You may have missed out on hearing much about it in the frenzy of attention focused on the athletic competition of the XXVIIth Olympiad, but the accompanying Olympic Arts Festival (OAF) was an event of Olympic proportions in its own right. The ancient festivals in Olympia are known to have celebrated both cultural and physical prowess, and since the first modern Olympics in 1896, there have been cultural events associated with the sporting competition. Beginning with Barcelona in 1992, there has been a cycle of four arts festivals celebrated by the host country of each Olympics.
The first festival of the Sydney Olympics was the Festival of the Dreaming, which took place in Sydney back in late 1997. The theme was the histories and futures of the world's indigenous cultures, with particular emphasis on Australian Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders. Canada, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Western Samoa, and the United States were among the nations represented. Next was A Sea Change. In this festival, artists and companies from Australia and Oceania used the theme of the influence of the sea on Australian life as a means to explore the changing political and cultural climates in Australia. The third festival, Reaching the World, toured internationally between November 1998 and January 2000. It visited all five regions represented by the Olympic rings (Europe, Africa, Asia, the Americas, and Oceania), displaying Australian culture via exhibitions, performances, film, broadcast, literature, and the Internet. The fourth and final festival, while featuring many international artists and companies, served as a showcase for the diversity and depth of the arts in Australia. Opening four weeks before the Olympic games, the Sydney 2000 Olympics Arts Festival ran until the last day of athletic competition.
In a country still struggling to come to terms with the relationship between its original inhabitants and the European colonizers who arrived to set up a penal colony just over 200 years ago, it was apt to begin the festival with a day-long Aboriginal welcoming ceremony. Tubowgule (the Meeting of the Waters), began at La Peruse beach near Botany Bay, the point of first contact between the two groups. At first light, an Aboriginal singer performed a series of haunting songs, accompanied by a group of indigenous musicians on traditional instruments gathered around a campfire. This part of the ceremony concluded with the setting alight of a floating ceremonial raft of branches and smoking leaves.
The final part of the ceremony took place at dusk on Bennelong Point, the forecourt of the Sydney Opera House. Bangarra Dance Theatre, a contemporary dance company of indigenous performers, performed dances of welcome from the people of the saltwater clans. Tubowgule was directed and choreographed by Stephen Page, who also directed and choreographed the Awakening segment of the Olympic opening ceremony. Lighting designer Joseph Mercurio was forced by continuing bad weather to make a major change in his design in the last few days before the ceremony. The designer had initially intended to use Clay Paky Super Stagescans and Martin Mac 600s for his main coverage, but as inclement weather set in during the week leading up to the performance, the rig underwent a major revision. As there were no weatherproof housings available at short notice to fit the Super Stagescans, Martin Mac 250s were substituted. Despite the hurried substitution, Mercurio reports he was pleased with the outcome.
The gala opening event for the festival was the musically pyrotechnical "Symphony of a Thousand" by Mahler. In a symbolic link with the athletics competition, the venue for this spectacular was the recently opened Sydney Superdome, just a few hundred yards from the Olympic Stadium. A few weeks later, the Superdome would be the venue for the Olympic artistic gymnastics, trampoline, basketball, and Paralympic wheelchair basketball competitions. Although used for concerts in addition to motocross, professional basketball, and Monty Roberts (the man who listens to horses), the Superdome had never hosted a musical event on this scale before. In addition to the 120 - strong Sydney Symphony Orchestra, there were three choirs totaling nearly one thousand voices, and seven vocal soloists onstage. Off to one side of the main stage was a brass ensemble and on the other there was an eighth soloist, as the voice of a distant angel.
With so many performers distributed across such a wide expanse of performing area, providing "transparent" sound reinforcement in the circular Superdome venue required a system of substantial subtlety and sophistication. System Sound assembled a FOH system of front-fill, overhead clusters and delays, using Meyer self-powered speakers: 26 x MSL-4s in four main clusters, together with 16 x DS4-P mid-bass and 8 x UPA 1-Ps, as downfill. More 12 x MSL-4s were used for center fill, delay, the "angel," and organ clusters. Front fill consisted of 7 x 650-P low-bass and 7x UPA 1-P full range boxes. Sound designer John Scandrett divided the source locations into 12 zones, and the speaker system into 10 spatial and delay zones. Using stage and building plans, Scandrett, together with programmer Julian Spink, preprogrammed time alignments and levels for all 120 points in the matrix of five BSS SoundWebs that would be used to control the sound system. During the week of rehearsals in the venue, the most critical settings were tested using DRA Laboratories' MLSSA system and the SoundWebs were fine-tuned. Despite having eight tons of speakers in the air, the concert was viewed as an acoustic event, and pronounced a resounding success.
From here a panoply of arts events unfolded in and around Sydney for the next four weeks. This culminated with the arrival of the Olympic torch on the steps of the Sydney Opera House, on the night before the opening ceremony for the games. That night, as tenor Andrea Bocelli held the torch aloft, the lighting on the Opera House sails became a sea of projected flames. Later in the evening, when the free public concerts in the Domain and Martin Plaza had ended, the one million people who had come in to the city of Sydney to celebrate were treated to a sky show of searchlights and lasers as they headed home. Once the sporting competition got underway, all OAF performances were concentrated around the venues at the Sydney Opera House.
Musically, one could be forgiven for thinking that the OAF was actually a festival of orchestras, with performances by the Sydney Symphony, Orchestra Filarmonica della Scala, the New Zealand Symphony, the Melbourne Symphony, the Australian Chamber Orchestra, the Asian Youth Orchestra, and the Australian Youth Orchestra. There was also a plentiful helping of opera, with Opera Australia staging new productions of Verdi's Simon Boccanegra and Capriccio by Richard Strauss, together with those perennial favorites, Tosca, La Traviata, and Don Giovanni.
Dance offerings at the festival were many and varied, ranging from the Australian Ballet's production of The Merry Widow, as choreographed by Ronald Hynd and staged by Sir Robert Helpmann, to three world premiere offerings: Skin, from Bangarra Dance Theatre, Wasted, by DV8 Physical Theatre, and Mythologia from the Sydney Dance Company, accompanied by the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Choir.
Theatre production for the OAF was entirely from Australian companies. The Sydney Theatre Company performed Gale Edwards' interpretation of John Webster's Jacobean drama The White Devil. Company B Belvoir offered its adaptation by Niel Armfield and Academy Award winner Geoffrey Rush, of Beaumarchais' The Marriage of Figaro. The Bell Shakespeare Company had a new provocative production of Troilus and Cressida. The Australian Theatre for Young People presented Steven Sewell's new adaptation of Aristophanes' Birds. Students of the National Institute for Dramatic Art performed There Is No Need to Wake Up. This work, a hallucinogenic visit to the mind of Sigmund Freud, was devised and directed by Australia's favorite theatrical enfant terrible, Barrie Kosky.
Staging a busy, highly concentrated arts festival, in a city already bursting at the seams trying to meet the needs of the sporting contests, competitors, officials, and tourists associated with the Olympics games, is an interesting feat of planning and logistics. This was the task that OAF production manager Bill Harris took on when he joined the festival more than a year before the Olympics. The strategic decision to stage the majority of events in a small number of venues in the central Sydney area produced significant benefits for the festival. By booking the Sydney Opera House, Her Majesty's Theatre, and the Capitol Theatre for the duration of the festival, Harris and his staff were able to coordinate schedules for production changeovers, truck movements, loading-dock access, and crew rostering.
Harris took that concept a step further when he was able to convince the Olympic Committee accountants to allow him to make festival-wide agreements for sound and lighting hire from Coda Audio Services and Chameleon Touring Systems, respectively. Apparently Olympic games accounting departments have even less of an understanding of how productions are staged than the company accountants this industry is used to dealing with.
One of the most difficult aspects of presenting the OAF was the crewing of all of the productions for fit-up and operations. The Olympic opening and closing ceremonies, the biggest productions ever staged in Australia, were in rehearsal throughout the festival period, absorbing hundreds of production staff from every discipline.
To that, add very tightly scheduled changeovers, in order to keep productions onstage in each of the festival venues, and you have a series of highly complex crew rostering conundrums. As a typical example, crews at the Capitol Theatre, venue for the back-to-back dance productions by Sydney Dance, Pina Bausch, and the Australian Ballet worked for a stretch of 18 days of load-ins and performances without a day off. Capitol Theatre production manager John Thomson was only able to get additional staff for changeovers by using the crew from the musical Buddy, which was performing at the Lyric Theatre in the nearby Star City Casino.
Meanwhile, at the Opera House, Saturday, September 16, the first day of Olympic competition, will be remembered for many years to come. Outside, the Triathlon was being contested in the area around the Opera House and Olympic Security Command was stopping deliveries to the loading dock, preventing production crew from getting to the stage door (which was in a secured area), and threatening to confiscate Leatherman multitools as offensive weapons.
Inside, festival event coordinator David Gallen held his breath: for the first time in the history of the Opera House, four venues were simultaneously bumping shows in. In the Drama Theatre, Bangarra's Skin was fitting up for its premiere; in the Playhouse, Bell Shakespeare was putting Troilus and Cressida onstage for its premiere; and in the Studio, they were setting up for the premiere of the cabaret production Darlinghurst Nights. In the Opera Theatre, the crews were already set for the matinee performance of the Merry Widow ballet, but had a fast turnaround to the evening performance of the opera Tosca.
An Olympic Arts Festival is now an integral part of hosting an Olympic games, but the very act of staging such an event is a feat of commitment, agility, courage, and above all, endurance.