The Wolanski Foundation Project


Paper no 39









List of papers







Frank Barnes 1926-2005: the Model of a General Manager

By Paul Bentley

29 June 2005


The Wolanski Foundation pays tribute to Frank Barnes, who launched the Sydney Opera House and the Dennis Wolanski Library of the Performing Arts in 1973.


Frank Barnes exhibits his capacity for fun when promoting the Archives of Theatrical Memorabilia exhibition at the House, 1975.

Early life


Frank Barnes was born in Melbourne on 14 September 1926, the son of James and Anne Barnes. During the Great Depression, and while still at school, he ran the family corner shop to support his chronically ill parents. Towards the end of World War 11 in 1945, still in his teens, he volunteered for the RAAF and served as a code operator until 1946.

After completing a Bachelor of Economics degree and a Diploma of Education at the University of Sydney, he navigated an employment path through the Australian Taxation Office, before taking up a position in the Commonwealth Office of Education. In 1956, he joined the Committee on Australian Universities, becoming Assistant Secretary of the Australian Universities Committee in 1959.

In May 1965, he took up the position of executive assistant to the first Vice-Chancellor of the La Trobe University, then under construction, before being appointed Business Manager in November of that year. According to the Chairman of the first La Trobe University Committee, Frank’s "flair for organisation, his drive, and his cheerful manner were very important in achieving the opening date of March 1967”. A street on the campus, Barnes Way, acknowledges his vital role in the launch of the university.

Leading the House


In 1971, the Sydney Opera House was nearing completion. Its first general manager, Englishman Stuart Bacon, was due to retire. When the position of Deputy General Manager / General Manager Designate was advertised in 1971, Frank applied and secured the appointment over a field of 277 other candidates. He arrived at the Opera House in April 1972, before taking over the reins, after Stuart Bacon’s departure, in March 1973.

The Opera House was a natural step. He had a background in the public service. He was experienced in giving birth to enterprises. He had a strong interest in art, music and drama. And, standing 1.97 metres (6’ 5”), he had the height to see over the heads of others.

In March 1973, there were considerable challenges.

Justice Bill Fisher, a member of the Sydney Opera House Trust, looking back in 1985, said that running the House at that time involved “a learning curve of heroic dimensions…no one really had much idea of what was required.” Many decisions had permanent consequences. Getting them right was critical.

The Opera House was a new type of government agency. “Although [it] was a place for the arts”, Fisher said, “it was launched by a government bureaucracy with unformed views about requirements for managing a performing arts centre”. The theatrical union exercised unusual power because its officials knew that neither management nor government wanted strikes that might lead to embarrassing closures or missed performances.

The building itself presented limitations. It was not yet finished. Its utilisation factor exceeded its implied design capacity. There were no public parking facilities.

The opening of the building, bringing with it high expectations, was only months away. It was a massive undertaking, which required trial performances, development of programs, intensive negotiations with the hirers, recruitment of staff, questions from architects and builders, organising a major public event, and dealing with myriad day-to-day administrative problems.

”This is not only the stuff that dreams are made of”, recalled Bill Fisher. “It’s the stuff that managerial nightmares are made of. The tribute I can pay to Frank and his staff is that, if management ever faltered, no one ever knew.”

His achievement during this period, however, was not just the successful launch of the administration of a great new venture. It was, according to Fisher, his role in changing public perceptions about the building as a national joke. “The success of the Opera House lies not merely in the imagination of those who conceived it, not its significant architecture, but in the overwhelming acceptance of the Opera House and what it has to offer by the citizens of Sydney. To this great turnaround in public perception – many people made contributions - artists, visiting celebrities, staff, members of the Trust, but pivotal in it all was the work of the General Manager, Frank Barnes. Against all the odds, and in the teeth of the mockers, it is surely impossible to imagine a more successful operation than the launching of the Opera House. It could so easily have fallen apart.”

Building on the success of the opening brought ongoing demands.

There were tensions in managing the Opera House as a venue for hire and as a production house. In the words of his deputy and successor, Lloyd Martin: ”the Sydney Opera House Trust, following government directives, did not have an expansive production program of its own shows. This often made relationships with staff difficult as many of them wanted to be part of a creative team. Frank tiptoed his way through these divergent forces with consummate skill. He had a great vision for the Opera House and appreciated well the impact that its opening would have on the performing arts in Australia. He worked hard to encourage many companies to use the Opera House and played a pivotal role in the establishment of the Dance Company of NSW, which ultimately became the Sydney Dance Company, and the Australian Chamber Orchestra, which today is one of Australia's finest orchestras. He also encouraged the development of many amateur and semi-professional organisations, such as The Gilbert and Sullivan Society, which performed in the Opera Theatre with great success in the early years”.

Filling the halls involved negotiations with both subsidised and commercial hirers. Particularly important were relationships with major hirers – the Australian Opera (now Opera Australia), Australian Ballet, Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Old Tote Theatre Company, and Musica Viva Australia. According to Lloyd Martin, tensions sometimes surfaced, but Frank, in representing the interests of the Sydney Opera House Trust, was always fair and even-handed in his dealings.

A string of initiatives set the mould for years to come and underscored Frank’s fertile imagination and entrepreneurial spirit - free Sunday performances, lunchtime happenings, guided tours, tourism packages, cultural and heritage tours, a folkloric festival, an educational and schools program, concerts for senior citizens, talks and lectures, exhibitions, sampler subscription packages, spin-offs from the Adelaide Festival, and opera in the Concert Hall. Wagner’s Ring on the forecourt was one unfulfilled dream. He looked outwards to South East Asia and inwards to regional Australia. He developed fruitful relationships with sponsors and philanthropists as sources of revenue.

Selling the House was like selling soap, he once said. “We don’t need to attract more people – nearly every performance sells out. But we want to broaden our appeal, give everyone a go. The Sydney Opera House is not an elite operation.”

“The House” was his insistent term. It was a concept that conveyed its magnetism to those working there and it encouraged a culture that contributed, worked together, and had fun, inspired by the personal qualities of its leader.

His way with people was his great skill. “I have this problem, he once said, “I just happen to like people, and particularly young people.”

He managed by walking around, the kind of a boss that everybody knew. He was, recalled one staff member, “like a friendly giant who moved through the House, larger than life, seemingly the only one to fit the scale of the outsize building.”

He pitched in as part of a team. Just before the opening, he co-opted all available staff to open a mountain of accumulated box office envelopes with cheques for theatre tickets. Frank had his sleeves rolled up with all the others, imparting a sense of urgency with a disarming air of unflappability, making it all seem like an enjoyable diversion from normal office chores.

He played down his own achievements, while promoting those of others. “I get furious if things aren’t 101 percent,” he said. But “everyone has their own level of ability. My job is to get them to that level and then trust them, respect them.”

He hosed down rising tensions. When the frustrations of dealing with the opening season turned into threats of resignation by some senior staff, he gently turned them in the other direction. “I have launched a number of enterprises – large and small – and about six months before opening butterflies appear and vacillations temper the excitement of the venture. There is only one solution – have courage - you will not be raped!”

His sense of humour set the tone for the place.

He allowed others to make fun of him. Staff made much play of his physical demeanour. As someone said in a staff newsletter: “He tends to gesture with hands, arms and body in a choreographic manner which would do honour to (dancer and choreographer) Ruth Galene. He has already broken the throne chair in his office”. The Publicity Department invented a dance in his honour, involving a conga line through the corridors, with those in the line waving arms behind their heads in the manner of their boss.

A few years after the opening, he submitted himself to a roast in front of a hundred guests, including staff and representatives from the House companies. The speakers included June Bronhill, Neil Warren-Smith, Rosina Raisbeck, Ronald Dowd, Ronald MacConaghie, and Neil Warren-Smith, an indication of his personal touch with staff and artists alike. The staff newsletter reported that “full credit must be given to Mr Barnes who accepted the accolades of the speakers in his normal gracious manner and then proceeded to give as got as he got to round off the evening.”

In September 1978, he appeared as a soloist with John Winter, Clarence Mellor, Neville Amadio, Alistair Mackerras, Judy Mackerras, Christopher Nichols, Thomas Bergman and others in a Hoffnung concert, conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras, to aid the Sydney Symphony Orchestra Benevolent Fund. Frank’s instrument was an electric floor polisher. Critic Fred Blanks, choosing verse to review it in the Sydney Morning Herald, commented that “Amadio, Nicholls, Bergman, Barnes to clownish music tumbled…The entertainment cleverness was eloquent and lusty.”

Cementing all of this was hard work.

Bill Fisher recalled that Frank “worked an 80 hour week, not uncommonly weeks full of alarms and excursions. He had the born administrator’s passion for detail …and he spared himself not at all, even to the point of physical exhaustion”.

Frank, himself, said in 1978: “ I had to work incredibly hard in those first years. By the end of 1973, I was in a bad way. I was so tired I could barely make any coherent decisions. But I loved every minute of it. Now things are running reasonably smoothly its not as much fun. …I’m never satisfied with anything I do. I’m only often satisfied with things other people do but never with my own work. That’s the way it should be. If I ever find I’m satisfied with the work I’m doing at the Opera House, I’ll know its time to resign.”

Everything was in balance.

To the Sydney Morning Herald, in August 1973, he was “something of a romantic visionary” whose work at the House was “a combination of practical expertise and inspired sensitivity.”

Mark Stanfield, who as the Trust minutes’ secretary, was in a position to witness the conduct of business in both board room and boiler room, recalled that “we were incredibly lucky in those formative years to have a strong general manger, with a sense of humour, and that common touch by which you felt that you would never be overlooked, however lowly your position was…What Frank had, of course, besides charm, was flair. He was an enthusiast for the arts, with his feet firmly planted on the ground. Without ever losing sight of such down-to-earth realities as budgets, he pressed home the professional and artistic priorities of the Opera House. A great juggler, really, when you think of the multitudinous (and sometimes conflicting) pressure groups he had to deal with, whether they were Government departments, funding bodies, performing companies, staff, unions or whatever.”

Bill Fisher, speaking at a Trust reception in honour of Frank, seven years after his departure from the House, summed it up: “What was needed and what we got was an original managerial mind; boundless energy; unflagging enthusiasm and passionate commitment…the right man, in the right place, at the right time. How fortunate we all were.”


The Dennis Wolanski Library of the Performing Arts

To this foundation, one of Frank Barnes’ notable - if not enduring - achievements was to establish the Dennis Wolanski Library of the Performing Arts.

The library had a decade-long gestation

The Sydney Opera House Trust decided to establish a music museum in 1962, but the decision was swept aside by the dramatic events that unfolded during the 1960s and was never translated into an architectural solution.

In 1970, Roger Covell, in a report for the Australia Council on managing music in Australia, recommended that performing arts collections, similar to the library and museum at Lincoln Center, be established at the Sydney Opera House and other centres being built in Australia. And in 1973, Sydney Opera House trustee Mr Hedley Yelland, in a report on the Objectives of its Educational Program Committee, recommended that a library be developed as soon as possible to fulfil the Trust’s statutory mandate “to establish itself as a major centre for the study of the arts and the stimulation of experiment”.

The eminent Australian librarian and bibliographer DH Borchardt, who worked with Frank on the development of La Trobe University, once told me that he had persuaded Frank of the necessity of a library at the Opera House.

But it was Frank who turned these influences into reality, when, with the financial support of the Sydney businessman Dennis Wolanski, he launched the library in May 1973. And it was Frank who was the driving force behind its development until 1978.

The library grew under the guidance of Lloyd Martin, Frank’s successor, until 1996, when it was closed, and its collections dispersed to other organisations throughout Australia, on the instructions of a new premier of NSW, Bob Carr, and new chairman of the Trust, Joe Skrzynski.


After the House

Frank suffered a major heart attack in July 1978 and was advised to move to less stressful work.

In an interview with Janice Beaumont in November 1974, he had confessed, a year after the opening, there wasn’t “the aura or charisma that was there in that early period, but we are actually busier than we were then”. So maybe the move to the NSW Public Services Board was less shattering for Frank than it was for the staff, when they learned of his departure.

In 1985, he retired with his family to a farm near Bathurst and took on a new career of breeding goats, eventually becoming a significant player in the development of the Boer goats in Australia.

He collapsed and died suddenly on 18 March 2005, while watching goat judging with his family at Sydney Showground.

At a simple funeral service at Leura Crematorium, his children Michael, Helen and Cathy spoke of his big hands as symbols of a hardworking and embracing man: “through his hands we felt his kindness, his sincerity, his love and the enormous strength he passed on to each of us in a handshake, a gentle squeeze or a huge hug."

His farewell journey was accompanied, movingly, by the adagietto from Mahler's 5th Symphony, Mozart’s Soave sia il vento from Cosi Fan Tutte, and Verdi’s Va pensiero, sull'all dorato from Nabucco.

Jill Sykes, in her Sydney Morning Herald obituary, described the pleasure of having known him. “He was a big man with a generosity of heart and spirit to match his physical size. The respect and affection he earned from his staff had its resonances in the wider world. He put humanity and humour into the Opera House, giving its diverse activities and competing attractions a beating heart that somehow held them together. He was passionate about what he did and cared about every detail, whether it involved the lowest paid employee or a visiting head of state.”

The Sydney Opera House story is one of great achievement peppered by myths, political machinations and corporate spin. The Frank Barnes era was one of its unsullied episodes.


He was the perfect man for the occasion.


Further reading


Fisher, Justice W.K. Address Given by the Honourable Mr Justice WK Fisher on the occasion of a dinner tendered to Frank Barnes, Esq, General Manager, 1973-1978, on Thursday, 9 May 1985 at the House. Dennis Wolanski Archive of the Sydney Opera House.

Frank Barnes press clippings file. Dennis Wolanski Archive of the Sydney Opera House..

Martin, Lloyd. Diplomatic Skills Smoothed Feathers at the Opera House. Sydney Morning Herald, Weekend edition, 9-10 April, 2005.

Sydney Opera House Trust. Upstage [staff newsletters]. Various issues 1976-1979, including Getting to Know Your General Manager (Sep 1976), The Boss Gets Roasted (Sep 1977), Frank Barnes – A Giant of a General Manager (May 1979, written by Mark Stanfield).

Sykes, Jill. Hands That Guided Students, Stars, Goats. Sydney Morning Herald, Weekend edition, 9-10 April, 2005


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