From New South Wales to Old South Wales; Judith Isherwood Is Widely Credited for Turning around the Fortunes of the Sydney Opera House. She Takes Up Her Appointment as Chief Executive of the Wales Millennium Centre in March. We Asked Arts Writer of the Sydney Morning Herald Joyce Morgan If She Has What It Takes to Make It an International Success Story

Article excerpt

Byline: Joyce Morgan

Judith Isherwood is a behind-the-scenes player whose role has been to draw audiences to the Sydney Opera House. Attracting an audience for herself is not part of the job. But it can happen by accident.

Her largest audience came as a surprise. It was during the Sydney 2000 Olympics on the night Aboriginal runner Cathy Freeman was scheduled to run in her premier 400-metre event.

Not that Isherwood was present. Instead she was in her office at the Sydney Opera House with her back to the window and its expansive harbour view.

As she caught up on the seemingly endless paperwork of an arts administrator, she turned on the television. She watched transfixed as Freeman raced to gold then fell to her knees in bewildered thanks - an image beamed to millions worldwide - and to a few not so far away.

``When I turned around there were 200 people outside my window watching my TV through the glass,'' she says.

But it is live performances of a different sort that have been Isherwood's focus during her three years as Director of Performing Arts at the Sydney Opera House. As she prepares to take up her appointment next month as chief executive of the Wales Millennium Centre, she leaves an Opera House which has over the past five years successfully embraced new and younger audiences and developed closer ties with the arts companies who perform there.

Broadening the audience base is a challenge all performing arts complexes face, and the Sydney Opera House is essentially that. The title of the iconic building that emerges like a giant white sea shell near Sydney's Harbour Bridge is misleading. Certainly opera is performed, but only for two thirds of the year and only in one of its five venues - not even in its biggest venue. So there's a lot more to the Opera House than productions of Rigoletto and The Magic Flute. There is a concert hall - the largest venue - two drama venues and a new studio space for experimental work.

One is tempted to add a sixth venue since the large outdoor forecourt area during Isherwood's tenure has been used as a performance area over summer, a move that has not been without its critics.

Isherwood arrived at the Sydney Opera House with a brief to change the hall-for-hire approach to programming it had taken since it opened in 1973.

Although four performing arts companies - Opera Australia, The Australian Ballet, the Sydney Theatre Company and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra - are the Opera House's main users, it wanted to rethink how the venues were used when these companies were not performing.

The approach had been to fill in the gaps with shows already on the touring circuit. Isherwood, together with then chief executive Michael Lynch adopted a more active approach.

Instead of waiting for the phone to ring, they would seek out appropriate work, commission work or develop partnerships with arts companies. That is, the Opera House would take a more curatorial role. There was much initial nervousness among the major hirers who feared they might find their seasons cut or changed to suit their landlord's more active role.

Isherwood joined the Opera House in the aftermath of a highly public spat over competition to use one of the venues. The Sydney Theatre Company feared it might lose out to the Sydney Festival, a three-week annual event, in getting access to the Drama Theatre, its principal and most profitable venue.

In the brawl that followed, the com-bative former head of the Sydney Theatre Company, Wayne Harrison, threatened to carry scenery for his show over the heads of Sydney Festival patrons. …