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News / Theatre & Performance

The Sydney Opera House is not a billboard

Sydney Opera House with 'Not for sale' stamp
Photograph: Creative Commons

It pains us to admit, but Alan Jones got one thing right when he berated Sydney Opera House CEO Louise Herron last Friday for refusing to allow Racing NSW to promote the Everest Cup on the building’s sails: he said the Opera House doesn’t belong to any one person – it belongs to the people of Sydney.

It’s an extraordinary public asset, our city’s most recognisable icon, and arguably the greatest building of the 20th century.

But the battle for the building was a huge struggle – if you think the new Sydney lightrail is over budget and behind schedule, it’s worth remembering that the Opera House was originally projected to cost $7 million and to open in 1963. It ended up costing $102 million (around $1 billion in today’s money) and opened in 1973, a decade late.

There were times when it looked like it would never be completed, and a feud between the architect, Jørn Utzon, and the NSW Government became a matter of public debate. The end result was that Utzon’s original designs were compromised, and the building’s major theatres still have significant problems (which require plenty of imagination and money to overcome).

With the exception of the ongoing cultures of Indigenous Peoples, the Opera House is this country’s greatest cultural asset.

The current conflict isn’t the first between governments who think primarily in budgets, and artists seeking to preserve the integrity of the venue.

This time around, the people of Sydney are making their voices heard, and many are expressing shock and disappointment that the NSW Government has directed the Opera House to allow the promotion. A petition circulating over the weekend has already attracted 160,000 signatures (to put that in perspective, you could fill the Opera House’s Concert Hall 60 times with those people) and there’s a Facebook event for a protest that will shine bright lights onto the sails to disrupt the promotion. So far 2,500 people have said they’re attending.

At Time Out, we’re lucky enough to spend plenty of time at the Opera House, and although there are gripes about some of its theatres, it retains all of its wonder, no matter how many times you climb the monumental steps. It’s a feeling that all of Sydney understands, and there’s something almost spiritual about the experience. In a city where commercial interests so often rule (the Sydney Super Dome had three names in a decade: Acer Arena, Allphones Arena and Qudos Bank Arena), this is a space for us to wonder at human creative endeavour, connect with the people around us, hear stories and better understand what’s in our own hearts. With the exception of the ongoing cultures of Indigenous Peoples, the Opera House is this country’s greatest cultural asset. It is sacred.

Referring to the building as Sydney’s “biggest billboard”, as prime minister Scott Morrison said on the weekend, entirely misses the point of the building.

Of course, everything costs money, and art and commerce are inextricably linked – the Opera House build was largely funded by a lottery (and if you want to talk in dollars and cents, the Opera House contributes $775 million to the Australian economy each year). But plenty of Sydneysiders are insisting that cultural integrity must come first.

For a building named after an artform that’s viewed as exclusive, it’s a surprisingly democratic cultural space.

The venue has upheld cultural integrity over its 45-year history and contributed an extraordinary amount to the city: from the legendary performances of Joan Sutherland, including her farewell in 1990 (in the theatre that would be named after her), to the works of Bangarra Dance Theatre that have emerged from under those sails, gone out into the world, and challenged how we view Australian history. For a building named after an artform that’s viewed as exclusive, it’s a surprisingly democratic cultural space.

It’s true that the building belongs to the people of Sydney, but we also own the collective cultural memory that comes with it. That memory is precious, which is why, to quote Scott Morrison, we’re being “precious” about this issue. Most of us have our Opera House moments, whether they be enjoying a symphony, partying to a band on the forecourt, seeing the sails light up for Vivid, performing in a school choir in the Concert Hall, watching one of Australia’s leading theatre companies reimagine Shakespeare, or discovering a seminal work from an Australian playwright. It’s not a billboard – it’s our Opera House, and must remain so.

Looking to discover more of Sydney's cultural gems? Check out the city's best public art and the best shows this month.