THE OPERA HOUSE IS THE NATION’S MOST VISIBLE TRIUMPH OF ART OVER IGNORANCE
Theatre designer Brian Thomson and director Jim Sharman, fresh from their triumph with The Rocky Horror Show in London, had come home to do The Threepenny Opera in the Drama Theatre. Walking through the building’s disappointing interiors, Thomson says, was a ‘‘ devastatingly sad experience’’.
In the Opera Theatre, the orchestra didn’t have enough room in the pit, the wings were cramped and the doors too narrow for a prima donna’s crinolines. Soprano Joan Carden says the auditorium had a good sound for voices but was too small for grand opera. The theatre’s musical attributes were already a point of discussion. On the opening night of The Magic Flute in 1973, Carden recalls, the Duke of Edinburgh wanted to ask her about the acoustics. THE Adelaide Festival Centre was not just another civic building: it was a symbol of the aspirations of the Dunstan decade. Gale Edwards and Douglas Gautier — in the early 1970s, they were drama students with Wal Cherry at Flinders University — knew they were in an exciting place that officially valued theatre and the arts.
‘‘[ Dunstan] was a visionary, audacious,’’ says Edwards, now a celebrated theatre director. ‘‘ Of course he was scandalous, the photographs of him in hot pants . . . But his dedication to the arts, his intelligence, he was an inspired and inspiring leader, particularly because of his interest in the arts.’’
Gautier is now artistic director of the Adelaide Festival Centre, and for the building’s 40th anniversary he has had the exterior illuminated with images of people and events from the past 40 years (the projections include a terrific cartoon of Dunstan as pop-art superhero Captain Adelaide). The place has been buzzing this past fortnight, with the Adelaide Cabaret Festival in full swing and every available space used for cabaret shows.
John Morphett’s white, modernist structure — based on a flattened octahedron — looks a bit like an early home computer, as author Lance Campbell describes it in his anniversary book Heart of the Arts. But the details of Morphett’s building are looking decidedly shabby. Concrete is bulging and crumbling in places as a result of water damage, the paving on the plaza wobbles, the upholstery of the Festival Theatre seating is tired and worn.
Gautier and the head of venue operations, Michael McCabe, take Review on a tour of the centre’s low points. They point out the inefficient lighting grid in the playhouse, the archaic manual fly mechanism, an ancient switchboard in the plant room, and water stains streaking the interior walls.
A recent report by consultants Ernst & Young gives a devastating assessment of the Festival Centre, saying the run-down facility is a deterrent to artists and producers coming to Adelaide: ‘‘ The Adelaide Festival Centre is now regarded as the most poorly maintained and resourced of the capital city arts centres.’’
Little has been spent on upkeep since the centre opened, but the SA government has this month allocated $6 million at least to begin necessary upgrades. And the centre is poised to reclaim a central place in Adelaide with the building of a footbridge across the Torrens from Adelaide Oval, itself under redevelopment, to the civic and cultural heart of the city.
Gautier is also considering, long term, a redevelopment of the Festival Centre carpark and the plaza that sits above it, and of the 100-year-old Her Majesty’s Theatre, also under his management.
The Perth Concert Hall and Sydney Opera House have fared better through the years, but any 40-year-old needs a little maintenance. Perth Theatre Trust has redone the hall’s roof, upgraded the air-conditioning and replaced the seats, among other improvements. In 2008 the exterior was given a facelift and new external lighting systems installed to improve its night-time complexion.
The Sydney Opera House presents a special set of maintenance problems, not least because of its unique construction, waterfront location, World Heritage listing and near-constant use. Through the years there have been significant alterations, such as the forecourt paving done for the 1988 Bicentenary, the opening of the western foyers in 2009, and the truck tunnel now under construction at a cost of $152m.
The question that won’t go away: what to do with the opera theatre? How can it be made to function like a proper lyric theatre worthy of the location? It’s fine for pre-classical operas (anything up to Mozart can be done beautifully) but the sound is disappointing the bigger Angelo in Rome. The Queensland Performing Arts Centre opened in 1985 and is part of the strand of cultural institutions along the Brisbane River’s south bank, including the state gallery, library and museum. The Perth Concert Hall is part of what could be called a multi-site arts centre, managed by Perth Theatre Trust and including His Majesty’s Theatre and the State Theatre Centre.
They were built as homes for local performing arts companies, as each state had, or would and grander the opera gets. The creaking stage machinery, like the rest of the building, is now middle-aged. Several solutions have been proposed, including the building of a new opera theatre. The most ambitious is a rebuild of the existing opera theatre to Utzon’s design: it includes an enlarged opera pit and a red-andgold interior scheme. The cost has been reported as $1 billion, but more realistically is in the region of $500m-$590m.
It is among many proposals that chief executive Louise Herron will consider as she drafts a new masterplan for the Opera House, with updated priorities and costings for building, maintenance and technology work. Her task will be helped along by funding of $13.7m announced in this week’s NSW budget. Recently, Herron left on a trip to Europe, where she intended to inspect venue upgrades at the Royal Opera House and the Barbican in London, and visit one of the chief engineers who worked on the Sydney Opera House, Jack Zunz. ‘‘ We are going to work out exactly what we need to do,’’ Herron says of the masterplan. ‘‘ We have a series of projects that we need to do from a safety point of view, from a technology point of view, ensuring that we really are ready for the next 40 years.’’ OTHER cities followed Adelaide’s lead in building multi-venue arts centres. By the mid80s, Melbourne had its Arts Centre, with its spire-topped theatres and drum-like concert hall, its shape modelled on the Castel Sant’- have, an orchestra and a theatre company, and perhaps an opera or dance troupe. They were places of edification and a certain highmindedness — although the Opera House has been used for boxing matches and a circus.
During the past decade or so, arts centres have changed direction and shifted gear. Running a suite of theatres is only part of what they do: they are also entertainment precincts with restaurants, bars and sometimes shops. Sydney Opera House goes one better, being a tourist magnet for more than eight million people a year.
‘‘ We are Australia’s No 1 tourist destination, we have to be very conscious of that,’’ Herron says. ‘‘ It is a performing arts centre, but it’s not only a performing arts centre.’’
That is not all that’s changed. In the face of dwindling government subsidies and changing audience expectations, arts centres have become entrepreneurial. Instead of relying only on their resident companies to bring people through the door, arts centre managers are programming a mix of offerings: contemporary dance, celebrity speakers, world orchestras, international theatre, sophisticated rock. More and more, arts centres are keeping busy with festival-style programming.
The reinvention has been noticeable in Sydney recently, where the Opera House sails were illuminated with colourful projections for the Vivid festival, and in Adelaide, where the Festival Centre has played host to Kate Ceberano’s eclectic cabaret festival.
Festivals remain the business of the Festival Centre: not only the 53-year-old Adelaide Festival (formerly a biennial event, it now runs every year) but also mini-festivals of guitar music, Asian arts and cabaret. The centre has to generate 69 per cent of its revenue, meaning it can’t afford to leave its theatres dark.
‘‘ You have to activate it, you have to put great work on,’’ Gautier says. ‘‘ Particularly in the smaller state capitals, these centres are moving away from being cultural palaces and are doing a much wider range of things, being more accessible to their communities.’’
Perth Concert Hall is named repeatedly as the best in the country for orchestral music. The auditorium, lined in dark timber, is built with the classic rectilinear or shoebox shape that is a feature of two of the world’s great concert venues, the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam and Vienna’s Musikverein.
The clear sound makes it ideal for musicians because they can hear each other accurately on stage; they like its warm ambience and absence of harshness when the orchestra plays fortissimo. Rod McGrath, principal cello with the West Australian Symphony Orchestra, says it is easily the best acoustic in Australia and among the best in the world he has played in.
The Concert Hall is home to WASO, the Australian Chamber Orchestra and Musica Viva for their Perth tours, and is used for rock gigs and other events. But the venue is terribly underused: only 132 events were held there in 2011-12, and just 72 were classical concerts.
The Perth Theatre Trust previously has hosted the Vienna Philharmonic and other international orchestras. This year it’s presenting Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw Orchestra, also touring to Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney. But Perth is lagging behind the more entrepreneurial arts venues interstate, which are driving a program-led agenda to bring ticket-buyers through the door.
What would Whitlam make of these three arts venues were the nonagenarian to repeat his tour of 1973? He would find Adelaide Festival Centre to be the stayer, true to its origins. It genuinely is Festival Central and, with much needed investment, may again assert itself as a cultural beacon. He might give a nudge to the Perth Concert Hall, an excellent facility that is too often quiet. In the Sydney Opera House he might recognise — respectfully, comrade — a gift to Australian culture that is greater and more enduring than even the grandest of his social reforms. Despite its imperfections, the Opera House is the nation’s most visible triumph of art over ignorance and complacency. As a performing arts centre, and as a tourist attraction, its contribution to the country is beyond measure.
The cultural transformation of 1973 was because of Utzon’s visionary building and the nation that dared to make it. At that moment, the bogans turned away from the underworld and opened their eyes to an intense whiteness and almost unbelievable shape.
Gough Whitlam authorised the purchase of by Jackson Pollock, above; Whitlam and Don Dunstan at Adelaide Festival Theatre’s opening, below left; Patrick White, right