By 1977, children’s programming was being welcomed into the Opera House with productions of Babar the Elephant and Peter and the Wolf. The following year, low-cost daytime programs began to introduce more young audiences to the performing arts.
As the building’s fame grew, the Opera House attracted an ever-wider universe of stars and world leaders. In 1980, Arnold Schwarzenegger won his final Mr Olympia body-building title in the Concert Hall. Seven years later, the same stage would host Pope John Paul II. In 1990, Nelson Mandela, recently freed from prison after 27 years, spoke of forgiveness to a crowd of 40,000 on the Opera House’s Monumental Steps.
In 1981, the ABC presented a direct radio satellite broadcast to Europe of Camille Saint-Saens’ Symphony No. 3 in C Minor performed by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and organist Michael Dudman. It was heard by millions across Europe and was the first direct radio satellite broadcast from Australia. Two years later, the Opera House marked its 10th anniversary with performances by The Chamber Orchestra of Europe, the London Symphony Orchestra, the Choir of King’s College in Cambridge and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields.
In 1985, the Sydney Opera House Trust presented Music and Dance of the First Australians, the first major program of works by Australia’s First Nations. The pace of Australian works quickened: 1986 saw Voss, an opera based on the novel by Patrick White, composed by Richard Meale to a libretto by David Malouf. Graeme Murphy was also choreographing new works for Sydney Dance Company.
In 1988, as Australia celebrated its bicentenary, the revitalised forecourt became a venue for sheep shearing, hot air ballooning and a demonstration of ski-jumping into the harbour. In 1990, director Baz Luhrmann and designer Catherine Murphy transported Puccini’s La Bohème into 1950s Paris, with Mimi and Rodolfo embracing on a rooftop beside a giant sign in glowing red cursive: L’amour. Seven years later, Luhrmann and Murphy married in front of the same set on the same stage.
By 1995, the extraordinary tale of the Sydney Opera House’s construction had become an opera in itself: Australian Opera’s production of The Eighth Wonder, written by composer Alan John and librettist Dennis Watkins. The following year, more than 100,000 people crammed onto the forecourt and the Monumental Steps to witness Crowded House’s Farewell to the World concert. The Melbourne-born rock group announced they would disband and that the Sydney Opera House was to be their last performance. The evening ended with Don’t Dream it’s Over.
At the turn of the millennium, Icehouse marked the final moments of 1999 with a 25-minute version of Great Southern Land accompanied by the Australian Chamber Orchestra with Richard Tognetti playing an electric violin and Australian-based Japanese drum ensemble Taikoz.
As Sydney prepared to host the 2000 Olympics, the Opera House kicked off an Olympic Arts Festival with Tubowgule. To the sound of didgeridoos and clapsticks, dancers evoked the celebrations and ceremonies that had occurred on Bennelong Point for thousands of years. Opera singer Deborah Cheetham performed, and the Opera House’s sails were bathed in a light show designed by Marc Newson. Then in 2001, we introduced Message Sticks, an annual festival of contemporary indigenous culture.
In 2008, Brian Eno curated the first Vivid LIVE music program. Oprah Winfrey also used the forecourt to film her Ultimate Australian Adventure, with guests including Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe and Hugh Jackman in 2010. In that same year, 5,200 people lay naked in the very same spot in front of Spencer Tunick’s camera.
Over the years, there has been a long line of international stars who have performed on the Opera House stages, among them Sting, The Cure, Kraftwerk, The National, Björk, Patti Smith, Bob Dylan and Massive Attack.