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Art with a view: The Forecourt

A visual history of Sydney's grandest outdoor stage

Justin Tam
Sydney Opera House

In the spring of 1996, thousands of Australians spilled across the Forecourt, full moon glinting above the tip of the main sail.

Some claim at least a hundred thousand people squeezed onto the Monumental Steps; others recall it reached a quarter of a million. To those thousands, frontman Neil Finn bid farewell with one last song. Hey now, hey now … don’t dream it’s over, he sang. It wouldn’t be the last time Crowded House would play.

“Our manager at the time thought it was a great way to go out with a bang,” Finn would tell 7.30 twenty years later. “But I thought it was a bit too grandiose.”

There’s something that makes music different out in the open air. Panoramic sound framed by the temple-like steps, the ocean breeze on a clear night, the backdrop of Sydney ferries and the Harbour Bridge. At the end of this year, the Kiwi pop prodigy Lorde will become the youngest person ever to perform on the Forecourt stage, a fitting place to celebrate an artist at their peak. “It’s one of the grandest gestures the city can make,” Ben Marshall told The Sydney Morning Herald. As the Opera House’s Head of Contemporary Music, Marshall is one of the people tasked with picking the right people to play. “We’re acutely conscious of saving it for what we see as appropriate artistic moments.” A legendary run of Chet Faker, Florence + the Machine and Tame Impala shows held a record 24,000 people in the space of a few weekends.

Florence + The Machine, 2015

"It's not every day you get to be naked on the steps of the Opera House."

It’s different to the high, shadowed ceilings of the Joan Sutherland Theatre – currently undergoing a $71 million renewal – or the elegant form of the Concert Hall. With respect to a 400-year-old artform, Opera Australia realised the Forecourt’s potential when they made the Monumental Steps their stage for The Eighth Wonder, a self-reflective modern work that played out the ‘operatic’ history of the Sydney Opera House. The audience watched an opera played out in front of Jørn Utzon’s billowing sails themselves, a moment that Limelight called “nothing short of a modern operatic miracle.”

While the Opera House might be the eighth wonder, its outdoor venue is often playfully referred to as ‘the eighth stage.’ The Forecourt gives an artist a fresh perspective to the seven traditional indoor spaces. In 2010, during intermission, a crowd stepped out of the Concert Hall into the chilled air. They were at a performance with sitar mastermind Ravi Shankar and his daughter Anoushka. They walked out into thousands of people enraptured by Massive Attack performing ‘Teardrop’. Stages aren’t restricted to their genre; in 1988, Australia celebrated its bicentenary with sheep-shearing, hot air ballooning and ski-jumping into the harbour. It was the venue of choice for Nelson Mandela in 1990 when he spoke of forgiveness after 27 years of imprisonment. Icehouse and the Australian Chamber Orchestra performed ‘Great Southern Land’ to farewell the twentieth century. Oprah ended her Australian tour at the Sydney ‘Oprah’ House to record two episode of her final television series,  joined – via zipline – by Hugh Jackman.

For some, the Forecourt is their canvas on which to paint. "It's not every day you get to be naked on the steps of the Opera House,” said Laura Higman, a British traveller who convinced her best friends to stand bare on the steps, cheek-to-cheek, with five thousand other strangers. Spencer Tunick’s was commissioned originally for Mardi Gras by producer Danielle Harvey – now the Opera House's Head of Contemporary Performance – and to this day makes an excellent postcard.

In a royal purple suit, Neil Finn, his brother Tim and a refreshed Crowded House returned for  their ‘encore’, twenty years after the original farewell. “If we came back every week, would you come?” Finn asked the crowd of five thousand – a fraction of the legendary hundred-thousand punters years ago. The final chords of ‘Better Be Home Soon’ rang out over the harbour. “It’s truly been a transformative night for me tonight,” said Finn. They had three more nights in the evening air of the Forecourt.

Lorde performs two shows on the Forecourt this November. First show sold out, tickets to the second available here.

"It's truly been a transformative night."

Crowded House's Neil Finn performs on the Forecourt, 2016

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