sketching inside the Sydney Opera House

October 30, 2011

As someone who fell in with urban sketching less than a year ago, this recent find I’ve dug up from the archaeology of my childhood. Drawn, aged seven. The trip, written up in an accompanying Composition, mentioned visiting The Wishing Tree (Royal Botanic Gardens?), the Sydney Harbour Bridge, a ferry ride to Manly and seeing warships in the Harbour. This drawing of the Bridge was done when it was not even thirty years old and the Opera House on Bennelong Point was still at the stage of upper podium being built, long before the ‘sails’ went up. Why is the North Shore full of trees and south of the harbour not? Mmmm… perceptive even then, aged seven.

I managed the Sydney Harbour Bridge southern pylon as seen from the only seat available on the Opera House concourse. A nice blend of charcoal, light grey and pinks in the stonework contrasting with the dramatic black steel superstructure. Three groups of people were taking the BridgeClimb way up on top of the bridge. The noise was very loud from the outdoors bars nearby, it being Saturday night. I couldn’t help thinking of my grandfather currying favour among union officials along the Hungry Mile wharf behind this pylon, buying them drink after drink in order to score a cook’s job at sea, around the time this bridge was being built. Constructed by a desperate post-Depression labour force at a time of terrible relations between the NSW government and Britain over our requirement to pay back costs arising from our helping the Motherland with World War I.

Later, the Opera House foyer and bar, with the yellow of the setting sun hitting the stark concrete arches inside.

Now on-site, on-location sketching inside the Opera House during a mainstage production is an interesting challenge. There’s about 15mins between the first bell and the curtain rising, in which time both the orchestra pit and front stalls fill up. I caught those in Row A, joined by those in front of them Row AA. The pit was so dark, all I could make out was one of the ‘cellos; there are two very strong white lights visible. The house lights when on are so bright that the paper becomes glarey. My opera afficionado neighbours took no exception to someone scribbling, but they won’t have seen such a thing before, nor again in a long time. And of course the entire proscenium arch is entirely covered by a pitch black curtain.

While house lights are off, the stage safety netting over the orchestra is visible – this stops stuff on stage falling on the orchestra, given that the stage is steeply raked, partly in order to help project the voices to the back of  the house. I deployed some visual memory during the performance and I may sketch what I recall, especially Taryn Fiebig, a current ‘princess’ among Opera Australia’s up-and-coming, who played Aphrodite in this, Richard Mills’ The Love of the Nightingale. I normally take 24 hours to recover from any opera I manage to get to see. Opera is seriously hard work, physically, intellectually and spiritually very exhausting indeed – and I’m just sitting there in the audience!

Obviously watercolour is out of the question, so I added it and penwork after the fact. If I was sitting in the B Reserve downstair stalls, say Rows U or V or X, blind contour in the dark might be possible in the unlikely event I found myself sitting alone, but visual memory is probably much more effective. The slightest move or sound is verboten during any performance. To draw the orchestral players at all effectively, one would need to sit in the very front row, Row AA, where one is so blasted by the music that one feels as if one is literally in the orchestra pit. Again, far too dark during the performance and what with neighbours, completely impractical.

Thinking of Degas and other 19th century painters who painted orchestral players, and those like Sickert who painted music hall singers, I found it curious that I couldn’t find anyone on the Urban Sketchers website who’d posted pictures of sketching in opera houses. I realise opera is entertainment for the 1% and the remaining 99% (to use the rhetoric of Occupy Wall Street) sketch at pop concerts, jazz concerts and the like. I was also struck by a report in the weekend newspaper that young Sydneysiders don’t like the Opera House – too much white tile and concrete – and that Opera House management are actively doing all they can to work around this taste.

I also came across another interesting view of the Opera House from Circular Quay Railway Station, platform 2, which I must go back for, different from the one below, done back in January – a lifetime away, but not as far back as aged seven.


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