One of the most intoxicating views of Sydney Harbour at night is from the northern foyer of the Opera House.
As the orchestra breaks for its mid-concert interval, the audience flows to the foyers within this graceful ivory sail.
My exit door is nearest the northern foyer. I sidle along the crimson seats, squeezing past the fat knees of patrons wishing to stay seated. While many line up at the bar for refreshments, I join the throng who gravitate to the topaz glass wing that suspends us towards the harbour. We are a tumble of furs and jeans, bubbly and beer.
Below us, on the path lit by sea-misted lamps, a large heart has been fashioned out of tea lights. The inside is bedded with red rose petals. As if on cue, a young man, hand in hand with his girlfriend, walks towards it. He lifts her into its refuge. Presenting a bouquet, he goes on bended knee and proposes.
The back-dropped harbour celebrates as its lights slide and riff across the pewter-stippled water. The Bridge, like the Colossus of Rhodes, straddles the two shorelines. A chain of climbers, headlamps flickering like fireflies, makes its way up the arch. On top, the red light nicknamed Blinky Bill, winks between the dual flags while the water-rippled pylons guard the harbour like golden sphinx of ancient times.
Across the harbour, Luna Park laughs; its yellow hair spikes and recedes. Within the fun park’s kaleidoscope of colours, the ferris wheel spins like a giant red chocolate wheel.
The harbour is in its evening ritual, its unique version of la passeggiata. Party boats parade their electric light shows. An eerily rigged tall ship glides. Red-lit water taxis flit and flirt with lumbering, ghost-windowed ferries as they chug towards their dark destinations.
Fort Denison sits like a giant plug in the centre of the harbour. One pull and you imagine the water spiralling clockwise to the centre of the earth giving off its final glug as the chill night air is sucked into its eddy.
Opposite the Opera House, the Overseas Passenger Terminal awaits its next arrival in spangled colour. Around the curve of Circular Quay the ferry wharves underpin festooned city skyscrapers whose primary colours waver through the water like the tresses of Medusa.
I gaze towards the darkened north shore of Milsons Point and Kirribilli and think of Kenneth Slessor’s 1930s elegy Five Bells where the poet looked “in the dark at waves with diamond quills and combs of light.” Slessor describes the drowning of his friend, Joe Lynch, who fell from a ferry; the pockets of his tattered raincoat chocked with beer bottles. As Lynch struck out for Milsons Point he vanished in the moonlight, “sucked away, in mud.” I watch the lines of longitudinal swells rippling towards the far shore and wonder where beneath is Joe, “long dead who lives between the bells.” Are his bones scattered among other antediluvian secrets in the sediment of this drowned river valley?
The bell tolls for the end of interval and I turn with the human tide and return to my seat. Stretching the length of the facing wall is the panoramic depiction of the harbour’s underbelly in John Olsen’s water mural, Salute to Five Bells. It’s an ultramarine manuscript of shifting notations, its lyrical stave blobbed with psychedelic sea creatures descending with Joe Lynch, as he becomes part of the mythology of the bottom of the harbour.
Musings aside, I am back within the mellow light of the concert hall for the second half of the program. I’m again ensconced within this majestic ship’s ribs. Although anchored physically to Bennelong Point, as the orchestra crescendos, my imagination sets sail for foreign landscapes, with bowing strings, lilting flutes and floating bells.