Carmen On Cockatoo Island: Opera As You’ve Never Seen It Before

Carmen On Cockatoo Island
Carmen is the first opera to be performed on Cockatoo Island. Photo: Hamilton Lund.

Carmen, currently being performed on Cockatoo Island, is opera as you’ve never seen it before: contemporary, edgy, with a unique industrial backdrop, overlooking beautiful Sydney harbour.

This bold new production by Opera Australia is a thrilling start to summer in Sydney, complete with spectacular fireworks, dynamic dance sequences, motorcycle stunts and arias ringing out across the harbour.

The music from Bizet’s much-loved Carmen is amongst the most recognisable of all opera music. Its contemporary interpretation, not to mention the stunning harbour setting, broadens its appeal for a whole new audience who may never have experienced opera before.

We had the privilege of attending the opening night on Friday and what a joy it was, starting with the relaxed 12-minute ferry ride from King Street Wharf, right through to the after-party where the stars came out to mingle with guests on a blessedly glorious evening.

Carmen on Cockatoo Island
Sydney Harbour is a magical setting for Bizet’s much-loved Carmen. Photo: Hamilton Lund.
Carmen Topciu in the role of Carmen at Friday night's opening performance. Photo: Prudence Upton.
Carmen Topciu in the role of Carmen at Friday night’s opening performance. Photo: Prudence Upton.

This is the first opera to be performed on the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Cockatoo Island, known as Wareamah by the Aboriginal people. Once a penal establishment and naval shipyard, it is dotted with convict ruins and industrial relics.

It is these industrial relics that inspired director Liesel Badorrek’s gritty adaptation of Carmen, complete with a rock ‘n’ roll vibe and a giant stage set that looks like a wreckers’ yard.

“This is Carmen as you’ve never seen it before,” she says. “It’s a story about fringe dwellers, outsiders and misfits, so what we’ve gone for is a real rock aesthetic and it suits this opera perfectly.”

The feeling that this was going to be a completely unique interpretation of Carmen was evident the minute we set foot on the island, arriving at the Camber Wharf and walking through an empty, cavernous building that was once the Turbine Engine Shop. From there, it was on past the Steam Workshops where the last of the sun’s rays were filtering in as the cast were warming up their voices.

Still, we weren’t prepared for the revved-up motorbike stunts, nor the spectacular fireworks display that took us by surprise part-way through the first set.

Cockatoo Island Turbine engine shop
Walking through the old turbine engine shop to get to the outdoor performance.
Carmen on Cockatoo Island grassed area
Picnic tables overlooking the water: a great place to relax before the show.

Carmen, the ultimate femme fatale, was played brilliantly on the opening night by Romanian mezzo-soprano Carmen Topciu (the role alternates between her and Sian Sharp). It’s an incredibly demanding role, requiring a huge amount of stamina, and like the whole production, performed in French with English translations flashed on a screen.

Conductor Tahu Matheson led the Opera Australia Orchestra, whose exquisite music wafting out over the harbour was a joy to behold. The current production is playing only in Sydney and will finish on December 18.

As this was our first visit to Cockatoo Island, we didn’t know what to expect in terms of food and beverages. We found that there were plenty of pop-up bars and food vans, along with a lovely grassed area with picnic tables overlooking the water. We had arrived in plenty of time ahead of the performance but the queues at the food vans were long and as we had enjoyed an early dinner just before we boarded the ferry, we spent the time relaxing and enjoying the sunset.

Cockatoo Island Steam Workshops
The old Steam Workshops: a unique industrial backdrop.
Cockatoo Island steam workshops
Last rays of sunlight filtering through the Steam Workshops.

To make it a truly memorable experience, you could stay overnight in one of Cockatoo Island’s many accommodation options: a heritage apartment, holiday house, or camping under the stars.

Carmen on Cockatoo Island is a great new addition to Sydney’s cultural events calendar. Don’t miss it.

If you go:

Carmen on Cockatoo Island runs until Sunday, December 18, 2022.
Tickets cost between $79 and $149.
Bookings: +61 (0)2 9318 8200 or

Audiences can travel to Cockatoo Island on the Opera Australia shuttle ferry running from King Street Wharf which can be booked alongside performance tickets.
The island is also accessible by public ferry or water taxi.

We were guests of Opera Australia at the opening night of Carmen on Cockatoo Island. For information about Opera Australia’s program, check out our post on Madama Butterfly returning to Sydney Harbour in 2023.

Pictures by FoodWineTravel where indicated. All other pictures were supplied by Opera Australia and used with permission.

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