Turandot’s Grandest Stage

It was the biggest show in Sydney since the Olympics. The set for Handa’s Opera on Sydney Harbour included a sixty-metre fire breathing dragon and a tower as tall as a five-storey building. David Spicer spoke to the company that built it, Staging Rentals & Construction.

Sometimes you can have so much fun as a journalist that you feel guilty about being paid. Such was my feeling when I was assigned to watch Stage Rentals and Construction carve out a dragon from polystyrene.

Snow-like flurries of the material were swirling around as its feet and head took final shape, hand carved with small saws.

The bulkier work was done by a new tool, a robotic arm (a Kuka, model KR 300 R2500 Ultra if you would like one) imported from Germany. It sliced the polystyrene to an impressive degree of mathematical accuracy.

“It does 95% of the carving and the bigger pieces are glued together, which is when our scenic sculptors come in to do the finishing touches,” said Michael Stokes, Head of Sales, Construction & Operations.

From a small scale model came a giant dragon longer than an Olympic pool. Its tail was modelled on the Great Wall of China. It was also custom built to breathe fire.

“We had to make sure the nostrils were a certain diameter for the clear space for pyro to work effectively without doing any damage.

“The audience near the front of the dragon weren’t prepared for it. I am sure they felt the warmth.

“The eyes were 60 cm in diameter. One ball was cut in half and inserted into the holes cut by the robot.”

The dragon was fire-proof and cockatoo-proof.

“Last year we had a lot of problems with the cockatoos eating the polystyrene (in the set for Aida). This year we used a polyurethane hard coat. You can hit it with a hammer and it does not chip away.”

Even more impressive than the dragon was the giant tower built for the Ice Princess, Turandot. It was 18 metres high or about five storeys. Inside was a drawbridge.

“A door opened on the third level to reveal Turandot. The drawbridge would remain open while she stood on top of it. It opened down and stopped in two places before it reached the ground.”

At the end of the opera it lifted two singers back to the top, where the tower opens up to become a lotus flower that blossoms.

“The three front petals would mechanically open and hinge downwards to reveal the Soprano at the top.”

On the night I went it was raining and the drawbridge was visibly shaking as it rose from the ground. The singers appeared vulnerable, being hoisted up a five-storey building without a barrier.

“The whole stage is temporary. There are no concreted pillars so we do get a shudder in them.”

The leads looked very brave sustaining their notes as they were lifted higher and higher.

“They did have a safety pole at the back which had a harness. They were not free standing.”  

Higher still was a giant crane, which hoisted the Emperor on a throne over the back of the stage in another scene. It too was swinging slightly in the breeze.

With the season over the entire set has been pulled apart and put in storage. One day the dragon will return to Sydney Harbour.

In the meantime Staging Rentals & Construction is building an even bigger set, this time for the movie Aliens. The robot is hard at work.

Originally published in the May / June 2016 edition of Stage Whispers.



Photo credit: Hamilton Lund