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Sydney Opera House Story: Turning the Kaleidoscope Series





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History matters: an introduction to the kaleidoscope series
Paul Bentley
23 October 2013

The more a news story gets compressed, the more it seems it deserves no more space than it got allocated. - Alain de Botton, Twitter, 2013.

As we celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Sydney Opera House, the Wolanski Foundation begins a series of short pieces about the building’s history.


Some of the books about Jørn Utzon and the Sydney Opera House

Writing history is a messy and complicated matter involving the interpretation of facts and the sifting of opinion.

Canadian historian Michael Welton put it this way: “we are entering into a conversation with the past in order to illuminate the multiple meanings and possibilities of the present in a dialogue with others who may be telling different stories.”

Contexts need to be factored in. It is advisable to travel in the shoes of the players who shaped the story. Reading between the lines calls for perspicacity as well as a trail of evidence. We could well follow in the steps of Thucydides, who set standards for persistence in digging up the facts and objectivity in presenting them.

The histories of public institutions present special challenges. Most organisations, understandably, present themselves in the best possible light. The dirty laundry is usually hidden. A better understanding of their history, speakers at a recent Australian Historical Association conference argued, could avoid repetition of past mistakes or questionable decisions based on a poor understanding of the past.

Sydney Opera House history

Many books have been published and movies made about the transformation of the Opera House from poetic gesture to national icon. Its iconic status is coloured by the tortured history that accompanied its design, construction and operations.

There is still much to discover. Existing records warrant more careful study. Elusive sources need to be tracked down.

The genesis of the building has never been accurately told. There has been a focus on the period 1954 to 1973. Myths are perpetuated. From the time Jørn Utzon won the competition, heroes and villains in the story have swapped hats decade by decade. A well-researched history of the management of the building awaits the services of an historian.

Views about the history continue to evolve. It has been the tendency of new generations to compress the experience of their predecessors as they focus attention on shaping the future. The compression has led to distortions that need to be corrected.

My own views have changed during a 40-year preoccupation with preserving and interpreting the building’s history. It is a journey that has made me more circumspect about many aspects of the popular narrative and more appreciative of those who show us the smoke and mirrors.

Sydney Opera House CEO Louise Herron touched on perennial interest in her introduction to the 40th anniversary of the book, Building a Masterpiece. “As we launch into a new chapter in its life, it is inspiring to delve back into the building that put Australia on the map and that is one of the masterpieces of the 20th century.”

Anniversaries are occasions for celebration and taking stock. The temptation for hype is irresistible. The risk of hagiography is high.

As the Wolanski Foundation continues its work on a more detailed account of the history of the iconic building and the way the story is preserved, we turn the kaleidoscope to see where the coloured glass falls.

The Wolanski Foundation

The Wolanski family was a major funder of the Dennis Wolanski Library and Archive of the Performing Arts at the Opera House from 1973 to 1997. The Wolanski Foundation has published material about the Sydney Opera House and responded to enquiries about the House since 1998. The Wolanski family provided financial support for Opera House digitisation programs in 2011 and for the restoration of the film Autopsy on a Dream, a collaboration of the Sydney Opera House and Australian Broadcasting Corporation, in 2013.

Paul Bentley headed the Dennis Wolanski Library from 1973 to1997 and developed the Sydney Opera House oral history program, which recorded nearly 50 interviews with architects, engineers, politicians and others. He curated the Building of the Century Exhibition in 1988-1989, presented the Sydney Opera House Travelling Exhibition in Europe, the United States and Asia 1994-1995 and was instrumental in the presentation of the Unseen Utzon Exhibition, a joint venture of the Sydney Opera House Trust and State Library of New South Wales, 1994-1995. His article on Clarice Lorenz, who - as founder of the NSW National Opera - played an under-acknowledged role in the establishment of the Opera House, appears in the latest volume of the Australian Dictionary of Biography.

Turning the Kaleidoscope series
Among articles in the pipeline:

Spinning fantasy: Sydney Opera House myths
Autopsy on Autopsy on a Dream
Leif Kristensen
Launching the Opera House

Related articles and pages

The Sydney Opera House story: a chronology

Sydney Opera House: an annotated list of sources

Sydney Opera House: site, design, construction, costs

Utzon and the Opera House: as it happened 1918-2000

A matter of integrity: a review of Yuzo Mikami’s book Utzon’s Sphere

Frank Barnes 1926-2005: the model of a general manager
Being There Without Being There: the arts in the age of YouTube

Catching Lightning in a Bucket: archiving the performing arts in the digital era



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Page last updated: 23 October 2013