When Lyndon Terracini appointed La Fura dels Baus to direct and design Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour in 2014, he knew they would bring something very special.
The avant-garde Spanish theatre troupe are at the leading edge of outdoor theatre, lending their bold creative vision to events as distinct as the Olympic Games in Barcelona and an enormous outdoor production of Aida for the anniversary of the Arena di Verona.
They come at opera with a deep respect for the composer’s intention, and a strong commitment to find the heart of the story in today’s context. They bring out the contemporary themes for contemporary audiences.
“Madama Butterfly is an intimate story of a broken love, a betrayal” says Àlex Ollé. “But it’s also about something bigger – a clash of cultures.”
That bigger theme is so universal that Ollé believes the story could take place anywhere – in 19th century Japan, where Puccini set his opera, or right here on Sydney Harbour in 2014, where this performance will take place.
Cio-Cio-San (Madam Butterfly) is today’s young woman, he explains. “She happens to fall in love with the wrong person – Pinkerton is perhaps today’s businessman or developer – who thinks everything has a price and can be purchased.”
She is bedazzled by what she thinks Pinkerton represents: modernity and freedom. He is taken with her exotic beauty, and feels entitled to have a taste.
“He comes in almost like a tsunami and wipes out everything in his path,” Ollé says.
It serves as a devastating metaphor for the meeting of two worlds – the traditions of the east and the sweeping modernity of the west, he says. There are themes in this story that transcend time: a clash of cultures and expectations, power and colonisation, the thrill of the exotic and tantalising, unfulfilled promises of freedom.
Set designer Alfons Flores has created a spectacular stage that fits seamlessly into the outlook of the Opera on Sydney Harbour site. It is a beautiful green hillside, wooded with bamboo, lit by the rising moon and rolling into the Royal Botanic Gardens with the glittering Sydney Skyline in the distance.
By the end of the opera, that beautiful green hillside will have been changed irrevocably. “It is devastated land,” Ollé explains. “It’s a beautiful metaphor for Cio-Cio-San’s devastated emotional state, and a representation of Pinkerton’s self-entitlement. He destroys Cio-Cio-San and everything around her.”
Costume designer Lluc Castells has chosen to narrate the cultural clash through his costuming: Cio-Cio-San begins the opera wearing a stunning traditional Japanese wedding outfit complete with an enormous Butterfly back tattoo, but as the story goes on, her dress becomes fused with modern fashion.
That tattoo is an important connection with the history of geishas, Castells explains. “It gives our Butterfly a connection with the past and the present.”
Each new Opera on Sydney Harbour has had its own calling card, a set element to “capture the public imagination,” explains Lyndon Terracini. In 2012, a giant crystal chandelier hung over the La Traviata stage, in 2013, giant Hollywood style letters lit up the Carmen stage. This year, a 12-metre sun will rise from Sydney Harbour and a six-metre moon will silhouette the lovers as they sing their famed duet.
The site itself is a Japan-inspired paradise, with elegant Japanese gardens and bustling Tokyo-style street-food carts. Paper lanterns light the paths and modern Asian fusion cuisine is available on site, along with premium wines and champagne.
The event is designed to be a complete experience, from the optional arrival by water taxi to the carefully-themed food, to the spine-tingling music. Even the event toilets have won awards.
“I think the audience will receive the show with delight and astonishment,” Ollé says. “The music, the tragedy of the story, the whole environment and the spectacular setting make a good cocktail!”
For tickets, a teaser video and more information, click here.