I’ve always wanted to try a hot Christmas, so with assorted family and friends in Australia I went out in 2011/12 to do just that. Whilst in Sydney over the New Year period, I shelled out an extortionate amount of money to go on a backstage tour of the Sydney Opera House (about £80 in real money).
I’m not entirely sure what I was expecting, but until you’ve visited, you can’t possibly imagine just how bloody big the place is. For a start, there is a road running through the middle of it. The SOH has 5 venues, (3 on one side and 2 on the other); the main opera theatre (which oddly enough is smaller than I’d expected) has up to 6 shows in rep at any one time, each with their own sets, costumes, props etc. but with no storage space on site, there is a massive logistical operation in place for lorries to drive in, pick up last night’s set, costumes, props etc. and drive them away just as next lot is being driven in to unload theirs. There’s a whole team of people dedicated to counting boxes on and off HGVs at either end.
The whole back of the opera house stage is basically a giant hydraulic lift which drops down to the scene dock below. They have ‘suicide doors’ which are locked most of the time (owing to the 30ft sheer drop), but with the back of the stage raised to just the right height, they unlock for cast to flood onto the stage, ready to be raised again into view of the audience ‘as if by magic’.
But it seems the theatre itself wasn’t built with cast very much in mind – the wings on either side of the stage are relatively small. In ballets, they often have to strap mattresses to the walls to provide padding for dancers grand jete-ing off stage at full speed. The dressing rooms aren’t that near the stage which means a lot of quick changes in corridors. I was fascinated to find out that most of their stage managers are female, purely because they’ve proved to be more capable at the level of multi-tasking required during shows. But my favourite thing is this picture below; I often wondered how their stage crew managed to set scenery in exactly the right place – and it’s using the exact same method as we use at my theatre – bits of coloured electrical tape:
In most other respects, it’s like the backstage of any theatre – painted completely black, cables and equipment everywhere – largely the same, just either bigger or smaller depending on which other venue you’re comparing it to. Along one of the many corridors near the concert hall (that night playing host to Fleet Foxes), we came to the ‘Kissing Wall’ – it is said to be a good luck tradition amongst performers to pucker up and make your mark!
All in all, a very interesting place to visit – but if you’re expecting to peer in dressing rooms, peruse the props department or seeing all of these scenery changeovers in action, you may be disappointed – the tour starts early in the morning (I had to arrive for about 7am) purely so that all the tourists are well out of the way of staff who have a complex job to do on a very tight schedule!