Out of Australia: Ghosts echo discord of a house's past

Click to follow
The Independent Online
SYDNEY - During many visits to the Sydney Opera House, I have developed a love-hate relationship with it. The site on Sydney Harbour, with twinkling skyscrapers on one side and the Harbour Bridge on the other, is a dramatic inspiration in itself. When I am inside, though, my calmness invariably builds to a crescendo of rage at the lasting legacy of what can happen when philistine politicians get involved in something dreamed up by visionaries.

As the Opera House celebrates its 20th anniversary this week, thousands of Sydneysiders are recalling their own reactions to this, one of the world's most remarkable and controversial buildings. Ever since the Queen opened it on 20 October 1973, the Opera House has become a national icon, a symbol of how Australians want to be seen around the world. Forget Dame Edna, Foster's lager and Neighbours. The soaring white sails of the Opera House's iconoclastic roof seem to billow a young country's aspirations.

The sails also conceal a dark and turbulent history that says as much about the national character as the building itself. It revolves largely around two towering figures, one now dead, the other in exile, whose stories are being painfully relived this week. Both were broken in their quest to give Sydney one of the world's great performing arts centres.

The first was Eugene Goossens, an English composer and conductor who arrived in Sydney in 1946, aged 53, and dominated its musical life for 10 years. It was Goossens who decided Sydney must have an opera house, who cajoled the authorities into founding one and who chose the site where it was eventually built. 'My heart just loosens when I listen to Goossens,' wrote his friend, Noel Coward. Goos sens gave Joan Sutherland, then a 25-year-old secretary, her first operatic role. He was lionised by Sydney and later knighted.

Then in 1956, returning from a working trip abroad, Goossens was arrested at Sydney airport when customs officers found his luggage stuffed with pornographic books, films and photographs. He pleaded guilty and left Australia six weeks later, shunned and hounded by the city which once flocked to his concerts. He died in England in 1962. The Strange Case of Eugene Goossens, the title of a book on the affair by Ava Hubble, remains one of Australia's great unsolved mysteries. And, if his name is unfamiliar to most, it is because it was officially expunged from Opera House records for 30 years. In all the speeches during the Queen's opening in 1973, Goossens was not mentioned once.

Joern Utzon, the brilliant Danish architect who won the 1956 international competition to design the Opera House, also fell foul of Sydney. After a fight with the state government over rocketing costs and problems in making a reality of his revolutionary design, Utzon left Australia and has never returned. Government architects finished his building and left it with an opera theatre that is still inadequate for many productions.

Now 75 and living in Spain, Utzon declined invitations to come back for the Queen's opening and for the celebrations this year. When someone suggested he be brought back to enlarge the building, by appending an extra set of sails, he retorted: 'I wonder how he would feel if I suggested that another movement be added to Beethoven's Sixth Symphony.'

Despite its internal imperfections, the Opera House has become Australia's most successful drawcard, attracting more tourists than either Ayers Rock or the Great Barrier Reef. If Goossens and Utzon were both victims of Australia's 'tall poppy syndrome', cutting heroes down, the Opera House they bequeathed has defined the country's egalitarian cultural style.

Built with gambling money from a special lottery, its stages have hosted performers as diverse as Luciano Pavarotti and Bette Davis. The Beethoven concert which opened the Opera House was re-performed last night. Next week, Clive James does a one-night stand. And in this, the centenary year of his birth, Sir Eugene Goossens has finally been rehabilitated. The foyer now carries a bronze bust of Goossens, and there will be two commemorative concerts to him next month.

There is a third man forever associated with the Opera House. His name was Bennelong, the first Aborigine to learn English, who died an alcoholic in 1813. Bennelong lived on the Opera House site, Bennelong Point, which still carries his name. Sometimes, as you leave at night, the spirits of these departed men seem to whistle about the sails.