Throughout its 50 years as a symbol of Sydney – and shorthand for Australia to the rest of the world – drama has never been confined just to the stages of the Sydney Opera House. From its earliest days as an Indigenous meeting point for dancing, feasting and celebrating, Bennelong Point has always drawn a crowd.
None quite so large as the million people who flocked to the harbour foreshore the day Queen Elizabeth II officially the opened the Opera House on October 20, 1973, after nearly two decades, two architects and plenty of headlines.
More than 10,000 workers from more than 90 countries were involved in its construction, following the designs of Danish architect Jorn Utzon, who quit halfway through due to cost disputes with the government of the day, and Peter Hall, the Australian architect who picked up the pieces.
And it has welcomed the most famous of guests: everyone from Nelson Mandela to Princess Diana, ABBA to Lizzo have walked its famous steps. Even the Pope visited in 1986.
Indoors, singers including Ella Fitzgerald, Bob Dylan, Joan Sutherland and Luciano Pavarotti have reached for the rafters, while actors such as Cate Blanchett and Richard Roxburgh stalked its stages. And outdoors, on the Opera House forecourt, cultural history has been made, over and over, from 1979’s Concert of the Decades (which saw 29 Australian rock acts including Marcia Hines, Sherbet and Skyhooks playing to a crowd of 250,000) to Crowded House’s iconic farewell concert in 1996.
In the visual arts, too, the Opera House has made its mark. The building’s soaring sails – covered in over a million tiles – have provided inspiration for artists such John Olsen, Brett Whiteley and Ken Done.
These days, almost 11 million people visit annually, many drawn to one of the 1800 performances staged each year. And it’s a permanent 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.
Today, as CEO Louise Herron reflects, the Opera House “is a place where we want people to be empowered and uplifted and entertained… we have to live up to our ambition to be everyone’s house.”