Skip Links
Close Search

Zindzi Okenyo tells House Stories

From audience member to performer to podcast host, Zindzi Okenyo has a unique connection with the Sydney Opera House.

Nicole Russo

Our podcast House Stories returns with Season 2: The Concert Hall, exploring the stories of this iconic space and the people and performances that have made it what it is. To celebrate the occasion, we chat with actor, musician, presenter and host of House Stories Zindzi Okenyo who reflects on her special time recording the podcast, unearthing Concert Hall history and even touching the roof.


As host of House Stories Season 2, you've delved into the stories of other people's relationship with the Concert Hall – often described as the beating heart of the Opera House – but what is your favourite memory of the Concert Hall?

Erykah Badu was in the Concert Hall and that was just absolutely astounding. That was many, many years ago. I actually don't know what year but I had a side seat and it was great. She kept looking back, and I'm just a huge fan. I grew up listening to her and a lot of R&B and hip-hop. That was the first time I saw a non-classical artist in that space and it was just really, really amazing. Also, as a performer, it was inspiring to see the heights of where you can go and what you can achieve.


Erykah Badu performing in the Concert Hall, 2012. Credit: Prudence Upton

You've performed at the Opera House, you've been an audience member, and now podcast host, what do you think your relationship and perspective of the Opera House is and was? And how do you think it has changed since recording this podcast?

Yeah, it's really fascinating. When the podcast came out and everyone in my world started talking about it , it really was amazing, because it reminded me of how incredible it is to have the opportunity to do this podcast, about such an iconic building that holds a place in so many people's hearts. 

For me, I've been fortunate to perform there many times and in different spaces. At the beginning of the recording of the podcast, we got to go in and look at the Concert Hall with all the scaffolding in place and when I recently went back, just before the podcast launched, I got to see those final touches to the venue being made. I already had an appreciation for the building, because of what it's brought to my life as a performer, but after hearing from all of these people who had a connection to the venue and all of the production managers and construction workers who have worked on its renewal,  I had this opportunity to go deeper and look at the details and hear about how bespoke it is and how complex but also how invigorating and exciting it is for those people working on the project. Such a unique task, considering its heritage. I now really have such a deeper understanding of  a beauty that was already there for me. I feel really really lucky.

 

In the podcast we hear you walk in when all the scaffolding was still up and everything was stripped bare. What was that like to see everything in such a raw state?

As an audience member, you have the experience of walking into a space, it's all clean and clear and you might be taking in a set, or you might be taking in the instruments or performers that might already be on stage. And then as a performer, you get to experience what it’s like backstage and that's super exciting, to see the bones of a building that maybe you've experienced as an audience member. But then having this experience of just seeing it in this state with mess everywhere, and construction workers and  scaffolding completely filling the entire space. It wasn't just here and there, it was filling the entire space. So suddenly there was a really different relationship for me. It felt really, really special. And we actually got to go up onto some of the scaffolding. We were guided up there, and I got to touch the roof, which was amazing. It's a small thing, but it's pretty incredible, because you'd never have that opportunity without scaffolding. So it was just very, very special.


Zindzi attending a guided tour of the Concert Hall during construction.

When you were recording or, before you started recording, was there anything you were surprised to learn along the way, either throughout the history or to where we're at today?

Yeah, so I obviously knew about Jørn [Utzon], but it was really cool to learn about Peter Hall and his contribution. How he came to work on the interiors after Utzon resigned. That was really fascinating to me. I had no idea about that. As excited as I was to learn about the future of where it's going to go and how the Concert Hall is changing – especially the acoustics and the ability to be able to move through different genres and performances – I actually really loved the historical aspects. And also just hearing about the writing on the wall and all of the people that have been there, it really puts everything into perspective.  

You briefly touched upon the acoustic mode and amplified mode for both classical and contemporary music performances, what do you think audiences are going to be most surprised to experience when they walk in the hall for the first time after two and a half years of it being closed?

It'll be the petals as opposed to the doughnuts, I think. They are so beautiful. That magenta –they're visually striking. So if you didn't notice that anything was up there before, you're certainly going to notice it now and I think that there's such a beautiful relation between the petals and the seating and the aesthetic is just stunning. I'm really excited. My first concert there after reopening  is going to be Leon Bridges in October, and I'm really excited to experience the new acoustics.


Time-lapse showing construction work in the Concert Hall

You've performed at the Opera House, you've been an audience member, and now podcast host, what do you think your relationship and perspective of the Opera House is and was? And how do you think it has changed since recording this podcast?

Yeah, it's really fascinating. When the podcast came out and everyone in my world started talking about it , it really was amazing, because it reminded me of how incredible it is to have the opportunity to do this podcast, about such an iconic building that holds a place in so many people's hearts. 

For me, I've been fortunate to perform there many times and in different spaces. At the beginning of the recording of the podcast, we got to go in and look at the Concert Hall with all the scaffolding in place and when I recently went back, just before the podcast launched, I got to see those final touches to the venue being made. I already had an appreciation for the building, because of what it's brought to my life as a performer, but after hearing from all of these people who had a connection to the venue and all of the production managers and construction workers who have worked on its renewal,  I had this opportunity to go deeper and look at the details and hear about how bespoke it is and how complex but also how invigorating and exciting it is for those people working on the project. Such a unique task, considering its heritage. I now really have such a deeper understanding of  a beauty that was already there for me. I feel really really lucky.

 

In the podcast we hear you walk in when all the scaffolding was still up and everything was stripped bare. What was that like to see everything in such a raw state?

As an audience member, you have the experience of walking into a space, it's all clean and clear and you might be taking in a set, or you might be taking in the instruments or performers that might already be on stage. And then as a performer, you get to experience what it’s like backstage and that's super exciting, to see the bones of a building that maybe you've experienced as an audience member. But then having this experience of just seeing it in this state with mess everywhere, and construction workers and  scaffolding completely filling the entire space. It wasn't just here and there, it was filling the entire space. So suddenly there was a really different relationship for me. It felt really, really special. And we actually got to go up onto some of the scaffolding. We were guided up there, and I got to touch the roof, which was amazing. It's a small thing, but it's pretty incredible, because you'd never have that opportunity without scaffolding. So it was just very, very special.


Construction work underway in the Concert Hall.  Images: Anna Kucera

Throughout the recording process, were there any challenges you came across or any hurdles along the way?

Definitely, I mean, the pandemic was a huge hurdle. We started out recording in the Opera House, in the studios there, which was where I had that experience of being able to actually go to the Concert Hall, walk around, see and feel the building. And so that was awesome but, unfortunately, we only had a day of that and then we went back into lockdown. So as well as recording in the Opera House, I also recorded at home just with the home setup. And I also went to another studio in Redfern, so it's taken a while to get here. Probably a harder job for the engineers. That was a real shame, not to be able to spend more time in the Opera House.

 

What does the Concert Hall represent to you?

I think, being a performer, it really represents a pinnacle of success and a very important moment in your career. If I was to ever perform there, it's a moment to stop and really take stock. I've already felt that kind of sense working in the other theaters in the Studio, Drama Theatre, Playhouse, and you just feel there's a reverence there and it's a moment to be proud. That's a very performance centric view but it's an extraordinary space. Speaking to all of the engineers, and understanding how much work has been put into this project , they were so deeply involved in the detail, so proud to be part of the renewal. So I think that that actually does breed a culture, and  you can feel that in the building. It's so welcoming. 

You may also like...

housestories-s2-web-1600x1200.jpg

Listen to House Stories - Podcast

Uncover fascinating stories of the Opera House’s rich cultural heritage and design legacy in our new podcast series exploring the building as a work of art and the artwork within it.

concerthall-flaminglips-1600x1200.jpg

Work begins to transform the Concert Hall for a new era

Better sound, better access and more ambitious performances will be enabled by a $150 million upgrade and renovations.

mad-max-4x3.jpg

Sydney Opera House to scale

A visual story about what it means to build the Sydney Opera House in 2020.