[The following post was written by Karen Daly, a Masters student from Charles Sturt University, during her placement with Trove.]
As readers might be aware, the Sydney Opera House will mark the 40th anniversary of its opening by Elizabeth II with a special anniversary concert in the forecourt on the 27th of October. As is the case for many Australian buildings and institutions, Trove captures the significant events in the history of the opera house from the 1973 opening festival and concert through to the 20th anniversary celebrations and beyond. More importantly, Trove’s diverse materials and collections relating to the opera house allow us to set its history within the context of both the development of the performing arts in Australia and the evolution of Australian notions of national identity and civic life.
The prominence afforded by the opera house’s unique design and geographical location on Bennelong Point (previously a tram depot) make it a natural stage for international summits and even a platform for political protests. The building served as a backdrop for many highlights during the Olympics and its outline inspired the Sydney 2000 logo. However, the resonance of the building in our cultural imagination is deeper and more nuanced than even these high profile roles suggest. In 2011 the Sydney Opera House Trust released an evocative video of artists who had performed in the building’s venues over the course of the previous twelve months delivering a collective rendition of Nick Cave’s ‘The Ship Song’. The video and its associated campaign moved many deeply and it was quickly shared and reshared across social media channels. On the accompanying website (archived in Pandora and incorporated into Trove) the featured artists are interviewed about their approach to the creative process as well as the special significance and meaning of performing at the Opera House in their careers.
Emphatically eclectic and non-elitist in its selection of performers, the film clip gestures towards the distinctive and enigmatic reputation of an arts centre which opened with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony but which is widely believed to have been unofficially christened by Paul Robeson's informal performance for the construction workers on November 9, 1960. As a symbol of Australia and Sydney both overseas and at home and a living, functional building rather than simply a tourist attraction or monument, the opera house invites the general public to ‘make a little history’. We should, as the song intimates, feel personally involved in the imaginative work of national self-articulation in which the opera house plays so striking a role, work which may be as difficult and as revelatory as the building’s own notoriously tumultuous construction from 1957 to 1973. When the well-known quandary between the technical demands of Jorn Utzon’s innovative design and more pragmatic monetary and political pressures led to Utzon’s departure from the project, the anger of fellow architects and ordinary citizens was expressed in petitions, posters and stickers, all colourful artefacts reflecting a particular time in Australia as well as the story of the opera house. And yet even though the finished product may have been a compromise (in the view of one early critic more suited to becoming ‘a splendid casino’ than a performing arts centre), what matters, as Utzon himself remarked in 1994, is that the opera house should become ‘a beloved building’; that it should be a building with which Australians and Sydneysiders establish a connection and a productive creative partnership.
Accordingly, the opera house has been a pivotal stage in the careers of a host of Australian artists from Joan Sutherland to the Sydney Dance Company, introducing audiences to singularly Australian works and creators, without omitting the more avant-garde and challenging. At the same time, the architecture’s blending of cavernous and intimate spaces, inside and outside worlds, has forever reframed the way tourists and locals alike look at Sydney.
What are your favourite performances and events at the opera house? Share your memories in this thread.