Over the last couple of months we’ve been delving into the Sydney Festival archives, resurrecting some of our favourite photos from the 70s and 80s. This time we’re celebrating the glorious decade that was the 1990s.

Let’s get straight into it!

Festival Director Stephen Hall brought the Festival of Sydney (as it was called at the time) into the new decade with a blast with well-known Australian actor Leo McKern performing in Boswell For The Defence and the United Kingdom’s Victor Spinetti, known for his roles in The Beatles’ films, performing his one-man show A Very Private Diary.

In new events, the Sydney Harbour Helmet Ride happened for the first time, with cyclists following the foreshore from Mrs Macquarie’s chair to Darling Harbour.

Symphony in The Domain

Symphony in The Domain

Festival Director Stephan Hall

Festival Director Stephan Hall

In 1991, focus was broadened to include Western Sydney, with events taking place in performing arts centres in Parramatta, Penrith and Baulkham Hills. For the first time in Australia, computer controlled lasers beamed the State Transit Laser Art Project onto buildings overlooking Darling Harbour. Artists and cartoonists could manipulate the lasers by drawing ‘live’ every evening during the Festival. This was the first of many light projection projects to come.

By 1992, the Festival had become the city’s main public event. With the year signifying Sydney County Council’s 150th anniversary, the Sydney Sesqui celebrations began during the Festival time. Events included the Sydney International Jazz Festival, celebrations for the 60thanniversary of the Harbour Bridge, parades, Naval Salutes, spectacular concerts and international sporting events.

Roving Festival entertainment

Roving Festival entertainment

Free entertainment at the Sydney Opera House forecourt

Free entertainment at the Sydney Opera House forecourt

1993 saw an incredible change in Sydney’s entertainment landscape with the launch of the inaugural Summer Mega-Festival, when three very distinct cultural events ran concurrently – Sydney Festival, Carnivale and The Biennale of Sydney.

Carnivale Live On Tour in the same year saw some of Australia’s finest Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal musicians including Tiddas, Kev Carmody, Neil Murray, Warumpi Band, Roger Knox and Euraba Band travel around the state.

Kev Carmody

Kev Carmody

Carnivale performers

Carnivale performers

World premieres and Australian firsts abounded in 1994, including the play That Eye The Sky, directed by Richard Roxburgh. Shark Island Stories saw audiences catching a special ferry to Shark Island as part of the Griffin Theatre Company production. Lano & Woodley had their world premiere at Belvoir Street Theatre, and the West Australian Ballet came to Sydney for the first time.

Street entertainment

Street entertainment

Australian Made concert

Australian Made concert

In 1995, Anthony Steel was appointed Festival Director and was only the second person to lead the Festival of Sydney in 18 years. In a new addition to the outdoor events program, the first annual Big Backyard Concert took place in The Domain with performances from great Australian artists like Midnight Oil, The Cruel Sea and Tumbleweed.

The Festival celebrated its 20th birthday in 1996. A distinct focus was placed on the harbour precinct stretching from The Rocks around Circular Quay to the forecourt of the Opera House, an area which came alive with visual and performing arts every evening of the Festival. In that year Philip Glass, the most successful living composer in the world, had his first ever solo performance in Sydney, with music for solo piano dating from 1976 to present.

In 1997 Anthony Steel pulled out all the stops with Kelly’s Republic, staged on the Sydney Opera House forecourt. It was the largest work ever commissioned by the Festival, and one of six world premieres of Australian theatre productions.

Aerial shot of The Domain

Aerial shot of The Domain

Bacardi Festival Club

Bacardi Festival Club

With new director Leo Schofield preparing his first Sydney Festival program, plenty of new exciting ventures were undertaken in 1998. Open Air Cinema had its first series of screenings on the Fleet Steps, at Mrs Macquarie’s Point, Royal Botanic Gardens and The Domain. The $10 Proms program took place for the first time, with a series of seven concerts featuring leading Australian and international artists like TaikOz, Alpha Ensemble, Andreas Scholl, the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra, Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Australian Chamber Orchestra and Australian Youth Orchestra.

The decade was rounded out in 1999 with another big year of performances, including William Walton’s mighty choral work Belshazzar’s Feast, performed by 80 members of the London Symphony Chorus, members of Sydney Philharmonia Choirs and the Sydney Festival Orchestra.

What do you remember from Sydney Festival in the 90s? Feel free to share your highlights in the comments below.

If you’d like 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 other blog posts in this series – “#SydFest in the 1970s” and “#SydFest in the  1980s.”

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