“Madame Butterfly” performed on the water’s edge in Australia

Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour - Madama Butterfly

Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour – Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly”

Opera on Sydney Harbour, Fleet Steps, Mrs Macquaries Point March 21 – April 11, 2014


What is opera to you? The rush of adrenalin as a soprano or tenor’s voice soars, the hum of the chorus, the larger-than-life costumes and scenery, the moving stories, or just the whole sense of occasion?

Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour is all this and more.

Come down to the water’s edge and let the story begin.

We’re in Japan. A young American acquires a bride to keep him company during his stay. It’s clearly a financial transaction rather than a love match but on their wedding night the stars come out, their eyes meet and magic happens.

We dare you to hear Cio-Cio-San and Pinkerton’s exquisite love duet and remain unmoved, especially when it takes place against the backdrop of the Sydney Opera House and Harbour Bridge.

The stars will be there, for real. Magic too?

Silken arias and fragile butterfly wings float on the water

There’s a moment in March where several hundred people collectively hold their breath on the harbourfront.

It’s when two enormous cranes lift a 40-tonne stage from 10 barges onto 16 pylons buried deep in the ocean floor.

“The highest risk is in that moment,” explains Louisa Robertson, whose job title could well be “chief-problem solver” for Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour.

Now in her third year as executive producer for the annual event, Robertson has encountered nearly every obstacle imaginable when it comes to mounting an opera on Sydney’s most spectacular – and unpredictable – stage. These range from the trivial – “Trees are always a challenge. They grow, and suddenly your design doesn’t fit!” – to the seemingly insurmountable.

“Each new design offers its own challenges. We had one crane in 2012, then for Carmen in 2013 the designer wanted two. We had to reinforce everything.” 

More than 700 people turn their hands to the project before a single note is heard over the Botanic Gardens.

It takes 8,000 hours of manual labour to build the stage and the elaborate underworld of the orchestra pit and dressing rooms beneath the stage. Making the costumes takes another 10,000 hours. The inventory of batteries, light globes, nuts, bolts and screws adds up to mindboggling numbers.

It is a truly gargantuan effort, Robertson says. “There are a lot of firsts on site from a technological and design perspective.” They range  from the spectacular – fireworks and chandeliers – to the mundane: “The toilets won an Event award for Best Innovation!”

Create a night to remember

The harbour-front site will be transformed into an exquisite Japanese garden hosting a superb range of Japanese-inspired dining options and bars.

Create a night to remember and add pre-show dinner or interval drinks at The Platinum Club.

The venue is open from 5pm each evening. 

Pre-Performance Dinner $250

Three-course dinner with drinks overlooking Sydney Harbour

Conductor Brian Castles-Onion
Director Alex Ollé
Assistant Director Susana Gómez
Set Designer Alfons Flores
Costume Designer Lluc Castells
Lighting Designer Alexander Koppelmann
Cio-Cio-San Hiromi OmuraHyeseoung Kwon
Suzuki Anna Yun
Pinkerton Georgy Vasiliev
Andeka Gorrotxategi
Sharpless Michael HoneymanBarry Ryan
Goro Graeme Macfarlane

Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra

Opera Australia Chorus

Running time: approx two hours and forty minutes with one interval of thirty-five minutes

Performed in Italian with English surtitles.


Act I

B.F. Pinkerton arrives in Japan and inspects a house overlooking harbour that he is leasing from the marriage broker, Goro. The house comes with three servants and a geisha wife named Cio-Cio-San, known as Madama Butterfly. The American consul Sharpless arrives. Pinkerton describes his life of roaming the world in search of experience and pleasure. He intends to go through with the marriage ceremony even though he says that someday he will take a real, American wife. Butterfly views the marriage differently. She is heard climbing the hill with her friends for the ceremony. After the formal introduction Butterfly explains that her family was once prominent but lost its position, and she has had to earn her living as a geisha. Her relatives arrive. Cio-Cio-San shows Pinkerton her few possessions, and tells him she will embrace her husband’s religion. The Imperial Commissioner reads the marriage agreement, and the relatives congratulate the couple. Suddenly, a threatening voice is heard – it is the Bonze, Butterfly’s uncle, a priest. He curses the girl for converting to Christianity. Pinkerton orders them to leave and as they go the Bonze and the shocked relatives reject Cio-Cio-San. She is helped by Suzuki into her wedding kimono, and joins Pinkerton in the garden.

Act II – Part 1

Several years have passed, and Cio-Cio-San awaits her husband’s return. Suzuki prays to the gods for help, but Butterfly berates her, telling her that Pinkerton has promised to return one day. Sharpless appears with a letter from Pinkerton. Goro arrives with the latest potential husband for Butterfly, the wealthy Prince Yamadori. Butterfly politely serves the guests tea but insists she is not available for marriage. She dismisses Goro and Yamadori. Sharpless attempts to read Pinkerton’s letter and suggests that perhaps Butterfly should reconsider Yamadori’s offer. Butterfly shows the consul her small child. Sharpless is too upset to tell her more of the letter’s contents. He leaves, promising to tell Pinkerton of the child. A cannon shot is heard in the harbour announcing the arrival of Pinkerton’s ship. Overjoyed, Butterfly joins Suzuki in strewing the house with flower petals. Night falls, and Butterfly, Suzuki, and the child settle into a vigil awaiting Pinkerton’s arrival.

Act II – Part 2

Dawn breaks, and Suzuki insists that Butterfly get some sleep. Butterfly carries the child into another room. Sharpless appears with Pinkerton and Kate, Pinkerton’s new wife. Suzuki realises who the American woman is. Pinkerton is overcome with guilt and leaves rather than face Cio-Cio-San. Cio-Cio-San rushes in hoping to find Pinkerton, but sees Kate instead. Grasping the situation, she agrees to give up the child but insists Pinkerton return for him. Dismissing everyone, Butterfly takes out the dagger with which her father committed suicide, choosing to die with honour rather than live in shame. She is interrupted momentarily when the child comes in. After an impassioned farewell, she blindfolds the child then stabs herself as Pinkerton calls her name. 

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