The Sydney Opera House had not one but two gala opening nights. On Friday, September 28, 1973, Opera Australia, then known as the Australian Opera, gave the first performance in the spanking new opera theatre.
The work, which might be seen as a metaphor for the battles that preceded the triumphal conclusion of the building saga, was Sergei Prokofiev's War and Peace based on Leo Tolstoy's novel.
The choice was made by the company's then music director and chief conductor, Edward Downes, who considered it apt on three grounds – it had never been performed in Australia; unlike conventional operas it offered solo roles, large and small, for dozens of singers and was therefore a great vehicle for demonstrating the depth of talent in the company at the time, and, like the building in which it was performed, it was a 20th-century masterpiece.
There is perhaps another irony in the choice. Prokofiev died in 1953 having never heard his opera performed and the Danish architect Jorn Utzon, sacked by a philistine minister for works, never saw his remarkable and if compromised masterpiece completed and never heard a note of live music in it.
Ah, but we did. And what a night that was. We walked not up the inside stairs but the outside ones, approaching the great looming sails with the kind of awe and reverence experienced by faithful pilgrims ascending the steps of the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela after their long journey. Le tout Sydney was there, dressed to kill. One grande dame even turned up in a tiara.
Jokes about the building resembling a bunch of nuns in a scrum or a drying rack loaded with broken plates were behind us. Scepticism had evaporated. The genius of the building was finally acknowledged. Here we had – finally! – a real opera house for Sydney. Not the Tivoli near Central Railway or the Elizabethan Theatre in Newtown but a dedicated home for serious music and a building of transcendent beauty, at that. It was and still is, 40 years since opening night, THE Opera House, a symbol not only of its home city but also of the nation.
But there was more to come. The next night was the inaugural presentation in the concert hall – 2500 music lovers packed out the house for a performance by the Sydney Symphony under the internationally renowned Australian conductor Charles Mackerras (like Downes, he too was subsequently knighted) with the mighty Swedish soprano Birgit Nilsson, the greatest Wagner singer of the age, as the soloist. If Jessye Norman draped in a tricolor and borne aloft on a float through the streets of Paris while singing the Marseillaise remains the imperishable image of the 1989 festivities marking the 200th anniversary of the storming of the Bastille, so Nilsson in rhubarb silk and spangles facing her audience like a wild Valkyrie is the image I hold in memory of that spine-tingling first night.
At the beginning of the second act of Wagner’s opera Tannhauser, the saintly Elizabeth bursts on to an empty stage to deliver a lung-busting aria of praise to the hall in which her lover is to compete for a song prize. The aria is Dich teure Halle which translates literally as ‘‘This dear hall’’, and opera wags were quick the get the unintended pun on the world ‘‘dear’’. Dear it had been. A lottery had to be run to fund it. Costs had risen stratospherically during construction. There had been a mud fight in the media and the appalled genius who imagined it had long fled the country.
But even without savings from the shortcuts insisted on by the egregious works minister Davis Hughes – premier Robert Askin’s apparatchik and Utzon’s nemesis – this great building was the bargain of all time. It’s a magnet for dollars. Seven million people visit it annually. Yes, it’s costly to maintain but few punters would object to another lottery to help out. It’s ours and will always be.
While to Nilsson goes the honour of being the first voice heard in the Sydney Opera House, there had been an earlier moment, in 1960, when another legendary singer, the African-American bass Paul Robeson stood among the scaffolding of the then unroofed concert hall and sang to the hard-hatted building workers. Blacklisted as a communist in his country during the grotesque McCarthy era for his views on equality, freedom and equal treatment for workers, Robeson was a hero of the working classes and the film of him singing for the horny-handed, singlet-wearing Aussie construction workers is still a deeply moving example of the power of music to transcend politics.
Australia being not yet a republic, Nilsson, reigning queen of Bayreuth and every other great opera house and concert hall in the world, was followed a month later by the inevitable stiff visitor from Buckingham Palace.
On October 20, in a ceremony on the forecourt and flanked by her consort, the Queen, having joined the queue behind Wagner and Strauss, performed the ‘‘official’’ opening, her cut-crystal accent in the starkest contrast to the refulgent sounds we had heard at the serious opening nights.
That evening, HM heard a performance by the Sydney Symphony of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. Two nights later she was at a performance of The Magic Flute. Both events must have been torture for her as she is known to loathe classical music and endures it as rarely as possible.
The ABC had won the battle for the larger theatre and so it was this organisation that chose two programs for the concert hall opening. Mackerras’ magisterial concert was followed by one of equal importance.
The second night brought us America’s fabled Cleveland Orchestra under the conductor Lorin Maazel. Again Nilsson was the soloist, her voice a mighty set of bellows in two of opera’s most challenging death scenes, the Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde and the closing scene from Richard Strauss’s bloody opera Salome. There was no talk of imperfect acoustics on any of these three unforgettable nights. The two orchestras filled every nip and tuck in Utzon’s great sails, as did the singers in War and Peace. And Nilsson? Well, her voice had such phenomenal amplitude that she could have been heard in an open-air Olympic stadium without amplification.
Here was a voice that could fill a stadium let alone a huge hall. It cut through the orchestra of 110 players like a warm knife through butter. For four decades these memories of the first nights on Bennelong Point have stayed as fresh as they were in real time.
Opera is defined as dramma per musica and there has been much musica and lots of dramma both on and off stage in the past 40 years. But that is what theatre and live performance are about. One can have wished for more political vision and the kind of courage displayed by the architect and his supporters. But we have what the famed architectural critics Geoffrey and Susan Jellico described in their monumental Landscape of Man as the last romantic building on earth.
No matter how often one sees it, shimmering under the Sydney sun, wet with rain, en grisaille at dawn or, most beautifully, by pale moonlight, it still surprises.
The magician who conjured it never returned from Denmark so we could do him the honour he deserved but at least another significant figure will do so, Denmark’s Crown Princess, a latter but similarly admired figure and a link between our countries. Princess Mary is adored in her country just as the architect from distant Scandinavia who conceived our Opera House is revered in the wayward country that gave him the chance to build his monument.
However flawed we may think it is inside, at 40 its exterior remains a great beauty whose appeal grows stronger with age.