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Sydney Opera House Story: a chronology 1606 to date





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The Sydney Opera House Story: Contexts 1606-1956

In response to visitor demand, this chronology has been compiled by Paul Bentley to record the story of the Dennis Wolanski Library of the Performing Arts, theatrical associations with the Bennelong Point site, Jørn Utzon’s involvement with the House and changes to the building. It draws on and updates Philip Drew’s extensive chronology Utzon and the Sydney Opera House and a number of other sources. See also Sydney Opera House: an annotated list of sources  

1606-1956 | 1957-1969 | 1970-1979 | 1980-1989 | 1990-1999 | 2000-2005 | 2006-2007 | 2008 | 2009-2010 | 2011-2013 | 2014-




Crew of the Dutch ship Durfken, exploring the western coast of Cape York Peninsula, make the first European contact with Australian aborigines in March.



Lt Zachary Hicks, on board Captain Cook’s Endeavour, sights the south-eastern tip of Australia, 20 April.  Cook subsequently drops anchor in Botany Bay on 29 April and passes Port Jackson (Sydney Harbour) on 6 May.



British colony established in Australia following the arrival of the First Fleet, led by Governor Arthur Phillip.  A flag is raised at Sydney Cove on 26 January. Disembarkation takes place on Cattle Point or Limeburners Point, now Bennelong Point.  The formal proclamation of the colony takes place at a parade in Sydney Cover, February 7. 



First theatre performance in Australia on 4 June, when convicts perform George Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer in a makeshift hut. 


Governor Phillip captures 2 aborigines – Bennelong and Colebee. Bennelong becomes an important intermediary between the settlers and aborigines. In 1791 a hut for Bennelong is built on the site where the Sydney Opera House now stands.



Governor Philip Gidley King establishes a battery on Bennelong Point as a military fortification.  



Governor Lachlan Macquarie completes construction of Fort Macquarie, designed by Francis Greenway, on Bennelong Point in January. Macquarie’s emancipating reforms had threatened the interests of wealthy free settlers.  Commissioner JT Bigge was sent to the colony to report on the Macquarie administration in 1819 and his reports, partly based on conversations with grudge mongers, were critical of Macquarie. Macquarie returns to England in 1821 and dies, a disillusioned man, on 1 July 1824.



First recorded performance under canvas in Australia, when officers of Her Majesty’s ships Crocodile and Zebra perform Agnes, or the Bleeding Nun and The Miller and His Men in a tent theatre at Fort Macquarie, where the Sydney Opera House now stands, on 8 January.



First permanent theatre established in Australia, when Barnett Levey opens the Theatre Royal in George Street, Sydney with performance of Black Eyed Susan and Monsieur Tonson, 26 December.



Henry Bishop’s Clari, Maid of Milan, performed at the Theatre Royal, Sydney, 31 October and is widely credited as being as the first operatic production in Australia. 


1879 Sydney Opera House, a theatre for comic opera and vaudeville, opens in a warehouse on the corner of King and York Streets. The theatre undergoes a series of renovations and reconstructions and is condemned in 1900.



Fort Macquarie is demolished on Bennelong Point and replaced by a militaristic looking tram shed.



Jørn Oberg Utzon is born in Copenhagen on 9 April.



The Musical Association of NSW announces in its annual report that it is preparing a proposal on the establishment of a national house for opera and drama for submission to the Council of Associated Arts. Daily Telegraph 12 July]



National Theatre Movement of Australia adopts a recommendation by Mr Stuart-Layner that Bennelong Point be made available as the site for a National Theatre.



WJ McKell, leader of the state opposition Labor Party, in a policy speech 21 April, urges that everything be done “to foster a native culture which will express, in all the arts, not the feelings of other nations, but the aspirations and ideals of Australian peoples”.  He commits the Labor Party, “when it is in power, to implement the plans it has formulated for the advancement of New South Wales, of our art, our literature and our music”,  JJ Cahill, as Labor Premier of NSW in 1954, alludes to McKell’s “comprehensive scheme for a new Macquarie Street”, involving an opera house on the corner of Martin Place and Macquarie Street.



The Hon D Clyne, MLA, on 6 January, suggests to Premier McKell that land in Martin Place, between Macquarie Street and Phillip Street, be pegged with the view of erecting a suitable Civic Centre. Consideration of the proposal is deferred until the post-war period. 



The State Public Buildings Advisory Committee, on 30 March, recommends to Premier McKell the erection of either a Civic or State Opera House on the King Street end of Macquarie Street. 


At the request of McKell, Mr A Max Allen, the Director of Reconstruction and Development, on 25 October, submits three sketches prepared by the Government Architect for a National Theatre adjacent to the State Library of NSW.



At the request of McKell, a joint committee of the Public Buildings Advisory Committee and the Municipal Council of Sydney, on 18 [January, consider three plans: drawing 1, which provides for a National Theatre next to the State Library of NSW; drawing 2, which provides for s similar building on the Domain, and  drawing 3, which places a National Theatre at the King Street End of Martin Place. The Committee endorses drawing 1. 



McKell becomes Governor-General of Australia in February 1947 and is replaced as NSW Premier by James McGirr.


Eugene Goossens, newly appointed chief conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, on 2 tells reporters that Sydney should have “a fine concert hall for the orchestra, with perfect acoustics and seating for 3,500 people, a home for an opera company and a small hall for chamber music.”



Eugene Goossens, on 20 October, twenty five years to the day before the official opening of the Sydney Opera House, again urges: “We must have an opera house within five years. Sydney is taking its place among the world’s major symphonic groups. A fine hall is essential if the public is to hear the orchestra at its best.. If my plan succeeds Sydney will have, with the co-operation of those in authority, a great opera house. There is substantial support for the [Bennelong Point] site and we intend to follow it up”.



The NSW National Opera Company, founded by Erik Langker and Clarice Lorenz, presents its first season of opera. 



JJ Cahill becomes Premier of NSW on 1 April following the resignation of McGirr  




Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust is established to develop drama, opera and ballet under the guidance of HC Coombs (Governor of the Commonwealth Bank), Charles Moses (General Manager of the Australian Broadcasting Commission) and John Douglas Pringle (Editor of the Sydney Morning Herald).


Nov 3  

Mr PD Hills, MLA, in question time of the NSW Legislative Assembly asks the Premier whether there is a need in the city of Sydney for the establishment of an opera house. He asks that consideration be given to setting up a trust, representing the state government, city council and other interests within the state, to establish, control and operate an opera house. He also asks the Premier to consider convening a meeting to discuss sites, finance and other matters.  In reply, Mr Cahill says that has already examined the issues raised. He reminds that House that provision had been made some years previously for an opera house to be built. but the war intervened and little progress had been made.  He concurs with a suggestion by Mr HC Coombs (Chairman of the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust) that the AETT lease a theatre as the first step towards the establishment of an opera house. The Premier agrees to Mr Hill’s suggestion that a conference be called.


Nov 5  

Mr Hills, in his capacity as Lord Mayor of Sydney, proposes Bennelong Point as a site for a National Opera House. The Council had previously suggested a site on the corner of College and Liverpool streets.


Nov 8  

The NSW Cabinet approves the Premier’s submission regarding financial assistance to the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust for structural alterations and rental of the Palladium Theatre, convening of a convention to discuss selection of a site and construction of an opera house, and financial assistance to the National Opera Company of Australia and its use of the Palladium Theatre by that company for its season in 1955. 


Nov 29  

The Premier approves appointment of an opera house working party comprising  S. Haviland (Chairman), R. Hendy, Eugene Goossens, Charles Moses and Professor H. Ingham Ashworth.


Nov 30  

Opera House conference held in the Lecture Room, Public Library, Sydney, and supports the proposal for an opera house in Sydney.



May 17  

Cabinet approves Bennelong Point site.   


Dec 6  

International architectural competition announced and architects invited to register



May 26  

Sir Eugene Goossens leaves Australia after being prosecuted and fined for importing ‘1,100 indecent items’ on a 9 March flight back from Europe where he had been investigating the opera houses of Hamburg and Vienna.


Dec 3  

Closing date for International Opera House Design Competition

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