Monster or Miracle: Larry Sitsky comments on the Sydney Opera House

Monster or Miracle: Larry Sitsky comments on the Sydney Opera House
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Composer Larry Sitsky comments that the opera theatre has many 'liabilities'. Opera director Sam Wanamaker suggests that the space is manageable. 

Summary by Damien Parer.

Director Bruce Beresford went on to have an internationally successful career in feature film directing. This early film reveals skilful storytelling ability and stylish filmmaking technique. Two other films about the Sydney Opera House were also produced in 1973 – The Fifth Façade and The 8th Wonder of the World.

Monster or Miracle? synopsis

A celebratory film about the construction and opening of the Sydney Opera House. Made just prior to the official opening in 1973, it traces the history of Bennelong Point and the development of the site on Sydney Harbour. The concept for the building was inspiring but unproven for construction. Pressure from government officials and the press led to the Danish architect Jørn Utzon’s resignation and the building being completed in a cheaper and more conventionally acceptable manner.

The film contains interviews with Utzon, various artists and government officials. The beauty of the design is well covered.

Notes by Damien Parer.

Education notes

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).

Education notes provided by The Learning Federation.

Production company:
Reg Grundy
Patricia Lovell
Bruce Beresford
Narration written by:
John Campbell