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By Sophie McComas, ContributorISSUE #016 HOMAGE TO THE HOUSE | Community

People of the Opera House

On any given day, The Australian Ballet, Wu Tang Clan, a circus cabaret or Zadie Smith may be performing at the Sydney Opera House. Much like its diverse cultural offering, its passionate and varied staff draw from all walks of life, brought together under those spectacular sails by a collective love of creativity and community.

From NYE fireworks to research projects on marine biodiversity in Sydney Harbour, there’s more than meets the eye when it comes to this Australian landmark. In the spirit of our latest twin-gin release with the Sydney Opera House (on sale now!), we spoke with five incredible team members to get the inside scoop...

Ben Marshall - Head of Contemporary Music

What are you responsible for at the Sydney Opera House, Ben?

As the Head of Contemporary Music I decide which artists come and perform here as part of the Sydney Opera House’s year-round contemporary music program, and as the curator of Vivid LIVE I’m responsible for programming our annual music event which takes over the building each year between May and June.

What drew you to the Sydney Opera House initially?

In 2009, I was running an independent music touring company, promoting artists like The National, Sia and The xx when Brian Eno curated the first Vivid LIVE (then called Luminous) at the Sydney Opera House. I remember it completely blowing me away and made me look at the building completely differently, having never before thought it was aware of, let alone interested in, the music world I was a part of. I’d supplied a range of music artists to Sydney Festival between 2006-2010 and Sydney Opera House started looking hard at this area around this time, seeing it as a space to potentially be curated and programmed artistically and rigorously, just like traditional art forms. So, when the Opera House contacted me about coming in to help develop this new program, my experiences at Brian Eno’s festival had me jumping at the chance as I feel incredibly strongly about the best of contemporary music taking its rightful place alongside classical art forms.

What’s the most surprising thing about the Opera House?

Aside from how well the Concert Hall doubles as a gigantic bassbin for electronic artists like Jon Hopkins, I’d say it’s how incredibly open and welcoming it is to new art forms and new audiences. From Ice Cube to Aida, the enthusiasm for great and exciting work runs right through the entire building no matter its genre. When I first arrived, I wondered what the appetite would be for contemporary music but the hunger for new and challenging experiences here is genuine, as is the desire for everyone to see the Sydney Opera House as theirs.

Tell us something we might not know about the Opera House

How powerful the interplay is between the architecture and the experience of seeing a performance here. The architect Jørn Utzon successfully created another world with this building, a world modelled on a Mayan temple rising above the jungle, designed to liberate you from daily life, simultaneously dwarfing you while lifting you up to meet the performers on a Cyclopean plateau. There’s no way to approach or get inside the Sydney Opera House without it visibly rising up above you and working its psychological/architectural magic on your brain and nervous system, so that by the time you take your seat for a performance, you’ve been placed in a heightened state for receiving art. If anyone’s looking for an introduction to this, Solange Knowles’ four-night residency this January is going to be the perfect way to experience this first-hand.

What’s the most memorable moment you’ve had at the Opera House?

Right now I’ll go with welcoming Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds into the Sydney Opera House for their long overdue debut here in 2013, playing the week they scored their first Australian #1 album with Push The Sky Away and also immortalised in the penultimate scene of the documentary drama 20,000 Days On Earth. Though I think this moment may soon have some serious competition from the upcoming Film Music concerts in December with Nick, Warren Ellis, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and Sydney Philharmonia Choirs which are going to be absolutely extraordinary performances.

Alex Sinclair - Head of Venue & Event Sales

Can you describe your role at the Opera House?

As well as looking after all of our resident companies and commercial presenters, my team’s primary function is to manage the booking calendar for all performances and activities inside and outside The House. We book in about 2,500 activities a year across six indoor venues and our outdoor spaces; 1,800 of which are performances. My job is essentially a giant game of Tetris with the aim of accommodating as many wonderful experiences as possible for our visitors to enjoy. What brought you to the Opera House? I’ve been a passionate participant in music and the arts my whole life. I moved to Sydney from Adelaide 17 years ago to pursue my career in the arts, working in different roles across the music industry. As a performer, visitor to Sydney or as an arts professional, arriving at the Opera House is a definitive moment. I started on a three month contract in 2011 and have never left! Every morning as I see the Opera House come into view from Circular Quay, I am filled with a sense of anticipation and possibility. It truly inspires me.

What’s the most surprising thing about the SOH?

I see the building and its indoor and outdoor spaces every day but I am forever discovering new perspectives, vantage points and breathtaking architectural vignettes. It remains a source of constant surprise and delight to me no matter where I am.

What’s one thing people might not know about the Opera House?

That we are a venue for hire! Our Flagship Resident Companies and Sydney Opera Presents program amazing performances and events but our venues are also available to hire. Big touring promoters, independent producers and theatre companies, schools and community groups all activate our spaces. It’s a place for everyone.

What’s the most memorable moment you’ve had at the Opera House?

Every performance feels magical here and I have had so many memorable moments but the ultimate was Prince playing a solo show in the Concert Hall in 2016. An artist of that magnitude in such a spectacular and intimate setting was an extraordinary and unforgettable experience.

Are you Outside or Inside Gin and Why?

Outside Gin. It represents that sparkling harbour, which is the backdrop to my every day, as well as a nod to my South Australian roots with the yuzu.

Rick Higgs – Visitor Services Operations Manager

What does your role involve?

I look after our Host Team who manage Stage Door and the Welcome Team who are our roving guest relations ambassadors. Part of my job is to make sure that everyone who steps onto the Opera House precinct is having the best time by enabling our teams to create remarkable memories!

How did you end up working in this glorious building?

I relocated from cold and drizzly London in the summer of 2016 and thought, if I was going to move 20,000km across the world, I should probably set my sights on the most iconic place in Australia. I trained as an actor when I was younger and then worked in visitor attractions and restaurants so there couldn’t be a more perfect fit for me in combining my love of performance with world-class experience. There is no other office in the world quite like the Opera House!

What’s been your favourite discovery about the Sydney Opera House

The huge range of events and performances happening under the iconic sails. I remember one of my first nights there, we had The Australian Ballet, a world-famous rock band, Shakespeare in the Playhouse and a cabaret full of hairy naked men in the Studio. No two days are the same and there’s always something fun, interesting and different to sink your teeth into.

What’s one thing people might not know about the Opera House?

There’s more steel in the House than in the arch of the Harbour Bridge!

Most memorable moment?

The first New Year’s Eve I spent in Sydney. My partner and I spent the evening at Portside, sipping Champagne and dancing the night away. I may have had a tear or two in my eye for the midnight fireworks. At the time, it felt like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity but now I’m in the middle of plans for NYE 2019 – my fourth at the house!

Are you Outside or Inside Gin and Why?

I would have to say that I am most like the Inside Gin as my fashion sense is known for being rather bold, out-there and slightly fruity. I also tend to always be ready with a smile and bit of pizazz so I think the finish with a burst of sherbet is very me!

Emma Bombonato – Environmental Sustainability Manager

Can you describe your role at the Sydney Opera House?

I’m responsible for managing the delivery of Sydney Opera House’s Environmental Action Plan. That includes implementing initiatives and programs that support the Opera House to reduce its environmental impact, promote environmental sustainability through effective leadership and achieve outcomes that inspire the community to take action for a sustainable future.

What brought you to the Sydney Opera House?

I’m very passionate and personally motivated by the House’s ability to do good. The Opera House is a global and well-respected brand, known for genuine leadership in sustainability. Prior to working here, I was inspired by the Opera House’s capacity to reach millions of people and by acting as an exemplar in sustainability, to influence positive change in our community.

What surprises you about working with the Sydney Opera House?

Just how much is happening here at any one time. It’s lively, dynamic and so full of passionate and dedicated people who are working hard behind the scenes. It’s always bustling with something new and exciting – it never sleeps!

What’s one thing people might not know about the Sydney Opera House

There are 28 artificial reef structures that sit alongside the seawall as part of a scientific research study to understand how best to support marine biodiversity in Sydney Harbour.

What’s one Opera House moment that sticks out in your mind?

I can’t go past the sails being lit green when we announced the Opera House had been certified carbon neutral five years early. It was my birthday that day – so a very well-timed moment for celebration.

Are you Outside or Inside Gin and Why?

Definitely Outside gin! My love of the coast and the Australian outdoors makes us the perfect match.

Dean Jakubowski – Building Operations Manager

What keeps you busy at the Sydney Opera House?

I’m the Buildings Operation Manager which involves managing the maintenance, contractors and logistics on site.

What drew you to work with this landmark initially?

In this field of work, there’s no other building in the world that represents amazing architecture and is a world-heritage listed and world-leading arts centre and icon like the House.

What’s the most surprising thing about the Sydney Opera House?

The passion that people have for the building. Everyone I’ve ever worked with, whether it’s a builder, cleaner, electrician, accountant or CEO, has an immense passion for this place.

Any intel we might not know?

The House’s roof is made from 2,194 pre-cast concrete sections covered in 1,556,006 tiles. Every single tile is inspected by a team of six abseilers every five years which takes approximately six weeks to complete. Every tile has an individual number. These concrete sections weigh up to 15 tons each and are held together by 350km of tensioned steel cable. The building also has 6,225 square meters of glass and 645km of electric cable running through it.

What’s the most memorable moment you’ve had at the Opera House?

The first time I sat on top of the sails to set off fireworks to bring in the new year. Friggin’ amazing!

Are you Outside or Inside Gin and Why?

Oh I’m Outside Gin all the way! The native foraged seablite and seaweed appeal to my love of fresh ocean. And I cannot love native finger limes more – I’m currently growing a tree on my Kings Cross balcony!