This internationalism was evident too, in the global competition that attracted more than 200 entries from all around the world, and also in the role played by its most influential judge, the Finnish American architect Eero Saarinen, who plucked the Dane’s revolutionary design from the pile of rejects and thought he’d found the rightful winner.
But there’s also a tragic backstory of how, when delays and cost blowouts put the entire project in jeopardy, Utzon was replaced by a local architect, and how the spellbinding interior that’s an envisaged never became a reality. Whereas the Dane was obsessed with form, Peter Hall, the head of the government team that replaced him, was preoccupied with function. The interior then is anti-climactic. Utzon’s forced resignation showed that a dreary provincialism was still hard to shake. The Dane never returned to Australia, thinking his opus had been disfigured.
So many strands of the Australian story come together in this building. New immigrants from southern Europe provided much of the manpower for its construction, which speaks of Australia’s post-war multiculturalism. In November 1960, Paul Robeson, the Black American opera singer, even performed an impromptu concert amidst its scaffolding and cranes – his sonorous Old Man River, a musical foreshadowing of the end of the White Australia policy, which for decades that limited non-European migration here. [The Opera House] was opened by British woman, Queen Elizabeth II, but in a ceremony that included Indigenous ritual in recognition of First Nations peoples. It occupies an outcrop in the harbour named Bennelong Point, which was named after the elder from the Eora Nation who served as an interlocutor with the British in the 1790s. In an expression of cultural egalitarianism, the building’s opening celebrations in 1973 not only featured Wagner but also a populist counterpoint: Rolf Harris singing Tie Me Kangaroo Down Sport.