Postcards From a Grand Opening

By Sydney Opera House

Australian culture reached a remarkable milestone on 20 October 1973: the completion of one of the greatest building projects of the 20th century, the birth of an icon, and the beginning of an incredible performance history.

Looking north onto Bennelong Point on opening day (1973) by Leo Davis CollectionSydney Opera House

The Sydney Opera House was officially opened on 20 October, 1973. “The Sydney Opera House has captured the imagination of the world, though I understand that its construction has not been totally without problems,” Queen Elizabeth II observed, opening Jørn Utzon’s masterpiece on a blustery Spring day. Then again, as the Queen went on to say: “The human spirit must sometimes take wings or sails, and create something that is not just utilitarian or commonplace.”

Those words, like the season, could not have been more appropriate to the occasion. It was a day that brought to a conclusion the saga of the building’s conception, design and construction, a saga in which controversies and politics upended what had seemed for many years as idealistic a quest for architectural perfection as had been seen in the post-war world.

Some had feared that the Sydney Opera House might never be finished. To others, its perfection was forever compromised by the manner of its completion.

But on 20 October a building conceived with vast ambitions - nothing less than to “help mould a better and more enlightened community”, in the words of then New South Wales Premier Joseph Cahill - a building that some would say had already begun to do that work during the travails and controversies of its construction - began to assume its destiny.

On that day, the most recognisable symbol of modern Australia became the extraordinary home to culture that it still is today, a World Heritage-listed masterpiece synonymous with inspiration and creativity.

One of the many Australians who saw the fireworks that night from Circular Quay was Marc Newson, who was celebrating his tenth birthday - a birthday shared with the Opera House - that night. Newson, who would go on to become Australia’s most famous designer, would always remember the opening of a building that, as he said 40 years later, became the shape of Australia to the world.

This exhibit captures an intimate portrait of that day, a moment between the story of the building itself and the emergence of the unique secular cathedral that celebrates community, storytelling, and the vitality and strength of the creative spirit.

Early morning on the day of the opening of the Sydney Opera House, Leo Davis Collection, 1973, From the collection of: Sydney Opera House
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Scouts distribute programs at the opening of the Sydney Opera House, Leo Davis Collection, 1973, From the collection of: Sydney Opera House
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Bunting and signal flags festoon boats moored beside the Sydney Opera House, Leo Davis Collection, 1973, From the collection of: Sydney Opera House
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The public gathers on the Concourse on Bennelong Point for the opening of the Sydney Opera House (1973) by Leo Davis CollectionSydney Opera House

Umbrella protection from the heat (1973) by Leo Davis CollectionSydney Opera House

The balloon barge moored at Man O' War steps (1973) by Leo Davis CollectionSydney Opera House

Streamers let down from the top of the shells (1973) by Leo Davis CollectionSydney Opera House

Seating arrangements for the opening ceremony, Leo Davis Collection, 1973, From the collection of: Sydney Opera House
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Procession ahead of the arrival of Queen Elizabeth II, Leo Davis Collection, 1973, From the collection of: Sydney Opera House
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The Samoan national flag in procession on opening day, Leo Davis Collection, 1973, From the collection of: Sydney Opera House
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National costumes in the procession on opening day, Leo Davis Collection, 1973, From the collection of: Sydney Opera House
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Commonwealth representatives in procession on opening day, Leo Davis Collection, 1973, From the collection of: Sydney Opera House
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Vietnam war photographer Denis Gibbons talks to former Prime Minister Sir William McMahon and his wife, Sonia McMahon, Leo Davis Collection, 1973, From the collection of: Sydney Opera House
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Naval fanfare at the opening, Leo Davis Collection, 1973, From the collection of: Sydney Opera House
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Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip arrive at the Sydney Opera House (1973) by Leo Davis CollectionSydney Opera House

Queen Elizabeth II at the opening of the Sydney Opera House (1973) by Leo Davis CollectionSydney Opera House

Umbrellas in the heat, with dais in the background (1973) by Leo Davis CollectionSydney Opera House

Audience on the Monumental Steps (1973) by Leo Davis CollectionSydney Opera House

Queen Elizabeth II alights at the Monumental Steps (1973) by Leo Davis CollectionSydney Opera House

Balloons released on opening day (1973) by Leo Davis CollectionSydney Opera House

Maritime Services fire boats celebrating with water jets (1973) by Leo Davis CollectionSydney Opera House

Helicopter flyover seen from the Western Broadwalk (1973) by Leo Davis CollectionSydney Opera House

From the harbour on opening day, Leo Davis Collection, 1973, From the collection of: Sydney Opera House
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Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip meet members of the public, Leo Davis Collection, 1973, From the collection of: Sydney Opera House
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Queen Elizabeth II meets children, Leo Davis Collection, 1973, From the collection of: Sydney Opera House
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Queen Elizabeth II talks to members of the public on the Northern Broadwalk, Leo Davis Collection, 1973, From the collection of: Sydney Opera House
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Queen Elizabeth II meets members of the public, Leo Davis Collection, 1973, From the collection of: Sydney Opera House
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Gough Whitlam and Ben Blakeney (1973) by Leo Davis CollectionSydney Opera House

Queen Elizabeth II arrives for the evening celebrations with Prince Philip and NSW Premier Robert Askin (1973) by Leo Davis CollectionSydney Opera House

Queen Elizabeth II greeted by Prime Minister Gough Whitlam and Sydney Opera House's first general manager, Frank Barnes, Leo Davis Collection, 1973, From the collection of: Sydney Opera House
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Queen Elizabeth II greeting guests, Leo Davis Collection, 1973, From the collection of: Sydney Opera House
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Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip meet Sydney Opera House staff in the Opera Theatre, Leo Davis Collection, 1973, From the collection of: Sydney Opera House
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Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip meet Sydney Opera House staff in the Opera Theatre, Leo Davis Collection, 1973, From the collection of: Sydney Opera House
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HRH Queen Elizabeth II, Leo Davis Collection, 1973, From the collection of: Sydney Opera House
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Fireworks on the evening of the opening (1973) by Leo Davis CollectionSydney Opera House

The official opening of the Sydney Opera House on 20 October 1973 (1973) by Max Dupain, State Library of New South WalesSydney Opera House

Credits: Story

Created by Sam Doust and the
Sydney Opera House GCI Team

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Contributors:
Sydney Opera House Wolanski Archive Collection
State Library of New South Wales

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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