Opera Australia Blog

Meet the maestro: Brian Castles-Onion on the triumphs and tribulations of Opera on Sydney Harbour

Brian Castles-Onion conducting at Opera in the Domain earlier this year. Photo: Ben Symons

Brian Castles-Onion conducting at Opera in the Domain earlier this year. Photo: Ben Symons

After the sitzprobe for Opera on Sydney Harbour: Madama Butterfly, what are your first impressions? 

For me, this was the most exciting sitzprobe I’ve attended in my career. Every ingredient there – singers, orchestra and chorus – united as one to tell my reading of Puccini’s powerful score.  We felt we were flying.  It’s one of those extremely rare moments in one’s career that makes it all worthwhile.  We have two superb casts, a brilliant orchestra lead by Aubrey Murphy and an absolute masterpiece to perform.

What do you love about Puccini?

What is there not to love about Puccini?  He was the master opera composer of his generation (and there was some very stiff competition!) and he totally understood the female psyche. All his ‘women’ are perfectly crafted and presented.  That’s why they’re so believable.  I adore them all….   Also, Puccini is all about the orchestra.  We have the “Rolls Royce” of an opera orchestra leading us through the story.  Most of the players have spent their careers playing this repertoire and bring to this score a passion that other orchestras lack. We’re fortunate to have them with us on this project.

What are three things in Madama Butterfly guaranteed to make the audience swoon?

There are many ‘swoon’ moments… Butterfly’s entrance is one of the most exquisite moments in all opera. Time stands still. Her duet with Pinkerton which closes Act One is another divine moment (wait until you see what they do at the end…) and the Humming Chorus at the close of Act Two takes your breath away.

I can’t see the orchestra at Opera on Sydney Harbour. Where are you hiding?

In the normal theatre situation, the orchestra is between me and the stage. We see each other perfectly – eye to eye. On the Harbour, the Orchestra and I are in a room underneath the stage and the only connection the singers and I have is through a camera lense.  A huge screen behind the audience has a cam of me conducting, which the singers watch to keep in sync.  It’s tricky but they quickly get used to is – as do we!  We couldn’t achieve what we do without total trust. I use the few weeks of rehearsals before we hit the stage to build a connection, a confidence and trust, with the singers whether they be on  stage in front of me or on the Harbour stage above me.

You’re getting to be an old hand at conducting this iconic event. What do you know now that you wish you’d known in year one?

Old hand…??? This is only the third year!  I must admit that I love being part of the event.  It’s the best gig of the year.  Had I known in the first year that I didn’t have a refrigerator in my Dressing Room, I wouldn’t have bought so many bottles of lemonade!  Each Maestro has his preferred drink – and I’m a soft-drink boy!

Describe the scariest moment you’ve had at Opera on Sydney Harbour over the years.

During the run of La Traviata, something happened with the sound feed from the stage to the pit.  I have a television monitor with a single camera shot of the whole stage. The on-stage voices are fed to me on a small speaker beside the Conductor’s Podium.  During Act One, a technical fault  gave us no sound for most of Act One.  I had to guess what was being sung on stage, guess the pauses, the long held notes et cetera and keep it together with the Orchestra in the room underneath.   Yes, it was a frightening thirty minutes.  The Orchestra played exactly as I directed and, when the sound finally returned to the pit we discovered that we were exactly where we ought to have been.  Fortunately, that situation has never been repeated.

When you finally put the baton down at opening night, what do you feel?

I feel great joy that the audience has experienced not just an extraordinary event in a fabulous venue, but has been taken on a special journey – a great opera in a fabulous production with wonderful singers, orchestra, chorus and stage crew. Opera is truly the greatest art form of them all. Personally, I’m exhausted at the conclusion of every performance I conduct because I go through every emotion and become every character to tell the story. Somehow the composer is also inside me. It’s something we can’t explain. Whatever it is, I wouldn’t change it for the world.

3 Responses to “Meet the maestro: Brian Castles-Onion on the triumphs and tribulations of Opera on Sydney Harbour”

  1. Nicholas Siebold

    Why don’t you just pre-record it and let the singers lip-sync it? Would save a lot of trouble! Who cares? It ain’t proper opera anyway as it’s amplified.

  2. Maureen Wong [nee Duke]

    Good on you Brian. It is so good to see that you have blossomed so beautifully into a caring, creative, musical ‘magician’ who evokes so much emotion from ALL the members of the production and who gets such a high energy appreciation of the whole.
    Maureen x

  3. Graham Lawson

    Agree with you Maureen ( you must be his wife!:). I first saw/met Brian C-O in the Hunter Valley at an Opera in the Vineyards performance. The guy was a stand out compare/showman/ operatic musical performer even if he did look like a crazy ginger bread man. And halleluja he knew how to have fun and make us laugh. In those days we were able to mix with the performers after the show – not so now, more’s the pity. Since then I’ve been entertained by Brian at the Zoo, the Domain, (you can tell I’m a Hi-Flier), OK yes the Opera House and La Traviata (Handa). You need a guy like Brian to bring operatic appeal to the wider audience. A true champion.
    I’m off to the Met in NY in a couple weeks. See on the circuit.
    Ciao bellissimo


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