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Art with a view: The Forecourt

A visual history of Sydney’s grandest outdoor stage

Justin Tam Online Content Developer

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 (their 2016 reunion on the Forecourt can be watched in full on Stan).

“Our manager at the time thought it was a great way to go out with a bang,” Finn would tell ABC's 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.

It’s different to the high, shadowed ceilings of the Joan Sutherland Theatre or the elegant form of the Concert Hall, which is currently undergoing work.

Since time immemorial Tubowgule, the land on which the Opera House stands, has been a place of gathering and belonging for Australia's First Peoples. The Gadigal and Sydney basin clans met on the tidal island, dance, sing, feast, exchange knowledge and share stories. Each year Dance Rites pays tribute to this long history, seeing the powerful coming together of traditional customs, language and contemporary culture, with hundreds of First Nations dancers from all around Australia and performers from around the world.

At the end of 2017, the Kiwi pop prodigy Lorde became 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.

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, and to this day makes an excellent postcard.

The National have been one of the few to grace the stage of the Forecourt on multiple occasions, delivering a near religious experience in 2014 and again in 2018.

Two Australian music icons, John Butler Trio and Missy Higgins reunited to deliver an unmissable double-bill on the famous famous harbourside stage on Valentine's Day 2019. The incredible performance was part of their first tour together in nearly 15 years.  

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.

Watch Crowded House's 2016 concert in full now on Stan.

Stan is a proud partner of the Sydney Opera House.

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