Some of the world’s greatest tales have been told on the stages of the Sydney Opera House – but what about its own story?
The story of Danish architect Jørn Utzon and his World Heritage-listed Sydney Opera House is being adapted into a feature film. Utzon: The Man Behind the Opera House is a co-production between Australia, Sweden and Denmark that will tell the story of then 38-year-old Utzon’s arrival in Australia after winning the “international competition for a national opera house at Bennelong Point, Sydney”.
Whether it’s Shakespeare aficionados watching those star-crossed lovers in the Drama Theatre, 100,000 people listening to Crowded House’s Farewell to the World on its forecourt steps or teenagers discovering Heathers: The Musical in the Playhouse, the Opera House has positioned itself as a place from which stories are told. Its sails are even the canvas for Aboriginal Dreaming tales at this year’s Vivid festival.
The story of how Australia’s most recognisable building came to be is truly fascinating and it possesses all the elements of a great drama: a brilliant outsider engaged in an epic battle against corrupt authorities, greed, hubris, banishment and finally redemption and death.
In December 1955, NSW premier Joseph Cahill announced an international competition for an opera house design to be constructed at Bennelong Point. Utzon’s design was selected from among 233 entries. He made his way to Australia in 1957 to embark on a project that would occupy his heart and mind for the rest of his life.
Jørn Utzon. Photograph by Ole Haupt.
Six years after Cahill’s death in 1959, a Liberal government headed by Robert Askin was elected to office and with that, Utzon’s vision for the Opera House was thwarted at every turn. Eventually, Askin stopped paying the architect. Utzon resigned, expecting to be invited back to complete his breathtaking modern structure. He was never to return.
The Sydney Opera House was completed in 1973 and cost $102 million (it had originally been slated for completion in 1963 at a cost of £3.5 million). The building was opened by Queen Elizabeth II in an elaborate ceremony broadcast around the world in October. Utzon was not invited; nor was his name mentioned at the ceremony.
The Opera House was named a World Heritage site by UNESCO in 2007. “It stands by itself as one of the indisputable masterpieces of human creativity, not only in the 20th century but in the history of humankind,” read the expert evaluation report to the World Heritage Committee.
The film is in the very early stages of development, but its screenwriter Petter Skavlan said the struggle of Utzon to fulfil his dream against all odds, combined with the backdrop of the construction of one of the world’s most iconic buildings, has long fascinated him. “The epic battle between the architect and the corrupt Askin government is perfect movie material,” he said.
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