Shannon Burns talks Opera Australia’s exciting production of Carmen on Cockatoo Island

Choreographer, Shannon Burns, gives us a bit of a sneak peek into the behind the scenes of staging a mammoth outdoor spectacular for Opera Australia.

Rehearsals are underway for a bold new production of Bizet’s Carmen opening on 25 November on Sydney’s Cockatoo Island. A short 12 minute ferry ride from the city, this will be the first opera ever performed on the heritage-listed island. Under the direction of the acclaimed Liesel Badorrek, a cast of brilliant singers and musicians, 12 contemporary dancers and 3 motorbike riders have begun weaving together the story of Carmen, who Liesel says is the ultimate femme fatale.

Incorporating such a diverse range of elements, including motorcycles and nightly fireworks, is an exciting prospect for choreographer Shannon Burns, who previously worked on Opera Australia’s Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour production of La Traviata.

Shannon answered some questions for Theatre Thoughts about the stellar production that is sure to take your breath away!


Can you tell us about your role in bringing Carmen to life?
I have worked closely with our wonderful director Liesel Badorrek in conceptualising and creating a physical language for everyone on stage. There is dance woven throughout the production supporting the narrative and setting an overall tone. We have taken great inspiration from the industrial surrounds of Cockatoo Island, there is something perfectly imperfect and exciting about the space. I’ve loved approaching the dramatic arcs of Bizet’s score with movement that is raw, athletic and multifaceted. The score is a delicious roller coaster and the onstage action mirrors this.

Sian Sharp as Carmen in Opera Australia's production of Carmen on Cockatoo Island 2022
Photo Credit: Rhiannon Hopley

Staging outdoor events can be challenging. What obstacles have you had to face?
The outdoors hosts an unbeatable atmosphere but certainly has its challenges. The performers must work with extra precision and projection. The exchange between audience and artist is less direct and can be lost to the stars without a great deal of clarity and focus. Our stage is a huge 29 metres wide, a substantial physical ask on the cast who are also navigating level changes, stairs, ladders, weather conditions and more. There’s a multitude of logistics at play and the uncontrollable variables add an extra level of planning and contingency. It takes a huge army.

What should audiences expect from this production of Carmen?
Audiences should expect the unexpected…without giving too much away, I can promise world class operatic performances supported by an all around visual feast. I think audiences will be wrapped up in an overall experience that is sensory, visceral and all encompassing. With plenty of spectacle there is equally as much substance.

What benefits do you believe staging Carmen on Cockatoo Island will bring?
The island has a raw and exhilarating quality. It feels like the perfect place to tell this story. It’s an opportunity to create an entire world for our audience, a world they can be completely swept up in. It’s also allowed us to include bold and exciting elements that simply could not happen in a theatre.

Dancers in rehearsals for Carmen on Cockatoo Island.
Photo Credit: Rhiannon Hopley

Do you have a highlight of this production?
It’s difficult to choose just one… The dance auditions were seriously electrifying with applicants leaving their hearts and souls on the floor. I was truly blown away by the talent and energy. From that I have landed with an incredible cast of dancers who are a joy and inspiration to share the studio with. They are bringing a huge amount of themselves to the work and aside from being wonderfully talented and multi-skilled they are also incredibly humble, generous, down to earth and all around lovely to work with. Cannot wait to get them in front of an audience.

For further information and to book your tickets, head to opera.org.au/carmen


Photo Credits: Rhiannon Hopley

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