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In its heyday, the Hydro Majestic was renowned as a pleasure dome where guests danced the night away in the beautiful vaulted ballroom, flocking to its infamous fancy dress balls in the 1920s.
The Casino Dome, Hydro Majestic. Photograph © David Hill, Deep Hill Media
Built by dashing retail baron, world traveller, hydrotherapy evangelist and notorious cross-dresser Mark Foy, the Hydro Majestic opened its doors in 1904. Situated along the escarpment edge of the spectacular World Heritage-listed Blue Mountains, the decadent hotel overlooks the picturesque Megalong Valley. It has had many facelifts in its time, reopening most recently in 2014 after a $30 million redevelopment to restore it to its former glory.
Now opera and chamber music lovers have the chance to savour a series of concerts at the historic building as part of the second Blue Mountains Opera Festival, taking place there this coming October long weekend.
“Two of the greatest Australian divas played here – Dames Nellie Melba and Joan Sutherland. We’re delighted that Opera Australia stars of today are reviving the traditions that helped give the hotel its reputation as the original Blue Mountains party palace,” said Ralf Bruegger, General Manager of Escarpment Group which now owns the Hydro Majestic, when announcing the 2017 Festival.
Last year’s inaugural Festival won a four-star review from Limelight. Visitors this year can pick and choose between three events: two High Tea chamber music concerts, and an Opera Gala Dinner Concert.
Damien Whiteley and Brad Cooper perform at the 2016 Festival. Photograph © David Hill, Deep Hill Media
Tenor Brad Cooper, who performed there in 2016 and who is returning for this year’s Opera Gala, tells Limelight: “I always enjoy performing at the Hydro Majestic and especially with Blue Mountains Festival Artistic Director, Grace Kim. I’m also looking forward to singing with my good friend [bass] Damian Whiteley again. I really enjoy the intimacy of the setting, the connection we can have with the audience and the air of relaxed opulence which fills the air… You can’t help but enjoy yourself in such surrounds!”
Grace Kim, who founded the Blue Mountains Opera Festival, is an Australian concert pianist and music educator, currently teaching in the Rising Stars Programme at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. She has lived in the Mountains for three years, after eight years in The Netherlands and then a year-and-a-half in the Sydney suburb of Concord on her return to Australia.
“When I moved up to the Mountains, I was looking to see what was going on, what was happening in the musical life here, and I couldn’t really see much happening,” says Kim. “I just sort of assumed that there would be a festival here… and I was surprised to find that there was not much classical music [and] not really a festival or anything like that in the area. I thought, ‘Well, that's really strange, because this is a popular tourist destination as well as a World Heritage Site.’”
“So, I started looking around and I discovered the Hydro Majestic and I was like ‘Whoa, that's an amazing building, and a perfect place to have a festival’.” She contacted Bruegger, who loved the idea and the Festival was born. Kim, who is married to Teije Hylkema, Principal Cellist of the Opera Australia Orchestra, called on musician friends including SSO concertmaster Andrew Haveron who agreed to be part of it and brought his 1757 Guadagnini violin with him.
“We had top quality people,” says Kim, who played as the accompanist for the Opera Gala Dinner, which featured Cooper, Whiteley and soprano Catherine Bouchier. “It was really touching because you could almost feel the old glamour come back. The atmosphere was such that you could imagine what that golden era was like,” she says. “We all just unanimously felt that it was perfect for this venue.”
The Boiler Room, Hydro Majestic. Photograph © David Hill, Deep Hill Media
Kim’s opera programme last year was a mix of popular arias and a few rarities. “I did sneak in some Korngold. There were a lot of first timers who came. Many of the people who were attracted to the event wouldn’t think of going to the Opera House [but they liked the idea of a] whole weekend of food and wine and music. So, it’s actually quite an exciting thing to not only have the connoisseurs, but the first-timers,” says Kim.
“So, I keep that in mind, but at the same time I do want to keep it a bit challenging and stimulating, so it’s a mix of the popular highlights, as well as some repertoire with some sort of artistic interest. So, it’s a bit of a combination… This year, we have invited Brad and Damian, who’s a bass, back. It’s very unusual to have a bass singer [at this kind of concert], usually it’s the tenors and the sopranos, so that gives it a little bit of something different, with repertoire that you might not usually hear in this type of situation. It’s just trying to make it a balanced programme so there's something for everybody and not Nessun Dorma for the tenth time!”
This year’s Festival begins with a high tea and chamber music concert on Saturday, at which Sydney Symphony Orchestra clarinettist Frank Celata and the Enigma Quartet will play Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet in the elegant Wintergarden Restaurant.
The Blue Mountains Opera Festival 2016. Photograph © David Hill, Deep Hill Media
“I decided to start gently – ease into the weekend with a nice fresh Mozart, the Clarinet Quintet, which is always popular,” says Kim. “And then we have the singers doing a couple of Mozart arias as a sneak preview of the evening ahead. And, of course, Mozart is very much an operatic person so that ties in with the whole opera theme.”
On Saturday night the Opera Gala Dinner Concert will begin with drinks and canapés, followed by a two-course dinner when the three opera singers – Cooper, Whiteley and soprano Sally Wilson – will perform with Sun Yi and Monique Irik on violin, Neil Thompson on viola, Minah Choe on cello and Kim on piano.
“We’ll be singing some gorgeous lyric repertoire from the Italian and French repertoire: Carmen, Faust and L’Elisir d’Amore, as well as some heart-on-your-sleeve Spanish fare,” says Cooper.
He and Whiteley will also sing Mozart’s Vivat Bacchus. “It's a duet with a bass and a tenor, so it’s an interesting combination,” says Kim. “And there might be a little Spanish flavour in the second half, which may involve an audience member playing the bongo! So some fun things. I will also be playing the Concert Paraphrase on Verdi’s Rigoletto by Liszt, and there will be a duet from Rigoletto, sung by Brad and Sally, so various items that all tie in together” – all of which she hopes will leave people “in a great mood”.
The Festival winds up on Sunday with another High Tea Concert featuring some Shostakovich and Mendelssohn’s Octet, an enchanting piece, which will be performed by Sun Yi, Marianne Broadfoot, Monique Irik, Kerry Martin, Rosemary Curtin, Neil Thompson, Minah Choe and Rowena Macneish.
Kim is certainly making her mark on the musical life of the Blue Mountains. As well as the Opera Festival she has a chamber music series called Mountain Concerts, as part of which she aims to bring internationally acclaimed musicians to the area. She also has a grant from the Blue Mountains City of the Arts Trust to continue her work on a series of Sensory Concerts for people who aren’t able to go to normal concerts because they have special sensory needs (people on the autism spectrum for example).
“I have collaborated with an occupational therapist and psychologist to try to create a space to minimise external stimulus so that they can engage with the music more easily,” she says. “So I'm pretty busy in the Mountains – even though my real work is a teacher at the Conservatorium of Music in Sydney!”
The Blue Mountains Opera Festival runs at the Hydro Majestic, Medlow Bath, Blue Mountains, September 30 – October 1