Henrietta Bredin

Australian odyssey

Henrietta Bredin finds time to scratch only the surface of cultural events on offer

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I must admit that the first arts event in which I participated on arriving in Australia was entirely by chance. Sitting in the sun on the restaurant terrace of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, looking at the ferries bustling in and out of Circular Quay, I picked up a small printed notice that had been placed on my table. It told me that, as part of the current city-wide contemporary art show, the chair in which I would normally have been sitting had been swapped with one from a café in Hanoi. As I pondered on this and gazed across the water, the arm of a crane swung into view and dropped an enormous rock on to a red car that had been parked at the bottom of the steps leading up to the Opera House. That turned out to be a part of the same show.

Sydney has some terrific museums. The Powerhouse Museum was constructed in and around the shell of the old Ultimo power station, which once supplied the city’s tram network. It’s a marvellously apt location for a museum of science and social history — the old turbine hall and boiler house are now bursting with different exhibits, from steam engines and a 1929 Bugatti to an entire flying boat, with a wingspan of 31.7 metres, suspended over one’s head.

There’s a constantly shifting exhibition programme — there was a fascinating look at gambling in Australia while I was there, at which I first encountered the term ‘pokies’ for slot machines. I thought this must have something to do with poking your loose change into a slot but, rather more logically, come to think of it, it is a reference to poker. It’s a very interactive sort of place and I thoroughly enjoyed myself, betting on imaginary horses, playing baccarat and blackjack, and losing small fortunes in virtual dollars. Another exhibit, ‘Women’s Work is Never Done’, offered me the opportunity to try my hand at baking a damper, put laundry through a large mangle and calculate my budget to a nicety before ordering supplies on credit from the Wong family general store, depending on how much profit I anticipated getting from my wool clip after the next sheep shearing.

My only theatrical outing during the visit was, slightly surprisingly, to a play by an Englishman about the restoration of Charles II. This turned out to be a distinct high point, however, as Sydney Theatre Company’s production of Howard Barker’s Restoration, both directed and performed in by Judy Davis, was scorchingly good. It was thrilling to hear Barker’s hard-paced, visceral language delivered with such exhilarating vigour, and Davis, with her rasping, smoky voice, ferocious intelligence and immaculate deadpan timing, was extraordinary.

Adelaide was so quiet on the day I arrived that I thought a national emergency must have occurred (I discovered later that it was a public holiday for the Queen’s birthday). There’s a lot going on, though, some of it on a vaultingly ambitious scale. The State Opera of South Australia must be one of the smallest opera companies in the world — it has only four permanent members of staff — but they are about to launch themselves into a full-scale production of all four operas of Wagner’s Ring cycle. This is a massive undertaking by any standards and far bigger companies quail at the prospect of doing the whole thing at once, preferring to tackle one opera at a time.

The forward planning is on a military scale. Stephen Phillips, general and artistic director of the company, has recruited a Ring team to manage the project, led by Noel Staunton, erstwhile head of technical and planning wizardry for ENO, Australian Opera and Baz Luhrmann. They hoped that the whole thing could be conceived and built in Adelaide, but the demands of the design (lots of real flames, and real water for the Rhine) were such that construction has been taking place all over Australia.

When I visited, life was still relatively quiet for the core team, but at the end of September, when music rehearsals were due to begin, the huge number of people required to bring the project to life were scheduled to start arriving: 120 musicians to maintain a consistent pit strength of 90–92 players; a chorus of 70; 40 children; 12 extras; a backstage crew of around 75; and a roster of principal singers, an impressive number of whom are home-grown, including Lisa Gasteen as Brünnhilde, Stuart Skelton as Siegmund, Deborah Riedel as Sieglinde and Jonathan Summers as Gunther. Just organising the artists’ travel and accommodation is a major operation.

The State Tourist Commission has committed itself to enthusiastic backing of the enterprise, offering holiday packages that will give people the chance to sample the delights of South Australia in between operas, with trips to the Barossa Valley and Kangaroo Island. Opera-goers will picnic in the park around the Festival Theatre and some people have already hired minibuses to whisk them downtown for pre-booked interval dinners. Three cycles will be performed, and by the end of June this year 90 per cent of tickets had already been sold.

In the meantime, other, only slightly less ambitious, projects have been under way. Conductor Tim Sexton, who will also be working on the Ring, has founded his own group, the Adelaide Vocal Project, and, in the State Opera’s studio theatre, recently put on a series of performances of parts 3 and 4 of Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach in collaboration with the choreographer/director Leigh Warren. The over-arching theme of Warren’s interpretation was Einstein’s investigations into the phenomenon of light. He had invited one classical dancer, Sarah Peace, to join his troupe of contemporary dancers and she, the only dancer en pointe, picked her way about with deliciously languorous grace like some exquisite long-legged bird. She carried her own lighting with her, at first in the form of an illuminated necklace of glowing spheres and later on with tiny lights attached to her wrists and under each knee. The singers were kept in immaculately focused control by Sexton, threading their way unerringly through bristling thickets of overlapping notes.

Finally, to Melbourne, where it was the buildings that I most enjoyed. The pretty clapboard-fronted houses of Prahran, doorways flanked by immaculately trimmed bay trees (or, in one flamboyant instance, giant cacti); the Gothic revival of William Butterfield’s St Paul’s Cathedral; local architects Roger Wood’s and Randal Marsh’s stunning sequence of rusted red metal planes enclosing the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art; the explosion of buildings that make up Federation Square, like a tumble of jagged dice. If you make your way into one of these dice, such as the Ian Potter Centre for Australian Art, the inside is a revelation, as the rubbly pink sandstone, bronze and zinc surfaces of the exterior give way to cool grey and white, intriguingly shaped and sliced spaces with light pouring in through windows that are hardly discernible from the outside.

Oh dear, a tiny scratching on the surface of what Australia had to offer and even so I’ve run out of space for the huge painted tin masks in Adelaide’s collection of Aboriginal art; the seductively sliding plan-chest drawers at the Museum of Sydney, revealing endless surprises — tiny porcelain dolls, myriad coloured shells; the raw sensuality of a performance by Bangarra Dance Theatre; or Australian Opera’s Norma, almost the entire first act of which was lost to me as I succumbed to a cold wave of panic upon realising that I had almost certainly (for the first and I hope the last time ever) not only brought my mobile phone with me but also left it on. And I didn’t dare check until the interval in case I accidentally pressed the wrong button and caused it to join in excruciatingly with the hushed opening phrases of ‘Casta diva’.