Product placement? No. We don’t do any advertising on this blog except the google ads for which I have earned $100 over the years. And we don’t influence anything on social media. So when I plug a product it’s for realz. We take Starbucks Via Italian Roast instant coffee packets everywhere we go. It’s made dozens of early travel mornings like this one tolerable. They are definitely high on my ‘must bring’ list.
It’s 5:30am and still very dark outside. Only a few days ago was the shortest day of the year in the southern hemisphere. Cramming some yogurt and banana in my face I mumble ‘Time to go!’.
Shuffling the slow walk of ‘it’s too early’ and moderately invigorated by the brisk air of Oxford Street we get in a well heated uber and travel downtown on empty streets to the emptier waterfront.
Whatever sleepy, jet lagged feelings we have disappear as we hop out of the uber, alone on the waterfront, as the sun starts to rise, in front of the magnificent Sydney Opera house. We are starting our day with a backstage tour, conducted (get it?) early before rehearsals start. Yvonne, a sweet small woman who has been doing this for three decades escorts the nine of us, all American’s, into the inner workings of the worlds greatest performing arts center.
Worlds Greatest? Yes, that’s subjective. It’s not the biggest anymore, that now goes to the just completed Kaohsiung Center in Taiwan. But it does boast the most events (over 3,000) per year and has the most visitors ~8M of any cultural center (Lincoln Center has about ~5M). It is the most visited site in Australia.
Yvonne is clearly and deservedly proud of the center, taking us through the green rooms, the derssing rooms and backstage to the five theaters including the opera house and the philharmonic stage on which Verdi’s requiem we will see performed later today.
One sees pictures of Sydney and the Opera House is always featured. But it’s difficult to appreciate from a postcard until you get here. Not only the beauty of it – it is a glorious building. But the importance to the global arts and Sydney’s identity as an international city of the arts.
The performing arts center was designed by Jorn Utzon after winning a global competition in the late 50’s. The style is ‘expressionist modernism’ and the two primary halls are inside the iconic sails that make the center look like a masted ship.
Utzon had never visited the site before winning, went wildly over budget and was essentially fired halfway through construction. There have been many attempts to reconcile with Utzon and he won a ton of awards for the building before his death but he never returned to see it completed. His son actively works with the center, an homage to his past. Interestingly, John Hall, the architect that followed Utzon and built the interior is never mentioned.
The building is a beautiful inside as out. Wood is everywhere, carefully chosen for it’s sound reproducing ability. The center got a few major upgrades in the last ten years including a deep underground 18-wheeler loading dock that keeps the combustion fumes from permeating and destroying the space. Here’s a fun fact: Arnold Schwarzenegger won his last bodybuilding competition here in the great concert hall. You’re welcome.
Emma is entranced. She walks all the catwalks and looks enviously at the equipment. She intends to major in theater ad Fordham, a block from Lincoln Center in NYC. She loves the supporting and design roles of lighting, sound and stage management so the back stage tour of all the tools, and equipment and systems is fascinating. The opera house employs 6,000 people roughly, and I know she thought once or twice how amazing it would be to work here.
The feed us from the performers kitchen, good eggs, fruit and toast. We say goodbye to Yvonne and wander into the sunshine of another glorious winter day in Sydney.
Next to the Opera House is the Royal Botanic Gardens, established in 1816 and the oldest scientific institution in Australia. They have a nerdy alphabet topiary that spells ‘pollination’ right outside the opera house.
You probably don’t know this about me because I don’t blog about our daily life, but I’m a huge ornamental gardener. Our 1/6th acre home just outside DC lines has no grass, just \walkways through my woodland garden.
I love conifers and maples, few of which are here because they don’t get a true freezing dormant season. I don’t do any vegetable gardening, I love the design aspects the best.
The gardens start just outside the Opera House and are stunning. Some of the more than 100 year old trees from the Pacifc and Asia are breath-taking. A tree in the Dracena family (a huge family of tropical plants, you probably have one in your house somewhere if you keep houseplants) fell over but survived. It’s underside is exposed, making a wooden sculpture that would be impossible to create by hand with any tools.
Birds like these white cockatoo are everywhere and unafraid, like city birds get. We visit a fernerarium, which makes my heart stop. I love ferns. The fiddle heads of a king tree fern are like creatures from another planet in a sci-fi film. The girls chat to themselves but enjoy the slow walks in the cool sunshine. Have I mentioned that the weather is perfect? Amanda and I chat. It’s serene.
I could wander through here all day but we have to get changed and return for the second half of our Sydney Opera house day: Verdi’s Requiem performed by the Sydney Philharmonic. When booking this trip I had the ‘oh duh, of course’ moment when I realized we must see something at the center. My travel experience told me to stay away from evening performances because of likely jet-lag (that was smart.)
The only options were Verdi’s Requiem and Sondheim’s musical ‘Assasins’. Surprisingly I hesitated to pull the trigger on Verdi. It’s not even a very good musical by most reports but I worried that I would pay a lot of money for philharminic tickets only to see two snoring girls. Classical performance is not a big part of our lives.
Boy did I underestimate them, and perhaps, Verdi as well. From the first soft whisper of strings and chorus of ‘Requiem’, the four of us were rapt. There were no bored readings of the program, no shuffling of legs and definitely no sneaked peeks at mobile phones. Lily in particular, a choral performer herself, is impressed and moved. For 75 minutes we listen to 300 performers – a full symphonic orchestra and chorus of 200 – play.
I think of the millions off combined hours of practice and performance that brought those 300 musicians to the stage in front of me today. And I felt pretty lucky to have a ticket at any price – $150 seems downright cheap.
Afterward, we return to the setting sun of a winter day in Sydney. A final stroll through the Botanic Gardens caps waht was one of our most unusual days of travel. Performing arts has never been a deep focus and we enjoyed today immensely.
Evening involves meeting an old friend of Amanda’s for coffee. We have to walk forever to find an Italian restaurant still serving coffee at 5pm. Apparently there are regulations that force cafe’s to close at 4pm oin Sydney unless they are ful restaurants. Strange. The girls make pasta back at the house and Amanda and I get some thai food nearby. It’s hard to believe we’ve only been here two days.
Wow! I love that you had the backstage tour. Emma must have been so thrilled.