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Gotye performs in the Concert Hall Image: Dan Boud

A history of spectacular performances

The Opera House was born of a need its founders felt as urgent. Its construction was a bold, visionary exercise in nation building by a young, largely immigrant nation looking to define itself.

The urgency was underlined by the fact that the first performance at the Sydney Opera House occurred long before the building was finished. In 1960, before the construction of the sails had even begun, American singer and civil rights activist Paul Robeson climbed the scaffolding and sang Ol’ Man River to construction workers.

On 28 September 1973, almost a month before its official opening by Her Majesty the Queen, the curtain in the Opera Hall rose on its first production – Prokofiev’s epic War and Peace by the Australian Opera. The first performance in the Concert Hall was a program of works by Wagner performed by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and featuring the legendary Swedish soprano Birgit Nilsson and conductor Charles Mackerra. The Music Room – now known at the Utzon room – was home to Musica Viva, the chamber music organisation set up in the 1940s by a Hungarian refugee to meet the burgeoning demand for classical music from European migrants. The Old Tote Theatre – later to become the Sydney Theatre Company – moved into the Drama Theatre.

By the Opera House’s second year, new Australian works were being presented – The Australian Opera staged Peter Sculthorpe’s ‘Rites of Passage’. The Australian Ballet performed Barry Moreland’s ‘Sacred Space’. The Opera House’s repertoire swiftly extended far beyond opera, ballet, symphonic music and theatre with performances of jazz, including Sammy Davis Jnr in 1977 and Ella Fitzgerald in 1978, pop and rock.

Meanwhile, in 1974 Australia’s greatest opera star, Joan Sutherland, performed for the first time in the theatre that would be named for her. The Australian Opera’s production of Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffman was the first of many times ‘La Stupenda’ would tread the boards of the Opera House’s stages. Performances included Lakme, Norma and The Merry Widow in the 1970s, and Lucia di Lammermoor, Otello, La Traviata and Die Fledermaus in the 1980s. Dame Joan farewelled the Opera House in 1990, with a performance of Les Huguenots. Green and gold streamers thrown by the audience completely covered the stage. In 2012, the Sydney Opera House renamed its Opera Theatre the Joan Sutherland Theatre, in memory of one of Australia's greatest opera singers.

By 1977 children’s programming had been welcomed into the Opera House with productions of Babar the Little Elephant and Peter the Wolf. The following year low-cost daytime programs began to introduce more people to the performing arts. 

As the building’s fame grew, it 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, freed from 27 years of prison earlier that year, spoke of forgiveness to a crowd of 40,000 on the Opera House’s Monumental Steps.

In 1981 the Australian Broadcasting Corporation presented a direct radio satellite broadcast to the UK and 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. In 1983 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 choreographed new works for Sydney Dance Company.

In 1988, as Australia celebrated its bicentenary, a revitalised forecourt became a venue for sheep-sheering, 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 Boheme into 1950s Paris, with Mimi and Rodolfo embracing on a rooftop next to a giant sign of 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 building of the Sydney Opera House had become an opera in itself; Australian Opera premiered The Eighth Wonder by composer Alan John and librettist Dennis Watkins. The following year over 100,000 people (with estimates of as many as 250,000) 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.” 

As the minutes drew to a close in 1999, Icehouse performed a 25 minute extended 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 clapping sticks, 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. 2001 saw the inaugural Message Sticks, an annual festivals of contemporary indigenous culture.

In 2008 Brian Eno curated the first Vivid LIVE music program. Oprah Winfrey used the forecourt to film her Ultimate Australian Adventure with guests including Nicole Kidman, Russel Crowe and Hugh Jackman. Later that year 5,200 people would lie naked in the very same spot in front of artist Spencer Tunick’s camera.

International stars who have performed include Sting, The Cure, Kraftwerk, The National, Björk, Patti Smith, Bob Dylan and Massive Attack. 

The Opera House - established according to its 1961 Act to not only promote excellence and achievement in the arts, but as a meeting place for matters of local, national and international importance – carries out that function to this day through a year-long program that celebrates the rich vitality of First Nations culture.

The highlight of that Indigenous program is Homeground, an immersive two-day annual festival that showcases the greatest Indigenous artists from across Australia and the globe. Homeground continues the tradition established by the Opera House’s pioneering Message Sticks festival.

In November 2015, a new national Indigenous dance competition, Dance Rites, premiered as part of Homeground. Dance Rites has helped revitalise fast-vanishing Indigenous cultural leadership and practices – including language, dance, traditional instruments and skin markings – by creating a contemporary and competitive forum for performance by communities.

In 2016, the Sydney Opera House’s Head of First Nations Programming, Rhoda Roberts, curated the annual lighting of the sails, transforming the building into a vast animated canvas by the work of six indigenous artists: Karla Dickens, Djon Mundine, Gabriella Possum Nungurrayi, Reko Rennie, Donny Woolagoodja and the late Gulumbu Yunupingu.

Titled Songlines, the work conflated time and space, weaving history lines and trade routes into a pattern of sharing systems. As the first time the Opera House’s sails had been used as a canvas exclusively for Aboriginal artists it marked an historic moment on the land that for tens of thousands of years had been known as Tubowgule by its custodians, the Gadigal people.

On 29 May, 2016, Songlines was webcast on Facebook Live. Within weeks it had reached more than 8 million people, taking the energy of Tubowgule, and the vibrancy and brilliance of the world’s oldest living culture, writing it across the sails and then spreading it across the seas.

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And the Sydney Opera House's Decade of Renewal

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Utzon Tapestry. Image: Jack Atley