I’ve learned via Arts & Letters Daily that Jørn Utzon, the architect of the Sydney Opera House, has passed away, aged 90. Unlike other sad passings of the fortnight gone, this was much less of a shock but still very sad news.
It could be argued that his vision for the Sydney Opera House was imperfectly realised, but realised it was, and it gave Sydney an architectural wonder, a landmark, a focal point for creative endeavour, a point of pride and a source of inspiration.
Just yesterday I expressed the throwaway desire that Severance Hall be moved to Bennelong Point. I didn’t really mean it. Oh no I didn’t.
I love the Opera House. It has been a part of my world ever since I was little girl. The first live ballet I saw was Giselle in the long-gone Regent Theatre, but after that the Opera Theatre saw me about six times a year for the family-friendly sunset series. Nothing could match the excitement of dressing up in my mother’s latest creation (and she did “good clothes” extremely well) and dance-student “character shoes”, catching the train into Circular Quay and taking one of those vibrantly upholstered seats for an evening of magic. The ballet seasons provided my first exposure to orchestral music – no wonder that the soft spot in my heart is for the French and the Russians.
One year, when I was about 9 or 10, we took out a mini-subscription to the opera. I remember we opted for the cheapest seats and then received an apologetic notice from the Australian Opera explaining that this reserve was sold out and asking would we be willing to accept seats in A reserve for the same price… I saw Rigoletto and Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette from a prime spot in the stalls; I can’t recall what the third opera was. I do remember pestering my Italian-speaking friend at school for a translation of “La donna e mobile”. “Fickle” wasn’t in her vocabulary and so we puzzled over what “The lady is moved” might actually mean. I decided that all was forgiven in the face of a seriously good tune.
An essential preliminary to every Opera Theatre performance was John Coburn’s wonderful “Curtain of the Sun”. The corresponding “Curtain of the Moon” was in the Drama Theatre. The first play I recall seeing there was Macbeth, around the same time as that opera season. This formed a very strong impression on me and instilled an immediate enthusiasm for Shakespeare. Out in the foyer was the “optical illusion” of the shark, formed from many individual panels – a source of much pleasure but now gone.
I discovered the illusions of the theatre at the Dennis Wollanski Library of the Performing Arts, once buried somewhere in the podium of the Opera House, but now dispersed. A costume for one of Joan Sutherland’s roles impressed me not only for its enormous size (I was very young) but the huge “gems” that adorned the neckline. I had seen opera; the costumes had looked more or less “real”. What my ballet and drama teacher had been saying about needing something larger than life to project beyond the footlights began to make sense.
The back-stage tour with all the mysterious mechanical devices, the labyrinth of passages and working artists moving around the place provided more excitement. The fascination of the drab behind the glitter. Maybe this was one of the things that eventually triggered a desire to be inside all this, and not merely watching from the audience.
Serious concert attendance came much later, in high school, and my earliest impressions of hearing the SSO all seem to involve the Town Hall. Perhaps I was taken to one of those Christmas at the Opera House events with the singing Christmas tree. My memory is hazy on that front.
On the performance front, when I was 11 I sang in Vivaldi’s Gloria in the Concert Hall – a massed high school performance that no doubt broke all the rules of historical performance but which was pure exhilaration. Despite being a pianist and flutist, viola was the first instrument that I played on the stage there. (In an ensemble – I was entirely self-taught, right down to the system of multi-coloured tablature that I invented to enable instant mastery of alto clef.) Flute came later; then the piccolo in Mahler’s Second Symphony (more combined high schools concerts); and what was probably my last “appearance”, a Berlioz mega-extravaganza with tertiary students from all over Sydney joining the University of California Davis orchestra, conducted by D Kern Holoman, who has mellowed considerably but back then, with dark hair and goatee, looked for all the world like Mephistopheles himself.
One way or another, the Sydney Opera House has been a centre of my life. It’s so much more than a “venue”. I may whinge about the Concert Hall’s acoustics and lament the tiny orchestra pit in the Opera Theatre. I may, now that I’m no longer 7 years old, marvel at how small and cramped the Opera Theatre foyers seem. I may – quite seriously – express a wish to see opera and ballet move to the Capitol Theatre. I may complain about the more recent setts on the forecourt. But there will always be a magic about the Opera House as a building and as a destination. I’m there every week, usually working; my attitude should be jaded. But that hasn’t happened. Approaching it on foot and admiring, yet again, the curve of the sails and the chevron pattern of the tiles, puts me in the mood for something special, something marvellous, something beyond the mundane routines of life.
Many courageous and long-sighted people contributed to the existence of the Sydney Opera House, but ultimately the credit goes to Jørn Utzon, who gave Sydney his vision and whose spirit will live on in it.
Thank you, Mr Utzon.
I leave you with a program book from the opening season. If the perforated silver cover doesn’t say 1973, nothing does!