Since 2018 the Sydney Opera House has been presenting works under the UnWrapped banner. Somewhere between a season and a mini-festival, each iteration of UnWrapped gathers together some of the most exciting independent Australian artists and small-to-medium companies, and provides a platform for them to showcase new, risk-taking work spanning across dance, music, live art and theatre.

Fiona Winning, Sydney Opera House Director of Programming and the curator of UnWrapped, spoke to Hugh Robertson via Zoom about the importance of art to help us make sense of the world around us, and the power of the Sydney Opera House brand to entice audiences to try something a little out of the ordinary.

A promotional image for <i>RUNT</i> by Patricia Cornelius, Susie Dee and Nicci Wilks, playing at Sydney Opera House <i>UnWrapped 2022</i>.

A promotional image for RUNT, co-created by Patricia Cornelius, Susie Dee and Nicci Wilks, playing at Sydney Opera House UnWrapped 2022.

Tell me about UnWrapped – where does it sit amongst the Opera House’s slate of events?

It is a very important piece of programming for us, because it actually allows us to work with independent artists at creating new works that are exciting, and fresh, and interesting, and that many of our Sydney Opera House audiences may not have seen before.

UnWrapped is a program that works with artists who work in different ways, and it is a really beautiful program to put together, because these are artists making really great work. All of these artists were doing this before COVID, and before Trump, but it becomes more meaningful with the last couple of years’ experience under our belts.

Are you conscious of the power of the Opera House as a brand, and the ability you have to elevate independent artists to another level?

I don’t think it’s that so much, but it is interesting.

What I would say about this program is that, of course, we want people to see all sorts of different work in different spaces around town, but we also want to use encourage the audience that we do have, who are comfortable coming to our venues, and give them something where they know the work is going to be really interesting, and it might actually be a new series of ways of thinking, or ways of seeing, or a new experience.

Artists make work in all sorts of different spaces, but I do think we have a responsibility to cohere some of that work from a lot of smaller spaces, or different spaces, into smaller programs through the year, like UnWrapped.

These artists have been making work for years and years, and are very experienced in their craft, and great communicators. So I really want people to come, and take a risk on these amazing works, even though they may be by artists they don’t know.

It must be quite freeing for you as a programmer when the theme of an event is ‘weird and cool and strange stuff’.

Well, look, it’s not all weird and cool and strange (laughs)! But yeah, it is ideas that are powerfully engaging with the moment – the cultural and political moment.

For example, Lynette Wallworth is an exquisite filmmaker and VR artist, who works at the cutting edge of technologies, and at UnWrapped [she is] doing a monologue about a part of her life, and reflecting on it through the lens of having made beautiful art over many, many years. It’s called HOW TO LIVE (After You Die), and she uses her art as a way to interpret this particular part of her life when she became part of a radical Christian sect, and effectively became a prophet!

But [she has had to] come out of that, and actually find her own voice – because she realises that she has been in a particular headspace as a young woman. I think it is really relevant for this moment.

A promotional image for Lynette Wallworth's HOW TO LIVE (After You Die), playing at Sydney Opera House UnWrapped 2022.

A promotional image for Lynette Wallworth’s HOW TO LIVE (After You Die), playing at Sydney Opera House UnWrapped 2022.

As is RUNT, which is [co-created] by Patricia Cornelius, Susie Dee and Nicci Wilks, and is one of my favourite theatre works ever. Patricia and Susie as a writing/directing team are just extraordinary, and they always work with extraordinary performers – very often with Nicci Wilks. But this is the first time they have made a solo with Nicci.

And it’s this staccato text that is very tough, and almost rhythmic, and it comes from the belly, it comes from the gut. Nicci is such a profoundly wonderful physical performer, and she is a middle-aged woman now, so to see this incredibly gutsy performance from this runt, this small person who is playing with ideas of what it might mean to be the runt of the litter, is really fantastic. Nicci is also an extraordinary comic performer, so it has both this guttural and comedy and physicality mixing into this world that is extraordinary, tough and profound – and funny.

On the music side of things, MotherTongue, MotherLand sounds really interesting. 

We have been working with UKARIA on a project called Finding Our Voice, which is a series of commissions. And we were very keen to commission Sunny Kim, because I was very keen to see what she might do. Sunny is Korean-born, and an incredible improviser. She moves across musical forms really beautifully. I originally saw her play with the Australian Art Orchestra with Melbourne a few years ago, and I was very struck by both her stage presence and her really haunting vocals. I thought she was incredible. And she has put together this team of incredible women artists – including Helen Svoboda (double bass), Aviva Endean (clarinets), Mindy Meng Wang (guzheng) and Gelareh Pour (kamancheh, geychak and vocals) – and they are exploring motherhood from the perspective of being separated from their mothers, or indeed their mothers being separated from us. So thinking about migration, and motherhood, and land, and language. It will be a beautiful piece.

How do you program this festival, specifically? Do you go to specific artists and tell them what you are after?

No, I respond to what people are making. So we have co-commissioned the Lynette Wallworth piece with RISING festival in Melbourne, but Lynette was wanting to make that piece. So we have collaborated to commission the work, and that will be on at RISING after it is on at Sydney Opera House.

The Finding Our Voice team is the wonderful Genevieve Lacey and a team of collaborators, and we have commissioned William Barton later in the year and Sunny Kim for this one. So again, that was in response to what the artist wanted to make.

RUNT was a work that I saw in Melbourne, and seemed to be a really great companion piece to Lynette’s HOW TO LIVE (After You Die).

A promotional image for re:group performance collective's <i>Coil</i>, playing at Sydney Opera House <i>UnWrapped 2022</i>.

A promotional image for re:group performance collective’s Coil, playing at Sydney Opera House UnWrapped 2022.

And then Coil is a show I saw in Sydney just recently, actually, by re:group performance collective. They are a great group of artists that graduated from Wollongong Uni a few years ago, and they are a collective that make work every few years. I hadn’t seen one of their works for quite a few years, but this one is just so clever, it’s such immaculate craft. They are making a film in front of our eyes while they are telling stories. And it is funny, and it is about loss, really – the loss of a video store, and the loss of long-term collaborators, because their performance group used to be 15 and now it is three. It is about loss of old friendships, and change.

It’s set in a video shop, and they are making a trailer for a film that they never got to make back in the day. So it is all of these things, so you are watching them – they are telling the story, then one character suddenly becomes another, then they come back to just telling the story, and then there’s another scene. Solomon Thomas is the camera person and he follows the action through the whole thing, so you see it live, and then you see it on screen as it is filmed simultaneously. And it is really seamless, and joyous, but it is actually about something quite meaningful, and that’s dealing with loss, which is something that we’re all dealing with at the moment.

The Opera House’s Decade of Renewal, renovating and revitalising the whole of the venue, is almost complete – are you excited to have the works all finished, and to be able to invite audiences to explore each part of it?

Absolutely. And that’s what we are doing with one of the other pieces, ENCOUNTER SYDNEY.

Emma Saunders is a choreographer who has been working with FORM Dance Projects in western Sydney, this new  dance company with young dancers. And they created a work called ENCOUNTER, which was on at Sydney Festival a couple of years ago when it was on in Parramatta Park. And  we are going to do a smaller version of that at the House.

[Ed.: The first ENCOUNTER show also featured a score composed by Amanda Brown and Jodi Phillis, orchestrated by Jessica Wells, which was performed by the musicians of the Western Sydney Youth Orchestra, conducted by James Pensini.]

<i>ENCOUNTER</i>by FORM Dance Projects, which premiered at Sydney Festival 2020 but will have an amended encore at Sydney Opera House <i>UnWrapped 2022</i>.

ENCOUNTER by FORM Dance Projects, which premiered at Sydney Festival 2020 but will have an amended encore at Sydney Opera House UnWrapped 2022.

So what this is is really bringing those dancers to the monumental steps, and the forecourt. There’s not a big stage set up, it’s not a big spectacle, it’s actually young bodies running around, and young people in urban space bringing this intense energy. Felicity Castagna has written some text which places it in the place that people are seeing it, on the forecourt of the Opera House. And it is just the spirit of being young, and needing to move, being in urban space.

It is at dusk, and we really want people to come down. We’re not fencing off the forecourt, we’re not building stages. There are a couple of props, but it is really about finding where the dancers are. They will be in yellow outfits, and we will see them among the crowd, blending in amongst the people, a kind of ‘in amongst the people’ performance.

And it is a joy bomb. It is absolutely about joy in physicality and urban space.

That sounds like great fun. Is there anything else you want people to have in mind when thinking about UnWrapped

I guess I just want to convey the sense that, sometimes people think that these works are going to be … not serious, but really dark. And while there are some that address contemporary issues, there is also a lightness, a light, in these works. It’s not just about humour, it’s also about joy, and lightness, in this moment when people are feeling a bit miserable – because it’s been raining for so long, or because the election is coming up, or because we’re still in COVID.

But these works are light. They are full of light.

The latest season of UnWrapped has programs running until 11 June, 2022. More information.

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