It's a story destined for operatic melodrama: The brilliant
Danish architect labors at his masterpiece, pitted against the local
small-minded politicians. After years of political dirty tricks,
exit the artist, his masterpiece "ruined."
But the tale of architect Joern Utzon and his Sydney Opera House
is as real as it gets. And this month, below the iconic white sails,
it is the subject of an opera of its own.
"The Eighth Wonder" tells the story of the opera house from Mr.
Utzon's winning of a contest in 1956 to his eventual dismissal by a
state concerned about expanding costs and the architect's
But the story of the Sydney Opera House is more than just the
biography of a building.
It is also a telling tale for a nation that, many argue, the
building has helped shape.
"For someone of my generation it [the Opera House] represents so
much," says Dennis Watkins, the author who penned the libretto of
"The Eighth Wonder" and was born in 1954, the year the competition
for the building was announced. "It represents the coming of age of
Australia and all that entails."
Next month the country will be in the world spotlight, thanks to
the Sydney Olympics. Instead of a cultural backwater largely
isolated from the rest of the world, visitors can now experience a
brash, energetic, multicultural nation that is crazy about sports
and yet home to some of the world's best young arts companies, too.
The Opera House "is even more important now," argues Mr. Watkins,
who before turning to writing spent 10 years working as a tour guide
at the building. "It gives an underlying confidence to Australian
artists that one of the great icons of the 20th century sits on a
point in Sydney Harbour." Now, however, Sydney's great icon can seem
dated, especially on the inside. In the coming months a plan for its
refurbishment is set to be unveiled.
The Sydney Opera House is a great reminder that architectural
wonders have the ability to shape the destiny of cities that can
otherwise be ignored by the rest of the world. (Just ask tour
officials in Bilbao, the Spanish industrial city which experienced a
rebirth with the opening of Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum there a
few years ago.)
There's no doubt, says Richard Waterhouse, a cultural historian
who chairs the history department at the University of Sydney, that
the Opera House helped attract international talent that gave Sydney
cultural credibility it hadn't had before.
Clearly the building of the Opera House was part of a confluence
of circumstances over the past half-century which have shaped
Following World War II, thousands of migrants from Eastern and
Southern Europe brought an appetite for high culture to Australia's
then isolated shores. As the Opera House was built, Sydney was still
becoming a city. And in the early 1970s a generation of expatriates
returned to Australia intent on amending the culturally-bereft canon
that drove them away.
Since the early 1970s there have been other changes too, says
Waterhouse, one of those expatriates. …