The Sydney Opera House is a kind of misnomer at best. With programming that alternates between traditional and contemporary performance — and a roll call of captivating, surprising and challenging events throughout the year — it's not all Puccini and Bizet 'round these halls. For the print edition of Broadsheet I sat down with the delightful Jonathan Bielski, executive producer of the House, to discuss balancing pertinence with reverence for Sydney's most famous building.
Living in the vicinity of the outstandingly beautiful Sydney Opera House has a way of sedating you. You take for granted how remarkable and architecturally significant it really is. You forget how rare it is to feel the skin of a building curve ever-so-slightly beneath your hand, how its shape echoes in arcs rather than right angles against the sky. It is a building so intimately entrenched in the image of Sydney that it would be sacrilege not to take a visitor there for a gander.
There are, of course, plenty of iconic structures across the world that demand a visit. But these structures, be they the Statue of Liberty or the Eiffel Tower, function as mere monuments – symbols of a specific place in the world and a city or nation’s self-image. Monuments don’t so much serve the inhabitants of a city on a practical or cultural level; they are places that tourists flock to and residents avoid.
International visitors to the Sydney Opera House may well consider it an emblematic, monumental building, where only a cultural 'elite' frequent for an extravagant opera performance on occasion. What visitors may not realise is that it is a living, breathing arts centre for a vast range of performances and programs.
It is no mistake that the Opera House is frequented by more Sydneysiders than international visitors. And if you’ve noticed yourself attending more concerts at the Opera House than ever before, it’s not just that you’re just getting older and your tastes more aristocratic. It’s due to a deliberate decision to cater to a wider audience.
Jonathan Bielski, executive producer of Sydney Opera House Presents, describes the shift as “opening up a new channel for different Sydneysiders to get access to their Opera House”. For Bielski and his team, whose job it is to oversee the Opera House’s artistic strategy and programming, the shift in perspective is about recognising the social and cultural patterns of the city. “It was about acknowledging this whole culture of people going to gigs, who didn’t really get to see any of the Opera House,” he says.
It’s not to suggest that Bielski and his team – whose research consists of seeing hundreds of live shows a year – are abandoning the pillars of the resident orchestra, choir and opera companies (which make up just over half of the program), but their main challenge is curating the remainder of the program in a meaningful way. “The question I’m always asking is: if I’m looking at the cultural life of Sydney, what are the things I think we can add, not multiply? I don’t want to duplicate things that are already happening – there’s no point to that.”
Bielski, who along with his team sees hundreds of shows a year as research, describes the Opera House as a “broad church” that actively avoids being “too pretentious”. However, it’s a fine line to tread: “We want to maintain the specialness of the Opera House, but we don’t want the Opera House to be unattainable or inaccessible.
“Entertainment and art are mutually exclusive, apparently.” He continues: “I don’t think they are at all.”
It’s a philosophy that has come to define the Opera House’s transformation over the last few years. There’s Vivid, which sees the Opera House drenched in light and colours over the course of winter and makes for a direct challenge to the grandiose image of the venue. There are the more frequent concerts featuring independent musicians, many of them channelled through Vivid LIVE. Another signal of change was the opening of the Opera Kitchens on the forecourt, solving the problem of where to eat before a performance and allowing us to inch a little closer to the House without a ticket in hand.
The Festival of Dangerous Ideas has become more expansive each year, bringing a cross-section of intellectually challenging ideas to the venue. Even the El Loco pop-up last summer marked a shift in the functions and fashion of the Opera House’s image, becoming an open house for patrons and performers.
“When you talk to artists who come to perform at the Opera House, they are just so thrilled. We really forget, because we live in Sydney and the Opera House is ours,” says Bielski. “But artists who come from other parts of the world, even from other cities in Australia, they really can’t believe they’re there… and it’s very touching to see that.”
But that sense of reverence is at odds with the true nature of the Opera House.
“A few years ago, Ben Folds came and did a project with the Sydney Symphony and every second word was ‘motherfucker’. I thought it was fantastic,” smiles Bielski.
“It’s a very Australian thing that people don’t like things taken too seriously. They want it done well, but they don’t want it to be too serious and stuffy. That’s one of the things that music does,” he says. “It’s a great leveller.”