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You Little Bobby-Dazzler

When a certain young Australian writer left Sydney for Europe in the early 196os, the Opera House had barely risen above its foundations. He didn’t come back until the building was finished, whereupon, in an article for the Observer, he said, among other things, that the Opera House looked like a typewriter full of oyster shells. The Australian newspapers picked the remark up and front-paged it under the headline THE POMS ARE THE WORST KNOCKERS. It was clear and humiliating proof that he was not only unregretted for his absence, he was unremembered for ever having been there in the first place.

The certain young writer was by that time no longer young, and by this time he is not even certain. He was and is, you will have gathered, myself. I don’t think that I ever really knocked the Opera House very severely, except by pointing out the obvious fact that a good number of the most important operas couldn’t be easily put on in it. To say that it looked like a typewriter full of oyster shells was merely to evoke the appropriate image, that of an old Olivetti Lettera 44 after an office party. But if a carping tone came easily then, it is gush that threatens now. Enthusiasm is the sign of the late convert. I can hold it at bay — the place still looks like a broken Pyrex casserole dish in a brown cardboard box — but there are moments when the eye turns dewy, especially on a spring night when one is inside the building gazing out. Seeing the glass wall of the foyer filled with city lights made lustrous by the clean air and the harbour bridge cutting a black lattice out of the starlight, you would need to feel ill not to feel well-being. Somewhere under that wrecked bathroom of a roof, the household gods are having a good time.

The Opera House has its imperfections, but it is perfectly placed. Half the secret of a great building is to be on the right spot. Bennelong Point was begging to have an opera house built on it almost from the time that Bennelong himself was active. An aborigine who took easily to the white settlers’ ways, he would probably be pleased with the building they have now put up on his old stamping-ground, although less pleased that they took his name away to make room for it. There is no Bennelong Point left: between the Botanical Gardens and the harbour there is now nothing but the Opera House. But before the Opera House there was a very ugly tram depot, so there was room for improvement, even if New South Wales’s long-term Labor premier Joe Cahill scarcely seemed ideal casting to bring great beauty into being. He had already disfigured Circular Quay with a construction called the Cahill Expressway, a combined railway station and four-lane flyover that preserved the original innocence of Sydney Cove by walling it off behind a towering revetment of raw concrete so solid that a hydrogen bomb wouldn’t singe it.

But however suspect Joe Cahill’s eye for aesthetic values, his heart was in the right place. He wanted eminence for Sydney, and not just for the usual reason, i.e. to get the edge on Melbourne. He cherished a vision of a great cultural monument, an aim made no less worthy by the consideration that it would be in part a monument to himself. So what the combined wishes of such musical giants as Sir Eugene Goossens could never have brought about was brought about by the man of the people, Joe Cahill. Twisting arms and kicking ankles, he pushed the project through. An international competition was set up, with judges exalted enough to recognise genius when they saw it. Jørn Utzon of Denmark was the genius. Eero Saarinen was not alone among the judges in pronouncing Utzon’s design a prodigy of the imagination.

They all did, and they were right. Utzon’s conception had the stamp of authority. The shells of the roof floated above the Mayan-massive podium with no apparent point of contact. In the throat of each shell, a filmy curtain was draped in art nouveau folds as if glass were water. Anybody who could draw such a thing, it was assumed, must be able to build it. Only slowly did the realisation dawn that Utzon wasn’t at the frontier of technology, he was beyond it. King’s College chapel and the cathedral of Chartres took a long time to build, but the men who built them began with the advantage of knowing how to do it. Utzon didn’t: he merely had faith that he would find out.

Joe Cahill’s adroit use of the state lottery system ensured an unlimited supply of funds, which was lucky, because the Opera House shared with its curvilinear friend Concorde a sensational capacity to keep on getting so expensive that it couldn’t even be abandoned. In Utzon’s original sketches the roof shells had a sexily complex curve rather like a Mucha négligé, an old Paris Métro entrance arch or a full set of false teeth without the actual teeth. The consultant engineers, Arup and Partners, discovered that these curves simply could not be built, whether in concrete or in anything else. All the time that the neo-Aztec sacrificial platform was rising from the ashes of the old tram depot, Utzon and Arup wrestled with the problem of how to build the roof that would echo the yachts in the harbour and the strato-cumulus in the sky. The podium was clad in pink slabs of reconstituted granite quarried from the Blue Mountains. It was impressive, but would mean little if it had to be roofed with corrugated iron. The tiling system for the roof shells was all worked out — a pet project of Utzon’s, it would combine ceramic tiles of alternating Swedish buff and high-gloss into a surface that would dazzle without blinding, startle without stunning. But without the shells, there would be nowhere for the tiles to go.

Time went by, the costs went up and Joe Cahill grew older. Finally, it was Utzon himself who hit on the solution. Instead of complex curves there would be only one curve. Every surface of every shell would conform to an imaginary sphere of 246-foot radius. All the ribs could thus be poured in only four moulds, on site. It took three years to erect the resulting ribs, but with a system of error-correction devised by Arups the shells clicked together with no daylight showing anywhere. One idea, plus thousands of hours in the computer, had made most of Utzon’s dream come true.

Unfortunately there were other parts of the dream for which the elegantly simple idea that might have made them real simply refused to come. Glass, for example, won’t drape like that. The completion date receded further into the future, far beyond the fading eyesight of Joe Cahill, who perforce had to depart for the beyond with his Opera House only a spectral shadow compared with the solid magnificence of his beloved expressway. Utzon fell out with the politicians, headed by Mr Davis Hughes, who was cast as the villain, as the realist often is. The Dane might have alienated the politicos and survived. But he also alienated Arups, and that left him without any support inside the project. There was plenty of support outside in the streets, but all it could do was wave placards. Utzon left in a huff for Denmark and a team of locals took over the job, which included the as yet unsolved problem of how to drape the glass.

Cast as betrayers of Utzon’s vision but in fact doing their best to keep faith with it, they sweated over the computer until the answer came up. The curtains of glass which now hang in the shells have not quite the Beardsleyesque swirl that Utzon imagined. The metal mullions look heavy individually and when seen obliquely they combine to block the view. But if you stand centrally in the upper foyer and look out through the glass into the harbour at night, you see the splendour of the water-city as Kenneth Slessor first registered it in his poem ‘Five Bells’. John Olsen’s mural of the same title hangs behind you, but there before you is the miracle itself, an oil-field of light-towers driving down their drills of pastel into the lush dark:

Deep and dissolving verticals of light
Ferry the falls of moonshine down.

Slessor was a great talent finally unfulfilled, and the Opera House — his memorial because he found the words for the spectacle into which it glides — is like him. Too much is made of how Utzon’s original conception was distorted. Probably it would have been distorted even if he had stayed on the case, since not even genius can sew plate glass like cloth. But what is really unfulfilled about the Opera House is something more fundamental. It is just not a very good place to put on operas. It is a very good place, but not for that.

As the world well knows by now, Utzon, according to the brief given him, designed two main halls, the large one for opera and the smaller one for concerts. Half-way through construction their designated functions were switched, mainly because the Australian Broadcasting Commission, which had most of the clout, wanted a four-second reverberation time that only the larger hall could give. The opera people were left with the smaller hall. Actually they still would have been in trouble even in the larger hall, because Utzon had not designed any wing space in that one either. Squeezed by the site, he had rethought the conventions of theatrical lay-out and dreamed up some special machinery which would enable the fly-tower to do the work of the wings as well. There is good reason to believe that the conventions of stage management — by which what can’t be flown from a bar is pushed on from the side — are no more susceptible of being re-thought than the laws of gravity, but in the event the whole question became academic. The halls were swapped, the hugely expensive stage machinery was scrapped like TSR-2, and the opera and ballet people were left with a small hall almost devoid of wing-space. Sir Robert Helpmann, who later became a valued resident producer, pointed out at the time a truth which no amount of subsequent euphoria has ever quite managed to falsify — that La Scala doesn’t look too terrific from outside but it’s got everything you want inside, whereas the Sydney Opera House looks like a billion dollars but hasn’t got what it takes where it counts.

It has been said that the Opera House should never have been called that in the first place, since it was always meant to be an entertainment complex in which opera would be only one function. In Australia the word ‘function’ applies to any kind of staged event no matter how grand, but as the Sydney Function Centre the project wouldn’t have sold a single lottery ticket. The people, with a sure democratic instinct, know that the Opera House belongs to them. Only the intelligentsia is ever foolish enough to believe that opera is élitist. The common people are well aware that melody is a blessing from Heaven which, although by definition not given to everyone, can be given to anyone. When Joan Sutherland won the Sun Aria Competition and sailed for Europe, she had Australia behind her as if she had been challenging for the America’s Cup. The main reason why the Opera House now sells out every seat of the year is the general assumption, which no amount of sophisticated argument has yet contrived to dispel, that an opera consists principally of beautiful sound. In this respect, the smaller hall is as much a success as the larger one, if not more so. Voices sound rich and lift easily, so that in the first row of the circle the ensemble singing will push you back in your seat and a soprano’s upper register will massage your scalp.

On my first trip back to Sydney I was depressed to see, from an only moderately angled seat, the corps de ballet in The Sleeping Beauty queuing up to get off through a doorway in a solid brick wall and the Bluebird trying to achieve, from a standing start, the kind of mid-air entrance that not even Nijinsky could manage without room to run up. You can’t, I correctly deduced, swing a cat back there. But by now, several years later, when I have become used to flying home again every so often, the Opera House looks a more and more cheering sight down there on the left-hand side of the sinking 747 as it lines up to land. Visiting the place, one still sees the limitations, but accepts them as quirks. When Wagner is put on, the orchestra can’t be the size he specified, there not being enough room in the pit. So in effect you have got a building that does less than Bayreuth at a thousand times the price. But although the cramped working space is a drawback impossible to gloss over, the gifted resident designer Luciana Arrighi has made a virtue of the restricted stage. The current Trovatore, with its brooding stage picture of funereal black and impassioned purple, grown strongly on the spot instead of weakly imported, looks both unique and integrated, a true belonging of the house. And on the first night of spring this year the production made a beautiful noise to go with the pictures. Rita Hunter looked as if she had perhaps made the occasional afternoon trip around to Harry’s Café de Wheels at Woolloomooloo, but she sounded glorious; the lady singing Azucena had a gold-rush chest-voice like Zinka Milanov; and Manrico, as well as being built like a block of four home units, sang to strip the brushbox plywood off the roof of the auditorium.

As a baby opera house, the opera auditorium within the function centre known as the Sydney Opera House is a place to be glad about. If a full-scale opera auditorium should become an absolute necessity instead of just something regrettable for its absence — if, that is, the world really does turn upside-down and Sydney becomes one of its great artistic capitals instead of just the very pleasant city that it is today — then perhaps another Utzonesque edifice could be built on a nearby headland. There are plenty of prime sites, all the know-how is still in the computer, and the current building is such a living creature that it is sad to see it so alone.

Meanwhile, in addition to its practical capacities, the Opera House admirably serves whatever symbolic functions are imposed upon it. Earlier on, it symbolised local-yokel cultural pretension, which placed the order for a bobby-dazzler of an opera house without stopping to find out whether the actual operas could be put on inside it. Later on it has come to symbolise a new, confident national ability to see a dream through to reality and love the result even for its faults. On a world scale, it symbolises the belated but total rebellion against the doctrinal architectural precept that form must follow function: the shells have nothing to do with the shape of what happens inside them, they are true only to themselves, and to the joy of the spirit. But finally and lastingly the Opera House symbolises the barbarian’s thirst for beauty, towards which he sails open-mouthed, breaking everything he touches but bringing a precious gift of his own — new energy.

Observer Magazine, 23 October, 1983