Cockatoo Carmen

Photo above by Hamilton Lund

Opera Australia has moved Bizet’s famous opera to an island in Sydney Harbour, using its industrial backdrop as inspiration for the set, costumes and choreography. David Spicer speaks to Set Designer Mark Thompson.

Three years ago, a team of creatives from Opera Australia went on an excursion to Cockatoo Island – west of the Sydney Harbour Bridge - and surveyed the industrial moonscape.

“We passed old Victorian and Edwardian buildings, a five-storey iron shed and a corrugated thing leaning towards the Harbour Bridge. Someone threw their hand towards a huge carpark area that had broken concrete flooring, bits of gravel and lots of nesting seagulls,” recalled designer Mark Thompson.

The island did not look like a place to put on an opera. 

“It would also have been riddled with asbestos and diesel, but all that has been remediated so that it is safer than your own backyard.”

Cockatoo Island, originally known as Wareamah to local Aboriginal people, became a penal establishment in 1839 and later a reform school for girls.



Becoming a large dry dock from 1857, by World War II it was the main ship repairing facility for the Royal Australian Navy, until the shipyard closed in 1991.

When it came time to make the island suitable for a large production, Mark Thompson wanted to accentuate the industrial history of the island.

“We needed scaffolding to build a big stage,” he said. “So, I suggested we put even more scaffolding up and add more industrial things to it.”

Car bodies were sourced.

“We put lights in those so the cast can clamber over them.

“Then I wondered, how do we close off the front of stage? Several hundred 44-gallon oil drums have been brought in, to which we add fire, light and smoke.

“The whole design has a Mad Max raffish unexpected air to it.”



The costumes have a similar urban grunge look, the choreography has a punk flavour and the lighting is influenced by film noir.

“This has nothing to the do with Seville or a bullfighting arena. There are none of the traditional flamboyant Carmen costumes or castanets.”

Instead, there are dirt bikes and motorcycles doing stunts.

But although it looks different, the opera has a traditional large orchestra and there are no alterations to the music or text.

“We are not changing the ending, or having Carmen kill anyone,” he said. “So, it rises and falls on the musicality, and the physical environment is a punctuation point or a carrier for the story itself.”

Getting there is part of the fun, as access to Cockatoo Island is only by boat and patrons can camp overnight.

“Who doesn’t love a sea trip? When you get off the ferry there is a delightful restaurant, a bar and gardens.”

Opera Australia hopes to attract new younger audiences who are first timers to the artform.

Carmen on Cockatoo Island plays until December 18, 2023.

Production images by Prudence Upton.