Frank Barnes 1926-2005: the Model of a General Manager
29 June 2005
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.
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
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
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
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
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
“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
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,
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
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
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.”
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.
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.
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.
Barnes press clippings file. Dennis Wolanski Archive of the Sydney Opera
Lloyd. Diplomatic Skills Smoothed Feathers at the Opera House. Sydney
Morning Herald, Weekend edition, 9-10 April, 2005.
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
Jill. Hands That Guided Students, Stars, Goats. Sydney Morning Herald,
Weekend edition, 9-10 April, 2005