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The man who wasn’t there

Inside Story     |     19 March 2013

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Three months ago, on 28 November 2012, the ABC staged a modest kind of public launch in Sydney for a lengthy and wide-ranging online documentary, The Opera House Project, which has been produced to mark the coming fortieth anniversary of the building’s official opening on 20 October 1973.   As the date approaches, this remarkable film may be accorded some fanfare; it deserves it. It works on several tracks, and each of those splits and branches at your will, offering some twenty-six hours of history and commentary.

Here, I can consider no more than four of them.

Click, for example, on “Performance and Events,” chapter 3 on the main menu, and you will be roaming around recent theatre history, and a wider field of public memory. There’s nothing bland about this account, and it’s worth remarking since this, after all, is an account of one major cultural institution by others (it began with an approach to the ABC from the Opera House Trust). It could have been anodyne; and in this chapter you might have got a harmless montage of operatic and balletic moments, grand gestures, an anthology of official culture. But the section is anything but predictable; the choices of segments from Bell Shakespeare, and Joan Sutherland’s appearances and her own commentary, are alive and thrilling, not only because a passage from La Stupenda singing Norma is pretty exciting in itself, but because of the energy with which the archival elements are set in motion again.

Reflections from John Bell, John Gaden, Yvonne Kenny and Moffatt Oxenbould revive other cultural pleasures; Gaden, Jacki Weaver and Robyn Nevin deliver theatre memories for their critically important generation. James Waites and others argue the merits and defects of the Opera House’s Drama Theatre. The librettist Dennis Watkins, the dance critic Jill Sykes and the designer Brian Thomson – all highly expressive and knowledgeable witnesses – intensify the sense of the difference the Opera House has made to a city and a country. And here again is that sight on the morning of 18 March 2003 when shocked city crowds around the Quay saw the words NO WAR in huge scarlet letters at the top of the highest arch. Those two brave and romantic activists couldn’t have found a more powerful signpost anywhere.

Here we also get film of the opening of the building by the Queen, whose brief speech memorably included the line “I understand that its construction has not been completely without problems.” Nor, in fact, was her own participation. Ten years earlier, during her second visit to Australia as monarch, she and her husband had been given a tour of the building site; next day the building’s designer, Jørn Utzon, and his wife Lis were among their guests at lunch aboard the royal yacht Britannia. In 1973, the Queen must have known about Utzon’s forced departure from the major task of his life. We know it’s part of her job to stand apart from politics; but was she compelled to endorse that deeply political hostility which ensured that throughout the opening program the exiled architect’s name wasn’t mentioned once? At the royal lunch, the Utzons met Patrick White, who had said that the Opera House design made him glad to be alive in Australia at the time. Not one for public occasions in general, he turned up regularly at the events organised in later years to support Utzon and bring him back.

Chapters one and two revive and rebuild a story that has been inextricably part of Australia’s for close on fifty years. Those who know it, even in outline, and who are aware of the deep clash between inside and outside, have reflected that it’s a case of symbolism that is only too valid. On the outside, exhilaration and hope; within, timidity, compromise and decoration – dated kitsch, in fact – concealing honest, functioning structure. What should have been there, an assemblage of coloured plywood ceilings (Chinese red in the larger hall, blue and silver in the smaller one) designed by a great geometer to make sense of a near-impossible brief, is something tourists and audiences can’t see. This documentary opens the building to its fourth dimension, history; we’re given back the voices of the dead, and of some still living as they were when very much younger. Justice is done to the great population of workers – 10,000 of them, speaking over thirty languages – who got those great vaults, with their magical tiling, from the ground into the air.

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For a remarkable virtual tour of the Opera House see The Shipsong Project:

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It started as a three-week project in the winter of 2010 to pay tribute to the Sydney Opera House, the arts epicentre of the nation. After drawing together Australia’s and the region’s best performers, it ended nine months later.

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