From opera to Oprah for Sydney

Sydney swapped opera for Oprah today when the US talk show host brought thousands of shrieking, jubilant fans to the city's landmark arts centre to tape two star-studded shows for her final series.

Sydney swapped opera for Oprah today when the US talk show host brought thousands of shrieking, jubilant fans to the city's landmark arts centre to tape two star-studded shows for her final series.

There were celebrities, giveaways and screams as 6,000 Oprah Winfrey devotees jammed the steps of Sydney Opera House to watch the filming of each show.

The production marked the finale of a week-long trip by the talk show queen and 302 US audience members who took part in 'Oprah's Ultimate Australian Adventure'.

Winfrey's staffers whipped the frenzied crowd into a state of hysteria before the host ascended the stage to the sounds of Men At Work's 'Down Under', Australia's unofficial anthem.

"Hello Australia!" she bellowed as the audience's roar reached a deafening pitch.

Winfrey launched her 25th and final season of 'The Oprah Winfrey Show' in September by surprising her audience with her ultimate giveaway: an eight-day trip to Australia. For the past week, the lucky chosen have been travelling the continent - snorkelling on the Great Barrier Reef, surfing at Sydney's famous Bondi Beach and exploring the rugged outback.

Winfrey said she had long hoped to travel to Australia, and taking the audience with her made the experience even richer.

"Life is always better when you can share it," she said before the taping.

Four shows from Winfrey's Aussie adventure will screen in January and are expected to be watched by millions of people in 145 countries.

The state and federal governments have spent around AUS$5m (€3.71m) on the trip, a price that has drawn criticism from some Australians. But officials and Winfrey herself insist the shows will bring many millions more in tourism publicity.

"It is immeasurable what four hours of a love festival about your country broadcast in 145 countries around the world can do," Winfrey told reporters.

And a love festival it was, with Winfrey lavishing praise on her Australian hosts, the scenery and the citizens.

"You're so darn friendly, you must go to friendly class," she told the crowd, who were randomly selected from a pool of 350,000 hopefuls.

Her first guest was Australian actor Russell Crowe, who gave a nod to the surrounding sun-dappled harbour and said: "When you live in a city like this, it's not that hard to be friendly."

The family of the late Crocodile Hunter, Steve Irwin, also made an emotional appearance on the programme. Daughter Bindi walked on stage with a python named Olivia draped around her shoulders, assuring Winfrey "She's really sweet" as the host tentatively stroked the reptile.

Seven-year-old Robert Irwin told Winfrey he watches videos of his father - who was killed by a stingray barb in 2006 - every day.

"It's so good because it's like he's actually there," he said, reducing mother Terri Irwin and many in the crowd to tears.

"Living with Steve was like standing in a cyclone," Terri said, eyes watering. "Then we lost him. It was like the wind stopped."

Winfrey, famed for her giveaways, had plenty up her sleeve, including a AUS$250,000 (€185,315) cheque for a cancer-stricken Australian man and his family, who have been struggling to pay their bills.

Hip hop artist Jay-Z, who also appeared on the show, stopped by a local boys' school after one of their teachers wrote to Winfrey and told her how much the students loved the rapper.

The students, most of whom are from low-income families, were invited to watch the show's taping from inside the Opera House, and a live feed shown on the stage caught their reaction as Winfrey told them they would all be receiving free laptops.

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