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The rainbow stage

Some of the Opera House's most defining performances by LGBTIQ+ artists

The LGBTIQ+ community and the arts have always been linked, both in form and spirit. Throughout the city’s history, the Sydney Opera House has represented what is just a fraction of these stories, giving artists like Stephen Fry, Anohni and Hannah Gadsby a stage to present their works and their careers—creative and intimate—to all audiences. Just how many LGBTI artists, staff and audiences have been part of the story of Tubowgule is impossible to quantify—especially when we consider the personal transformations made by people over the course of a lifetime, or how all queer histories emerge from an era of secrecy, struggle and “code”.

This year, to celebrate Mardi Gras 40th anniversary, an Opera House float will roll up Oxford Street for the first time in the parade’s history. Titled Out at the House, the glittering float will feature a 10-metre sparkling replica of the Opera House's famous sails and a 70-strong group of marching ushers, dancers and orchestra members, led by the legendary Dame Joan Sutherland, played by long-time Opera Australia employee Bobby McKenzie.

With just over a week until Mardi Gras, we wanted to take a look at some of the Opera House’s most defining performances by LGBTQI+ artists throughout the years who have contributed to the Opera House and arts community.  

Hannah Gadsby

She's best known for her laughs, playing a lesbian who committed herself after having a breakdown in the supermarket in Josh Thomas’ ABC show Please Like Me, and winner of the Comedy Award at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. In Nanette, which sold out two Playhouses and two Concert Halls at her Opera House season, she tells a different story—how she grew up treated like an outsider, homeless and dealing with depression in an isolated town in Tasmania. The show was crowned with the Barry Award in 2017, the Melbourne International Comedy Festival’s highest award. “No. [It’s not comedy] It’s narrative,” she told the Sydney Morning Herald. “It was a really good theatrical device that gave me the freedom to say what I really thought.”

Hannah Gadsby

Anohni

In 2005, Anohni—then known as Antony—sung Leonard Cohen’s ‘If It Be Your Will’ to an amazed Concert Hall audience. It awoke Australia to a new voice. Five years later, the artist returned with their band, Antony and the Johnsons, and a full Australian orchestra, giving new breadth to the voice Sydney had fallen in love with over the years. In 2016, now appearing as Anohni, she headlined Vivid LIVE festival with the same powerful voice buffed by the explorative electronics of Oneohtrix Point Never and Hudson Mohawke. It was the perfect statement for an artist reinvented, each visit a reinvention both intimately and artistically.

k.d. lang

The All You Can Eat tour and album followed lang’s Grammy winning Ingenue and the international attention garnered by becoming one of the first popular artists ever to have come out publicly. Her debut in Sydney was highly anticipated. She appeared behind black silk, in silhouette crooning the song Sexuality. Before too long the silk dropped to reveal her with her band to an intensely excited Concert Hall. On completing the song lang quipped “Sydney. At Last!”. She has returned since, appearing with the Sydney Symphony and with Tony Bennet.

Stephen Fry

''I'm not a stand-up comedian, I have no act," he said. "So tonight we might do an experiment.'' The mastermind behind QI seized the Concert Hall stage in brilliant form, bouncing between Twitter suggestions from the crowd to dipping into his early life, his ability to be an ordinary child, and how he discovered Australia's penchant for wine on a trip down under in the '80s'  

 

Robert Helpmann

The dancer, actor, director and choreographer was an Opera House powerhouse. It was after his legacy that the lauded Helpmann Awards, acknowledging excellence in the performing arts, were named. In 1983, the 60th year of his career, Helpmann directed Romeo et Juliette for The Australian Opera in the Concert Hall, re-choreographed The Display for The Australian Ballet in the Opera Theatre, and in the Drama Theatre starred in The Cobra (by Justin Fleming, dir. Richard Wherret) for resident company Sydney Theatre Company. A portrait of Helpmann by Judy Cassab hangs in the foyer of what is now the Joan Sutherland Theatre and Tyler Coppin’s award winning portrayal of him in Lyrebird played in the Playhouse in 1999, presented by Sydney Theatre Company.

 

Taylor Mac

A night with Taylor Mac is like stepping into a free-for-all jukebox in drag. For Comparison is Violence, or the Ziggy Stardust meets Tiny Tim Songbook the drag royalty took over the Studio, sequined from head to toe with a flaming red wig. He performed in a mutant cross between David Bowie's iconic Ziggy Stardust (dressed in full glam) and Tiny Tim (with ukulele and plenty of falsetto), threading bits of anecdotes and intimate exchange with the legendary songs of the legends he wore.

 

Stuart Challender

Resident conductor with The Australian Opera and later chief conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra (1987-1991), Challender made an immense contribution to the arts in Australia, notably touring internationally with the orchestra in the late eighties. Challender died of AIDS related illness in 1991, having been one of the first major arts figures to note, while still working, that he had the syndrome. He conducted a new production of Der Rosenkavalier to a standing ovation in the Opera Theatre less than three months before his death.

 

Vivid LIVE's Studio parties - Club Kooky 18th, Goodgod Minceteria!

Sydney’s queer institution was lifted from Oxford Street into the Studio for their coming-of-age 18th birthday in the Opera House’s own club. A few years later, two underground worlds collided—Goodgod Small Club and House of Mince—for a mutant New York era catwalk with DJ decks suspended in a castle above the dance floor.

 

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