The Sydney Opera House, 40 years after its first performance

There will be major celebrations next month to mark the 40th anniversary of the official opening of the Sydney Opera House by the Queen on October 20, 1973. But this Saturday will be the 40th anniversary of the first performance in the house: Opera Australia’s production of Prokofiev’s War And Peace.

It was reportedly chosen as the premiere performance because, like the Opera House itself, it is a 20th century work.

The opera also calls for a large cast, so every member of the company was featured in the historic premiere performance. In fact, some singers were featured in more than one minor role.

The production — reviewed by critics from London, New York and elsewhere — was a huge success. Those hailed as the greatest stars of the show were the late bass-baritone Neil Warren-Smith as Marshall Kutusov and the production’s designer, the late Tom Lingwood.

His sumptuous, epic production helped to temper claims that none of the Sydney Opera House’s theatres would be suitable for grand opera. That complaint was certainly dismissed by The Los Angeles Times’ reviewer, Martin Bernheimer. He wrote after the initial first season’s performances:

“This, without question, must be the most innovative, the most daring, the most dramatic and in many ways the most beautiful home constructed for the lyric and related muses in modern times.”

The season included an all-Wagner gala in the Opera House Concert Hall on September 29, 1973. It featured the Sydney Symphony Orchestra conducted by the late Sir Charles Mackerras with the legendary Swedish soprano, the late Birgit Nilsson, as soloist. She began her program with Elizabeth’s greeting from TannhauserDear Hall of Song.

Many will want to  raise a glass to the memory of these great artists on Saturday. They took to the stage immediately after the Sydney Opera House’s bitterly controversial 16-year construction period: at a time when the building was being widely dismissed as a “white elephant” which would end up as a casino.

Yet despite any number of technical and administrative teething problems, they established the building — and virtually overnight — as a major international performing arts star.