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Australia’s cultural cities: Sydney and Melbourne

Sydney Opera House in Sydney Harbor opened in 1973.

ANDREW HOLT/GETTY IMAGES

Sydney Opera House in Sydney Harbor opened in 1973.

MELBOURNE — It’s a rainy Thursday evening, unseasonably chilly even for this city notorious for unpredictable weather, and its residents certainly could use some comedy to raise their dampened spirits.

Nearly 2,000 people are squeezed elbow-to-elbow into Her Majesty’s Theatre, a sprawling, late-19th-century show biz palace, for a revival of the musical “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” starring Geoffrey Rush, Oscar-winning actor (and Melbourne resident).

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With an audience of urban sophisticates, toe-tapping pensioners, and “Glee”-ky teens, the scene could be right out of Broadway or London’s West End — and indeed this wildly exuberant, wholly infectious production might one day end up there. (In 2009, Rush won a Tony Award for a revival of Eugène Ionesco’s “Exit the King,” which originated in Sydney and Melbourne two years earlier.)

What’s even more remarkable is that this is just one of a dozen or more equally enticing offerings — from classical music concerts to dance recitals to film screenings to fringe theater performances — on offer in the city this particular week.

When US travelers consider journeying to Australia, most probably think of natural adventures: trekking in the arid outback or swimming with sharks along the Great Barrier Reef. But for those of us who prefer our adventures to come with an 8 p.m. curtain time, the continent offers another experience entirely: a culture cornucopia, centered in Melbourne and Sydney, and available regardless of the time of year you choose to visit.

MELBOURNE: Cultural Capital

Perhaps it’s because of the famed Sydney Opera House, with its soaring sails of off-white mosaic tile, perched on Sydney Harbor; or perhaps it’s just the assumption that a country’s biggest city must also be its most artistically vibrant. Whatever the reason, when most Americans think of culture in Australia, they assume Sydney is where it’s at.

In truth, when you arrive in the country — where my partner and I lived for four months last year — you quickly discover that most Aussies view Melbourne as their cultural capital. With an inviting sprawl of cafe-lined, cobblestone alleys, where skinny jeans and dark coats are the uniform of choice, the city combines the stylish flair of a world-class destination like London or Berlin with the offbeat funkiness of a place like Austin, Texas.

We first got a sense of how seriously Melbourne takes its culture in early August, standing in an endless line for a 155-minute Romanian film called “Beyond the Hills,” screening as part of the annual Melbourne International Film Festival. It seemed odd to us that this seemingly obscure title would be one of the festival’s hottest tickets, until the twentysomethings in front of us explained that the movie had received a glowing endorsement from Margaret Pomeranz and David Stratton, the country’s most famous film critics. Then again, they said, we could probably count on most of the other programs in the festival being similarly crowded.

For one-stop cultural shopping in the city, the place to go is Arts Centre Melbourne, with its famed soaring yellow-webbed spire. It’s where you can take in performances by Opera Australia, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, and the Australian Ballet. We attended a production there of the rarely-revived ’80s Cold War-era musical “Chess,” mounted by The Production Company, arguably the city’s mostly highly-regarded theater company.

For our money, though, the most intriguing cultural offerings were usually farther afield: As part of the annual Melbourne Festival — an October hodgepodge of music, theater, dance, and film events — we made our way to fortyfivedownstairs, a gallery space and basement theater. There we saw a one-man show titled “Michael James Manaia,” brilliantly performed by New Zealand actor Te Kohe Tuhaka, who spent 90 minutes weaving a heartwrenching tale of a young Maori man whose life begins to unravel after his brother dies.

Even more memorable, if decidedly quirkier, was a cabaret act that was part of the Melbourne Fringe Festival. Staged in a rickety space adjoining a bar called The Butterfly Club, “Eurotrashed’’ starred a young performer named Daniel Kilby singing a dozen numbers from Eurovision pop song contests of the past decade, moving deftly from English to Italian to Spanish. This being a fringe festival, celebrating all things youthful and anti-establishment, he also knocked back shots of gin between each song.

SYDNEY: The Opera House and Beyond

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 be
reached at cmk76109@gmail.com.
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