There’s nothing that can prepare you for an opening night curtain call of a Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour.

Nina Korbe, who plays Maria in Opera Australia’s glowingly reviewed revival production of West Side Story, is still buzzing, four days later.

“It was surreal, that’s the only word I really have for it,” she tells Limelight. “You’re in quite a vulnerable state at the end of the show when you’re playing Maria – that last monologue! – and so I was expecting it to be a little bit tricky to come down to ground level. But being there in front of all those people, with the people who had made all this, was incredibly special.”

Billy Bourchier, Tony to Korbe’s Maria, agrees. “It’s one of those things you kind of dream about doing as a musical theatre performer. But to be doing it as a leading man … seriously, you don’t allow yourself to be that optimistic most of the time.”

Both Brisbane-based, neither Korbe nor Bourchier had even seen an Opera on Sydney Harbour production prior to being cast in the lead roles of Leonard Bernstein’s landmark musical. Almost everything about the experience has been new to them.

Emotion at scale

“Maria’s journey is such a huge one,” says Korbe. “It’s a huge emotional progression for a young woman who starts out as quite naive and innocent and at the end of the show has a gun in her hand. “

During five weeks of rehearsals, Korbe had to discover the emotional beats of the dramatic scenes and then, when the production moved to the outdoor stage, relay them at scale.

“I always try to understand the psychology of a character well before I enter a rehearsal room,” Korbe says. “I do that even before I start work on the score. In Maria’s case, I wanted to find out as much as I could about her and have her sit in my body as a real person. Of course, that all shifts and moulds with the energy you receive from your scene partners, but the rehearsals were so positive and the energy that Billy gave me was so beautiful. Maria’s character really settled for me after we started working together and I really love sharing the stage with him.”

“When you start from a place of truth, the performance grows naturally without feeling overdone.”

There is “quite a lot of Nina” in Maria, Korbe admits. “My youthful naivety is definitely there! A lot of the characters I play end up feeling like my sisters, somehow, or my best friend. Maria feels like my little sister. She has that kind of sweetness.”

West Side Story

Nina Korbe as Maria, with fellow cast members in West Side Story, Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour, 2024. Photo © Keith Saunders

With the emotional content of a character secured in the rehearsal room, it’s relatively easy to scale up the performance to a level suitable for an outdoor super-stage, Korbe says. “It’s actually very comfortable out there for us. We’ve even got to the point where there’s a kind of freedom and flexibility in the performance, which is something you don’t expect in a production of this size. But every night, we find something just a little bit different. There’s definitely a bit of magic going on.”

Being surrounded by a youthful company helps no end when it comes to finding your “inner Tony”,  says Bourchier. “There’s all this exuberance around you, all the time. I think there are something like 13 or 14 Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour debutantes in this production, ranging from their late teens to early and mid-twenties. When you’re creating what is basically a young person’s world, it’s great having that energy to bounce off. It’s really helped me in my portrayal of Tony, who I see as someone who’s just stepping outside of that adolescent realm – or is trying to.”

In the script, Bourchier notes, Tony has only recently put some space between himself and the street gangs he grew up with. “It’s been a matter of weeks. He’s grown out of The Jets, but only just,” Bourchier explains. “That is something you don’t get so much in the original film, where Tony seems so much older than he actually is. It explains a lot about him. He’s as naive as anyone, falling in love with a girl at first sight and being optimistic about a world in which everything’s going to be okay. That’s what I’m bringing to the table – that sense of a guy who is vulnerable to unfounded hope.”

Korbe says she is surprised at the level of audience feedback she experiences while on stage. “I assumed that, because you’re outdoors, you wouldn’t be able to feel the audience attention so much, but you really can,” she says. “You feel the connection and the attention, and again, it’s different every night.”

A personal favourite among her scenes is one Korbe and her cast mates call “the slumber party”.

“It can be a very intense show because you have these big set pieces like The Jets’ number or America, but I Feel Pretty is such fun for me,” Korbe says. It’s really sweet to see Maria and her friends just being silly and themselves and not feeling judged in some way. And it’s such a huge contrast to where she ends up at the end of the show.”

West Side Story, Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour, 2024. Photo © Keith Saunders

 

“A big old ship”

Working on the giant stage anchored at Fleet Steps on Sydney Harbour, with its sweeping postcard views, is “like being on your own island”, says Korbe. “When you walk out over the gangways and you can feel them rising up and down with the tides and the waves, it’s like you are literally stepping on to another world for a while. The stage doesn’t move at all – it’s not going anywhere! – but you’re still aware of the water moving underneath all the time.”

Because of that, Bourchier adds, there’s a feeling of camaraderie among cast and crew. “It’s like being on some big old ship,” he laughs. “It’s unlike anything else I’ve ever experienced, and it has its unique set of challenges. Before I got the job, people who had done it before told me it could be a wild ride sometimes, but that it was the most fun they’d ever had.”

“Plus, you are in the middle of everything that Sydney can throw at you in terms of the view. It takes your breath away sometimes.”

It’s hard not to be awed by the scale of the event, Bourchier says. “I don’t think it’s something I’ll get used to. The number of people who keep this marvel of a stage working, the orchestra, the crowds of people … I think we all have a bit of a moment when we set foot on the walkway just before the show.”

Korbe agrees. “There’s the feeling that you and the audience are going on a journey together. It’s a community built around a show, a huge village, and I’m thrilled to be a part of it.”


Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour: West Side Story plays at Fleet Steps, Mrs Macquaries Point until 21 April.

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