So about that opera house: It is indeed every bit as dazzling as promised, whether viewed from up close or one of the dozens of ferries that regularly cruise the harbor. The impulse for most arriving tourists will be to sign up for one of the hourlong tours of the building.
My advice: Skip the tour, which is expensive ($36) and will leave the architecture buffs in your party frustrated with its lack of detail. Instead save your money for a performance at the Opera House, which allows you to see just as much of the building’s interior and experience world-class music in the bargain. The largest and most famous of the hall’s six venues is the 2,679-seat Concert Hall, where in mid-November we saw a concert by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, accompanied by the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet. The Latin-themed program was stirring and sensuous. The experience of stepping outside during intermission and seeing Sydney’s Harbor Bridge glimmering against the nighttime sky proved every bit as thrilling as the music.
The Opera House is used by a number of other groups, including Opera Australia and The Australian Ballet. The resident company that’s been generating the most buzz, however, is the Sydney Theatre Company, whose profile skyrocketed in 2008, when Cate Blanchett and her husband, Andrew Upton, took over as co-artistic directors. Two of their productions starring Blanchett — “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “Uncle Vanya” — have had well-reviewed runs in New York. (This upcoming season will be Blanchett’s last as co-director, with Upton taking over as sole director.)
Alas, perhaps the biggest disappointment of our time here was the theater company’s muddled production of “Signs of Life,” a play by Australian novelist Tim Winton about a recently widowed woman in the Outback. That said, if there’s any single event on the 2013 calendar that should persuade you to make the trip, it’s the company’s upcoming production of Jean Genet’s “The Maids,” co-starring Blanchett and French acting legend Isabelle Huppert, which will play in June and July.
Broadly speaking, Sydney doesn’t seem to have as much going on culturally as Melbourne — something the Melbourneites you meet will note with pride. Still, perhaps our single most electric performing arts experience in Australia was at the Belvoir St Theatre in Sydney’s trendy Surry Hills neighborhood. In a space so microscopic the young actors seemed in danger of falling into our laps, we watched a modern-day reimagining of “Medea,” told from the perspective of the title character’s about-to-be-murdered children. Written by Kate Mulvany and Anne-Louise Sarks, it’s one of those thrilling pronouncements of new talent that keeps theater junkies like me hooked for life.
Which is to say: Melbourne needs to start watching its cultural back. And for those of us in the States who love the arts, you really can’t go wrong visiting either city.
Christopher Kelly can bereached at firstname.lastname@example.org.