Is there any narrative about modern Australian culture that cannot be found in the long, sad story of this building? First, the deference to European greatness that led to hiring Utzon in the first place. Then, the blowback against same, the resentment of the big-thinking foreigner with the funny name, come to tell us how to build an opera house. From there, inevitably, the almost comic non-communication between the cerebral European architect and the local cultures of building and design. The political backstabbing so intense that Utzon not only left the project, but left Australia for the last time in 1966, long before the building was finished, and thus never saw it completed.
Today, its failures are as transcendent as its brilliance. Utzon had no hand in the interiors, and these are nothing special. As one friend warned me: "Australia has one great opera house; the outside is in Sydney and the inside is in Melbourne." The acoustics are chancy. The two large performance halls are typical boxes that offer no sense of being inside the surrounding shells. The orchestra pit is intimate. There are no wings to speak of: a performer exiting the stage at any speed is running straight toward a wall a few feet away; often, staff must be there to catch them.
In the end, I suppose there's some truth to the slur by Davis Hughes, the public works director at the time, that Utzon was "a sculptor, not an architect." When I see the Opera House, I don't think of opera. Utzon's shells could just have well been built over the tram terminus that used to be on the site. What I see is great civic sculpture in an endless intriguing and erotic dialogue with the site, the harbor, the bridge, and the city. It is one of the first modernist buildings that could be called playful or mysterious -- in a world where cities desperately need more play, and more mystery.
It makes me want to play, too. It's a measure of the resilience of the building that there is no truly bad angle on it. Even when I try to catch some unintended glimpse -- like looking for the wires at the circus -- Utzon's sculpture seems to bear my curiosity, and maybe wink at me a bit.