Paul Robeson: First Singer At Opera House

Paul Robeson: First Singer At Opera House
Cinesound Movietone Productions
Access fees

American singer Paul Robeson delivers a stirring rendition of 'Ol' Man River' for construction workers at the Sydney Opera House. He was the first professional singer to perform there – singing on the concrete foundations of what would become the Concert Hall.

'Ol' Man River' is originally from the 1927 musical Showboat with music by Jerome Kern and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II.

Robeson, with his powerful voice and his belief in civil rights, turns the tragic song about the struggles of African American people into a protest song full of strength and defiance.

Despite how many times he must have sung it, his performance feels raw and full of emotion. The construction workers watch on in awestruck silence. The sound recording is first-rate with his words clear and easy to understand.

This performance was organised by the Building Workers' Industrial Union during his tour of Australia in 1960.

This newsreel covers the historical moment in a tantalising way with only the performance shown. The coverage could have been improved with a wider shot of him on the site and shots of him meeting workers.

Apart from the opening shot, the footage could have been filmed anywhere. The Opera House in its first phase of construction in 1960. The sails were still a long way off (construction would continue for another 13 years).

This is an excerpt from Cinesound Review no. 1516 released on 17 November 1960.

Notes by Beth Taylor