Is there an opera in the house?

Sydney Opera House, designed by Jorn Utzon, had a hellish birth. Coming of age hasn't been much fun either.
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The Independent Culture
For 20 minutes or so of the Manly Ferry's stately progress into the Big End of Town, Sydney's horizon could belong to any of the thrusting cities of South East Asia's convoluted coastlines, walls of glass and concrete reaching for the sky. Then, a 100 metres or so off the starboard bow, the light refracted through the fringe of native eucalypti at Bradley's Head seems to brighten.

The first mother-of-pearl glimpses of those famous sails appear, and, within thirty seconds, the greatest manmade vista of our time has opened, like an oyster shell disclosing its treasure. The edifice at Bennelong Point, nestling beneath the protective arc of the Harbour Bridge, is itself now the subject of an opera. Called The Eighth Wonder, it unfolds another story, of tragedy and farce, inspiration and resentment, expansive vision and small-minded penny-pinching. Now there are the first glimmerings of what could prove a happy ending to the saga of how Sydney got its Opera House while its Danish architect departed, a fallen hero.

Jorn Utzon produced his first freehand sketches as long ago as 1957. For years, they defied engineers' attempts to turn them into geometry - until Utzon himself showed them how the structure could attain three dimensions by the simple expedient of peeling an orange. Though few of them realise it, three million visitors a year are gazing at parts of a perfect sphere.

Why did Sir Norman Foster call the Opera House "the emblematic building of our century"? Paradoxes abound. Utzon called it "a piece of poetry" but the construction relied on the most prosaic of industrial methods. The great sails actually consist of prefabricated concrete chunks, beaded like necklaces on strings of high-tensile steel. The principles of what its creator called "additive architecture" originated not in some contemporary design school, but in Imperial China where scholars laid down the principles of arranging simple elements many times over into a complex whole, as long as 900 years ago.

Fifties Australia was a time and place in which putdowns of the sort perfected by Mark Twain - "a continent peopled entirely by the lower orders" - had begun to sting. New South Wales' Labor premier, JJ Cahill, embarked on that quintessentially modern project of forging a common culture by bringing the arts to the workers - literally so when Paul Robeson visited the building site in 1960 and stirred construction crews with a rendition of "Ol' Man River". Utzon's architectural gleanings brought influences from the Mayans, the Middle East and the Ming dynasty to one of the century's great immigrant cities, and, with them, the sense that here was an expression in modern materials of the multicultural society taking shape on its doorstep.

It means that the Opera House became established largely without the nagging allegations of elitism familiar from discussions of opera in London. As Utzon, speaking to his first Australian interviewer in more than 30 years, recently put it: "The building represents the end of Australia as a colony and the beginning of a republic."

A referendum at the end of next year will prove whether Australians are ready for that commitment, but certainly the building work itself foundered on a collective failure of nerve. By 1965 the podium and sails were in place and Utzon, working increasingly in isolation, was testing plans for the interiors. But costs were spiralling, and Cahill was ousted by a Liberal/Country coalition elected to the statehouse on a promise to shiver some timbers down at the waterfront.

The end was not long in coming. Unbeknownst to the engineers, Utzon was designing a pattern of panels and mullions of stretched plywood "like a walnut inside its shell". The new minister of public works, Davis Hughes, invited the engineers to second-guess him. What material would they use? Steel? Hughes demanded detailed drawings from the architect before he'd release any more funds for models; Utzon said he couldn't produce anything meaningful without building them. In April 1966 he left, never to return, despite thousands gathering at Bennelong Point to demonstrate against his effective dismissal.

If Covent Garden will always struggle to dislodge the issue of elitism from the top of its agenda, Sydney Opera House is forever grappling with the question of what might have been. Hughes's architects, briefed to cut costs, came up with one of their profession's most infamous botch- jobs, which means the ferry passengers who admire it from the outside actually leave with the best impression of the building. Just this week, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra threatened to pull out in five years' time unless major structural work is finally done to improve acoustics in the main hall - a hall that was earmarked for the opera itself until Australia's public broadcaster, the ABC, stepped in to demand a switch.

It means the two main presenting companies have to swap sides for a large production such as Aida, and rows over acoustics and space rumble on. With the latest crescendo, though, came a new note of rapprochement. A Sydney architect, Richard Johnson, has spent the last few days visiting Utzon in his winter residence on Majorca. Dennis Watkins, an Opera House Trustee and librettist for The Eighth Wonder, said the object could never be to revive Utzon's own plans but to capture some of his "special ingenuity" for a revamp capable of taking the building into a second quarter-century.

The ingenious would have to become the superhuman to carry out such a project without serious money, however. One citizen of the putative new republic with unrivalled sight of its potential symbol is the prime minister, John Howard. But his view appears to be ambivalent. For the centenary of Australia's Federation in 2001 there is a fund for projects worth three hundred million pounds, but none is currently set aside for the Opera House. The last Labor government was preparing a bid for listing as a World Heritage Site, but Mr Howard put a stop to that. The House's chief executive, Michael Lynch, said he was "in no doubt" that such a development would strengthen his hand in bidding for public funds.

If plans for an overhaul now stand becalmed, the Opera House still has some life. Under Mr Lynch and his programming manager, Elizabeth Walsh, the House runs an ambitious programme of free events, including a recent festival of circus and physical theatre with performers abseiling from the building. A new studio will be completed in March of next year, with a brief to showcase alternative and contemporary performers. And, lest any visitor interpret the rather woebegone busking by Aborigines at nearby Circular Quay as a reproach to a settler culture, Ms Walsh has booked an a capella group of Indigenous Australians, Tiddas, for a performance on the main stage.

For Australia, the transition from cultural cringe to confidence in its own creative diversity has been a long and difficult one. Judging from Opera Australia's choice for the first offering after the 25th birthday celebrations, a rather stodgy piece by Debussy, there is still a sense that high European culture enjoys a somewhat uncritical reverence. Although a strictly unscientific process of eavesdropping on the audience produced one verdict that it was "a very strange opera" and several more, expressed eloquently with the feet when the interval arrived.

Forthcoming attractions include a proms night of English music, but if, as Australia ponders severing the link with the Crown, there is a growing confidence in seeing through the Emperor's new clothes, then the Opera House has been instrumental in establishing it.