Australian Screen

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Monster or Miracle? Sydney Opera House (1973)

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clip Larry Sitsky comments on the Sydney Opera House education content clip 2

This clip chosen to be PG

Clip description

Composer Larry Sitsky comments that the opera theatre has many faults. Opera director Sam Wanamaker suggests that the space is manageable.

Teacher’s notes

provided by The Le@rning FederationEducation Services Australia

This clip shows composer and pianist Larry Sitsky giving his views in 1973 on the then new Sydney Opera House. He discusses the limitations of the design. This is followed by opera director Sam Wanamaker giving a practical perspective on the progress of preparations for the first performance in the Opera House. Wanamaker’s voice-over is accompanied by images related to the plans, including costume sketches, staff at work and costumes on racks.

Educational value points

  • The clip provides insights into contemporary opinions and events surrounding the opening of one of Australia’s greatest architectural and cultural icons, the Sydney Opera House.
  • The Opera House, designed by Danish architect Jørn Utzon, was opened by Queen Elizabeth II on 20 October 1973 and cost $102 million to build. Its design was heralded as visionary, with the dramatic roof of sail structures proving a major architectural challenge. Despite cost blow-outs, controversies surrounding its design and subsequent renovations and refurbishments, the Sydney Opera House has played a major role in Australia’s cultural life. In 2005, for example, it hosted more than 3,000 events for a total audience of more than 2 million people.
  • Larry Sitsky, shown in the clip giving his personal perspective on the Opera House as a performance space, has been a prominent figure in Australia’s music scene since the 1960s. Born in China to Russian-Jewish parents, Sitsky is highly respected for his research and writing, having held several positions in tertiary institutions. He has received many awards for his compositions, which include works for a range of instruments as well as orchestra, and which have been commissioned by national and international organisations.
  • The Sydney Opera House opened in 1972 with Sergei Prokofiev’s War and Peace, an epic production that was televised and broadcast around the world to great acclaim and, according to some commentators, symbolised Australia’s arrival on the international arts and culture scene. The clip gives glimpses of US director Sam Wanamaker’s preparations for this momentous occasion in Australian arts history. Wanamaker (whose name is spelt incorrectly in the clip) had a vibrant and varied career in the arts, achieving fame as an actor, director and producer in opera, film and television before his death in 1993.
  • Larry Sitsky’s comments foreshadow the now longstanding controversy surrounding the feasibility of the Sydney Opera House’s performance spaces. The largest auditorium within the Opera House, originally intended for the Australian Opera, was ultimately assigned to the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, with a smaller space then being assigned to opera. The limitations of the opera theatre, including the size of its wings and orchestra pit, imposed restrictions on opera productions that have continued to the present day. Renovations and alterations, in particular to the size of the pit, have been proposed as recently as 2005, but have been obstructed by projected high costs and the controversy inevitably associated with changing a national icon.
  • It is not unusual for an architect’s design to be compromised by financial, political, social and cultural pressures, especially in public works the scale of the Sydney Opera House. In the case of the spaces inside the Opera House, architect Jørn Utzon’s original plans were changed because of competition between Australia’s arts organisations. While the shell of the Opera House is acknowledged as a superb sculptural form, the practical spaces inside, which fulfil the function of the building as a home and performance space for the arts, have not been well received by their users. The changes proposed for the opera theatre in the 21st century, although costly, would bring the space closer to Utzon’s original plans and address many of the issues Sitsky raised in this interview.
  • The clip provides an opportunity to view part of a documentary by Australian director Bruce Beresford, better known for his internationally successful feature films, including Breaker Morant (1980) and Driving Miss Daisy (1989).

This clip starts approximately 42 minutes into the documentary.

Larry Sitsky, a composer and pianist, is being interviewed.
Narrator Composer Larry Sitsky voices an opinion held by many on the Opera Theatre.
Larry I think it’s got many liabilities. The size of the pit is an enormously worrying factor. I can’t see really grand opera being possible. The size of the wings is very bad and it’s going to be a problem, not only in opera, with large choruses, but also in ballet for leaps coming on and spectacular leaps — I don’t think it’s possible, you would collect a brick wall on the other end. The size of the stage itself is not sufficient. Just working in this house for a week now, I don’t believe that War and Peace can be put on satisfactorily.

Opera director Sam Wanamaker speaks about the upcoming performance of War and Peace. This interview is interspersed with footage of the images that will be used in back projection and also shows preparation for the performance, including footage of the costumes to be used.
Sam Wanamaker We’re using back projection, for example, in the certain sequences which indicate the carnage of war, or the immense numbers of people who participated in it and to show the horrors of war. So this is the only really special technique that’s being used. I don’t think the stage is all that small. It’s not as big as some of the biggest opera house stages but it’s a good and adequate size. Of course, it is a very big opera and requires a lot of chorus and a lot of supers and so on but it’s a question of logistics – it’s like any kind of major operation where you’re using a lot of people and fitting them into some kind of organisation of movement and timing and so on. The opera company are giving me every facility with which to do the opera and do it in the best possible way.

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All materials on the site, including but not limited to text, video clips, audio clips, designs, logos, illustrations and still images, are protected by the Copyright Laws of Australia and international conventions.

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  • You may download materials for your personal use or for non-commercial educational purposes, but you must not publish them elsewhere or redistribute clips in any way.
  • You may embed the clip for non-commercial educational purposes including for use on a school intranet site or a school resource catalogue.
  • The National Film and Sound Archive’s permission must be sought to amend any information in the materials, unless otherwise stated in notices throughout the Site.

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