Western Sydney is a multicultural wonderland. Parts of Melbourne may be interesting too, but no one has been there since 2019, so who knows? And who cares? Melbourne means history; Sydney means now. Melbourne has always been stuck in the past (if by “always” you mean “since 1835”), making it the best place to experience Australian heritage, history and tradition. That’s not to ignore the new $53 million Victorian LGBT+ Pride Centre in St Kilda; it’s just to acknowledge that no one sane is likely to visit Melbourne to see it. It’s bad enough just seeing the photos: “brutalism with curves” roughly captures the spirit. No, if you want to see the best of contemporary Australia, come to Sydney. And if you want to see Australia’s multicultural future in the making, head to Sydney’s wild West.
Contrary to popular Paddington belief, Western Sydney isn’t all highways, shopping malls and mosques. It’s culture, and lots of it. Sydney’s world-famous Opera House will always be the home of the most expensive culture in Australia, but as Joseph Stalin didn’t say, quantity has a quality all its own. On one recent weekend in Western Sydney there were more than a dozen cinemas screening the Telugu period thriller RRR (short for “Rise, Roar, Revolt”—yes, that’s English). Those who don’t happen to speak Telugu could also catch the film in Hindi, Tamil, Malayalam or Kannada. The impressively multilingual actors playing the film’s two protagonists recorded the Kannada dubs themselves. Fans in Kannada-speaking Karnataka still threatened to boycott the film—because the Kannada version wasn’t showing on enough screens. That’s popularity for you.
Western Sydney offers five times the culture at one-tenth the price of Sydney’s famously philistine Opera House. That’s quite a deal, even before factoring in the social-justice overhead. With culture, as with everything else, you get what you pay for, and when it comes to Sydney’s house company Opera Australia, you’re as likely to be paying for virtue signals as for opera. The loudest virtue signal of all is the commissioning of new Australian operas from oppressed minority composers, but you can’t even give those tickets away free to senior citizens and school groups. That leaves only the classics to destroy. The classic repertoire is fully freighted with Eurocentric baggage, and there’s lots of virtue to be signalled in unpacking it.
Cue anti-racism, the virtue signal du jour. Having recently discovered its profound opposition to yellowface, Opera Australia will feature the award-winning Korean soprano Sae-Kyung Rim in the title role of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly this winter. Rim is not Japanese, but she is probably close enough that white people with guilty consciences won’t notice the difference. After all, they didn’t notice earlier this year when Opera Australia cast Koreans to play the Chinese roles in Puccini’s Turandot. For this season’s Butterfly, the Madama’s handmaid Suzuki will also be played by a Korean, Chanyang Choi, singing her first principal role in Sydney. Who knew that Opera Australia employed so many Koreans?
The Italian transliteration of the Japanese phrase for the English name (using a French honorific) “Madame Butterfly” is Cio-Cio-san, which is the eponymous name of the title character of the original short story written by the Philadelphia lawyer John Luther Long, whose sister had been a Methodist missionary in Japan. The implicit critique of American gunboat diplomacy that motivates the opera was baked into the underlying story; anyone who thinks white guilt is a new phenomenon is thoroughly unfamiliar with nineteenth-century nonconformist Protestantism. Yesterday’s anti-colonialist protest piece is today’s problematic orientalist opera. The revolution eats its parents.
But at least the revolution creates jobs (for Koreans). Rim says that she has “played the role of Cio-Cio-san more than 100 times”; work is work. And what about jobs for the Japanese townspeople of Nagasaki, who form the chorus for Madama Butterfly? Surely Opera Australia wouldn’t yellowface its chorus (or at least, those few members of its chorus who happen not to be Korean)? Deconstruction to the rescue: Rim’s Cio-Cio-san will be meeting her handsome American lieutenant (played by a Sicilian) on an abstract “towering digital set”. The kids will love that. But if the contemporary Butterfly isn’t going to be set in Japan, why bother with an Asian lead? Don’t think too much. Just enjoy the Koreans singing Italian in Japan in Australia, and feel the virtue feed your soul.
This isn’t the first time Nagasaki has been erased, and it won’t be the last. Other erasures are also on the cards—or more accurately, in the stars. Russian bass Ildar Abdrazakov is slated to star in Opera Australia’s spring production of Attila, sanctions permitting. Abdrazakov was named an Honoured Artist of Russia in 2021 by none other than Vladimir Putin himself. The good folks at Opera Australia, steadfast defenders of artistic freedom, surely would not cancel their world-renowned primo uomo for refusing to condemn his country and the president who decorated him. Of course, if Abdrazakov does fall in line on Putin, he could end up in prison. Either way, the production is imperilled.
If Opera Australia ends up needing a Hun on short notice, they could always tap Chanyang Choi to play Attila. She is, after all, Asian. The only problem is that she’s a mezzo-soprano, and probably can’t sing bass. Someday soon computers will surely make gender-swapping possible even in opera, but in the meantime, the play’s the thing. The Sydney Opera House’s Bell Shakespeare Company staged Hamlet in March, and the mad prince, described by Bell on its website as “a young man struggling with the death of his father, his mother’s hasty remarriage to his uncle, and the vision of his father’s ghost looming in his mind’s eye”, was (inevitably) played by a woman. When it comes to Hamlet, to be or not to be female is no longer even a question. It’s taken for granted.
Back in Western Sydney, Puccini survives unadulterated—with no virtue signalled whatsoever. Penrith’s Joan Sutherland Performing Arts Centre will be staging a spring production of La Bohème set in (of all places) nineteenth-century Paris. That’s culture for you. But where the Western Sydney sun really shines bright is film. In Western Sydney, you can find Chinese, Japanese, Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam movies playing every night of the week. Korean too, with Korean actors playing Koreans. Sometimes you can find English-language films, though most of them are imports—from America. And you don’t have to buy a subscription or even book in advance. Just show up, buy some popcorn, and enjoy the show.
Western Sydney’s foreign film of the year (so far) is a graphic dramatisation of ethnic cleansing in India, The Kashmir Files. The film bounces back and forth between the historical violence that drove 100,000 Hindus (no one knows the exact number) from Muslim-majority Kashmir and the present-day political correctness of Delhi’s prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru University, where terrorists are celebrated as freedom fighters. A leftist professor at the university blames the Indian government for the violence in Kashmir, indoctrinating her (mostly Hindu) students in anti-systemic revolutionary radicalism. A heroic student, the orphaned son of Kashmiri Hindus, discovers that his parents were killed by terrorists and gives an impassioned speech defending truth, justice and the Indian way.
If there’s one lesson for Australians to take away from The Kashmir Files, it’s that things do happen in places that don’t make the evening news. If there’s a second lesson, it’s that there’s nothing new under the sun. The Kashmir Files has been condemned for Islamophobia (of course) and threatened with bans in New Zealand (of course). It has been criticised for portraying terrorists as bad and academics as evil. India’s intellectual elite has panned The Kashmir Files for simplifying history to create a patriotic, crowd-pleasing narrative. The crowds, for their part, seem to be pleased. In Karnataka, fans have threatened to boycott the film—because it hasn’t yet been dubbed into Kannada. That’s popularity for you.
Sydney’s urbane East has the Sydney Film Festival, the Mardi Gras Film Festival, and half a dozen international film festivals every year, each one showing a smattering of selected movies to a smattering of selected enthusiasts at a smattering of selected screening times. Miss the Sunday 10.40 a.m. showing of Anaïs in Love (“young Anaïs begins an affair with a much older man but finds herself falling for his wife”) and it’s gone. Out West, culture is widely available on demand, and you can even eat during performances. There is no brutalist architecture, the roads are spacious, the shops are full, and some of the mosques are really quite nice. Who needs culture when you can have multiculture? Who needs Western civilisation when you can have Western Sydney?