Dan Potra has a principle, and it’s true whether he’s working on the Sydney Olympics, a brand new Philip Glass opera or an extravaganza at Edinburgh Castle.
“Put the budget where the audience can see it. Don’t hide it away. If you don’t use a set piece, you don’t need it. The set is your most important cast member – it has to perform and be there for the whole show.”
In his next project, the set actually has to perform before and after the show. Built on a floating stage on Sydney Harbour, it’s visible 24 hours a day to tourists and locals alike enjoying the sights and sounds of Sydney Harbour and the Royal Botanic Gardens.
It’s Potra’s first Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour – designing the sets and costumes for Turandot in 2016.
Opera Australia’s artistic director Lyndon Terracini brought Potra and the Chinese-American director Chen Shi-Zheng together for this project, a kind of “arranged marriage”, says Potra. They’d never worked together before, but Potra says the collaboration has been very successful.
“Shi-Zheng has a very original vision and point of view. He’s different to many other directors that I’ve worked with.”
The idea of working with Chen was a particular drawcard for Potra. “Turandot is a quintessentially flawed European story about an imagined Chinese history, and getting to work with a Chinese director on that story was one of a few ingredients that were attractive and interesting.”
The other big attraction was the chance to work with “one of the most beautiful, famous and inspiring backgrounds in all the world”.
If he does his job right, when the audience arrive they’ll ignore the set. “They’ll arrive and look at the city lights and the Harbour Bridge and the Sydney Opera House and enjoy the environment with a glass of wine in hand. But the moment the lights come on and the music starts, hopefully they’ll forget where they are. We’ll transport them into a different world – mystic China, before landing them back in beautiful Sydney.”
Potra said it was fascinating to see how Chen viewed the story of Turandot, compared to how many Western people do. “In the west, we look at this opera as a fairytale with a pretty silly plot. It’s about a frigid and sadistic Asian beauty, which kind of appeals to the mentality of the European man in the 19th century. That trope had a certain attraction for Europeans.”
But it’s not the only way to look at the story. “Chinese people look at it with a bit more gravitas,” Potra explains, “as a story that talks about China’s long and checkered history. It can be an analogy of the way China has been dismembered and conquered throughout thousands of years of history, and still survived.”
From this perspective, Calaf represents the barbarian, the outsider. “He’s a refugee finding safety in the old empire he wanted to conquer. He’s a gambler, which is very much in the Chinese spirit.”
The story takes place at a crucial point in time for the Chinese empire, Potra explains. “If Turandot doesn’t marry, there won’t be a dynasty. The Empire will implode. So the pressure is on for Turandot, but particularly for the old and frail emperor, who wants to protect his empire. When you start looking at the opera from this angle, it’s far more profound than a stupid fairytale.”
Potra is keen to keep traditional Chinese symbolism out of his set and costume design. “It’s been done to death, and these aspects of China are complex and multiple. To just represent a particular aspect would be unjust.”
He is using modern, high-contrast materials to show a China that is “sleek and confident. We wanted to find a spirit that spoke of today’s China, which is moving at an incredible pace.”
A tower made of shattered mirror reaches to the starlit sky, and a huge ivory dragon dominates the set. In parts, its tail references the Great Wall of China, with the idea of keeping out foreigners.
The costumes reference Chinese colours and influences, but aren’t traditional Chinese attire. “They’re bolder, shapelier and brighter. We’ve concentrated on big, dramatic shapes that can create compositions on the set,” Potra explains. “With such a massive stage, we’ve concerned ourselves more on the overall static look, rather than the details.”
There are real challenges in designing for a space that is open to the elements, but Potra relishes them. “We have to temper the aesthetics to the weather and to keep the performers safe, but still make everything look dangerous and exciting. But I’ve always felt as a designer that the more your back is put against the wall, the more you’ll find solutions.”
It’s a challenge to find new tricks all the time, Potra says, but there’s a spark in his voice as he says it. “The whole game of a designer is lying with a lot of confidence to the audience. The better the liar you are, the more you’re appreciated!”
Despite an impressive career spanning two decades, Potra doesn’t ever stop to look back. “As a designer, we have this paranoia. We’re only as good as our last job. If you jump from one show to another, it never stops.”
Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour – Turandot runs from March 24 – April 24 in 2016. Tickets now available from the Opera Australia website.