Winged Victory: The Sydney Opera House

Australian poet and author Peter Nicholson writes 3QD’s Poetry and Culture column (see other columns here). There is an introduction to his work at and at the NLA.

                                    UNESCO WORLD HERITAGE June 28, 2007

In the middle of a hot Australian summer, a new Cross City Tunnel forcing motorists to use its subterranean tendrils, road closures making drivers either succumb to its expensive ease or find new ways about, tempers at breaking point, one suddenly caught a glance of the Sydney Opera House, out of the corner of the eye. There, centring the whole city of Sydney, this amazing building still had the power to overwhelm with its leaping shells, its suggestion of ascent to an empyrean. Fruit rinds, sails, wings—each person chooses their own imagery. How far removed from the sweat and fury on the roads below. What Platonic perfection, in contrast to the swearing and rising blood pressure of infuriated drivers. How different a response, at least from me, to grotesque outrages on the spirit such as Mies van der Rohe’s Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin.

SydneyoperahouseBut then, not wholly, for the history of the Sydney Opera House also reveals failure and tragedy. The physical splendour of those gleaming shells which has contained so much artistic splendour hides great bitterness and grief.  [Photograph by Darren Helsby.]

Most Australians think of Joern Utzon, the architect of the Opera House, as the great Dane, the architect who gave us this building which seems to draw all the horizontals and verticals of the city about its rinds. Yet this man was forced to leave mid-construction after cost blowouts and design problems ran up against philistine government policy. A great deal of dirty pool was played and Utzon’s reputation was besmirched. Another team of architects took over the completion of the interior of the building leaving its artistic integrity compromised and in need of an expensive makeover. Where the money is to come from is the problem. This icon requires plentiful supplies of it, and always will. Recently, the State government has re-established links with the architect and there are now long-term plans for renewal, some of which have already been implemented.

I have been attending performances there since its opening. Even as a student I went on the occasional tour when it seemed as if one had strayed onto some gigantic Mayan temple. There are some evocative photos of the Opera House in this early pupating phase by David Moore. The first performance took place when Paul Robeson sang ‘Joe Hill’ in 1960 at the invitation of the Building Workers Industrial Union, prophetic intimation of the necessity for blood sacrifice on the temple steps.

Utzon left Australia, eventually taking up residency in Majorca, after being given the thumbs down not only by the New South Wales state government, but also by his colleagues back home. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were about, waiting to dispatch Hamlet at the first opportunity. The Queen eventually did get round to opening the building in spectacular style in 1973, but the excited crowds, the flotilla of vessels on the harbour, the planes overhead, hid the shadow side of this architectural leap to the sublime. However, one could go back further in history to come up with an even greater tragedy than Utzon’s.

In the foyer of the Concert Hall there is a bust of Sir Eugène Goossens, the man who first proposed an opera house for Sydney, a home for the performing arts. He fought for it, charmed politicians who eventually came up with the competition that brought forth Utzon. Goossens’ energy, persistence and foresight brought the Sydney Opera House from idea to reality. He had come to Australia to lead the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and head the NSW Conservatorium of Music after brilliant work with Stravinsky and other moderns in Europe and America. All was going swimmingly until Goossens was intercepted on arrival at Mascot airport, back from one of his overseas trips, and found to be carrying with him rather mild forms of pornography that would hardly raise an eyebrow today. Revelations about a relationship with a local celebrity, Rosaleen Norton, the ‘white witch’ of Kings Cross followed on from an orgy of splenetic baying by the press, and Goossens lost his job as Chief Conductor. Exiled in England, he died six years later. As I said, human, all-too-human, the Nietzschean imperative part and parcel of the building down by Circular Quay.

What one has seen and heard there in the decades since its opening: muck-against-glory Strindberg in the Drama Theatre, Bette Davis with her trademark ‘what a dump’ mannerisms, a superb concert-version Ring cycle under the direction of Edo de Waart. And there were plenty of surprises too: the USSR State Symphony Orchestra with Yevgeni Svetlanov tearing through Rachmaninov’s First Symphony, Leonie Rysanek transforming herself into a teenager as Sieglinde, the young French-Canadian conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin setting the Concert Hall ablaze with Bruckner when we expected an also-ran after Maazel cancelled. And the great missed opportunities. Ella Fitzgerald! She’ll be back—she never was. What a susurration of the soul has threaded its way beneath and around those shells with theatre, ballet and opera; political demonstrations, recitals and readings; conferences, music, music, music; eating and drinking, dancing, tourists; the solace of the great performance to renovate a spirit at the end of its tether; the weeks of the Olympics, a special feeling, the air like champagne, a general feeling of goodwill.

And yet. There are things still worse than exile, more joyful than sporting celebrations. Go beyond the towering, powder blue sky with its Brancusi curves, back beyond the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to, past the old Tram Shed on Bennelong Point where the Sydney Opera House now stands, beyond colonial hard times when floggings, leg irons and rum ruled the roost, to a dusty evening, just as afternoon’s rose fades before the ghosts of spirit ancestors. Aboriginal people—the Cadigal, the Cammeraygal—are fishing around the harbour’s edge. Thousands of years of cultural adaptation are about to undergo severest trauma. Over the horizon sails are approaching—Dutch, French, and British. Dispossession is on the way.

And then again to the present. A performance has finished. The wind drops and evening’s purple dissolves into the swirling waters of the harbour. Crowds have dispersed and you are left to your own devices. John Olsen’s mural tribute to Kenneth Slessor’s poem ‘Five Bells’ stretches out into the darkness beyond. Suddenly, the whole panoply of human endeavour raises its mighty yearning edifice before you with its intolerable cruelties, its inexplicable greatness, imagination’s parallel universe moulding itself through the sculpture whose stairs you descend towards home. Mahler and Shakespeare are echoing in the shells, lithe limbs reaching apotheosis in the Rose Adagio, with cheering, waves of applause, first visits and last glimpses. Before you, above you, around you, is the winged victory of human aspiration made visible in concrete, steel and tile. The Sydney Opera House stands, not phantasmagoric, something inspiration, technology and sheer hard work brought forth at the cusp of city and ocean, yacht sails and ferry lights disappeared in evening.

A glimpse of the Sydney Opera House from a mess of traffic. The spirit is refreshed and your blood pressure eases, architectural lines tracing from paper the nervelines of our best intentions, metamorphosing into reality, not dissolving into thin air. Silence is best then. The heart, vexed but not yet cynical muscle, is too full to say anything more.


A kookaburra’s blubbering laugh
Skids above the gumtrees’ lean,
Shards of light rekindling
Harbour’s blue acetylene.

And blossoms large as bruises fall
In supplication where a swirl
Of wings divide this limping air,
Cresting over beachs’ foil,

Roundabouts of coastal wrap,
Sandstone blocks and bitumen,
Miles of terracotta roofs
Sloped to sheer oblivion.

Flesh abrades in shower and bed
Geographies for loving,
Hillside muscles slumped
On salted sheets’ revisions.

Cockatoo headline of Opera House sails
Flashes its crest near the Quay
As night’s shenanigans up at the Cross
Dwindle to weak cups of tea.

Pulseline of buildings mortgages trains
Where Heralds flap into position,
Row upon row of white collars creased,
Timetables laughed at by larrikins.

Westwards to afternoon, reaching at bush,
Grids sweat time from the crowd,
Circling emerald’s eucalypt swash
Strking sunset down.

Then, past backyards, over the mountains,
Images float to the brain,
Tethered by dreaming in suburbs
Beside the Pacific’s black sheen.

Heralds: The Sydney Morning Herald  Written 1993
Lines 17 and 18 from this poem were used in a booklet (poetry and photographs) given to official guests at the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games, along with work by Henry Lawson, Douglas Stewart, David Campbell, Judith Wright, Judith Beveridge and others.