Australian classical greats join Nick Cave tribute to Sydney’s cultural cathedral.

“Come sail your ships around me,” sang Aussie rock poet Nick Cave in his ballad The Ship Song (1990). Someone on staff at the Sydney Opera House mustn’t have been able to get it out of their head, because it became the seed of a yearlong project inviting Australian and international musicians to record a group cover version in situ.

Over 12 months, artists and companies performing at the Opera House were asked to take part in a music video showcasing the new, collaborative Ship Song, directed by Paul Goldman and arranged by Elliott Wheeler.

The stellar cast draws together performers from all creative walks of life: Richard Tognetti and the ACO, Teddy Tahu Rhodes with Opera Australia, the Sydney Symphony, the Australian Ballet, Bangarra Dance Theatre, and John Bell and his Bell Shakespeare Company rub shoulders with pop, rock and folk icons Neil Finn, Paul Kelly and Katie Noonan, among others.

The five-minute music video released this week features the artists filmed performing the song in every nook and cranny of the Opera House. The entire process has been chronicled in a backstage documentary by Greg Appel including interviews with each artist about their career and what the Opera House means to them. Narrated by Guy Pearce, the full film will be aired on Foxtel.

Sydney Opera House CEO Richard Evans explained the concept behind the project. “We set out to create a tribute to the House’s role in the global creative community – a love song to creativity if you wish.

We wanted to give people everywhere the opportunity to experience the creative genius that makes this place tick, to get a taste of the artists, venues and other spaces that power the heart that beats beneath our soaring white sails.”

But is the video’s collision of classical and rock performers just tourist tosh capitalising on the recent social media frenzy of the YouTube Symphony Orchestra? Is the clip shrewdly designed to get sightseers to point their ships toward Sydney, or is there a deeper creative impulse behind the project?

Richard Tognetti believes that “every rock ‘n’ roller who gets over the age of 40 who’s got their eyes open…is looking over the fence to what’s happening in the classical music world.”

Even young stars like Angus and Julia Stone revere the space. “It’s like you’re playing in a gigantic piece of art,” observed Julia in typically dreamy style.  

What can be certain is that some of Australia’s most distinguished ambassadors of the arts are represented. “It is my hope that The Ship Song will reach out to communities around the world with a promise to experience and witness the artists, performers and stages that together bring our great cultural landmark to life,” said Evans.

Cave’s original was voted one of the 30 Best Australian Songs of the past 75 years in the 2001 APRA Music Awards. He does not appear in the remake but his lyric “We make a little history, baby” is an apt slogan for the world’s most iconic opera house.