The Olympic Arts Festival
12 NOVEMBER – 15 DECEMBER 1956
The Olympic Arts Festival was a special feature of the 1956 Melbourne Games. While fine arts competitions were associated with previous Olympics, Melbourne was the first Games to have an arts festival as part of the official program.
This program included fine art and design exhibitions and a Festival of Music and Drama that aimed to communicate something of Australia’s national character to overseas visitors and showcase the county’s best talent.
Music was a large part of the Festival with the Melbourne Symphony and Sydney Symphony Orchestras presenting concerts. This included a unique combined performance at the Olympic Swimming pool, where Sir Bernard Heinze conducted what was claimed to be the largest symphony orchestra ever assembled in Australia. During the performance soprano Glenda Raymond sung Ah, fors’è lui from La Traviata, and Olympic Overture by Clive Douglas was premiered. This work was the winning entry in an Olympic Composers Competition staged by APRA and the ABC.
Other festival events included free Music for the People concerts at the Botanic Gardens conducted Hector Crawford and a chamber music festival at Melba Hall. At Her Majesty’s Theatre the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust presented a program of four operas by Mozart, Ray Lawler’s Summer of the Seventeenth Doll and the Children’s marionette play The Tintookies.
Companies not included in the Festival also staged special Olympic productions. At New Theatre, Dick Diamond’s Australian musical Under the Coolibah Tree was presented. Despite public suspicion of communism and condemnation of the Soviet Union after the Hungarian Uprising (this famously manifested in a brawl between the USSR vs Hungary water polo teams), the left leaning New Theatre kept things friendly by inviting Soviet journalists and a Chinese theatre company to view the show.
At the Tivoli, re-opened after an extensive refurbishment, the Olympic Follies was presented. This was an extravaganza of variety featuring the Hungarian acrobatic dancers Julia and Darvas, with lavish stage design by Angus Winneke.
As you can see, life in Melbourne during the Games was friendly, social and entertaining. If you’d like to learn more about what was on during the Games check out the digitised newspapers in Trove . You can also ask our Research Centre for help in locating objects and information about this and other Performing Arts topics.