Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Still waiting for that moment, or did Utzon have the last laugh after all?
OPERA is the grandest of arts and for three centuries, post-renaissance, the job description of “opera house” was to reify that grandeur into a full-on, diamonds-and-furs sense of occasion.
Most – like Smirke’s Covent Garden, Garnier’s Paris Opera or Piermarini’s Teatro alla Scala – did this via a hefty dollop of fruity neo-classicism; colonnades, pediments, loggias and immense, glittering stairs. Utzon’s challenge at Bennelong was to manifest occasion not just without the classical props but within modernism’s puritanically anti-grandeur mindset.
His answer, which we all know and love, was the glorious shells, an extraordinary blend of nature and geometry. Almost as glorious, though, almost as breathtaking, is the irony by which Utzon’s rejection of pompous form, and his embrace instead of a naturist functionalism, led him to forfeit functionality. This shows not just in our beloved Opera House’s hostility to operatic basics like orchestra pits and fly towers, but in its steadfast refusal to deliver on its promise of spatial grandeur. So while the gleaming shells themselves – the building as object – are every bit as grand as, say, La Scala, and are flashed around the world accordingly as the Sydney symbol, the experience – the being-there – is not of the same order.
Whether you fly over, sail past, run through the rain or mount the prehistoric stair into the Opera House’s mysterious belly, it’s impossible not to expect that the moment will come; the moment when, with shells soaring high above, you, puny human, inhabit transcendent space. This is the building’s promise. But the moment never arrives.
Perhaps it was always impossible. Certainly the auditoria could never have soared like that beneath their tiled carapace, not according to any acoustic theory I know. And perhaps, given the way seat-numbers swelled during construction, the foyers couldn’t soar either, compressed as they are between the egg, so to speak, and the box.
But the result is that the Sydney Opera House is an undeniably glorious object, the internal experience of which is about as transcendental as speech day in the school hall. Opera houses are inescapably bourgeois, almost by definition, but they needn’t be petit bourgeois.
Some of this may be blamed on Peter Hall, Davis Hughes and the rest. But much of it, in fact, was inherent in the glorious idea; as was the inimicality to opera. And this is the irony, for this is what modernism said it would never, ever do; promote form over content.
In this context, sadly, the ongoing trickle of opera-house tinkerings – toilets, colonnade, foyers, access – as graciously undertaken by Utzon pere et fils, can never seem anything but trivial.
Some parts, like the western foyers and the Utzon Room, are quite nicely done, in a sensible-shoes sort of way. Some, like the colonnade, are much less convincing than their rhetoric (in this case shading the glass, reducing glare and sustaining the visual solidity of the “Mayan” platform, even while it is perforated).
But if it’s to be up there with the Taj or the Alhambra, our Opera House must be more than first-rate postcard-fodder. Then again, if we accept the all-glamour airhead as the perfect symbol of Sydney, perhaps Utzon had the last laugh, after all.
PHOTO: Being there … Jan Utzon and the Opera House chief executive, Richard Evans, tour the new wing. by Dean Sewell