THE OPERA HOUSE IS THE NA­TION’S MOST VIS­I­BLE TRI­UMPH OF ART OVER IG­NO­RANCE

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover Story -

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.

Blue Poles

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

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