the company launched their 2021 season) has been hugely celebrated alongside his luminous career as a dancer. 

His memoir Soar is truly one for the romantics; those in love with the drama and beauty of dance and the arts in particular. McAllister’s incurable passion is felt page after page, whether he’s recounting the culture shock of dancing with the Kirov Ballet in Soviet Russia or finding out he had not been promoted to principal dancer as he waited in Swan Lake stage make-up on the Forecourt for a fire brigade to deal with an electrical fire at the Opera House.

While the book contains some spilling of beans, you won’t find many ‘gotcha’ moments or village gossip. It’s a serious, considered memoir of a life spent in spotlights onstage. Just as McAllister described it as therapeutic to write, readers will take comfort in his memories of the beauty of live performance as we wait for ballerinas to emerge from the wings of lockdown.

Cover for Minor Feelings

Shell

by Kristina Olsson

This is a different sort of Opera House story. Here the Opera House is a backdrop, physical and historical, in front of which two stories play out. One, of Pearl, a Sydney journalist estranged from her younger brothers, who she fears could be drafted into service in Vietnam. The other is of a Swedish glass artist, Axel, who is commissioned to create an artwork for the Opera House foyers and becomes obsessed with architect Jørn Utzon. Both take place during a period of political disarray, epitomised by the Opera House – for many, a beacon of hope and social change – sitting incomplete on Bennelong Point.

Olsson's ethereal style and provocative imagery are the main drawcards here. She describes the Opera House vibrantly – “bleached bones against the paling sky”, “not a structure but an eruption from the sea”. This is historical fiction at its most poetic.

The book cover for Humankind by Rutger Bregman

A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing

by Jessie Tu

Everyone’s favourite adage “sex, drugs and rock’n’roll” gets a very twenty-first century update to “sex, trauma and violins” in Jessie Tu’s explosive debut novel. 

Jena is a child prodigy violinist who plays casually with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra before later in the novel winning an internship with the New York Philharmonic. Her jagged trajectory as an elite classical performer mixes dangerously with her seeking solace in debaucherous nights and destructive decision-making. Race, gender, sexuality and old-versus-new all play out in unexpected ways as Jena manages to reach some of her goals but misses others by a mile. 

This is a raw and animated read for anyone tired of screaming into the void of extremely dead, white, males representing the peak of humanity’s artistic achievements, and the canonical mindset that got us here. At once salacious and self-pondering, Tu’s voice is distinctly modern, and you might just catch some juicy backstage scenes set in our very own Green Room.

The book cover for Humankind by Rutger Bregman

Timing is Everything

by Moffatt Oxenbould

Ever wondered what it’s like to run an arts organisation? How about the biggest arts employer in the country? Moffatt Oxenbould was the Opera Australia Artistic Director between 1984 and 1999, but worked with the company beforehand. In fact, Oxenbould was there when the Opera House opened, and tells riveting stories about iconic Opera moments, including that of the possum that ran across the orchestra pit rail during the final dress rehearsal of War and Peace. This is a book for Opera-lovers first and foremost, but it gives great insight into a life led backstage, and the inevitable struggles and triumphs of an Opera company in the 20th century.

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