Sydney Opera House goes Broadway with South Pacific

Opera Australia's artistic director Lyndon Terracini stages first musical at Opera Theatre to broaden audience appeal

The booming operatic voice of New Zealander, Teddy Tahu Rhodes, is belting out some of Broadway's most famous tunes in an unlikely venue. For the first time since 2010, the opera theatre at Sydney Opera House is playing host to a Broadway musical.

The production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's South Pacific (Some Enchanted Evening, I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair, There is Nothing Like a Dame) is part of a controversial change of direction by Opera Australia to popularise the art form and take it to the masses.

"I think it's great to break down the barriers of what opera is considered to be and what an opera company should put on," said Tahu Rhodes, an internationally renowned bass-baritone who plays the leading role in the musical.

Opposite him in South Pacific is Australian TV star, Lisa McCune, best known for her roles in television mini series and four-time winner of the award for most popular personality on TV.

"It's a bit like having Cate Blanchett running the Sydney Theatre Company (Blanchett was co-artistic director 2009-2012), if it's going to open a door so people will go and inspect it or try something out, it's fantastic," said McCune.

South Pacific is part of the vision of Opera Australia's artistic director, Lyndon Terracini. "I think we should be trying to play to as many people in the community as possible," he said. "Their taxes are paying for this organisation and if we're not connecting to them, it's a huge failing on our part. What we have to do is find different products for different parts of the community."

Terracini says he wants to make opera relevant to 21st century multicultural Australia and has made no secret of his intention to distance Opera Australia from its elitist image. "You've only got to look at the multicultural streets of Sydney to see we are in a different place now and we haven't been getting those people to the opera," he said.

The man behind Shane Warne the Musical, Eddie Perfect, who has a leading role in South Pacific (and a career on Australian television) agrees.

"I'd say if you put 'opera' in front of anything, you're going to have a hard time selling to anyone. Just the word opera suggests a kind of intimidating fortress to some people and to be honest, would you rather go and see a new opera or a new musical?" he said.

As well as staging South Pacific, a musical with geographical and multicultural relevance to Australia, Opera Australia has run a community choirs programme in western Sydney.

"I'm not saying that will convert people to all rush out and buy opera tickets but at least we've made a start by saying to them 'Try it, you might like it,' " said Terracini.

In March, Opera Australia performed La Traviata on Sydney harbour with the Opera House and harbour bridge as a backdrop. Sixty per cent of the audience had never been to an opera before.

"I don't care if the audience who saw the opera on the harbour never come to any of our other productions, as long as they come every time we do it outside like that and we get bigger audiences," he said.

So far the new direction has been a financial success. The company's overall funding this year, including sponsorship, has risen from $A70 (£47m) to $A100m.

"There's not an opera company on the planet which is doing anything close to that," said Terracini.

He denies the company's approach is populist, saying the performances are of the highest possible standard. But associate Professor McCallum from Sydney University who specialises in music analysis, says Terracini's broad strategy risks sending out a mixed message.

"Instead of pursuing a controversial, yet edgy, definite direction for the company, he (Terracini) seems to have favoured a variety of approaches to populism," he said.

"I'm not criticsing him for it though because there has always been a dollar imperative for Opera Australia."

South Pacific opens at the Sydney Opera House on Wednesday 8 August.

• This article was amended on 8 August 2012. The original said that South Pacific is the first musical to be performed at Sydney Opera House. This is not the case. It also misspelled Richard Rodgers's surname as Rogers and Cate Blanchett's as Blanchette. This has been corrected.


Alison Rourke in Sydney

The GuardianTramp

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