Utzson's Opera House

Tom Carment had watercolours in the 'Utzon's Opera House' exhibition at the S.H.Ervin Gallery Observatory Hill, from Dec 2013 until Jan 2014

On Sunday Dec 15 2013 he gave a talk there with Peter Kingston and Wendy Whiteley.

Here is the text of his talk:

Tom Carment talk – Utzon’s Opera House


 It’s hard to think of a building so modern and so audacious being 40 years old -- indeed its design was conceived over 50 years ago. My pulse always quickens when I approach the Opera house. No matter which route I take to approach it, through the Botanic gardens with its bats, palm groves and joggers, or around from Circular Quay; its onset is dramatic. It’s such an exuberant building.

And, apart from its exterior form, it is also a huge repository of memories -- memories of times when we forgot about our everyday lives, about our humdrum affairs and were swept away to somewhere else. 

These days Opera House performances embrace a wide audience -- not just the traditional concert-goers in their powder and pearls but proud parents relaxed in shorts and thongs who’ve come to hear their kids sing and play recorder in a public schools concert of a thousand, or crowds of young people on the steps watching the final of Australian Idol.

In the late 60s and into the 70s I must have travelled past the Opera House construction site many times on the ferry, or crossing the bridge, but I regret to say I missed most of it - lost in the fog of my adolescent self-regard. Too busy worrying about my pimples. I have a vague memory of dogmen on girders. and white bones of concrete sticking up from Bennelong Point.

About eight years ago I had the privilege of being artist-in-residence on a city building site in central Melbourne and was fascinated by the drama of the whole construction process. The Opera House site would have been a wonderful place to draw and paint, its action directed by hand signals, whistles and shouts. It was in the days before computers when architects wore bow ties so as not to smear their drawings. There would have been an army of people hand-drafting and altering the complex plans.

During the eighties I worked for a lady who created painted finishes, very popular in that era. We spent a week making a rock-like effect in red and yellow ochres on the high walls of the Opera House aboriginal art shop -- not there any more. I would walk through a labyrinth of concrete corridors down into the bowels of the building to wash our brushes.

I guess we all have memories too of the performances we’ve seen on Bennelong Point. In my case its not much opera, but mainly concerts and plays. One of the first was Jim Sharman’s production of  Patrick White’s ‘Season of Sarsaparilla’ in 1976 and much later his version the play ‘Three Furies’ about the painter Francis Bacon. Recently, I’ve watched the energetic Vladimir Ashkenazy in his white skivvy conducting Prokofief, seen Clive James in an armchair in front of the Symphony Orchestra as he explained a program of obscure film music. In the last decade my children have been performing there – my son sings in a men’s choir called Vox who provide choral support to the Sydney Symphony. I saw him singing in Norwegian, during Grieg’s Peer Gynt.

About 15 years ago a friend who worked in props would sometimes give me free tickets to daytime dress rehearsals of operas. One time it was Don Giovanni, and it was a day that I was looking after my four year old son. He was a quiet kid and liked music, so I decided to take him along, see how it went.  We didn’t last long ... in the first act Don Giovanni forced himself against Donna Anna the Comandatore’s daughter, pushing her roughly up against the side of the stage trying to lift her skirts. My son called out loudly : ‘No, No!’  The usher rushed over and showed us the exit and berated me for bringing such a small child to the opera.

I appreciate the strict codes of behaviour they have at the Opera House, like stopping people taking photos and using their phones during performances, from talking, and coughing too much, but I’m sure Mozart would have approved of my son’s outburst. In his day I feel sure, operas would have been punctuated by the audiences’ passionate reactions. I think concert-goers these days are perhaps too polite – they clap away at a recital that has not particularly moved them, and almost never express discontent. Maybe they are just happy to be inside the Opera House, and would listen to someone gargling for an hour just for the excitement of being there.

About five months ago Peter Kingston sent me a postcard asking if I had ever, or would like to, depict the Opera House for this exhibition. I replied the next day with another card saying that I wasn’t sure about painting the sails as they were art in themselves, but would have a go at painting the steps. I wrote that that I liked the way people always gathered there.

And so, thanks to Peter’s suggestion, I commenced my series of small watercolour and ink pictures.

I’ve always loved the Opera House steps, the way they go up and up, at a gentle enough incline to make ascending them easy and relaxed. I think they must be the largest and widest set of steps in the country. It is said Utzon was inspired in their design by Mayan temples. They are like the wake that follows the roofs.

I also find it interesting that people love being and meeting on steps in general, perhaps more so than they do in a flat square or piazza. The Utzon steps provide groups of people so many varieties of position in which they can congregate, whether sitting in a row or standing, and they afford dramatically foreshortened views of the shell roofs as well as long views, way up the harbour, to Manly.

And so, in October, I commenced my small project. I’m lucky to live a forty minute walk away and so I would put my watercolours in a backpack and either walk through the Botanic Gardens or ride my bike to Bennelong Point. Then, after deciding where I was going to sit on the steps, I would get out my two watercolour plates, my folder of cut up pieces of Arches hot-pressed paper, a roll of tape so the paper wouldn’t blow away, and my tube of different-sized sable brushes. I commenced each picture with a line drawing done with a pigment ink pen. I use a variety of pen whose ink dries quickly and does not bleed when, in the second phase of my process, I apply washes of  watercolour over it. Sometimes at the end I add a few more black lines with the pen.

There is an open gap under each of the long Opera House steps, and, being aware that my brushes might roll or get blown down into it, I took care to place them beside a rubber grommet that is wedged in the gap every few metres. One windy day however a gust blew two of my best sables forward and down into the void. There must be a lot of stuff lost in that irretrievable space.

Groups of visitors came and went as I painted and drew -- Chinese tourists fresh off their coaches, office workers taking lunch breaks, wedding photographers with bride and groom, audiences early for the matinee of ‘South Pacific’. Many of them were holding their mobile phones, ipads and digital cameras out in front of them, taking thousands of snaps of the sails. Often the partner was made to jump in the air in front of them, doing the v sign at the same time. The modern camera or device, I noted, is no longer held close to the face.

Because I was working small, and perhaps because I look like a crazy old coot, people left me alone. Even the security guards; who may have noticed that I was reappearing there each day and was sitting in one place for some time. The seagulls would assume that I was opening a sandwich and crowd eagerly around, but soon got bored and flew off. ‘Don’t you just hate watercolourists’, they’d be saying to each other.



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