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From grazing cows to royal couples and zip-lining celebrities, the Opera House has been a gathering point for decades.
By Helen Pitt
Crowds at the 1973 opening of the Sydney Opera House. Credit: RUSSELL MCPHEDRAN
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From idea to opening, it took nearly two decades, two architects and their teams, four premiers, more than 1 million tiles and $102 million to create one of the 20th century’s best-known buildings. On October 20, 1973, Queen Elizabeth II officially opened the Sydney Opera House. According to police estimates, there were roughly a million people crowding the harbour foreshores and city streets that day.
From dawn, 16 bright red ribbons hung from the two front shells, which were attached to four tugs. The ribbons cascaded into the water when the tugs pulled away into the harbour that afternoon. At the same time, 60,000 multicoloured balloons and 1000 white doves and pigeons were released in what was called “the big flap”.
A flotilla of hundreds of boats bobbed on the choppy harbour for the opening.Credit: Fred Murray
After the ribbons were cut, everyone on the harbour – on everything from ships and small boats to canoes and surfboards – took part in a “two-minute cockadoodle-doo”, making as much noise as possible to celebrate the fact that the building was finally open. A flotilla of hundreds of decorated vessels, including power boats and 14 warships, bobbed on the choppy harbour, as buoyant as the mood of Sydney.
Sydneysiders enjoyed a day on the waves.Credit: Alan Purcell
It was perhaps the only opera opening in the world where bikinis outnumbered bow ties. That day, the hungry hordes on and around the harbour consumed 96,000 meat pies, 1000 kilograms of hot dogs, 7570 litres of fruit juice and 150,000 cups of instant coffee.
Bikinis outnumbered bow ties on the opening day of the Opera House.Credit: Alan Purcell
“I understand that its construction has not been totally without problems,” Queen Elizabeth II intoned as she clutched her duck-egg blue skirt, hat and speech notes to stop them blowing away in the blustery conditions on the dais that day. “But every great imaginative venture has had to be tempered by the fire of controversy. Controversy of the most extreme kind attended the building of the pyramids, yet they stand today – 4000 years later – acknowledged as one of the wonders of the world. So, I hope and believe it will be with the Sydney Opera House.”
Queen Elizabeth II at the opening of the Opera House.Credit: Fairfax archives
Abigail Delaney and Serene Dharpaloco Yunupingu from the Janawi Dance Clan in a 2019 celebration of First Nations Dance.Credit: James Brickwood
The Opera House is located at Bennelong Point, named after Woollarawarre Bennelong, a member of the Wangal clan at the time of the colonists’ arrival in the late 1700s. Since before white settlement Indigenous people have gathered at Tubowgule, the tidal island where it now sits; they ate, drank and mostly danced in celebration. In 1789, Governor Arthur Phillip built a brick hut for Bennelong here. The first theatre performance in Australia took place on Bennelong Point when convicts performed George Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer.
Australian Ballet dancer Amber Scott with Bangarra contemporary dancer Patrick Thaiday in 2012.Credit: James Alcock
Now more than 10.9 million people visit the Sydney Opera House annually. It hosts at least 1800 performances a year from opera to comedy, dance to drama and is home to eight resident companies: Opera Australia, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, the Australian Chamber Orchestra, Sydney Philharmonia Choirs, Bell Shakespeare, Sydney Theatre Company, the Australian Ballet and Bangarra Dance Theatre. The giant sails have always provided great photo opportunities for local and visiting performers, including Abigail Delaney and Serene Dharpaloco Yunupingu from the Jannawi Dance Clan in a 2019 promotion of First Nations Dance. Bangarra contemporary dancer Patrick Thaiday and Australian Ballet ballerina Amber Scott celebrated a joint production in 2012, while British violinist Kenneth Sillito was there in 1983.
Musica Viva’s performance in the Concert Hall in 1973.Credit: Max Dupain
Before the Opera House opened, a host of concerts for construction workers took place in the Concert Hall; this one by Musica Viva was in March 1973, seven months before the official opening.
British violinist Kenneth Sillito celebrates the 10th anniversary of the Opera House in 1983.Credit: Julian Zakaras
It was the Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s first chief conductor, Eugene Goossens, who conceived the Opera House idea. For more than seven years in the late 1940s and early ’50s, he lobbied the NSW government to convince them of its virtues. The SSO now performs more than 150 concerts a year to its 350,000 subscribers, in the newly refurbished main Concert Hall which seats 2679.
The tram depot at Bennelong Point, the site for the Opera House.Credit: Fairfax Photo Library
After Bennelong’s hut, Bennelong Point became home to the castellated Fort Macquarie. From 1902 until 1955 it operated as a tram depot (left), the turnaround point for the city’s extensive public transport system, the second largest in the Commonwealth after London’s. It was demolished in 1958 to make way for the new cultural centre.
People queued for 24 hours for tickets to a performance by Luciano Pavarotti and Dame Joan Sutherland in 1983, some fans sleeping at the box office.Credit: Paul Matthews
From the beginning, NSW premier Joe Cahill, the political godfather of the project, wanted it to be a place for everyone. “I want to impress … that this building will be available to all members of the community,” he said. “The ordinary working man from the day will be able to go there just as well as those in more favoured circumstances. There will be nothing savouring – even remotely – of a class-conscious barrier and this project will stand as a monument of democratic nationhood in its truest sense.“
For opera lovers in particular, a highlight was the 1983 arrival of the most acclaimed tenor of all time, Luciano Pavarotti. The queue for tickets for a Gala Concert featuring him with Dame Joan Sutherland began 24 hours before they went on sale. People slept at the ticket box just to secure a seat.
Dame Joan Sutherland covered in streamers during her final bow after her last performance at the Opera House in 1990. Credit: Rick Stevens.
From Sergei Prokofiev’s epic War and Peace, performed by the Australian Opera (now Opera Australia) for the 1973 opening, the House has hosted some of the world’s great opera singers, from Kiri Te Kanawa, who sang with an almost all-Kiwi principal cast in La Traviata in 1978, through to Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel, who sang Falstaff in 1999. But the favourite was the Sydney-born soprano Joan Sutherland, whose contribution to the renaissance of the bel canto repertoire from the late 1950s through to the 1980s put her, and Australia, on the operatic world stage. When she took her final Sydney Opera House bow on October 2, 1990, the stage was a shower of ticker-tape.
The streamers and daffodils began to rain down when her husband, conductor Richard Bonynge, appeared on stage with her; then prime minister Bob Hawke threw two streamers to farewell “La Stupenda”. Today, the Joan Sutherland Theatre, the 1507-seat opera hall, honours her legacy.
Learn to swim classes at the Opera House Forecourt, 1977. Credit: Keith Byron/Fairfax archives
In May 1973, the NSW Department of Education signed a contract for 16 major school concerts, making it the second-largest hirer of the Opera House halls for its first full year of functioning, in 1974. But for the bulk of us, the most memorable moments of the past half-century have occurred outside the building. In the 1977 January school holidays, teachers from the Department of Sport and Recreation and the Royal Life Saving Society taught how-to-swim classes in a Clark Rubber above-ground pool especially erected on the forecourt (top).
Cows publicised the 1997 Royal Easter Show.Credit: Palani Mohan
There have been plenty of stunts to publicise events: this herd of cows was rounded up and brought to Bennelong Point to promote the 1997 Royal Easter Show, while in 2010 Hugh Jackman came zip-lining in from the top of the sails to feature in one of two episodes of The Oprah Winfrey Show filmed on the forecourt in front of more than 6000 fans. The Sydney-born Hollywood star memorably smashed into the rigging on the stage, earning himself a black eye followed by a hug from Oprah.
Actor Hugh Jackman on a flying fox during filming for The Oprah Winfrey Show in 2010.Credit: Brendan Esposito
Artist Spencer Tunick assembled 5200 people in 2010 to photograph them nude.Credit: Peter Braig
Who could forget the 5200 backsides bared in the name of art when American photographer Spencer Tunick transformed the Sydney landmark into a surreal, some might say breathtaking, vision? The Base, an installation that was created during Sydney’s Mardi Gras festival in March 2010, was a scene of mass nudity that Bennelong Point is unlikely to see again.
ABBA appeared at the Opera House in 1977.Credit: Keith Byron.
The big white sails have been the site for impromptu appearances by numerous pop stars, including Swedish phenomenon ABBA. Its four members came to the Opera House on their first tour here in 1977 to meet the winners of The Sun newspaper’s ABBA fan club competition. While here, they got their first glimpse of the more than 1 million tiles that had been manufactured in the Höganäs plant in Sweden and shipped to Sydney to line the sails. The first Australian Idol grand finale in 2003 took place at the Sydney Opera House, too, with 3 million viewers tuning in to watch Guy Sebastian crowned winner.
Radio 2SM’s November 1979 concert attracted a quarter of a million people – possibly the largest ever crowd at the Opera House.Credit: Dallas Kilponen
Although indoor performances by the likes of Lizzo and Hannah Gadsby have gone down in the annals, it’s the outdoor concerts that have drawn the biggest crowds. It was radio station 2SM’s annual outdoor Rocktober concerts that brought Thin Lizzy here in 1978, while in November 1979, 2SM Rocktober’s Concert of the Decade featured 29 Australian rock acts, including Marcia Hines, Sherbet, Skyhooks, Dragon and Stevie Wright. It’s said that more than 250,000 people – possibly the largest crowd ever gathered there – assembled on the forecourt for an event widely acclaimed as the best Australian rock concert of all time.
Crowded House’s 1996 farewell concert drew an estimated 150,000 fans.Credit: Rick Stevens
Crowded House’s 1996 farewell concert stands as one of the most iconic Sydney Opera House moments but in the great Australian tradition of Dame Nellie Melba and John Farnham, it ended up not being a final concert at all; they repeated it in 2016. In 1996 though, about 150,000 fans gathered to sing the pop group into Opera House history. Reviewer Jon Casimir called it “a human sea. St John ambulances carved snail trails through the crowd to rescue people collapsing from the heat generated by all the bodies. It was tight … I’ve had sex that was less intimate. I’ve been in fist fights that were less physical.”
Architect Jørn Utzon drawing the winner of Sydney Opera House lottery number three in April 1958.Credit: Fairfax Archive
The Sydney Opera House is Australia’s first crowd-sourced cultural space, constructed from the proceeds of gambling. The Sydney Opera House Lottery, which ran from 1957 until 1986, raised the $102 million it cost to build; architect Jørn Utzon even drew the winner of lottery number three in April 1958. Over those years 86.7 million tickets were bought by punters in a nation that has the dubious honour of being home to the world’s largest per capita number of gamblers.
Nelson Mandela acknowledged the crowd at his speech in Sydney at the Opera House steps in 1990. Credit: Steve Christo
In 1990, the same year he walked free from 27 years of imprisonment and four years before he became president of South Africa, anti-apartheid campaigner Nelson Mandela addressed 40,000 enthusiastic Australians from the Opera House steps. Mandela was so moved by the local choir’s rendition of Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika (“God Bless Africa”) that he choked up and could not speak. When he found his voice again, he honoured the Australian rugby union players who’d refused to play against the touring all-white Springboks team in 1971.
“I can recall how we prisoners of apartheid whispered to each other about your very healthy and militant actions, about your disavowal of an all-white Springbok team from a country where your black brothers and sisters toiled under apartheid rule,” Mandela told the crowd. “Your actions, and those of anti-apartheid workers worldwide, gave us strength and confidence that our just cause would prevail in the end. Today I stand before you happy at the opportunity to thank you in person. I salute you!“
US President George Bush and wife Barbara Bush with security detail at the Opera House in 1992. Credit: Greg White
Guards and security detail outnumbered dignitaries for US president George H. W. Bush and wife Barbara when they visited the Opera House on January 1, 1992. NSW premier Nick Greiner welcomed the visitors, but there were only spooks in their presence.
The No War slogan on the Sydney Opera House in 2003.Credit: AP
Shortly before Liberal prime minister John Howard announced Australian troops would join George W. Bush in any US-led “pre-emptive” military strike on Iraq in 2003, protesters daubed a no war slogan on the building. The image went around the world before being scrubbed off by Opera House work crews.
The Svanen was part of the 1988 Bicentennial Tall Ships celebration.Credit: Craig Golding
In 1988, the Opera House provided a backdrop for the re-enactment of the 1788 arrival of the First Fleet, with 11 square riggers arriving in Sydney Harbour on January 26, 1988 for the Bicentennial of European settlement. The Svanen was part of the Tall Ships celebration; it still plies the harbour today as the Southern Swan. An Aboriginal march attracting 40,000 protesters took place peacefully on the same day, with many marchers assembling at the end at the Opera House.
The women’s triathlon at the Sydney 2000 Olympics.Credit: Jessica Hromas
The emblem for Sydney’s Olympic candidature in 2000 contained a silhouette of the Opera House disappearing into a trail of smoke from an Olympic torch. When in September 1993, IOC chairman Juan Antonio Samaranch declared Sydney the winner, close to 50,000 gathered at Bennelong Point and Circular Quay in the early hours to celebrate.
The Sydney Olympics closing ceremony fireworks.Credit: Andrew Meares
Then in September 2000, the site was transformed into an Olympic venue for the triathlon events. For the October 1 closing ceremony, it also provided a spectacular backdrop for the fireworks, as it has done for New Year’s Eve ceremonies since 1976.
Australia Day 2006 competitors in the Surfboard Challenge.Credit: Steven Siewert
Surfers and their surfboards have been known to assemble on the steps of the Opera House before jumping into the harbour at Man O’War Steps for the start of the Australia Day Surfboard challenge, as they did here for the 2006 paddling race.
Around-the-world sailor Jessica Watson in Sydney Harbour on the first leg of her trip.Credit: Peter Rae
Young Australian sailor Jessica Watson was just 16 in October 2009 when she waved goodbye in front of the Opera House as she departed on her solo circumnavigation of the world on her yacht, Ella’s Pink Lady. She chose it, too, as the place to step ashore on May 15, 2010, for a dramatic reunion with her family, 210 days after her departure. Thousands flocked to join her.
Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh meet entertainers including Paul Hogan who performed in a 1980 Royal Charity Concert at the Opera House.Credit: National Archives
Queen Elizabeth II stepped ashore at Farm Cove the first time she visited Australia in 1954. It was in that year that the move for a Sydney Opera House began in earnest. On her 16 visits to Australia, she was a regular guest at Royal Charity Concerts there, including the pictured one in 1980, when she met pianist Roger Woodward, TV comedian Paul Hogan and singer Olivia Newton-John.
Diana, Princess of Wales and Prince Charles visit the Sydney Opera House on their first royal tour together in 1983.Credit: Fairfax Syndication
In 1983, on their first royal tour as a couple with young son William, Princess Diana and the then Prince Charles drew a large crowd.
Prince William and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge in 2014.Credit: Janie Barrett
In 2014, Prince William returned with his wife, Catherine.
Prince Harry and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex in 2018.Credit: Don Arnold/WireImage
And in 2018, 35 years after his parents first walked the pink granite stairs, Prince Harry brought his new wife, Meghan, to the Opera House. They chose it as the backdrop to announce to the world the impending birth of their first-born, son Archie.
An image of Queen Elizabeth II is projected onto the sails on the day of her death in 2022. Credit: Wolter Peeters
And when she died in September 2022, Queen Elizabeth II’s image was projected onto the sails of the building she’d opened nearly 50 years earlier.
Since the launch of Sydney’s Vivid festival in 2009, the white sails have been used as the city’s biggest outdoor screen, illuminating a host of images for the winter light party.
The Indigenous-created Songlines was used in 2016. Credit: Brook Mitchell
Songlines, created by a group of Indigenous artists, opened the 2016 event. A 2020 projection honoured the hard work of firefighters during the Black Summer bushfires.
Firefighters were honoured in 2020.Credit: Wolter Peeters
Protesters against the promotion of horse racing on the Opera House sails.Credit: James Brickwood
When Racing NSW boss Peter V’landys tried to light up the Opera House’s iconic sails to promote The Everest horse race in 2018, a brouhaha ensued. Protesters including Willy Hall, the son of Peter Hall, the architect who completed the building, descended. A giant boo went up when the barrier draw was illuminated on the sails, triggering heated opposition that continues today at successive state governments’ decisions to facilitate more and more lighting of the sails.
Student protesters march from Sydney Opera House to Parliament House in March 1966 after the resignation of architect Jørn Utzon.Credit: Frank Burke
When Danish architect Jørn Utzon resigned from the Opera House job in February 1966 after a dispute with the NSW government, protesters called for his reinstatement. Following several months of unsuccessful negotiations, he finally left Sydney in April that year, never to return. There were further protests outside the construction site when the consortium of Hall, Todd and Littlemore was appointed to take over as architects. They were the team who completed the building, including its interiors.
Eugene Goosens leaving the Sydney C.I.B. on March 9, 1956. Customs officers had discovered “pornographic” materials in his luggage earlier that day. Credit: Staff photographer
Although it was his idea, Eugene Goossens never saw the construction of the Sydney Opera House, nor its completion. In March, 1956, returning from London where he’d been knighted, the English conductor and composer was at the centre of a sex scandal after customs officials at Mascot Airport discovered what was then considered pornographic material in his luggage. He was charged £100 and hounded out of Australia, returning to London where he died in 1962, his reputation still in tatters.
The then NSW premier Joseph Cahill at the ceremony to mark the start of the Opera House’s construction at Bennelong Point on March 2, 1959. Credit: Alan Funnell
NSW Labor premier Joe Cahill, a railway worker raised in the back streets of Redfern, had never seen an opera in his life. But he’s the political hero of the Sydney Opera House story. This unashamedly working-class man played the pianola at his home in suburban Marrickville, but that was possibly the extent of his musical knowledge. He ran the competition to seek a design and convinced his ALP colleagues to fund it via state lotteries, and in March, 1959, officially opened the building site.
Speaking on behalf of the Elizabethan Theatre Trust, the precursor to Opera Australia, H.C. “Nugget” Coombs told Cahill: “I am certain … your name will live for the next 400 years as the head of government who put the Opera House there.” Despite being dubbed the “Taj Cahill” during construction, Cahill is perhaps better known today for the nearby Cahill Expressway running through Circular Quay.
Tradesmen lived in caravans on-site in the early days of construction. Credit: A. Kemp
More than 10,000 workers from more than 90 countries helped build the Opera House. By 1960, some tradesmen working on stage one of construction lived in caravans on-site at Bennelong Point. Many had come from working on the Snowy Mountains Scheme to toil for Civil & Civic’s Dick Dusseldorp to build the base, known as the podium.
A bird’s eye view of the complex mass of machinery and materials on the Opera House site in 1965.Credit: The Sydney Morning Herald
Most of us recall the story of Jørn Utzon, the Dane who dreamt up the design, departed mid-project in 1966 and never saw it complete. Not everyone knows he was dyslexic but most now consider him a genius. He died in November 2008 aged 90, having never returned to Australia. He told a reporter in 2002 that he thought about the Opera House every day. “I have the building in my head like a composer has his symphony,” he said.
NSW minister for public works William Davis Hughes in 1968.Credit: The Sydney Morning Herald
A change of government occurred in 1965, with the NSW Liberals and Country Party winning with a mandate to “fix the Opera House mess”. After six years of building work, it was far from complete. A dispute over costs with Public Works Minister William Davis Hughes led to Utzon resigning. Davis Hughes, a former teacher and a Country Party member considered by many to be the “villain” in the story, then took control.
Peter Hall in 1966 when he took over from architect Jørn Utzon at the Opera House.Credit: The Sydney Morning Herald
Architect Peter Hall, along with partners Lionel Todd and David Littlemore, oversaw the building’s completion after Utzon left. Hall is considered one of the building’s unsung heroes. One of the brightest and most talented architects in Australia at the time, he bravely took on one of the most unpopular jobs in his profession when NSW Government Architect Ted Farmer asked him to finish it. Many, including his family, encouraged Hall not to take on the project; he even begged Utzon to come back. At the opening in 1973, he was congratulated by the Queen for his work but received recognition by few others in his lifetime. He died in 1995, bankrupt and alcoholic.
The spectacular Curtain of the Sun tapestry, designed by John Coburn.Credit: Jacquie Manning
Peter Hall oversaw and commissioned many of the interiors, including John Coburn’s Curtain of the Sun, which originally hung in what we now know as the Joan Sutherland Theatre, and Curtain of the Moon, which hung in the Drama Theatre. In 1974, the then Australian Opera and the now defunct Old Tote Theatre Company (the precursor to the Sydney Theatre Company) pronounced the curtains too dominating for the moods they wanted to set for their performances, and had them removed. They’ve been hung on occasion since but largely remain in storage.
John Olsen’s Salute to Slessor’s 5 Bells.Credit: Dallas Kilponen
John Olsen’s Salute to Slessor’s 5 Bells, also commissioned by Hall, still hangs in the Concert Hall’s northern foyer. It is inspired by the Kenneth Slessor poem Five Bells, about his friend, cartoonist Joe Lynch, who drowned after falling off a ferry in Sydney Harbour in 1927. The two had worked together at the popular newspaper Smith’s Weekly, where Slessor was editor. The poem is a meditation on grief, time and memory in honour of his friend, whose overcoat pockets were filled with bottles of beer when he fell into the water.
Life Enlivened on the Sydney Opera House sails.Credit: Destination NSW
While working on Salute to Slessor’s 5 Bells, Olsen learnt the Slessor poem by heart, and could still recite it in his 90s. Olsen died at 95 in April, just a month before his artwork featured on the sails during this year’s Vivid light festival. Sadly, he missed the chance to see his work displayed both on the inside and outside of the building.
The refurbished Opera House concert hall.Credit: Nick Moir
The Concert Hall was shut in 2020 for a $150 million renovation, which included removing the sound reflectors, known as “doughnuts”, and replacing them with 18 magenta-coloured reflectors in an attempt to improve the acoustics, which had been an issue ever since the hall opened. The re-opening concert, Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, the Resurrection Symphony, was held in July 2022, after which Sydney Symphony chief conductor Simone Young declared the Concert Hall now one of the best in the world.
The Sydney Opera House in 2021.Credit: Kate Geraghty
Today, according to Deloitte, the Opera House has a social asset value of $11.4 billion. When adding it to its list of significant sites in 2007, UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee described it as “one of the indisputable masterpieces of human creativity”.
Cruise ship passengers on their balconies take in the view as their vessel passes the Opera House to dock at Circular Quay in 2012.Credit: Kate Geraghty
“A building that changed the image of an entire country,” as Canadian American architect Frank Gehry said when awarding the Pritzker Prize, architecture’s highest accolade, to Jørn Utzon in 2003. In announcing the jury’s choice, Thomas J. Pritzker said: “Jørn Utzon has designed a remarkably beautiful building in Australia that has become a national symbol to the rest of the world.” Indigenous elders have always believed a magical energy is released at Bennelong Point – and you can still feel that magic today.
Fog and rain hang over the Opera House and Harbour Bridge.Credit: Kate Geraghty
Whether covered in red ribbons or red dust, whether seen through fog or fireworks, from a plane or glimpsed up close from the deck of a cruise ship, it’s the site that says without words, “I’m home.”
A man is dwarfed by the sails of the Opera House as a blanket of red dust covers the city in 2018.Credit: Kate Geraghty
Our international calling card which, along with the Harbour Bridge, Uluru and the kangaroo, is shorthand for Australia. Happy 50th birthday to the sleekest Sydneysider in town.
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