The 100-metre wide steps of Sydney Opera House will transform into an opera stage for the first time

Writing The Eighth Wonder

By Dennis Watkins

How do you write an opera about a building?

When we said we wanted to write an opera about the building of the Sydney Opera House, everybody knew what we meant.

Before it was built, it was controversial. Sir Eugene Goossens who, in 1954, convinced Premier J J Cahill to commit to it, was hounded out of the country for being caught with pornography in his luggage at Sydney Airport. The premier forced it through cabinet against the wishes of his colleagues. The winning design was found in the reject pile by Eero Saarinen, a late arrival for the judging. Jørn Utzon’s radical design was both loved and hated. For political expediency, construction work started before the designs were finished. Its greatest political supporter, Premier Cahill, died in office the year construction began in 1959. The first performance was in 1960 when Paul Robeson sang ‘Ol’ Man River’ to the workers on their lunch break. The roof design became an engineering nightmare and critics said it wouldn’t stand up. Utzon’s spherical solution was ingenious, but put pressure on the construction schedule and the amount of interior space available for the theatres. The formidable partnership between Utzon and Ove Arup’s engineers became problematic. Utzon started to be seen as the problem rather than the solution. With the controversy and cost overruns, the government lost office in 1965. By 1966, the new regime wanted to take the control of the building away from Utzon.  The government stopped payments that the architect deemed necessary and so Utzon resigned, expecting to be recalled... but he wasn’t. When he left, the interiors still weren’t fully designed, much less finished. He never returned.

Friendships and careers were broken, and hopes and dreams of performing on a world-class stage were put on ice for a decade.

The new consortium of architects who replaced Utzon were shocked by how few detailed drawings existed, and abandoned the ambitious plans for a multi-purpose opera and concert hall and smaller drama theatre. They opted, instead, for a large Concert Hall, a small Opera Theatre, and three smaller venues in the space occupied by the Major Hall stage machinery (which was removed and then abandoned in a paddock next to a prison). There were protests in the streets, demanding Utzon’s return. It was a white elephant to many, an inspiration to others. Everyone had an opinion. The building took ten years longer to build than first imagined, and cost over 15 times more than originally thought. Friendships and careers were broken, and hopes and dreams of performing on a world-class stage were put on ice for a decade. Opera aficionados and symphony supporters argued over the use of the main hall. The first general manager never saw a performance under his watch. Singers booked for the 1963 opening had to wait another decade. And yet the building that was rising on Bennelong Point was a wonder of the world. And when it opened in October 1973, it was a triumph — tarnished by the compromises inside, but a triumph nevertheless.

Geometrical construction showing the shells of the major hall (elevation)

Sydney Opera House (known also as the Yellow Book), architect Jorn Utzon, 1962. Image: State Library of New South Wales.

But when we said we wanted to write an opera about the Sydney Opera House very few thought it would ever happen. We knew that most people thought that it wouldn’t be any good. New Australian operas were rare and usually unloved. The odds, as they say, were lousy.

What we had done, however, was work out how to tell the story so that it wasn’t just a chronology of things that happened. We had come up with an outline that was, well, operatic. And we had our own version of J J Cahill: Jim Sharman.

We were both working with Jim on the musical Chess and telling him about the idea for an opera about the building of the Sydney Opera House. Jim took the idea seriously and encouraged our collaboration. He was to become our greatest asset in the development of the work. Although the chances of it being performed were still astonishingly low.

Words and music: what comes first?

Much like the Opera House itself, what started with an idea and rough sketches ended up as a complex structure, so the libretto evolved over the years we worked on it from an idea to a complex reality with its own struggles to be complete. Words and music: what comes first? Sometimes it’s the words, sometimes the music and sometimes both together. At the beginning, Alan was more or less setting the words but as it grew more complex and the struggle to be musically and dramatically coherent was fought, the balance changed and Alan started to drive the libretto to completion adding texture and character and sometimes the words needed to make the music sing. In opera, the music is paramount and the composer must become the architect of its success.

What we pitched to Jim was the intersection of two stories: one real, one imagined. An architect dreams of a building, and a young singer dreams of singing in it. The architect’s story is tragic; the singer’s story is triumphant.

But why an opera?

For us it’s about scale, metaphor and emotion.

In architecture, it is often said that form must follow function and one of the oft-quoted criticisms of Utzon at the time of his resignation/removal was that form did not follow function in his design of the opera house. But we disagree entirely. The function of an opera house is to bring people together to share the experience of art. It is not about making the art easier to perform or making it easier to change the scenery. The Opera House, by its own form, attracts people to participate in its function, creating the perfect synergy. In creating the most charismatic opera house in the world, Utzon gave opera and all the other art forms presented on Bennelong Point a platform to shine on. And so, in wanting to tell the story about the building of the Sydney Opera House, the form also followed the function. We wanted to dramatise not just the facts, but the emotions, the legacy, the scale, spirit and meaning of what had happened on Bennelong Point. It needed to be an opera and in this case we weren’t interested in our contemporary opera being confined by economics and artistic risk to a small-scale chamber work. What we loved was the scale of opera.

What we loved was the scale of opera

We were interested in writing a grand opera that combined what we liked about some of our favourite operas at the time. For me it was Aida and Nixon In China, and for Alan it was Boris Godunov and Peter Grimes: large-scale casts and orchestras; lavish and spectacular design; and plots based on dramatic historical events, either real or imagined. This was our ambition for The Eighth Wonder.

Architecture and Archetypes

One of the problems with writing about historical people and actual events is how to tell a story that is both truthful and dramatic. You have to be fair to the actual characters but also need to keep the momentum of the drama going. You also can’t have so many characters that the story becomes hard to follow.

Right at the beginning, we chose not to name the architect. He is not called Jørn Utzon. He is called The Architect. This meant that we could also have The Premier, The Politician, The Maestro, The Engineer, et. al., all representing actual people or positions without having to be historically exact. Better for the audience to say, "I know who that is meant to be," rather than, he wasn’t like that". In this way, The Politician becomes a shortcut to introducing Utzon’s real antagonist: the Minister of Works, Davis Hughes. And The Engineer represents all those who began the journey with Utzon with optimism, before they became frustrated and disillusioned; and The Maestro can represent the politically astute symphony musicians and administrators who won the battle over the opera supporters for the use of the major hall. The named characters, Alexandra, Stephen, Magda, et. al., are those not based on real people, although many singers have suggested that they knew whom we were writing about. In order to tell the story, the characters needed to represent the forces at work and not be the actual people. We didn’t want to be undone by what Oscar Hammerstein called ‘research poison’.

With Jim Sharman as director and synopsis in hand, we visited Donald Macdonald and Moffatt Oxenbould in The Australian Opera (now Opera Australia) offices. Support was enthusiastic for a workshop of selected scenes. Richard Gill came on board as a tower of musical strength, as Jim guided the development of the work to fruition and the opera towards production.

We had found a musical and dramatic language that would allow for connections to be made with the story and its characters without being prisoners to a historical documentary style.

When the audience assembled for the workshop presentation we suspect they were asking the same old question: How do you write an opera about a building? And we were sure most of them thought it wasn’t going to be any good. They were surprised. They were presented with the first twenty minutes of the work, a few additional moments, and the confronting scene of The Architect’s resignation. But more than anything, they were presented with an operatic experience.

They saw that we had found a way to imbue a timeless quality to a story that covers 18 years, and yet would be told in under three hours. We had found a musical and dramatic language that would allow for connections to be made with the story and its characters without being prisoners to a historical documentary style.

Completing the score, however, was almost as challenging as completing the building. Key moments were in place like pillars but, as with any composition of this scale, maintaining a structural arc between them went hand in hand with the fear that it may not stand up.

The music of The Eighth Wonder abounds with rising figures (such as the scales that introduce the young Alexandra) and gradually ascending harmonic progressions (as when The Architect mounts the temple steps). On the pages of the score, the wild arpeggiated figures that accompany The Architect's epiphany aria even look like the contours of the Sydney Opera House sails.

'infinite tangential plans, each curve, the same geometry, as  god's golden eye...

An excerpt from the piano reduction of The Architect's epiphany aria, Act 1, Scene 8, The Eighth Wonder by Alan John & Dennis Watkins.

A sense of vertigo — of climbing, facing the terror of falling, but always reaching up — pervades the piece and propels it forward. The moments of ecstasy where the protagonists can almost hear the music of the spheres (or should we say the music of Utzon’s spherical solution) are always kept in check by the competing needs and desires of the surrounding characters. The compositional challenge was in balancing the rarefied with the bumblingly comic... Responding as much to malice, philistinism, commonsense pragmatism and vernacular wisdom, as to aspiration.

The prologue introduces the central argument of the opera:

Between earth and sky;
It’s here you live and here you die
And the spirit of man
Is torn between
The earth he knows
And the sky he’s seen

By starting the opera with a prologue of two elemental forces, Earth and Sky, and setting the tale as a struggle between these two human realities, the earth of our bodies and the sky of our hopes, the drama can begin. The first scene then comes back down to earth with both humour and human squabbling among venal politicians and asks the question:

Opera! Why opera?

And the second scene answers that question by being, well, operatic. We are on a pyramid in Mexico with the full opera chorus embodying a Ceremony of the Aztecs, and when The Architect appears we begin the journey of the creation of a timeless building with all the struggles and sacrifices that it takes to complete a wonder of the world. And the building is only complete when it is being used for performance so the opera ends with the performance of an opera.

Whoever dreamt all this
Dreams on in each stone
In its stone heart
The dreamer’s heart still beats.

Spiritual versus temporal. Visionary versus political. Skyward versus earthbound. Only in the final chorus do the opposing forces reconcile in a musical depiction of the building itself, ‘completed’ by the very human search for meaning through art.




Utzon was re-engaged by the Sydney Opera House Trust in the late 1990s. He never physically returned to see his building, collaborating with his son Jan: an architect in his own right, and Utzon’s eyes and ears in Sydney. And with Australian architect, Richard Johnson, Jørn Utzon set down his design principals for future generations, and continued to work until his death on designs for new interiors, including the Utzon Room, the Western Colonnade and foyers, and a major redesign of the Opera Theatre (now known as the Joan Sutherland Theatre) that is spectacular in its vision and audacity but is still unfunded.

September 2016