The Performing Arts Dispatch: Sydney Opera House

When houses of culture are built, culture makes its way there without quite concerning itself with ribbon-cutting galas. Years before the NCPA came to call Nariman Point its permanent residence, music had begun to swaddle it in a Breach Candy building. A decade earlier and 6,000-plus miles to the east, when the Sydney Opera House was still under construction, American bass baritone Paul Robeson became the first person to perform there in 1960, the inaugural ceremony still a good 13 years away. He climbed the scaffolding and sang “Ol’ Man River” to the construction workers as they ate lunch.

From that no-frills recital to over 1800 a year with more than 10.9 million people visiting the iconic Australian venue annually — it is the kind of trajectory a performing arts complex would contentedly like to be on, perhaps barring minor glitches like the incident in the 1980s during the opera Boris Godunov that featured live chickens, when one bird walked off the stage and landed on top of a cellist. (A net was subsequently installed above the orchestra pit in the Joan Sutherland Theatre.) But what happens when a pandemic strikes and unsettles the very foundation of the communal experience that draws people to concert halls and theatres? The show moves online, as it did at the Sydney Opera House from March to October 2020.

Now, as a semblance of normalcy returns to the harbour, the venue has started welcoming audiences back with an already busy calendar. A spokesperson for the Sydney Opera House tells us more about the reopening.

ON Stage: What kind of preparations — at the level of programming/repertoire choice as well as social distancing and safety — were made for the Sydney Opera House to reopen?

Sydney Opera House: It’s fantastic to see COVID-19 restrictions easing in New South Wales (NSW), much-loved theatres beginning to reopen, and the artistic and cultural community re-emerging from the significant challenges of 2020. Following the welcome news that theatres in NSW can welcome back artistes, audiences and visitors, the Sydney Opera  House has reopened a number of venues with a vibrant programme of live performances, events, dining experiences and tours. All events and activities will be conducted in line with NSW Health advice, with a range of robust on-site measures in line with our commitment to the safety and well-being of all. The programme includes contemporary performance work across dance, music, live art and theatre, an inspiring and diverse calendar of First Nations culture and storytelling, comedy, live music, musicals, kids shows and new work by independent local artistes curated by Sydney Opera House Presents.

OS: Do you plan to continue engaging with audiences digitally through the From Our House to Yours series now that the opera house has reopened?

SOH: The success of the From Our House to Yours digital programme, which presented new work every week from March-October 2020, has been vital to maintain the shared experience of attending art and cultural events for online audiences and communities. The programme was enthusiastically received locally and around the world with more than 6 million views and downloads, including over 23 million minutes viewed of video and 103 thousand podcast downloads. The archive is available to watch for free on the Sydney Opera House YouTube channel. We will continue to present digital programming that will be accessible to audiences around the world.

OS: What are some of the key learnings from the lockdown period that will continue to guide the functioning of the Opera House?

SOH: Commissioning and presenting new work on our digital stage played an important role in keeping our audiences connected with live performance and the arts, and this will continue to be a focus as we welcome back audiences. We recently launched New Work Now, a commissioning programme created in response to COVID-19 to provide meaningful support to local Australian artistes and arts workers through developing and presenting new work by them for the opera house’s digital and physical stages.

Quick Facts
  • The original indigenous people of the Sydney Harbour area are the Gadigal clan. The Aboriginal name for the Point was Tu-bow-gule meaning ‘meeting of the waters’.
  • 233 designs were submitted for the opera house international design competition held in 1956. In January 1957, Jørn Utzon from Denmark was announced the winner, receiving ₤5000 for his design.
  • The biggest crowd to ever attend a performance at Sydney Opera House was in 1996 for the ‘Farewell to the World’ outdoor concert by the band Crowded House. It was televised around the world. A decade later, Crowded House announced its return to the Opera House with an encore performance on the Forecourt.
  • Sydney Opera House is cooled using seawater taken directly from the harbour. The system circulates cold water from the harbour through 35 kilometres of pipes to power both the heating and air conditioning in the building.

By Snigdha Hasan. This piece was originally published by the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai, in the December 2020 issue of ON Stage – their monthly arts magazine.