Australia’s most famous attraction turns 50

By Lilit Marcus, CNN

(CNN) — Saying that the Sydney Opera House is a well-known icon of Australia is kind of like saying the Amazon is a creek.

The building, which turns 50 years old on October 20, has been given a cultural value of $11.4 billion by the global financial firm Deloitte.

Sure, the plum Sydney waterfront real estate is worth plenty – but the real value, according to Deloitte, is the way it symbolizes Australia all over the world, becoming one of those buildings, like the Eiffel Tower and the Empire State Building, that can be recognized by its silhouette alone.

Inaugurated on October 20, 1973, by the late Queen Elizabeth II, the Opera House now welcomes more than one million visitors every year.

Danish architect Jorn Utzon won the competition to design the Opera House in 1957. He would later win the Pritzker Prize, which is considered the Nobel of architecture.

A rich history

There’s much more to the Opera House than, well, opera.

“I think there’s a big misconception that we’re the classical arts,” says Jade McKellar, chief customer officer for the Sydney Opera House.

“We also have contemporary music. We have a big talks program, where we’ve had international and local speakers take it to our stages. We have children’s programming. Any time you come to the Opera House, there’ll be something on that somebody would be interested in.”

When UNESCO added the Opera House to its World Heritage list in 2007, the praise was euphoric.

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“The Sydney Opera House constitutes a masterpiece of 20th Century architecture,” UNESCO wrote in its designation.

The document cited the building’s “unparalleled design and construction” and called it “a daring and visionary experiment.”

The next 50 years

All of these accolades might feel intimidating to a visitor. But McKellar says that the Opera House has spent years trying to open up its offerings to as wide an audience as possible.

That means putting Opera House programming online for more people to watch, for example. But it also means providing Opera House tours in a range of languages – from Spanish to Korean – in order to better serve international audiences, and it means having dedicated staff and programming to highlight the First Nations community.

Before Sydney or the Opera House existed, this piece of land was named Tubowgule by the native Gadigal people.

The Opera House’s fine dining restaurant, Bennelong, gets its name from the Gadigal word for the Sydney harbor area, and Aboriginal artist Megan Cope made a site-specific artwork, “Whispers,” out of poles and oyster shells for the 50th anniversary celebrations.

Ultimately, McKellar says, the goal of the Opera House is to be a “people’s house,” where all Australians are welcome.

While plenty of tourists visit the opera house to attend shows, have a meal at one of the restaurants inside the building, or just take a guided tour, the team behind the house also wants local Sydneysiders to feel like they can swing by anytime.

McKellar, a Sydney native, says that ethos very much mirrors her own experience. She first visited as a child, performing in a choir production of “The Pied Piper of Hamelin.” As an adult, she brought out-of-town colleagues over to Opera Bar for drinks and eventually she even got married there, in one of the building’s function rooms.

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For many, tourist attractions like the opera house are once-in-a-lifetime destinations. But if there was a UNESCO World Heritage site in your neighborhood, would you go more often?

According to data from the Opera House, 42% of people who bought a ticket for an event or program in 2022 were first-timers.

In addition, viewers consumed 790,000 hours of Opera House content on YouTube.

For McKellar and her team, those numbers point to the fact that the Opera House is more than just a building – it’s a community hub.

“We want everyone to think about, ‘What am I going to do this weekend? I’m going to go to the opera house, because there’s something for me. I feel like I’m welcome there. I see myself there. I feel safe.’”

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