Being Overwhelmed by a Concert at the Sydney Opera House

Even before we had left England I had booked seats for the concert, even though I had no idea what the performance would be: The Opera House website gave only the title, The Shock of The New, and the information that the programme would only be announced on the night. Nevertheless, having attended a concert five years earlier, at this unarguably most spectacular music venue in the world, there was no way I was going to miss a repeat of the experience.

First View of the Opera House

On that earlier occasion, my wife and I had touched down in Sydney at around 5 am. Unable to check into our hotel room at that time, we spent the next three hours sitting in the reception area until our son arrived. Without stopping to catch his breath, he ushered us out into the drizzling rain.

“Where are we going?” I asked.

“To the Opera House,” he replied. “Wait ‘til you see what’s on.”

In Your Bucket Because…

  • The Sydney Opera House is architecturally unique, and as such is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
  • The setting in Sydney Harbour is one of the most beautiful of any major world city.
  • Attending a concert here is an unforgettable musical experience.
Arriving at the Opera House (photo: Anthony Toole)

Arriving at the Opera House (photo: Anthony Toole)

Arriving at the broad plaza of the Opera House less than half an hour later, we looked up at set of steps that rose to the scallop-shell exterior. The white tiles were just catching the light of a weak sun that was trying to break through the haze. There was nothing to mar the view of the architectural masterpiece, which stands on its own promontory, surrounded on three sides by the harbour. Indeed the boats bobbing on the water added some agreeable texture, while the equally arresting Harbour Bridge stood at just the right distance away to enhance rather than detract from the magnificent scene.

The concert to be staged the following Friday was of a performance of the Ninth Symphony of my all-time favourite composer, Gustav Mahler. Unfortunately, this being Sunday, the box office was closed. Accordingly, I was on the phone first thing on Monday morning, credit card in hand, making sure that we had seats for the concert.

Concert and Aftermath

That first, month-long trip around Australia was packed with highlights, but the concert at the Sydney Opera House was one of two that stood out for me above the others. (The second highlight was a snorkeling visit to the Great Barrier Reef).

As the lights dimmed and the quiet notes of the opening andante drifted into the auditorium, we became fully absorbed into the music. The first movement, as long as many full symphonies by other composers, explores the great romantic themes of love and death that preoccupied Mahler throughout his life. The unresolved harmonies and modulations capture his sense of the unutterable beauties of the world and the transitory nature of life. The music develops through existential angst and conflict to the final, also very long, slow movement, which ends with total acceptance, and perhaps anticipation of eternity, and a silence that the great Mahler interpreter, Leonard Bernstein concluded is the most perfect expression in music of death itself.

By the end of the concert, we were emotionally drained, yet uplifted by the wonderful music. But the experience was not yet over. Outside, the air was warm. The tall buildings around the harbour were lit up like galaxies and scattered their light over the water to create an ambience of enchantment that nobody seemed in a hurry to leave. The concertgoers, ourselves included, stood around, absorbing the atmosphere, a huge crowd of people simply enjoying tranquility. After half-an-hour of this, we adjourned to a nearby waterside bar before returning to our hotel.

The Shock of the New

On our second visit to the Sydney Opera House, five years later, the Harbour Bridge stood silhouetted against a Wagnerian sunset. The element of mystery was maintained by the lack of a programme for sale, and we entered the auditorium to the sepulchral chants of a choir of Tibetan monks, who set the tone for the concert to follow.

The theme that emerged as the concert proceeded concerned the rhythms and rituals of life, and crossed social and religious barriers from the Christian, to the Buddhist, to the Shinto, to the Pagan. Concert hall standards, such as Mozart’s Requiem, Beethoven’s 5th Symphony and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring were interspersed with modern works by Messiaen, Varese, Scelsi and others. While the modern works emphasised the Shock of the New, they also reminded us that the works from the classical repertoire were also, in their day, shocking, new and revolutionary. One only has to think of the riots that accompanied the first performance of The Rite of Spring in the Paris of 1913.

Harbour Bridge from the Opera House (photo: Anthony Toole

Harbour Bridge from the Opera House (photo: Anthony Toole

Adding to the novelty were extraordinary performances by a group of Japanese drummers, TaikOz, who belted out a compulsive rhythm with extreme ferocity. This was contrasted by an amazing digeridoo solo by an Aboriginal virtuoso, played from a seat in the midst of the audience.

It was only after each piece was finished that its title appeared on a screen above the stage, while sale of the programmes only took place after the entire concert was completed.

I could not compare the concert with any others of the countless I have attended. As we strolled around in the balmy air and glittering lights of the harbour, my son concluded that it was the best he had ever experienced. I found it difficult to disagree.

Practicalities

  • There are buses, trains and ferries to take you to Circular Quay, from which the Opera House is a five-minute walk. 
  • You can take a tour of the Opera House accompanied by a guide speaking Mandarin, Japanese, Korean, French or German, in addition to English.
  • A backstage tour is also available, though children on this tour, for safety reasons, must by over 12.
  • The main tour can be preceded or followed by a 3-tier gourmet lunch.

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