Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The Sydney Opera House: An Insider's View

When you think of Australia, there are a few things that immediately come to mind: kangaroos, Crocodile Dundee, vegemite, and the Sydney Opera House. Today, I'd like to take you on a tour of Australia's iconic performing arts center.
Sydney Opera House on a rainy day

I have visited the Opera House twice now. The first time was last November when Drew and I spent a week in Sydney with our friends Chris and Taryn. My second trip came just a few weeks ago when my mom was visiting. Both times I took a tour of the venue which is more costly than you would expect but worth every penny. Which now that I think about it, isn't worth very much in Australia since they don't have pennies any more. Let's just say that it is worth every platypus-engraved 20¢ piece.
Your tour guide for the day

The Sydney Opera House and its gleaming domes dominate the view from the Sydney Harbour. It is such a key element to Australia's identity that it feels as if it's been there forever when, in fact, it opened its doors for the first time in 1973.
Sydney Opera House on a sunny day

From a distance, the Opera House's arches, or "shells" as they are called, look to be a pristine white. However, when you get close, you can see that each shell is made of chevron shaped tiles in various creamy, beige colors. If the tiles were perfectly white, on a sunny day it would be impossible to look at the shells due to the glare. 
Standing between two of the largest shells, this section is affectionately known as "the cleavage."

Once inside the Opera House, I was amazed at how huge everything feels. All of the ceilings are high, even in the foyers and the inside is decorated in massive chunks of concrete and wood.

Interestingly, while the ceramic tiles for the shells were made in Sweden, the wood inside of the Opera House was all sourced from Australian timber. The dark wood in the photos is brush box and is native to Australia. The other wood used is White Birch which is native to the United States, though this particular batch was grown in Australia.

There are seven performance halls within the Sydney Opera House, making it one of the busiest performing arts buildings in the world. So far, I've seen six of the seven venues. (The seventh one is currently out of commission as they build a new underground loading dock.)

The most impressive room is the Concert Hall. It's the biggest room and the stage actually sits in the center giving the audience a 360° choice of seats. The cheapest seats are the ones behind the orchestra, which look into the conductor's face. I think I would actually love those seats though - wouldn't that be such an interesting show, seeing the conductor's expressions throughout the performance?

The Concert Hall

The ceiling of the Concert Hall is so high that it would normally produce a 3 second delay between when a musician plays a note and when he/she can hear it. As you can imagine, if left uncorrected, this would cause chaos in the orchestra. The solution is what's known as an acoustic cloud. It's those acrylic donut-shaped circles that you see in the photo above. Whenever a concert is performed, these are lowered down over the orchestra so that the music has less distance to travel before it is bounced back.

The Grand Organ (which you can see on the back wall in the photo above) initially took several years to tune due to how large it was. It has over 10,000 pipes. Luckily, after the hard work that went into that first tuning, it only takes a couple of hours to tune these days.

My second favorite room in the Opera House is the foyer outside of the Concert Hall. It was designed to mimic the feel of a ship's bow. The glass windows curve out from the building, giving the impression that the Sydney Harbour is right below you. The foyer also has a very purple carpet leading into the Concert Hall. When he performed at the Opera House, the famous Italian singer Luciano Pavarotti refused to walk on the carpet because, in Italy, purple in the theater is an omen of bad luck.

Whether you're inside or outside, the views of the Opera House and the Sydney Harbour are astounding. Perhaps the most interesting story about the Opera House is that when the contract to build it was awarded to Danish architect Jørn Utzon, he actually had no idea how to do it! There was no precedent for building the curved shells. It took him six years to find a solution, during which time construction on the base had already started. 

But Utzon persevered and the Sydney Opera House was one of the first buildings in the world to utilize computer modeling in its design.

Like all good tours, I will end this one in the gift shop where even Barbie makes an appearance.

Sydney Opera House Barbie
Thanks for joining me on my tour today and be sure to enjoy the view of the Sydney Harbour Bridge on your way out.

(All photos on this post come from my two visits.)

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The Great Australian Food Challenge

Whenever we visit a new country, Drew and I try to sample the popular and traditional foods of the area. In Switzerland, we tried loads of yummy cheeses, traditional meat dishes covered in the mysterious 'hunter sauce,' and croûte au fromage, Drew's favorite. In Peru, we tried Pisco Sours, llama tenderloin, coca tea, and a stew with unidentified local root vegetables. And in Nepal, Drew had a fermented wheat drink that made him very, very sick...

When we moved to Australia, we noticed a lot of similarities between the local cuisine and American food. Pizza Hut, McDonald's, and KFC all exist here. A trip to the grocery store, though, highlights the subtle differences in cuisine. And thus, the Great Aussie Food Challenge was born.
Challenge Accepted!
The Classic Australian Dessert - TimTams
Photo from wiki commons
  • TimTams (chocolate cookies)
  • Slices (these bars come in all sorts of flavors such as caramel, vanilla and rum-raisin, and can be found in most bakeries)
  • Caramel Koalas (bite-sized chocolate/caramel candies in the shape of koalas)
  • Lamington (sponge cake with chocolate frosting and coconut on top)

Caramel Slice. Each bakery makes it slightly different, some have more caramel or coconut on top and some, like this, have a brownie bottom.
Tea Time
  • Tea and Biscuits (tea and cookies - traditionally enjoyed every morning at 'tea time.' Drew and his workmates break for a morning and an afternoon tea.)
  • Scones with jam and cream (delicious, sinful breakfast food)
Mandy's favorite: Scones with Jam and Cream

Kangaroo Steak
(Tucker is an Australian word meaning food. It's shortened from 'bush tucker', food gathered/hunted in the bushland.)
  • Kangaroo steak
  • Burgers with Beetroot
  • Meat pies (kind of like mini chicken pot pies but they come in different flavors)
  • Sausage rolls
Drew's favorite: Meat pies and Sausage rolls - often served with tomato sauce (ketchup)
Photo from www.brisbanecatering.com.au

  • Sweet Chili Sauce (A sweet sauce, similar to honey mustard sauce, that is spread on everything imaginable. My favorite use of it is mixed with sour cream and dolloped on fries.)
  • Vegemite (yeast and salt. It looks like tar and comes in a jar that expires way too far into the future)
  • Coconut (A lot of foods come with coconut here in Australia, from oatmeal to apple pie.)
Vegemite on toast
Photo from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Vegemiteontoast_large.jpg#filelinks

We first tried The Great Aussie Food Challenge on our friends Chris & Taryn when they visited last November. They made a valiant effort but fell short when they put off two items til the last minute. Searching high and low on their way to the airport, alas, they couldn't find lamington or burgers with beetroot.

My mom, who was just here, was soooo close to defeating the challenge. She missed out on Vegemite, mainly because we don't keep any in the house. (Partially due to Drew's extreme allergy to it and partially because ewww gross, how can people eat that stuff?!) I might have to send her some now just so she knows she can't escape.  :)

Our friends from the UK will no doubt recognize a lot of these food items from British cuisine. Though 'bangers and mash' didn't seem to make the oceanic jump...

What's missing from our list? The one food that all of our Australian friends agree is missing from the Challenge is pavlova. Pavlova is a meringue and fruit dessert that may or may not have originated in Australia. It is named after the Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova who visited Australia and New Zealand in the 1920s. Drew and I have yet to try it though so that's why it's not on the Challenge.
photo from wikipedia
Do you like trying new foods?  Come visit us and see if you can defeat the Great Aussie Food Challenge!