Is This A Dagger I See Before Me?

At any given time, Opera Australia is storing thousands of stage props in a vast warehouse in Sydney, just in case they’re ever needed again. Ordinary stuck its head in and got a little bit creeped out

Opera Sign Prop Room Skulls Lamps Chair Books

I am in a dimly lit warehouse staring at a collection of evil-looking weapons. They are daggers, and in a way, each one is famous. For a few moments, each of them has terrified and thrilled thousands of people. Many times. From what I understand of opera, that blade there always misses the hero, but that shorter one the heroine plunges into her own breast (sometimes five nights a week), and those other two never actually clash because a lady with big lungs arrives and sings, “ Stop! This is madness!” three times in Italian, and everyone can breathe again.

The knives are some of the thousands of props Opera Australia keeps in its two-storey warehouse in Alexandria in Sydney’s inner south. Upstairs, sets and shipping containers full of props are sorted and repaired as they come in after a show, while others are put in readiness for forthcoming productions.

But it is this cluttered props maze on the bottom floor that interests me - downstairs, beneath its low, claustrophilic ceiling, where most of the objects are kept long-term, just waiting. This is where the huge gilt mirrors, the chaise lounges and the poisoned chalices from your average opera end up after each production closes, to be used again if possible, or rented out to the public.

Looking across the narrow aisles, the effect is a bit like a dark and creepy supermarket. At the end of each row is a numbered sign, and a list of what you’ll see if you enter. Pick your way down Aisle 7 and you can expect to find:

“Deer heads, horns, skulls, ateliers, ass, tools, pulleys, circus stands and items, lulu legs, musical instruments, ivy, vines, bark, porcelain figurines, butter churns, bollards & rope, hand scythes, fountain, flat cart with rail over, treads, sconces, lecterns and yard speakers,” the sign reads. (I look again – yes - it did say “ass”.)

The funny thing about props is that while many are fake, some are as good at their non-dramatic counterparts - as useful as the everyday objects they resemble. That rope is simply rope, and the porcelain figures are as much for decoration in reality as they are here. But the same can’t be said for their selection of “cheeses” - or for the ass, which I imagine has none of the same use-value tht a real ass might have. (I went to check this for myself but it wasn’t there - apparently someone had rented Opera Australia’s ass.)

Overseeing all of this is the props hire manager, Simon Calton. No one knows better than he does how these old, dead-looking things can be transformed under the intense lights on stage. “When you look at the set when it gets built in the light of day it looks pretty tired, but gee, when you get some light on it and a bit of atmosphere it comes up a treat,” Simon says. “It looks just amazing.”

I ask him which of these is the oldest prop in the whole place. “Probably myself,” says Simon. After almost 40 years in the opera and theatre business he may well be right. He’s certainly done a few things in that time. With a dancer for a mother, and a father who produced amateur theatre, Simon has an impeccable show-business background, and he spent 12 years as a professional dancer himself. Dancers, however, may shine for only a short spell, until the stresses mount and the art takes its toll, and when Simon retired due to injury, he moved backstage, taking his intimate knowledge of that world into a new role as a mechanist, setting up and packing down the stage for the opera.

He takes a lot of care sorting and repairing props as well as constantly checking them over. When new productions are about to begin, he will gather and inspect a (potentially very large) list of props, before sending them safely off to theatres around the country and overseas.

Because the collection is so vast and well known, people outside the opera company are constantly hiring the props too. Some of these have featured on Underbelly, a suit of armour was used by The Chaser boys in one of their stunts and Simon’s favourite prop - a large candelabra he restored - often pops up in TV commercials or at lavish parties.

(I want to ask him what the Opera’s policy was when rented items go missing - what would happen if some unscrupulous client hocked his ass? – but when I said it to myself it didn’t sound right.)

The day I visit, he is labeling shipping crates to be sent off to the National Chiang Kai-Shek Cultural Centre in Taipei for a travelling production of Carmen (lots of ribbons, fake flowers and poles). Then he will continue unpacking swords, pharaohs’ heads and gold-embroidered cushions for Opera Australia’s , on tour for the first time in 25 years, which anyone who’s been stuck in Sydney traffic lately knows about from seeing it advertised on the backs of taxis.

Simon gets back to work and I’m left to have a final look around and take some photos. As I pick through hookahs and tapestries, I figure I’m far from being the first person to walk through this quiet space and find my head filled with noisy, disturbing ideas, thanks to the berserk mix of objects, periods and stories.

I also realise that I would like to work here myself. The whole place is so relentlessly random. The last thing I notice before I head out is some writing scrawled on the wall. It’s written next to a stuffed white horse, and it says: “Never play leapfrog with a unicorn: ‘Jesus And The Unicorn’ - A tale of forbidden love in a world of illusion and lust”.

I may not know a lot about opera, but I’d like to help assemble the props for that one.