The Hot Seat: Fergus Linehan, Head of Contemporary Music, Sydney Opera House

Published in The Music Network


You’ve been in the Sydney Opera House job for about six months. What’s your vision?
It’s about trying to get the flow of really good work through the building as often as possible. It isn’t terribly visionary, but that’s really what you want. You want to make sure if there’s a major artist coming through, that we do everything we can to facilitate them being under those sails.

That (main) room is about artists who have a certain degree of maturity about them in terms of their work, because it’s an unforgiving room if you can’t put it across with a degree of virtuosity. Music capable of metaphor and subtext, that’s what we’re looking for. And trying to accommodate the best we can. If you’re really trying to create a venue that reflects the aspiration and taste of people in 2011, a big part of that is to be able to reflect quality popular music.

The Opera House last year hosted the ARIAs, the Deadlys, and of course you’ve got Vivid LIVE again this year. Is that all part of a repositioning of the Opera House as a sweaty live venue?

We don’t do many sweaty rock shows, mostly because our main rooms are seated venues. Our main programming outlet is a 2,200 seated room. We’re opening up a 600 standing capacity studio space. Vivid will be the first time we’ve given it a roll out in that way. We’ve got a whole lot of artists coming in to play that room for Vivid, like Odd Future (Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All), Azari and III. That (room) will change some of our programming dynamic.

These (types of alternative shows) have been going on at the Opera House since the beginning. The difference is it’s probably happening now in a more considered way, in a more programmed way. The days where this type of programming was “something for the young people” is long gone. It’s now about providing people with a perceived rounded cultural diet, and that includes popular music. The actual audience crossover is quite significant.

Last week your Vivid announcement leaked from the website. Did it keep you up that night?
For a moment. We should have had it covered, quite frankly. You’ve got a “program announce” contract with all the artists. Fortunately it stayed on a few threads and didn’t go too far. How many shows are you putting into the venue? We have six venues in here and across the whole year there’s something like 2,000 shows. That’s mainly because there are many resident companies there. My focus is on putting four or five really interesting shows into the big room each month and we’re starting to really look at animating the studio space.

Does the Opera House need to be revitalised?
It’s not a question of revitalisation, because it’s an incredibly busy place. The Opera House is Australia’s town hall. Millions of people come through it each year. It goes 24 hours, it hosts state funerals. If Barack Obama shows up tomorrow, we all know where he’s going. It’s not a place that needs revitalisation, but it constantly needs a really good flow of contemporary thinking. And part of that is it needs to be responsive to the community it serves, which is NSW and Australia, but also as a tourist function. A big part of that now is being able to be coherent and impact in terms of contemporary music.

Has there been a tangible effect from the spotlight Oprah Winfrey cast on the Opera House?
In terms of a programming point of view, when you’re going to booking agents it keeps the venue in the mind’s eye. And maybe it says something to an artist about the fact they’ve achieved something in their career. Some big egos step out on that stage and say, “wow. Look at what I did.”

Any plans to bring the ARIAs back here in 2011?
I’m not party to that discussion, but there is some sort of talk about it.

Vivid runs from May 27 to June 13

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