Beneath the iconic sails, the lights dim. Quiet filters through the darkened theatre; the quiet of familiar expectation. And the music starts.
Seated in the Joan Sutherland Theatre, the second largest performance hall in the Sydney Opera House, it is always the hush before the overture that fills me with anticipation; the wash of the first chords that embraces me into the exotic and comfortingly unfamiliar experience of attending the opera. Tonight it is Bizet who greets us⎯ dramatic, passionate, utterly recognisable and yet always fresh, never cliché. The stage is dimly lit, the heavily draped curtains revealing an evocatively rustic set, and before Carmen has even sauntered onstage to seduce her audience and Don Jose with her sultry Habanera, I, along with the other thousand and a half attendees, am swept into a world of intrigue and betrayal. Opera Australia casts impeccable leads; passionate performers with rich voices that fill the room, seducing, accusing and thrilling viewers attending a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, a heart-wrenching Puccini tragedy, a rousing Verdi, a timeless Mozart drama. The direction and staging, too, is exquisite in its deceptive simplicity; chameleon-like, the stage that was expansively empty and minimalist in Madama Butterfly is claustrophobically intimate in Carmen.
And yet the thrill and paradox of attending opera is that it is a participation in continual displacement, weaving together an immersive musical and dramatic experience with the constant awareness of the physicality and uniqueness of the space in which the show is performed. Enticed by Carmen’s Seguedilla and entranced by the otherness of Bizet’s gypsy life, I am simultaneously intensely aware of the woman next to me, elegantly dressed in a kimono-inspired gown that billows onto the edge of my seat, of the lady in front of me who has dressed to theme, a large folded Spanish fan resting on her armrest. And when the curtain falls for intermission, Spanish rhythms still thrumming through my veins, I weave my way to the theatre bar⎯ and am taken anew by the vastness of Sydney Harbour, stretching into the darkening night. The world of Spanish gypsies slides like a palimpsest beneath the stunning view of the Harbour Bridge, which arcs and sculpts the darkling sky above the still-moving harbour waters beneath. And now appear lights beneath the Bridge, and the glow of an evening-lit ferry on the slow-rolling waves scatters a glimmering path to Fort Denison and beyond.
The emotional and cultural investment involved in watching operas calls for sustenance, and after a small pot of ice-cream that I have come to identify specifically with musical and theatrical experiences, I wash away my knowledge of Carmen’s impending doom with a light, sparkling champagne. At the mouth of the stairs to the theatre bar, there is a small photoset, and a couple sits amidst the bright scarves, baskets of produce, a Spanish guitar lying to the side. It calls me back to Don Jose’s and Carmen’s flight and doomed romance, and even now, the signal comes marking the end of intermission and we are drawn back by the lush, vibrant orchestra into the gypsy’s hideout in the mountains, drawn to the dynamic and fiercely scornful Carmen and the pathos of Don Jose’s destructively obsessive love.
Time has a strange way of behaving inside the Sydney Opera House. Outside, the evening has sunk into night in the space of hours, but inside the Joan Sutherland Theatre, we have witnessed the passing of months. Emerging from the theatre, I cannot leave Bizet’s music behind, the agony of the wordless fate motif and the finality of the falling curtain. Emerging from the theatre, I am again transfixed by the sublime sight of Sydney Harbour by night.
We converge outside, filtering through the forecourt of the Opera House: willing victims to Carmen’s allure and witnesses to the pathos of Don Jose’s descent to desperate murderer; still-spellbound attendees from the vast Concert Hall; theatre enthusiasts the Playhouse. Ahead of me, the Harbour Bridge reaches across the water, and behind, the sails of the Opera House soar, incandescent against the smooth, clear night. The buzz of the nightlife grows steadily as I turn to view the postcard-worthy panorama that has so fittingly made Sydney a touted tourist attraction. And yet, as I board the train at Circular Quay Station, viewing the Opera House from afar, to stand on the steps of that great building is to glimpse only the shell of that vibrant place, living home to so many of Australia’s finest performance groups. For the pulse of the Sydney Opera House is in the energetic, talented musicians and performers who fill its halls and continue to delight thousands, transporting listeners and viewers to different worlds and times while continually drawing them back to the physicality of the performative space of the Opera House: alerting all to the beauty and uniqueness that is this vibrant city of Sydney.