Our morning routine has been semi-invariable – a text at 8:30 and a breakfast rendezvous at nine. Today’s no different. The breakfast room at Simpsons is light-filled, with white tablecloths and bentwood chairs. A framed speedo hangs on the wall. It belonged to Ian Thorpe, Australia’s last great Olympic swimmer. The cold buffet is modest, but perfect. I usually construct a ham & cheese sandwich on toast and eat a bunch of fruit. The coffee is ample and stimulating. After the meal, we embark on a semi-aimless walk to discover the neighborhood. Behind a metal fence of the townhouse, a cocker spaniel barks at me. “Bar-bar-a,” I say to the dog. “What?” “Bar-bar-a. That’s the dog’s name, Ali,” I say, “Bar-bar-a.” “Oh, Dad”
We miss the McElhone Stairs, a l-o-n-g set of steps that would have connected us with the wharves below. Instead, we turn right and get stuck in a beautiful maze-like park built, it seems, atop a parking garage. Flowering shrubs and great blue sky and no exit. It overlooks the Navy Yard or the Australian equivalent. The vessel docked below appears to be undergoing some kind of ceremony. Sailors in dress whites line the decks and walkways, while a band plays on the shore. Ali is able to glean, by overhearing a gnomish-looking man’s conversation, that the ship is being decommissioned. Also, that the HMAS Success was the last ship built by and for the Australian Navy. It will eventually be sunk for an artificial reef.
Beyond the ship, far off, we can see the arc of the Harbour Bridge and the glint of the Opera House, while down below, Finger Wharf, a splendid pile of condos. The Domain and the Botanical Gardens lie across the cove, looking elegant and lush. We stroll back to the hotel in order to primp for lunch with Judy Rowley at Coogee Beach. Judy’s a Bennington Writing Seminars grad who I got to know through the Cornelia Street Café reading series. We call a cab, exulting in our wisdom and self-preservation by abandoning the auto yesterday. Judy’s driving instructions are clear and, sure enough, she appears, graciousness personified. She and her husband, Peter, live in a high-rise apartment with a spectacular view of Coogee Beach and the Pacific Ocean. The apartment has a grand terrace where we share a bland meal. Afterwards, they take us for a drive to Bondi (Bond-eye) Beach, Sydney’s most famous. We amble along the Art Deco promenade. Peter suffers from a neurological problem that inhibits his gait, which means his boogie boarding days may be largely over. It is our great good fortune that Judy and Peter return us to our hotel, via the hip neighborhood of Paddington. Their warm hospitality is just what we needed.
Ali and I have an hour or two to prepare for our evening at the Opera. Napping is the most effective prep possible. Tonight’s performance will be al fresco. The Handa Opera Company is presenting La Boheme on a stage at the edge of Farm Cove. Food will be available starting at five o’clock, which is when we begin walking over. Our tix have been held at the box office for months. This rather stupendous venue has been created on the shore in order to exploit views to the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge beyond. Three different dining opportunities exist – sandwiches, sit-down, and chandelier. We are sandwich people, and our superpower involves the snagging of a pair of salads and a table for two with a breeze and a clear view of the Sydney’s endlessly entrancing waterfront as the setting sun sets the city ablaze. This is pretty goddamn wonderful. Ali is wearing her Godzilla dress and I my short-sleeve shirt with the 3-D tropical pattern. We are by far the hippest operagoers.
The stage set is an enormous box fronted by an enormous raked stage and flanked by two cranes (uh-oh), as well as six tall ‘street lights’. Paris, n’est-ce pas? Fake snow or fake-fake snow festoons all surfaces. Paris en hiver, n’est-ce pas? The opera is a complete clusterfuck / trainwreck. Overlit – Over-micced – Over-acted – Baffling directorial choices – Bad wigs – Anachronistic bullshit – and on and on and on.
Here’s a prime example. In La Boheme, as Puccini wrote it, during Musetta’s big end-of-Act-One number in Café Momus, the tremulously minor character of ‘The Toyseller’ enters, has a bit of business, departs. In this deranged version, the Toyseller is flown in via crane dangling in a garbage can held aloft by ersatz balloons. The action stops or rather becomes utterly insignificant in the face of such theatrics. Does the Toyseller sing? Who the fuck cares. Quicker than you can say “Giacomo Puccini” the fool hops back in his can and is laboriously whisked away. But wait! A pesky ‘street urchin’ grabs on to a rope that hangs from the toyseller’s chariot and is whisked away with the contraption, vanishing into the dark of the harbor. We are both appalled and somehow complicit.
The night has been magical, ridiculous, and unforgettable. We walk home muttering and amazed. It’s gonna be hard to top this.