Travel Tips

Vivid Sydney Light Show Brings New Dimension to Opera House

Locations in this article:  Sydney, Australia

Sydney Opera House side viewIt’s probably a safe bet that when the late Danish architect Jorn Utzon first conceived of the multi-sailed structure that would become the Sydney Opera House, he never imagined that his ambitious vision would turn into another artist’s masterpiece.

But that’s exactly what happened at dusk on Tuesday night, when internationally renowned music producer Brian Eno transformed the icon into one of the world’s largest three-dimensional canvases.

With the flip of a switch—and the help of some mega-size projectors—the curved exterior panels of the Opera House were lit up in a kaleidoscopic display of light and color.

Standing at the Overseas Passenger Terminal on the far side of Circular Quay and watching the images shift and change, and couldn’t help feeling like a little kid watching fireworks for the first time.

I’ve seen a few laser and light shows before, but the Lighting of the Sails—the highly anticipated headlining event in three-week Vivid Sydney festival—was a spectacle unlike any other that I’d witnessed. It was definitely worth the trip.

Sydney Opera House Lit Up

I came to Australia expressly to check out the inaugural kick-off year of Vivid, one of the first multi-week events scheduled take place during Sydney’s winter (nearly all are held in the spring and summer months). Although I’d always imagined that the Land of Oz was one of eternal sunshine (just another stereotype along with kangaroos, koalas and “shrimp on the barbie” in every backyard) it gets dark here pretty early, before 5 in May, June and July. That seems to make even cheery locals mildly melancholy.

That shift is one of the many reasons that Sydney-born Mary Ann Kyrakou, artistic director of Vivid, conceived of bringing artistic lighting festival—popular in Northern Europe during the darker months—to her home country. She’d witnessed exhibitions lift spirits and combat the winter blues the world over and figured that Sydneysiders also deserved an unconventional mood boost.

It took her three years and a grant from Events New South Wales to translate her idea from an academic paper into a three-dimensional reality, but the resulting festival has exceeded even her original expectations.

When Kyrakou had first approached the government with the idea of doing a light show, she was encouraged to think beyond basic exhibits to imagine something even greater in scale—an event that would appeal to the general public and include other creative elements.

77 Million Paintings Vivid Sydney She and her creative partners obliged, working through contacts to secure Eno as the curator of the music, light and cultural festival. And thanks to Kyrakou’s efforts, the state of New South Wales is so convinced of the need for a major winter event they’re already looking forward to making Vivid Sydney a major annual celebration.

Vivid is actually comprised of four major cornerstone events, all taking place in or around the Sydney Opera House, The Rocks, Circular Quay and the city centre. Over the course of the next few days, I’ll have the chance to attend some of these events (but would have to do some pretty fancy scheduling to get to them all!):

Luminous features 30 musical acts, performances, light installations and talks at the Sydney Opera House and along Bennelong Point. Several established and emerging bands will be showcasing their work, and including Battles, Ladytron, Lee Scratch Perry, Jon Hassell, Reggie Watts, and Karl Hyde (click here for more information).

77 Million Paintings Vivid SydneyThe other day at Luminous, Brian Eno showed off his own light and sound installation called “77 Million Paintings”—a freeform piece of art that morphs 300 hand-drawn pictures into an ever-shifting image that never appears the same way twice.

I was able to get a sneak peek, which was posted in a black box theater called the Studio. The images dissolved slowly enough into one another that you really couldn’t see them change.

They weren’t so much dazzling as mesmerizing in the way that those early generation screensavers were. I longed for a big, comfy floor pillow so I could lie there and just stare at the wall for an hour or two.

The original aspect of Mary-Anne Kyriakou’s creative vision, Smart Light Sydney, features several light-art sculptures that use eco-friendly, energy-saving technology. One of the coolest aspects of the festival is the free Light Walk, which showcases 25 installations located around the harbor precinct from Sydney Observatory, the Rocks and Circular Quay, and the Sydney Opera House.

Moonlight InstallationI got a sneak peek of five of the sculptures last night and was able to see the rest after watching the Lighting of the Sails. These ranged from really cool (a projected series of wall tiles that incorporate an image of the person walking past them) to romantic (an indigo-hued recreation of the full moonlight, designed to encourage kissing!) to quirky (a wall of empty soda bottles lit from within with blinking bulbs to evoke fireflies).

Creative Sydney is a series of free public seminars and workshops designed to celebrate and bring together the city’s artistic talent. Staged over the course of the festival at the Museum of Contemporary Art and at the Roxy in Parramattta, the programming covers disciplines such as visual arts, music, performing arts, and design.

At Firewater, festival participants will be taken on a journey back to 1814 as a recreation of a convict ship emerges from the dark waters of Campbell’s Cove and bursts into flames. That fire devastated the 19th-century vessel, called “The Three Bees,” sending its cannon balls shooting across the harbor.

For three nights fire sculptures, light installations and floating lantern workshops will take place in the Rocks—and local restaurants will be offering flame-grilled food to complete the theme. This takes place at the end of the festival, which unfortunately means I’ll have to miss it—but there’s always next year, right?

By Amanda Pressner for Visit Amanda and the other “Lost Girls” on the Web at Their debut book, The Lost Girls, will be out from HarperCollins in 2010

Check out the previous entry in this series: Destination Sydney: Getting Vivid With It.

Learn how you can get to Australia for less in Budget Travelers Rejoice: Competition Makes Australian Airfares Cheaper Than Ever.

Learn more about traveling to Australia & New Zealand, with one of our newest destination-specific sections of For example, you’ll find our Off the Brochure Guide to Australia.

If you’re spending some time in Sydney, find out if the SydneyPass tourist discount card is a good deal.