Life and Times of an Australian Icon

By Shawn Donnan , | The Christian Science Monitor, August 11, 2000 | Go to article overview

Life and Times of an Australian Icon


Shawn Donnan ,, The Christian Science Monitor


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 uncompromising nature.

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 Australian culture.

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. …

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