THE BLOG
07/20/2010 01:34 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Mythology of the Sydney Opera House

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Australian Jesus. Australia Day cover of the Sydney Morning Herald, 2010. By Chris O'Doherty aka Reg Mombassa

In science fiction, stories are anchored in reality by placing alien monsters, psychological disturbances, mystical events and disasters around an iconic building or bridge or monument that defines its location. No matter what happens the iconic structure guarantees that we perceive the story as layered upon reality. In the opening sequence of Duncan Jones's movie Moon, the ecological benefits Earth obtains by mining energy on the moon is represented by an inky, clear night in Manhattan, with the lights of the buildings glowing like jewels and the Empire State Building in the foreground. In Doctor Who, the global implications of a battle between the Daleks and Cybermen is suggested by scenes of Cybermen marching in front of the Taj Mahal. In the American version of Life on Mars, set in New York, when Sam Tyler is knocked down in 2008 he wakes up in 1973 and turns to see the twin towers of the World Trade Centre still standing. "Fiction is an illusion wrought with many small, conventionally symbolic marks, triggering visions in the minds of others," William Gibson tweeted today.

The Sydney Opera House is the structure that stands for Australia. It occupies such a central place in our mythology that the artist Chris O'Doherty aka Reg Mombassa includes it in all of his paintings of Australian Jesus. Australian Jesus might be taking a case of beer to a beach party on Australia Day, blessing a barbeque in the outer suburbs, preaching to turn back the waves caused by global warming or supervising the loading of Noah's Ark with possums, koalas, sheep, and kangaroos carrying footballs, but the Sydney Opera House is always a part of the scenery.

It's a magnificently abstract and epic building. Architect Jorn Utzon made concrete a rich material. It's proof of the Japanese architect Tadao Ando's assertion that concrete is the marble of our time. None of the public spaces are intimate: the southern foyers of the Opera Theatre and Concert Hall soar to the tips of the shells like the ceilings of cathedrals. There are six main performance spaces in the building but the only indication of what's going on inside them are posters outside the building and along the concourse. There are shows by international artists and one off performances by Australian artists, but at the heart of the programme are shows by five local companies that use the Sydney Opera House as a home base and shows initiated by the Sydney Opera House itself.

On a panel discussion a few weeks ago, Sydney Opera House CEO, Richard Evans, spoke in a general way about plans that are being developed for people around Australia and the world to connect with the Sydney Opera House online. He gave one example: a music student in an Australian country town being able to engage with Simon Rattle, the conductor of the Berlin Symphony, which will soon be performing there. It seems likely that the Sydney Opera House will be able to use the tools of science fiction to layer multiple dynamic realities upon a mythic structure, rather than a more traditional smartphone app, as the Los Angeles Philharmonic has developed for the Hollywood Bowl, which has maps and history and videos from performances.

The Australian office of Arup, the engineering firm which worked on the construction of the Sydney Opera House, is developing projects which sense the presence of smartphones in Australian cities and is figuring out how to aggregate and present information. The Sydney Opera House and the five local companies that regularly stage shows there are already using social media. Whenever I see stacks of playbills at the Sydney Opera House they always seem inert and so much waste paper compared with the way that the companies are doing a much better job of providing information about cast and crew and a context for the performances through tweets.

The Sydney Symphony tweets links to program notes in advance of performances and shows comments by performers: Pianist Garrick Ohlson is performing Chopin tonight and the Sydney Symphony tweeted his observation that "Chopin never weighed more than 100 lbs, endured fragile health and loathed playing in public. I share none of these qualities." Dancers from the Australian Ballet are tweeting during a competition.

Bell Shakespeare was formed by actor John Bell twenty years ago. He recently appeared as "King Lear" and connected Lear's journey to rediscover his sense of humanity through the actions of his children to Cormac McCarthy's The Road. Australian director John Hillcoat's movie adaptation of The Road, with music by Australian musicians Nick Cave and Warren Ellis had just finished its run in cinemas when Bell Shakespeare's King Lear opened at the Sydney Opera House. The company's tweets also give a sense of the scope of the company, that they're performing in schools and country towns and other Australian cities. The Sydney Theatre Company's main base is at a wharf further around Circular Quay, but they also present shows at the Sydney Opera House. They tweet links to blogs and articles by writers, directors and actors that open up the worlds of their plays and run trailers on YouTube.

I know almost nothing about opera and reading Opera Australia's tweets is making the artform more familiar to me. A few weeks ago I saw Ed Kuepper and Chris Bailey, who'd formed the legendary Australian punk band, the Saints, perform as a duo both playing guitars and singing, at the Vanguard in Sydney. Like many bands of the punk rock era they gained international acclaim before they were appreciated at home. The Saints had a hyper-accelerated evolution, going from short, sharp songs to sophisticated brass arrangements welded onto soul-song structures in just two years and three albums. The power of the Saints was in the contrast between the abstract sonic textures Ed Keupper created with his electric guitar and Chris Bailey's scorching soul voice. These differences drove them apart after three albums and they didn't perform together for thirty years. A couple of years ago they performed with the original line up of the Saints for a few festivals in Australia, and at these duet performances ended their sets with the Stephen Sondheim song "Send in the Clowns". Everything Ed Kuepper and Chris Bailey do together or apart is simultaneously sincere and straightforward and ironic and subversive. The song may have been a wry comment on bands of the punk rock era reforming as bad cabaret act versions of their former selves. But it wasn't until I heard "Send in the Clowns" as the finale in Opera Australia's staging of A Little Night Music at the Sydney Opera House a couple of weeks ago that I understood the song in context, as a conversational exchange between two people who had been deeply connected when younger and who parted and met up again later in life, regretfully wondering if they'd been foolish.

The Sydney Opera House has just hired Fergus Linehan to oversee contemporary music. As the Director of the Sydney Festival for four years (2006 - 2009) he put popular music at the centre of the festival. The lead shows for the festival included Lou Reed performing his Berlin album, Bjork appearing on the forecourt of the Sydney Opera House and Brian Wilson, but he also staged group shows from Australian musicians of the punk rock era that filled in their context and background. In 2007 the surviving members of The Triffids and guest musicians, who included Bad Seed Mick Harvey, performed songs written by David McComb, who died in 1999, in a charming show that included readings from his letters and journals by members of his family. And in 2009 Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds curated an All Tomorrow's Parties festival as part of the Sydney Festival. It was built around the musicians Nick's band the Birthday Party had been connected with in Australia before moving to Europe. It showed the importance of the musicians in the Bad Seeds, who all have bands and sideline projects of their own, that are wildly different to Nick's style and that music was the life blood for a wider artistic community that included painters, film-makers, designers and writers.

Nick has written novels, screenplays, an introduction to The Gospel of Mark, commissioned artworks for the covers of his albums, and with Warren Ellis has written soundtracks to movies and theatre productions, some of which have been staged by the Sydney Theatre Company. Warren has also written music for the Canadian contemporary dance company, the Holy Body Tattoo, who performed at the Sydney Festival in 2007.

The way that art sparks from life was evident in the Vivid Festival which was recently staged at the Sydney Opera House. It was directed by Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson with assistance from Fergus Linehan. The first Vivid Festival was staged last year and directed by Brian Eno as an egghead symposium. It has the traditional festival format of big names (Lou Reed performing Metal Machine Music, Laurie Anderson performing Transitory Life and Songs from Delusion, Rickie Lee Jones, the Blind Boys of Alabama) and the introduction of emerging performers. But Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson wanted to bring the artistic spirit of downtown Manhattan to Sydney. Lou Reed held Tai chi classes. Laurie Anderson performed a concert for dogs on the forecourt. The western foyers were decorated with Victorian fainting couches, potted ferns and bookshelves stocked with aging enyclopaedias and contemporary novels. Minus the taxidermy of a bear leaking sawdust, it reminded me of the Explorer's Club in Manhattan. Lou Reed's radio show with Hal Willner was playing, and his home movie of a Times Square installation of his photography interspersed with portraits from the Magnum collection of leading twentieth century arts figures like Billie Holiday and Leonard Bernstein, played on three modest television screens.

"In a way what artists really do is extend your senses and your awareness of things. For me, the making of stuff - the creation of artworks is not really the point. The point is to experience things more intensely,'

Laurie Anderson told the Smithsonian Magazine.