It may not be immediately obvious what impelled an Australian city to make an opera house its most prominent feature, but the idea can be traced back to Dame Nellie Melba (1861–1931) from Melbourne, a diva of the first order, who was one of the first Australians to become an international star. With a prominence comparable to today's Australian film stars, Nellie Melba gave the nation a presence in high culture that bolstered its selfconfidence in its dealings with Europe.
Dame Joan Sutherland from Sydney achieved similar prominence in the twentieth century. Bearing in mind that Australian opera stars have made a global impact – and given the established rivalry between Melbourne and Sydney – the decision to build an opera house on this spectacular site does make sense.
An international competition was organized to find the best designer for the opera house, and the Danish architect Jørn Utzon was selected on the basis of some highly innovative proposals. Turning those ideas into reality turned out to be a much more complex and expensive process than anyone had anticipated, and the many problems – technical, financial and political – became overwhelming for the architect, who resigned from the project long before it was finished. The building was eventually completed with funding from a popular lottery established for the purpose.
The trials involved in creating Sydney Opera House were extraordinary, but the achievement is unarguable. While there are reservations about the building's suitability as a place to stage operas, it has been stupendously successful in asserting Sydney's presence on the world stage. From the moment its gleaming white shell roofs were visible, images of them circulated as symbols of Australia. Internationally the misconception that Sydney is Australia's capital is perpetuated by the continuing existence of the opera house. (The capital of Australia is Canberra.)
The audience for this building is much greater than the audience for opera. It is even greater than the number of visitors to Sydney – or Australia, for that matter. For this wider audience, the internal organization of the space is not an issue. What matters is the compelling and distinctive silhouette – the curved concrete shells covered with iridescent tiles that preside authoritatively over Sydney Harbour. The bulk of the building consists of a self-effacing plinth, a continuation of the land-mass on a natural promontory. A great flight of steps on the landward side brings visitors up the outside of the building, as though they are walking up a hill. The shells sit on top, looking delicate and poised, and housing the upper reaches of the main auditoriums.
To some eyes, Sydney Opera House is a highly sculptural edifice that owes more to the traditions of twentieth-century abstract sculpture than to traditional architectural form. However, the shells are a small part of the whole, and the general idea of making a relatively light canopy seem to float above a dense mass of building has many precedents. Symbolizing Australia's current prominence in world culture, Sydney Opera House is a counterpart to Uluru's continuing and no less iconic presence in the outback (Uluru).