Q&A :: Harbour City Opera

October 24th 2013


Perhaps you danced under lights at Vivid or got amongst animation at Graphic. Maybe you’ll hit up the forecourt this summer for Homebake or catch Brooklyn wunderkinds Grizzly Bear in the Concert Hall. But when was the last time you went to the Opera House to see an actual opera?

As a musical genre, opera finds itself at the centre of a perfect storm of cultural excess facing off against cultural cringe. But beneath all the pomp, the italian and the shattering of wine glasses, could opera have a place in the weekend plans of the dreaded ‘youth’?

Enter Sydney newbies Harbour City Opera.

Under the stewardship of creative director Sarah Ann Walker, the company has a mission of presenting opera’s greatest moments in iconic and unexpected Sydney venues. They recently staged Puccini’s Suor Angelica at the Paddington Uniting Church. Far from the hallowed halls of the Opera House Concert Hall, Suor Angelica invited the audience into the cloistered, intimate life of a seventeenth century nunnery. The church interior, the altarpiece and the proximity – with no audience member further than a few metres from the stage – ensured an almost claustrophobic intimacy with the nun’s life.

“She may be fictional, but her resolve places her in the vanguard of a broad canon of feminists who have reached out to us from inside the walls of convents,”  director Andy Morgan explains.

An all female cast led by Sarah Ann Walker filled the old church with their voices, telling the story of the struggle of marginalised women against an unforgiving society that demands little more than obedience to a narrow version of femininity. It’s an entirely different musical experience to what we’re used to, but  it’s hard not to be impressed by the soaring vocals, skill and emotion of the Suor Angelica’s singers.

FBi’s Andrew Pople had a chat with company director and the principal of Suor Angelica, Sarah Ann Walker, about how opera fits in to Sydney.


Andrew :: Opera was rock ‘n’ roll before there was rock. Have we lost that sense of opera’s dramatic potential?

Sarah :: I think opera has enormous dramatic potential, but sometimes I wonder if the industry’s obsession to make opera “hot” and “relevant” does just the opposite. The power of opera is more in the music and the stories than we, at times, give the composers and librettists credit for and by casting the best voices possible for the roles, we take back the power to present really thrilling opera!

Is style and narrative a barrier? People aren’t typically engaging in a story set to music over the course of an hour.

I think the biggest barrier for any opera is poor casting. A strong cast can take the audience on an unforgettable experience whether it’s 30 minutes or 3 hours! We have a responsibility to the music and the composers of the music to present exceptional opera performed by exceptional voices – only then will our audiences and prospective audiences really see how fantastic opera can be.

How does Harbour City Opera seek to engage an audience outside of traditional opera circles?

We are still working on this, but the feedback from our latest presentation has seen a large number of audience members new to opera who have walked away excited and inspired by the production. I believe that if we can present interest provoking marketing material and follow it up with a solid, exciting and inspirational show, we are half way there.

Could a modern Australian opera emerge, and what might it look like?

It definitely could – and it is something that we are in talks about but will be a few years away – these types of commissions are very expensive and funding for the Arts in Australia (especially for the smaller companies) is scarce. When one of these operas does emerge though, I imagine that it will be pretty spectacular.


In 2014 Harbour City Opera have planned a reprisal of Suor Angelica, a concert of scenes from various opera performances, and will present Benjamin Britten‘s ‘The Rape of Lucretia‘.With the talent and vision at their disposal there is nothing stopping Harbour City Opera becoming the vital voice they envisage.

First though, they must convince a new audience to put down the remote and inhabit a different kind of world…


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