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The power of a single performance


Queen Elizabeth II officially opens the Sydney Opera House on 20 October 1973. INSET: Salvationist Ron Prussing.
BY MAJOR PETER McGUIGAN

This month, Australia is celebrating the 50th anniversary of its most lauded and recognised icon on the world stage, the Sydney Opera House.


On 20 October 1973, people packed Bennelong Point and the greater harbour foreshores as Queen Elizabeth II declared the magnificent edifice open. Construction had taken more than 14 years, such was the architectural brilliance and complexity of the project and the demand it placed upon the engineering capabilities of the time.


The Opera House began as the vision of Eugene Goossens, “my dreamchild” he once called it, who came to Australia in 1946 as guest conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra (SSO). Goossens was surprised that the SSO’s main performance venue was the Sydney Town Hall – that Australia’s largest city was bereft of a specially appointed concert hall. He also found no theatres big enough to stage large or even medium-sized operas.


Goossens became Resident Conductor of the SSO in July 1947 and championed the idea of an opera house built on Bennelong Point – both in the press and among senior government, council and music industry officials.


Nothing much seemed to happen until 1954. Concerned that Goossens’ continuing campaigning in the press could embarrass the state government, ABC head Charles Moses suggested a meeting with then-Premier John Joseph Cahill. The meeting convinced Premier Cahill of the need for an opera house and its high priority.


Jørn Utzon, the Danish architect who designed the Sydney Opera House.

Late in 1954, preliminary planning began with the appointment of a committee to advise the government on building an opera house. Thirty-one sites were examined, and Bennelong Point was chosen. In January 1956, an international design competition was announced for the opera house. On 29 January 1957, Jørn Utzon, a Danish architect, was declared the competition winner. The judges stated: “We have returned again and again to the study of these drawings [and] are convinced that they present a concept of an opera house which is capable of being one of the great buildings of the world.”


Premier Cahill ensured the project remained on track and in March 1959 construction began. It was a massive undertaking and one that was dotted with controversy. The venture experienced cost blow-outs, and there were occasions when the NSW Government was tempted to call a halt. In 1966, the situation reached a crisis point due to arguments about cost and interior design and the government withholding progress payments. Jørn Utzon resigned from the project, and the building took a further seven years to complete.


Salvation Army links

Despite all this, today Australia has an opera house regarded worldwide as the finest performing arts venue anywhere. It welcomes more than 10.9 million visitors annually, and more than 1.4 million people attend its 1800 performances. Among these have been many church occasions, including Salvation Army concerts, Christmas extravaganzas, congress gatherings and commissioning events.


The very first Salvation Army event held at the Opera House was the culmination of the commissioning of the Blood and Fire session of Salvation Army officers - the celebration and appointments meeting held on Monday 14 January 1974.


Salvationist Ron Prussing has been the Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s Principal Trombonist for many years.

Salvationist and former Petersham and Sydney Congress Hall Corps Bandmaster Ron Prussing played in the SSO’s trombone section in the very first concert at the Sydney Opera House and has been its Principal Trombone for many years.


“I was so privileged to be part of that night,” Ron told SSO supporters earlier this year through its View from the Stagenewsletter. “I was so young and naïve; I was just revelling in the music. I remember enjoying the spectacular nature of that incredible music. And it was music that I ultimately fell in love with.”


The advent of the Sydney Opera House has influenced the development and maturing of the performing arts in Australia far more than any other event in its history. Why do so many people come to this venue and other performance venues around the country? They come for the same reason Goossens had his vision – to be taken by the excellence of the gifts God has given some of us to another level of human experience.


Whether it be the beauty of a voice soaring, the intricacy of a symphony, the drama or humour of actors in the theatre round or even a powerful performance on the silver screen, these gifts express the deep longings of the human heart for meaning, understanding, justice and love.


Many of us can’t put that longing into words or translate it into powerful drama, music or song. But we are certainly able to respond to a portrayal of love, grief, humour or tension that defines the state of the human heart. We are certainly able to say, “Yes, that’s what life should be (or should not be)”; “Yes, that’s how I feel”; “Yes, that’s what I need in my life”; “Yes, that’s what I want to aim for”; “Yes, I want to be a better person”.


Perhaps you could take this writer’s advice and down tools, get yourself a ticket to the next SSO concert, go down to the Sydney Opera House and allow yourself to be thoroughly blessed! Our lives and attitudes have the capacity to be challenged, even changed forever, by the power of a single performance.


Thank God for these gifts. Thank God for Goossens’ vision. Thank God we can be so powerfully enlivened in both mind and heart.


The Sydney Symphony Orchestra performed at the opening of the Sydney Opera House on 20 October 1973.

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