La Bohème On Sydney Harbour: The Making of a Spectacle thumbnail

La Bohème On Sydney Harbour: The Making of a Spectacle

La Bohème On Sydney Harbour is part of Opera Australia’s celebrated Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour series, distinguished as one of the highlights of the Australian cultural calendar. Performed in Sydney earlier this year between March 23 and April 22, this ambitious production wowed audiences with it’s incredible sets, colourful costumes, stellar vocal performances, summer-time snowfall and incredible firework displays. Putting together this Opera extravaganza is quite an undertaking – here we look behind the scenes to see what goes into the making of a spectacle...


Director Andy Morton and designer Dan Potra’s Bohème is Paris 1968 where cars burn, paving stones are hurled and the students are revolting. Flurries of snow, cobblestone laneways, glowing street lamps and colourful costumes all helped to transform Sydney Harbour.

Act I set design. Photo © Dan Potra

The production was performed on a massive, purpose-built overwater stage located on the shoreline, designed especially for the unique outdoor setting. Potra was faced with the challenge of building outdoor sets. He had to ensure that they were impervious to rain, sun and the local cockatoo population who had, years before, done considerable damage.

Photo © Hamilton Lund

"In order to tell the story of this rather domestic drama, we’ve borrowed a little of the devices from those big Russian pieces where a little story is painted against a background of big social upheaval.” Potra said of the set design. A section of the stage was built underneath a giant window, inspired by 19th-century studios from Paris and Montmartre on which 60s retro-inspired graphic animation designed by Marco Devetak, was projected to give the audience an insight into the characters’ states of mind.

Fireworks weren’t the only special effect in store for audiences this year. Stilt-performers, flame throwers and a clown who arrives by hot-air balloon added to the crowd-pleasing Parisian street festival in Act I. Snowflakes fell spectacularly over the cast and audience from bubble machines mounted above the stage, turning a balmy Sydney afternoon into a bohemian winter wonderland.

Director Andy Morton, Costume Designer Dan Potra, Artistic Director Lyndon Terracini Photo Janie Barrett

Director Andy Morton, Costume Designer Dan Potra, Artistic Director Lyndon Terracini Photo © Janie Barrett


Wig fittings, costume fittings, makeup tests...the utmost attention is paid to getting the look just right. 

Photo © Janie Barrett

True to the 60’s style of the production, the costumes featured a range of colourful pea coats, flower power mini dresses, knee high boots and mariniere sailor tops. They were designed to reflect the changing mood of Parisian society at the time, elegant and refined period costumes making way for fun shapes, bold colours and bright patterns. 

Photo © Janie Barrett

Along with the sets, all of the costumes for La Boheme on Sydney Harbour had to be weatherproof and dry out quickly should the cast get rained on. Another challenge for Potra was how to visually differentiate the characters on such a big stage – costumes had to work both on camera for the cinema capture and for live audiences 20 metres away. 

The designs were intended to reflect the contradictory nature of the characters and visually reflect their inner lives. Mimì and Musetta’s costumes particularly represent a strength and edginess, bringing them closer to women in the present day. 


Opera Australia called out for Sydney’s pampered pooches to make their operatic debut in La Boheme on Sydney Harbour. Poodles, poodle-crosses and French bulldogs were the preferred breed to set the Parisian scene. Potential stars needed no previous acting (or singing) experience but had to be well trained and cope with the fireworks, large crowds and distractions.