Wow, what a decade! In the second installment of our new blog mini-series “A Moment in Time” we explore Sydney Festival in the 1980s.

Now 3 years in, Sydney Festival was ready to dive into a new era and tackle the 80s. Our 4th ever Festival took place in January 1980, and it was a definitely a year of firsts.
Danceexplosion 1980 made it’s debut in which dance companies from around Australia performed their latest works in a series of premiere performances.

Of course it was the first year for another longstanding tradition, the 1980 Festival hosted the inaugural Ferrython, originally known as The Great Ferry Boat Race.

In 1981 we celebrated the 80th anniversary of the Commonwealth of Australia with a birthday party like no other. The daytime celebrations in Hyde Park included brass bands, folk groups and a range of free outdoor entertainment.

1982 saw the first ever edition of Opera In The Domain, in which The Australian Opera and the Festival joined forces to present a free performance of Verdi’s La Traviata. This was the first time Dame Joan Sutherland had sung in a free outdoor performance – but certainly not the last.

International guests such as the Actors Theatre of Louisville, Kentucky, the State Theatre of L’Aquila from Italy and the People Show from London all formed a part of the 1983 Festival.

Perhaps the most memorable occurrence at the Festival of Sydney 1984 was the sinking of the ferry Karrabbee after the Australia Day Ferrython. Having completed the race in third place, with its hull dangerously low, it made it back to Circular Quay just in time. Moments after passengers had disembarked, the ferry sank into the Harbour. Recovery efforts lasted a whole week.

Now 8 years in, the 1985 Festival was the year for endurance performances. Roger Woodward concluded his marathon series of the complete works of Frederic Chopin after five years of Festival appearances. At the Sydney Entertainment Centre, 14 bands took the stage in a Twelve Hour Rockathon, from 8pm to 8am the following day.

Celebrating the Festival’s 10th anniversary, 1986 saw an expansion of existing progam elements as well as a series of recitals at the Pitt Street Congregational Church, a new and exciting music venue for Sydney.

Under the direction of Stephen Hall, 1987 had a particularly strong international program: from the United Kingdom the Festival presented Michael Clark and his dance company; from Chicago the Steppenwolf Theatre Company; from Eire the Druid Theatre Company; from Minneapolis, solo performer Kevin Kling, and from New York, Bill Irwin.

1988 marked Sydney’s Bicentennial 200th anniversary, which was celebrated with a two month Bicentennial Festival of Sydney, during which the Festival celebrated the opening of a number of new venues including the Bicentennial Park in Homebush Bay, Federation Pavilion in Centennial Park, the Circular Quay and Macquarie Street precinct, the Illawarra Performing Arts Centre, and the Powerhouse Museum at Darling Harbour.

The decade was rounded out with the 1989 Festival – a particularly diverse and internationally focused affair that included exciting new theatre from Spain, Canada and France, along with music from the United Kingdom, Bulgaria and Spain.

Next up, we’ll be taking a stroll through the 1990s – definitely one of the most exciting decades in Sydney Festival’s history. Watch this space!

As always, we’d love to hear from you. Why not share your favourite memories of past Sydney Festivals in the comments section?

If you’re keen to learn more about the Sydney Festivals of the past 40 years, check out all the programs, additional photos, videos and summaries in the official Sydney Festival archive, or re-visit our first “A Moment in Time: #sydfest in the 1970s” blog.