The Opera Centre on Elizabeth Street is the behind-the-scenes hub of its white-peaked big sister, where upcoming productions are rehearsed and sets, props and costumes are created. Experts from all over the creative industries come together to stage an opera, from wig makers and costumiers to scenic artists, choreographers and carpenters – and it all happens on Elizabeth Street, unbeknownst to many residents and visitors of Surry Hills. 

This September Opera Australia invites Sydney to venture behind the curtain and down the stairs, into the Opera Centre’s underground scenery workshop for a truly unique operatic experience, a production more akin to a piece of contemporary theatre than a traditional stage opera.  

Kafka’s Metamorphosis is an absurd and elusive story of alienation and modernity, in which the traveling salesman Gregor Samsa wakes one morning to find that he has been transformed into a grotesque, insect-like creature. Urban Village caught up with Metamorphosis director Tama Matheson, and principal performer Simon Lobelson, ahead of the performance.  

“This isn’t the sort of opera that would sit too easily on the Opera House stage,” says Matheson. “In a found space like this you tend to put on something more modern and a bit more experimental. 

“Walking into this odd, unconventional space is part of the experience. The fact that the space is dirty and covered in paint stains with bits of old sets and costumes everywhere, mirrors the weird and fractured world of Gregor Samsa.” 

The scenery workshop. Image by Phillip Booth

The percussive and atonal score of Australian composer Brian Howard creates an atmosphere that sits ominously underneath the performers. This cinematic and musically experimental approach is unique when compared to the soaring melodies and stand-alone arias of a traditional opera.  

“I think this show needs to be thought of as a theatrical experience rather than an opera,” says Lobelson, who will play the title role of Gregor Samsa. “The score is really quite angular and difficult to listen to. It’s not the sort of show where you walk out humming the tunes.”  

This will be internationally acclaimed baritone Lobelson’s debut performance with Opera Australia, alongside a celebrated line up of principals including Julie Lea Goodwin, Christopher Hillier, Taryn Fiebig, Adrian Tamburini and Benjamin Rasheed. A small chamber orchestra of just twelve musicians will accompany the ensemble of six singers, led by conductor Paul Fitzsimon.  

“I think what is most exciting about this show is that it’s a small ensemble performing an opera as though it’s a play. They don’t have to worry about singing their lungs out, so they can concentrate on making the drama really powerful and refined. You get to see opera singers acting in a very different way,” says Matheson. 

Opera is a somewhat stigmatized art form, according to Lobelson, in which the singers traditionally sing and do little else. “I think opera singers have a bad name for not being able to act. In earlier decades it didn’t really matter if you could act, but now I think in the age of the director, there’s a much larger emphasis on the acting. Especially in a piece like this where the audience is right there – it’s a very three-dimensional performance that definitely requires a lot more than just singing.” 

Artistic director and contemporary opera specialist Lyndon Terracini sang Metamorphosis when it was first performed as an opera in Australia in 1983. “I think when you come into contact with a piece that is particularly good, particularly powerful, you remember it,” he says. Terracini chose Metamorphosis as the premiere show of what will be a series of chamber operas performed in the intimate spaces of the scenery workshop, and the Merlyn Theatre in Melbourne. 

“This is a really fascinating new initiative, taking an old workspace and turning it into something new and interesting,” says Matheson.

“The grittiness of the space adds to the magic, in a way, especially in a piece like Metamorphosis which is in this weird, fractured world of broken down things.” 

Tickets for Metamorphosis are available through the Opera Australia website. The production runs from September 26-29 at The Opera Centre on Elizabeth Street in Surry Hills. Opera enthusiasts and visitors are encouraged to take a tour of the Opera Centre, which run every weekday by appointment. Head to the Opera Australia website for all further information.