Whose Opera House?

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Words || Mariah Hanna

If you ask anyone in the world to name things that are Australian, the Opera House will probably be one of the first things they’ll say. It’s come to be our most recognisable landmark, and I can’t say that I ever felt particularly attached to it until I read that the Opera House was due to be transformed into an advertisement for the Everest Cup.

Early in October old mate Alan Jones – a regular in the act of sticking his nose into politics and giving his opinion that no one asked for – caught wind of Louise Herron’s refusal to allow the full advertisement to be projected on the Opera House’s sails. Herron, who is the Opera House’s chief executive, told Racing New South Wales that they could project the racing colours onto the sails, but she wouldn’t allow the horse or race names. This is in keeping with state legislation that says any projections onto the Opera House should be “confined to exceptional, non-commercial occasions of brief duration”.

Despite this clear legislation, Jones was appalled by the decision and called Herron on air to seemingly blast her for doing her job. Jones repeatedly interrupted Herron, telling her that she doesn’t own the Opera House, therefore she had no right to say what can and cannot be advertised on its sails. Even as Herron told Jones the Opera House “is not a billboard”, he proceeded to threaten her, saying he’d tell the New South Wales Premier, Gladys Berejiklian, that Herron should lose her job.

Following the phone call, Berejiklian ordered the Opera House to reverse their decision, allowing Racing New South Wales to run the full ad, including a gaudy projection of horse names and a trophy. It’s no surprise that Berejiklian conceded, as immense pressure came from Jones and the Murdoch-owned Daily Telegraph, considering the disturbingly close ties each of the names have with conservative Australian political parties.

After the decision, there was a public uproar and like so many others, I was completely abhorred by the prospect of having our national landmark turned into an advertisement for some of the worst parts of Australian culture: binge drinking, gambling, and animal cruelty. Within a couple of days, a protest was planned and a petition to support Herron and block the advertisement clocked up over 300,000 signatures.
The event sparked a lot of conversation, particularly about who has the right to advertise and what the iconic landmark means to the Australian culture. The Opera House is no stranger to projections and light installations, with Vivid Festival being one of the biggest yearly attractions for Sydney, which sees kaleidoscopic artworks and designs shone onto the sails.

There are also regularly installations promoting national sporting events, but a crucial difference between past projections and the Everest Cup advertisement is that previous displays have been inclusive to all Sydneysiders, promoting the arts and community.

The son of Peter Hall, the architect who designed the Opera House, said that he was appalled by the government’s decision to allow the advertisement. “My father would have been sickened by it”, he said. “He would not have condoned advertising on the building in any way, lucky he’s not around to see the desecration of our beautiful iconic masterpiece”.

Despite the petition and protest, which saw hundreds of people shine torches on the Opera House the night of the projection, Berejiklian seemingly sees no issue in the decision. The Chief Operating Officer for Racing New South Wales, Graeme Hinton, told Sunrise that they went ahead with the projection because they wanted to “promote Sydney”, but that since the backlash from the city, they’d rethink using this kind of avenue again.

The former Chief Executive of the Opera House, Michael Lynch, spoke with ABC radio, saying, “I would not regard myself as precious or elitist and I just find the lily-livered approach by the politicians on this issue [and] the nexus between the gambling bodies and the politicians seriously disturbing”. During Alan Jones’ catalytic call he said to Herron that she did not own the Opera House, but the people did. I can’t say that I agree with what Mr. Jones says very often, but he was right about that. The people own the Opera House, which means to subject it to this kind of thoughtless commercialisation is an exploitative and damaging loss for our culture.

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