Life and times of an Australian icon

It's a story destined for operatic melodrama: The brilliant Danish architect labors at his masterpiece, pitted against the local small-minded politicians. After years of political dirty tricks, exit the artist, his masterpiece "ruined."

But the tale of architect Joern Utzon and his Sydney Opera House is as real as it gets. And this month, below the iconic white sails, it is the subject of an opera of its own.

"The Eighth Wonder" tells the story of the opera house from Mr. Utzon's winning of a contest in 1956 to his eventual dismissal by a state concerned about expanding costs and the architect's uncompromising nature.

But the story of the Sydney Opera House is more than just the biography of a building.

It is also a telling tale for a nation that, many argue, the building has helped shape.

"For someone of my generation it [the Opera House] represents so much," says Dennis Watkins, the author who penned the libretto of "The Eighth Wonder" and was born in 1954, the year the competition for the building was announced. "It represents the coming of age of Australia and all that entails."

Next month the country will be in the world spotlight, thanks to the Sydney Olympics. Instead of a cultural backwater largely isolated from the rest of the world, visitors can now experience a brash, energetic, multicultural nation that is crazy about sports and yet home to some of the world's best young arts companies, too.

The Opera House "is even more important now," argues Mr. Watkins, who before turning to writing spent 10 years working as a tour guide at the building. "It gives an underlying confidence to Australian artists that one of the great icons of the 20th century sits on a point in Sydney Harbour." Now, however, Sydney's great icon can seem dated, especially on the inside. In the coming months a plan for its refurbishment is set to be unveiled.

The Sydney Opera House is a great reminder that architectural wonders have the ability to shape the destiny of cities that can otherwise be ignored by the rest of the world. (Just ask tour officials in Bilbao, the Spanish industrial city which experienced a rebirth with the opening of Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum there a few years ago.)

There's no doubt, says Richard Waterhouse, a cultural historian who chairs the history department at the University of Sydney, that the Opera House helped attract international talent that gave Sydney cultural credibility it hadn't had before.

Clearly the building of the Opera House was part of a confluence of circumstances over the past half-century which have shaped Australian culture.

Following World War II, thousands of migrants from Eastern and Southern Europe brought an appetite for high culture to Australia's then isolated shores. As the Opera House was built, Sydney was still becoming a city. And in the early 1970s a generation of expatriates returned to Australia intent on amending the culturally-bereft canon that drove them away.

Since the early 1970s there have been other changes too, says Waterhouse, one of those expatriates. Australia has undergone a "cultural renaissance." A film industry has been born; playwrights have come to the fore; and the amount of Australian literature published has grown substantially.

The country has also seen a significant growth in Asian migration, banned under the "White Australia" policy until the early 1970s. That has brought a fundamental philosophical shift, Waterhouse says. "We no longer see ourselves as only an outpost of Europe in the Pacific," he says. "We also see ourselves as an outpost of Asia."

As well as turning a more friendly face to its Asian neighbors, Australia has in recent years moved to mend relations with Utzon, whose dismissal still leaves a stain on the building’s heritage, say some observers, and was so bitter that Utzon has never returned to Australia to see the completed masterpiece.

For some, the bitterness is justified. The architect left just after the exterior was completed and wasn’t allowed to execute his plans for the interior. And what was done to the interior after Utzon left can strike visitors as being as unremarkable as the outside is remarkable.

Performers complain about quirky acoustics and cramped backstage areas. From a spectator’s point of view, the low-ceilinged entry foyer has all the character of a 1960s high school cafeteria and has too many stairs to climb. “It’s the irony of the building,” says Grant Smith, the Australian singer who plays Utzon in “The Eighth Wonder,” which was first staged in 1995 after it was commissioned by the trust which runs the Opera House. “It really is one of the icons of the world and yet internally the sense is of a mundane place.”

The hope now is that at least some of the damage will be repaired as the building is gradually refurbished over the next 25 years. The reclusive architect and his son have been hired by the Opera House as consultants and are working on design principles that will be used by an Australian architect to draw up a strategic plan for future changes.

“I like to think the Sydney Opera House is like a musical instrument, and like any fine instrument, it needs a little maintenance and fine tuning, from time to time,” Utzon said in a statement last year when his appointment as consultant was announced.

But Utzon appears resigned to the fact his vision for the building will never really materialize – even in an Australia that tends to see him as a martyr rather than a government employee who allowed costs to blow out. (The final cost of building the Opera House, funded largely through a lottery, came in at $102 million Australian (US$61.2 million at today’s exchange rates) against the $7 million first touted by politicians.)

“He is very pragmatic and knows how things are done around the world,” his son Jan said in May. “There are very few people who are allowed 100 percent to dictate what a building should be like.”

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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