The Sydney Opera House isn’t just one of the most iconic buildings of the 20th century, it’s also a structure that, like the Eiffel Tower or the Colosseum, symbolizes its city and country. This week, the Sydney Opera House named Rhoda Roberts its first head of indigenous programming, a move of immense cultural significance.
Roberts, who is in her early fifties, grew up in a racially divided Australia where she wasn’t allowed to eat at the local cafe. “You could get takeaway but you couldn’t sit there,” she recalled for a Sydney Morning Herald profile from 2003. Roberts’ father was indigenous and her mother was white. “Mum was treated by the white community in Lismore as though she was cheap,” Roberts told the Herald. “They’d think she was this most generous Christian woman who’d adopted these nice little Aboriginal kids. Then she’d say, ‘No, they’re actually my children’ and the reaction would be quite different.”
After a first career as a nurse which took her to England for a time, Roberts dove into theater and radio broadcasting in the 1980s. She helped establish the Aboriginal National Theatre Trust and became the first aboriginal presenter on prime time TV. In the run-up to the 2000 Olympic Games, which were held in Sydney, Roberts was enlisted as a cultural adviser.
She has signed on to her new job for a two-year run. “The Opera House has a commitment to a reconciliation action plan,” she told the Northern Rivers Echo. “They are doing something tangible by creating a position at this executive level. … It’s such a wonderful role. I hope I do it justice.” Her first task will be a familiar one, serving as artistic director of the 13th Message Stick festival in March. She helped to establish the event when she was a member of the Opera House Trust.
George Souris, Arts Minister for New South Wales, hailed Roberts’ appointment as a new phase in the evolution of the Sydney Opera House. “It is fitting that the Opera House — located significantly at Bennelong Point, named after an elder of Eora people — will be a hub for the development of new, exciting and breakthrough indigenous arts content,” he said, according to the Herald Sun.