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Vivid festival celebrates reinvented Sydney

Lighting extravaganza draws top musicians amid surge in hotel investment

Sydney Opera House lit for the Vivid festival in 2017 (Photo by Ron Gluckman)

SYDNEY -- Sydney has long been celebrated as one of the brightest cities in the southern hemisphere, but it is about to go positively Vivid. Again.

Every year, Australia's largest festival sets Sydney ablaze with imaginative art installations, colorful projections, and a massive program of musical performances and talks.

Last year, Vivid drew a record 2.33 million visitors, packing Sydney hotels despite the Australian winter, and injecting more than $100 million into the economy of the state of New South Wales, according to official figures. That was 30% more than in 2016, which was up 75% on 2015.

Vivid 2018 (which will run from May 25 to June 16) is shaping up as one of the most innovative festivals on record, with many landmark and one-of-a-kind performances. It includes the 10th annual festival of contemporary music and arts from the Sydney Opera House's Vivid LIVE, which launched in 2009, under the guidance of guest curator and famed experimental musician Brian Eno. Lighting the sails of the opera house was part of Eno's original vision.

"It was one of those slap your head moments," recalled Ben Marshall, who oversees contemporary music programming for the opera house, Vivid's major venue. "We thought, 'Why didn't we do that before!'"

An estimated 225,000 people attended the initial festival, but attendance and events have grown 10-fold over the past decade. The event is now considered the world's largest festival of light works. Last year, Vivid featured nearly 100 installations, 260 talks and idea events, and more than 400 musical events, mostly free.

"There are so many highlights," Marshall said of Vivid 2018. Standout shows include concerts by Solange Knowles (sister of Beyonce, an American singer-songwriter), triple Grammy-award winning American jazz saxophonist Branford Marsalis, the re-formed American indie folk-rock band Cat Power, the American rock musicians St. Vincent and Iron and Wine, Neil Finn, a member of the Australian rock band Crowded House, and the American rapper Ice Cube. The Canadian film-maker James Cameron headlines a wide-ranging bill of talks and discussions.

Ben Marshall, Vivid LIVE curator and head of Contemporary Music (Photo by Daniel Boud)

"This is the first time we've ever had hip hop headlining the main concert hall at Vivid Live," said Marshall, noting that Ice Cube has been a major influence on an entire generation of rappers and hip hop stars, including Kendrick Lamar, who recently won a Pulitzer Prize -- the first awarded to a hip-hop or rap artists.

Marshall oversees contemporary musical programming throughout the year, but Vivid LIVE accounts for over half of such performances at the opera house, all in a cultural explosion of several weeks. He spends much of every year scouting the globe for new Vivid LIVE attractions.

Solange has been recording since the age of 16, and is among several performers booked for their only Australian appearances at the Sydney Opera House. Marshall is also buzzing about the Australian debut of Mazzy Star, an American 1980s alternative rock band, and the return of Chan Marshall (no relation), who is re-forming the version of Cat Power that recorded her breakout album "Moon Pix" in Melbourne in 2008. Twenty years since that recording, she will perform it in full, with the original band.

Sydney's iconic opera house is transformed by Vivid into a tour-de-force canvas for unique art. Each year, a different artist illuminates the roof sails of the building. Last year, Ash Bolland, an Australian famous for commercials and music videos in California, created "Audio Creatures," which sent colorful creepy-crawlers across the opera house, moving to an undulating score by Amon Tobin.

This year, Jonathan Zawada, also an Australian, will offer kinetic digital projections inspired by Australia's environment. "I really wanted to take a big picture view of both what Vivid is about, but more importantly how I feel about Australia as this kind of elemental, timeless place that is also completely new and full of energy," said Zawada.

Beyond the opera house, art installations will bloom in the botanical park, the zoo and numerous neighborhoods. From historical structures on the waterfront to bridges overhead, nothing is off-limits. The botanical garden always boasts an array of fantastical plants and creatures that rivals the most outlandish Hollywood creations, while animated other-worldly animals make the zoo popular with children and families.

Many attractions are interactive, including light-swings on the harbor and bands of robot creatures whose appearance and music changes with the motions of onlookers. From the opera house, long walks of light exhibits thread through various neighborhoods. Local businesses often run Vivid specials along with their own artistic and musical contributions.

Vivid long ago achieved the aim shared by communities around the globe: How to boost the local economy in the down time that typically comes with winter's bad weather. Communities everywhere experiment with festivals, often importing outside attractions and mounting expensive winter fairs, to mixed results. Vivid has been widely praised for boosting tourism while highlighting existing attractions in innovative ways.

"Every year, in winter, there was this serious drop in business," said Timo Bures, general manager of the Old Clare Hotel, a boutique conversion of a historic pub in the gentrified Chippendale district. "But last year, we kept waiting, and waiting, and there was no drop. Business has been great. We're all smiling."

As Sydney moves into winter again, Bures estimated that hotels are enjoying occupancy rates of more than 90% for a second consecutive year. The rate is as high as 98% in the central business district.

A family looks at the "Gorillagram" light sculpture during the 2017 festival.   © Destination NSW

Sustaining this momentum is critical because Sydney is in the midst of its biggest investment in hotels and infrastructure since the run-up to the 2000 Olympics. "There really hasn't been any major hotel opening since then," said Peter Hook, who runs the hotel research and consulting firm Hook Communications. That changed last October with the opening of Sofitel Darling Harbor, which Hook said is the first newly-built Sydney five-star property of the Millennium.

It will not be the last. About 3,000 new hotel rooms are due to be added to the city's stock, with more than $1.7 billion in projects underway, according to figures from Tourism Accommodation Australia. This does not include additional projects being planned, or major urban redevelopment schemes. "Sydney is reinventing itself," said Sandra Chipchase, CEO of Destination New South Wales, the state tourism board, and executive producer of Vivid Sydney.

All of this comes at an exciting time for the opera house. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Jorn Utzon, the Danish architect who designed the iconic structure in 1957. Plagued by delays and political controversy, the opera house did not open until 1973. The 45th anniversary of the opening will be celebrated in October, but Vivid will also mark the mid-way point in a 10-year program of renewal that will culminate in the 50th anniversary of the structure in 2023.

By then, millions more people will have viewed the brightest winter festival on the planet. "Vivid is where we plant the flag as far away from normal programming as possible," said Ben Marshall. "We're always keen to make sure the artistic cutting edge is still there."

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