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RISING: 01 — 16 June 2024

The Invisible Opera and Public Space

Sun 5 June

The Invisible Opera is a narrator-led public theatre experience in Federation Square exploring the way architecture, commerce and big data shape our lives. Keep reading to find out how the work and the Metro Tunnel Project are part of a continuing tradition of public debate on the site.

The Invisible Opera — FRI 10—SAT 11 JUNE

As the everyday action of Federation Square unfolds, a voice and an all-seeing eye seemingly choreograph and narrate the environment in real time, instantly bringing into question, what is real and who is watching.

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The Invisible Opera

The Invisible Opera is a kaleidoscopic trip through Melbourne’s beloved Federation Square. Created by Australian multidisciplinary performer Sophia Brous—working in collaboration with celebrated theatre makers Lara Thoms and Samara Hersch and New York choreographer Faye Driscoll—The Invisible Opera explores the use of architecture, surveillance, commerce and big data in our public spaces, and how we interact with them to form an “invisible theatre”.

The Invisible Opera has previously been performed at the Singapore International Festival of the Arts; steirische herbst festival, Cologne; and now at RISING, in Federation Square. At each site the performance is written entirely in response to its host city's landmarks, buildings, monuments, social and political histories, local characters, sounds and streets. Audience members slip on a set of headphones to be led by an all-seeing narrator who directs their attention in real-time, bringing into question what is real and who is watching.

A Cultural Nexus

Federation Square was a natural choice for staging The Invisible Opera’s Melbourne iteration. It’s a site of public communion in which the exchange of ideas is facilitated by its surrounding cultural institutions, including the Koorie Heritage Trust, the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) and The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia.

Before Federation Square’s creation a maze of railways crisscrossed the site, which sits on unceded Aboriginal land. The culturally significant location on the banks of the Birrarung (Yarra) river is where the Kulin confederacy of Aboriginal peoples—the Wathaurung, the Bunurong and the Woiworung peoples—dwelled and gathered for tens of thousands of years.

Donald Bates, one of Federation Square’s architects, points to Paul Carter’s artwork Nearamnew, one of the first artworks to be programmed in the space. Nearamnew comprised the fragmented voices of historical and fictional characters inscribed at nine points throughout the square, as an example of Federation Square’s history at this social nexus.

“[Nearamnew] was really about a kind of miscommunication between different peoples. Indigenous peoples and European peoples, even between different groups of Europeans, as well as Asian people, particularly from China that were coming to Melbourne through the gold rush,” says Bates. “It did become important as a way of understanding that this site was always a site of attempted communication of translation, of miscommunication, of sort of languages that emerge of people trying to communicate very different value systems, within a context that's transforming itself quite rapidly.”

Building Federation Square : a look back at its history

Since the 1920s proposals had been made to roof the railway yards, a small part of which was covered in the 1960s with the creation of the Princess Gate Towers, more commonly known as Gas & Fuel buildings after its major tenant, the Gas and Fuel Corporation.

In 1996, Premier Jeff Kennet announced the demolition of the Gas & Fuel buildings to make way for a new cultural hub and an international competition was launched to find a design. A consortium of local and international winners was announced in 1997: Lab Architecture Studio and the Dutch firm Karres en Brands Landscape Architects. These firms were joined by local architects Bates Smart for the build’s second stage. Together the firms sought to create a public square that was embedded in daily life, rather than sitting outside it, following the opening of a largely unsuccessful attempt to create such a space in Collins Square in 1968, on the corner of Swanston and Collins Streets.

“One of the interests we had when we did the competition was [that] the second half of the 20th century had not produced very many good public spaces around the world ... modernism or late modernist architecture and urban design hadn't really found a way to create very successful public space,” says Bates, Fed Square architect and Lab Architecture Studio Director.

“This was partly because people had conceived of public space in a certain way, separate from the city. That is to say it may well be located in the city, but it was somehow removed from the day-to-day life of the city, as if public space meant you went someplace just to be cultural or civic.

“Part of that direction had ended up with things like Southbank and particularly the Arts Precinct,” continues Bates. “Because all the activity took place inside [these institutions], when the NGV was closed, there was nothing to do around there until there was a performance at the state theatres or Hamer Hall.”

The design of Federation Square drew inspiration from Melbourne’s secondary passageways through the CBD via shopping arcades and the city’s much-loved laneways. Rather than creating “one big door into a big building” housing disparate activities and businesses, Federation Square’s design was oriented to talk directly to the city, connecting it to the riverside and enabling permeability with multiple entry and exit points.

Home to exhibition spaces, cinemas, restaurants, retail, SBS studios, NGV and ACMI, Bates says, “the opportunity of Federation Square [allowed] multiple ways that you access the river, but also so that you engage with it with different activities, in terms of the facilities of Federation Square.”

The design features smaller spaces that are grouped and overlap with one another, so that it serves a purpose and works as a space whether there are only 15 people sitting watching the screen, having a coffee, or meeting friends, or 20,000 people there for a special event or cultural festival.

Federation Square’s bold design had its detractors when its designs were first presented to the public, however since opening in 2002 it has been embraced by Melburnians and become one of the most awarded architectural projects in the city’s history.

Bates believes the combination of the urban design and ongoing commitment to the programming of cultural activities and events in the Square is what has made it successful. It works as both a destination and a passageway that weaves artistic and cultural encounters into the everyday lives of passers-by.

What’s next

Fed Square’s newest addition—the currently-under-construction entrance to Town Hall Station, one of five stations being built as part of the Metro Tunnel Project—will pave the way for more cultural activation in the area.

The Melbourne Arts Precinct is due to receive a $1.7 billion makeover including a new gallery (The Fox: NGV Contemporary) access and acoustic upgrades to the State Theatre, and an 18,000 square metre park that will host outdoor events, performances and art. The new Town Hall Station will be key to plugging these spaces into the city.

“Town Hall Station is making a number of really important connections, not least of which, you’ll be able to get there directly from Flinders Street Station,” says the station’s architect, Ivan Harbour of Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners. “Across the road from Flinders Street Station is Fed Square—which is Melbourne’s big gathering space, isn’t it?—and across the road from that is St Paul’s Cathedral—so it’s right in the city’s heart. One of its entrances will be in Fed Square which will feed you through to the arts district.”

Harbour says Town Hall Station is the most complex of all the Metro Tunnel stations being built owing to its depth and proximity to the river. Its northern entrance will revitalise City Square too, originally intended as the town square, and link it with its Federation Square entrance.

“I think it's fantastic that Melbourne is ... adding that feature and having one of the major entry and exit points be at Federation Square,” says Bates. “People don't think about it much anymore, but you know, 25 years ago the internet was just really taking off. We saw this kind of metaphor with Fed Square as a kind of homepage. That's the place to get your orientation, get your direction, find out what's happening and then maybe go off or at the end of an eventful day. It's a place to meet back up and to sort of chill out, and get to meet up with friends, and colleagues and so forth.”

An underground pedestrian walkway connecting Town Hall Station and its entrance at Federation Square is set to transform the way people access the Square’s cultural institutions and heritage even further. In addition, the Metro Tunnel will connect new parts of Melbourne into the train network with its loop of new stations: Arden Station in North Melbourne, Parkville Station, Anzac Station near Kings Domain and State Library Station. The new network will feed directly into the heart of the city, furthering Federation Square’s prominence as a cultural space—a site with a history of public dialogue, now continued in The Invisible Opera.

“We give a lot of value to civic activity, but I think [people] also have to understand that commercial activity in terms of cafes and restaurants, bookshops, small retail, purchasing for events is part of what we do,” says Bates. “It's not in opposition, it's in collaboration with how we live a cultural and civic life.”


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