From Handel to a rubber duck, Sydney Fest aims to please

(AFP PHOTO / Sydney Festival / Jamie Williams)

(AFP PHOTO / Sydney Festival / Jamie Williams)


, Last Updated: 3:22 PM ET

When Georg Friedrich Handel composed Semele in the 1740s, he could never have imagined it would be performed by opera singers in outrageous catwalk couture, including towering boots and sequinned kilts.

But for Sydney Festival director Lieven Bertels, the combination of beautiful baroque music and billowing Vivienne Westwood gowns in the production of "Semele Walk" was a no-brainer for the Australian cultural fair.

"When I saw "Semele Walk" when it was first performed at the Herrenhausen Festival in Germany, I thought it had Sydney written all over it," Bertels told AFP.

"It was the beautiful mix of fashion, an entertaining way of presenting opera as a fashion show. It has all the good drama that you want in a festival and it is so beautifully performed that it really appeals to a wider audience."

From a gigantic, bright yellow rubber duck, to an artist who makes music from the wreck of a rusting car and a performer who ran a full 42 kilometre marathon on a treadmill in a public plaza, Sydney Festival has its quirks.

Accompanying the more traditional fare such as an exhibition of Francis Bacon paintings, and an injection of classical music, are performances by Aboriginal singer Archie Roach and France's Orchestre National de Jazz.

"I think what makes Sydney Festival unique is really that kind of crazy mix and that eclecticism," explains Bertels.

"It's something we don't always see in European festivals for instance, where you have high art, or a music festival or a jazz festival. Sydney Festival can be all these things at once."

Tens of thousands of people have already experienced some of the January 5-27 gala which kicked off with artist Florentijn Hofman's 15-metre high inflatable duck sailing into the city's Darling Harbour.

Of the several hundred thousand people who experience some of the government-supported festival each year, about 15 percent are estimated to be inter-state or international visitors.

More than 580,000 people attended last year's festivities and more than 120,000 tickets were sold to paid events.

Overall, the New South Wales government estimates the festival contributed Aus$56.8 million (US$59.70 million) to the state economy.

Bertels believes that Sydneysiders really embrace different forms of art, and this has guided him in choosing the 92 events for this year's festival.

"One of the great traditions of the Sydney Festival is that there is a lot of free stuff as well. So there are all these amazing concerts in the Domain which can hold up to 60,000 people.

"(But) it's not just these big events; it's also lots of small events."

One of these is Dawn Calling, in which Russian Arkady Shilkloper plays his four-metre (13-feet) long Swiss alphorn on different beaches and on ferries in the mornings to greet the sun.

"That adds to the festival atmosphere," says Bertels. "And also the giant rubber duck."

Bertels said for those bringing shows from Europe or the United States, committing to Sydney means having your sets and costumes in transit for weeks and cuts into the time which could be spent performing.

But he says there is no better place to be than Sydney in January, with its warm summer weather, beaches and arts festival, despite the recent record-high temperatures.

For Austrian countertenor singer Armin Gramer, the Sydney production of "Semele Walk" is special.

"I think it's so far away from Europe; it's the other end of the world."

And then there are the costumes, which for his character include crystal-studded stockings and a kilt festooned with silver sequins.

"I never had a cooperation with a fashion designer, especially one like Vivienne Westwood," he says of the flamboyant and celebrated British fashionista.

"And doing it on a runway is a special thing as well because you're really quite near to... the people.

"I like it very much," he laughs.

Sydney Festival was designed to bring life back into the city during the slow summer months. It first took place in 1977 and since then has grown to become one of the country's largest annual cultural celebrations.