Sydney Opera House rocked by allegations of systemic racism

 Sydney Opera House chief executive Louise Herron has vowed to "root out" any systemic racism within the organisation after a group of people who have worked there came forward with a series of allegations, including an incidence of blackface.

Earlier this year, the group released a joint statement calling on management to address alleged structural racism, claiming the Opera House was a culturally unsafe and unequal workplace, that security racially profiled members of the public, and that there was a lack of culturally diverse staff in leadership positions.

The statement has reverberated to the highest level of Opera House management, with Ms Herron writing to her senior leadership team in March: "It is very important that we understand how systemic racism is manifested here and what we need to do to overcome it."

Speaking to 7.30 about a new Opera House strategy on cultural diversity, Ms Herron said she was grateful to the workers for raising their concerns.

When asked how she thought systemic racism manifested itself at the Opera House, Ms Herron replied: "I was reflecting the words that were written in the statement."

"This is an area of deep feeling and if some people feel that there is systemic racism then it is something that we must root out," she said.

"It's certainly nothing conscious, and certainly all we're doing … is to ensure that there is not systemic racism at the Opera House."

Blackface incident left staff shaken

A man sits on the Sydney Opera House steps
Travis de Vries worked at the Sydney Opera House as an associate producer.(

ABC News: Jason Om


7.30 can reveal the blackface incident took place at an annual staff trivia night in mid-2016, attended by about 100 workers and guests, including members of the executive.

Held in the Concert Hall Northern Foyer, the event's theme that year was "Hollywood" and attendees were encouraged to dress up as movie characters.

An outfit worn by one attendee left some witnesses shocked and shaken — a man decided to don brown face paint and a black wig as actor Samuel L Jackson in Pulp Fiction, according to witnesses.  

The Opera House has told 7.30 he was at a table reserved for staff connected to a food and beverage service: "The worker wearing blackface was an employee or guest of an employee of a food and beverage service provider at the Opera House."

Aboriginal artist and former Opera House associate producer Travis de Vries was sitting nearby when he saw the man entering the venue.

"I remember a ripple throughout the crowd as people noticed, and kind of no-one did anything," he said, speaking about the incident for the first time to 7.30.

Mr de Vries is one of the former staffers calling on the Opera House to do more to address alleged racism.

He started at the Opera House in 2013 but quit in 2018, partly because of the workplace culture.

"I don't think [the blackface] event in particular made me want to quit," he said.

"I think a number of those things altogether made me want to quit over a number of years, and I feel like I started dreading going into the Opera House to go into work."

Mr de Vries said the blackface incident in 2016 felt like a turning point.

"Seeing that, a lot of it was complete disrespect. I don't even have words to describe the feeling. I think it's tied up in anger, and shame, and degradation of my cultural personage," he told 7.30. 

'First and only person to speak to him'

A woman wearing a black shirt under a green jacket stands on a beach.
Alison Nadebaum says she was so angry she "could barely get words out" when she asked the man to remove the blackface make-up.(

ABC News: Carl Saville


The man in blackface was able to move around the venue for a short period, according to witnesses, before a senior Opera House manager intervened.

That manager was Alison Nadebaum, an Opera House veteran who left in 2018 on good terms. Ms Nadebaum is speaking publicly for the first time in the hope of bringing about change.

"I stood up and approached this individual, who was at this point at the bar," she told 7.30.

"I was surprised that I was the first and only person to speak to him."

Ms Nadebaum, who is white, said she was also deeply offended by the outfit.

"I was so angry I could barely get words out," she said.

Ms Nadebaum told the man to either remove the blackface and wig or leave the event, to which he agreed to wash off the make-up and get rid of the wig.

He was then allowed to return to his table.

Opera House acted swiftly, CEO says

Louise Herron, wearing black, standing on the steps of the Sydney Opera House.
Louise Herron says the Opera House is moving to make its workplace culturally safe.(

ABC News/Jason Om


Ms Herron told 7.30 the blackface incident would never happen at the Opera House today.

"The buck stops with me," Ms Herron said.

Ms Herron praised Ms Nadebaum for her quick thinking during the blackface incident.

"It's no good that it happened," Ms Herron said.

"It's really good that it was called out, that it was dealt with so quickly."

Mr de Vries and Ms Nadebaum said management should have acknowledged the blackface incident in 2016 in an all-staff email to send a strong message that such behaviour was unacceptable.

When asked whether Opera House management could have gone further at the time, Ms Herron replied, "I would say that I would deal with that differently today from how I dealt with it at the time."

"If that were to happen today … I believe I would take a more active interest in it, because it's sort of a symbol of something going wrong and that's the very thing we're trying to fix."

Alleged racial profiling of patrons

Asian man wearing beige shirt, looking at the camera.
Justin Tam worked as a publicist at the Sydney Opera House.(

ABC News: Charles Brittain


Former Opera House publicist Justin Tam told 7.30 that complaints from audience members alleging racial profiling by security would often land in the publicity team.

"Whenever there was an issue of racial profiling, the Opera House took the stance to make that issue go away," Mr Tam said.

Both Mr Tam and Mr de Vries also told 7.30 they attended major event briefings where hypothetical threat scenarios against the Opera House were racialised.

In these scenarios, they allege a photo of an Aboriginal protest was shown as well as a photo of a Middle Eastern person and a joke was made.

The Opera House confirmed it had received complaints concerning racial issues from the public, but that only seven were received over the past 11 years and that all had been fully investigated and resolved.

One complaint referred to a patron at the Solange concert in 2018 who was asked to remove a t-shirt that said "Destroy White Supremacy".

Ms Herron said the patron should not have been asked to remove the T-shirt, and that changes have been made to security protocols.

New strategy to address claims of 'systemic racism'

An aerial, cropped view of the Sydney Opera House.
Sydney Opera House management are working on a new cultural diversity strategy.(

ABC News: Nicole Chettle


As the Opera House moves to improve cultural diversity in its workforce, more than 200 staff members have conveyed their concerns in an anonymous survey.

In an internal staff meeting in March, Ms Herron said she found the results and other feedback "confronting and difficult".

"Reflecting on and speaking about these topics takes an emotional toll for many people," Ms Herron told the meeting.

"These are difficult conversations for everyone."

A new diversity, inclusion and belonging strategy has been in development for the past year, and will include new recruiting practices and unconscious bias training for staff.

It follows concerns expressed by some staff about the lack of cultural diversity in leadership positions in 2018, with the issue coming to a head in June last year when Mr Tam quit in protest.

Then in March this year, the joint statement was released on social media.

Opera House 'too slow' for younger staff

The Opera House is recognised as pioneering Aboriginal representation in the arts, setting up a First Nations program, ground-breaking reconciliation action plan and supporting Aboriginal artists.

But internally, in the modern era of Black Lives Matter, this was not enough for the younger generation in the joint statement.

"They're [the younger staff] not being as diplomatic as us," former Opera House veteran Rhoda Roberts told 7.30.

"They're saying [their] time needs to happen now."

Woman wearing black shirt with glasses standing outside a food truck at night.
Rhoda Roberts was the head of First Nations programming.(

ABC News: Shaun Kingma 


A celebrated Aboriginal arts executive, Ms Roberts recently left the Opera House on good terms after nine years as the inaugural head of First Nations programming.

"There's such a global shift now, particularly with the next generation of creatives. They're able to speak their minds much more freely, and I really think since the BLM [Black Lives Matter] movement we've seen that real shift," she said.

Mr de Vries told 7.30 he was asked several times by Opera House security to intervene in crisis situations with Aboriginal patrons on site.

"Looking back, I think I would have refused if I was asked to do that same thing now, but I also felt responsible to those patrons because they are part of my community and I didn't want the threat of police coming in to deal with them either."

Ms Roberts has confirmed she too was asked by security to intervene, in one case with a mentally ill Aboriginal man, but said that as a registered nurse she wanted to help him.

The Opera House has now appointed a First Nations adviser to deal with specific cultural issues.

"It's certainly not appropriate that people are asked [to do] things that are outside of their job," Ms Herron told 7.30.

'We need to listen'

The former workers hope the Opera House's new cultural diversity strategy will deliver on its promise of reflecting and respecting modern Australia.

"The reality is that inside, the black and First Nations and brown and Asian people who work there are being driven to the bone and being driven out of the organisation," Mr Tam said.

Asian man wearing headphones looking at a computer screen.
Justin Tam says the Sydney Opera House "needs to represent what Australia looks like, both inside and out".(

ABC News: Charles Brittain


"When I saw ethnically diverse people at the Opera House, they were working in low-paid cleaning positions, as ticketing staff, as tour guides, as ushers."

Ms Herron is adamant new recruiting processes will ensure a more representative workforce at the highest levels.

"Under my vision, I would hope that as positions become available at the Opera House that every position is recruited with this absolute openness and consciousness of the need for us to really reflect and respect the diversity of the community," she said.

Ms Herron highlighted the senior appointments of new head of First Nations programming Beau James, First Nations cultural adviser Todd Phillips, and curator Micheal Do as part of the changes.

Former head of First Nations programming, Rhoda Roberts, has urged the Opera House to take action.

"We need to listen," she said. "Louise Herron does listen."



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