By Michael Visontay
Louise Herron recalls her time studying languages and law at Sydney with great fondness. So when she says her current job is “more like being at university than any other job in my life”, she is paying it the ultimate compliment.
Two years ago Herron was appointed Chief Executive Officer of the Sydney Opera House, a role she says brings out her “inner explorer”. It’s a challenge she has thrown herself into with relish. “The Opera House is a symbol of modern Australia. It has transformed the identity of a nation. I feel privileged to be a custodian of that identity, and we are exploring how to enhance and enrich it.”
As if to underscore her enthusiasm, she insists on taking me outside her office at the iconic building to sample the panorama. Behind us the Harbour Bridge stands majestically and at the end of her balcony she points to the sails, almost close enough to touch, yawning skywards in geometrical perfection. “This is my favourite view.”
The famous facade symbolises the challenge confronting Herron: ‘renewal’ of the building, a word encapsulating both the physical skin and cultural life of the Opera House. “We have 15 months to get the renewal plan ready. It is our number one project. We need to make some very large investments to maintain this amazing building and ensure it meets the needs of 21st century artists, audiences and visitors. That’s a mammoth task in itself. But renewal is far broader. It extends to everything we do.”
Herron has worked quickly to build the infrastructure to make renewal a success. She has developed a philanthropy program called the ‘Idealists’, engaging 100 high-achieving ‘visionaries’ to deliver financial support, and to act as mentors to senior staff and the organisation as a whole.
While her corporate connections have played a large role in this process, so, too, has her personal dynamism. She invited her old French professor from Sydney, Ross Steele, to join the Idealists, and made the same offer to her orthopaedic surgeon shortly after he had given her a hip replacement. Herron beams at her memory of the moment: “He said to me: ‘I am honoured that you asked me’.” She pauses before adding: “My job is to give people a choice to give back.”
The invitation to her professor hints at the impact Herron’s university education had on her. The legacy runs deep. Herron explains that the way she immerses her life in the Opera House role is built on the same drive to ‘lose myself in a task’ that made studying languages (BA ’86) and law (LLB ’82) so rewarding.
“I moved around the world during my school years, and had been at school in Switzerland. So I loved studying languages, especially French (two professors stand out: Ivan Barko, as well as Ross Steele) but also German and Italian. The way we studied film and poetry from the same era in French, Italian and German … drove me wild with excitement. I loved poetry, especially hermetic poetry.”
However, her father told Herron she needed a calling card beyond languages and encouraged her to study law as well. “I did not enjoy studying law while I was on campus for the first three years of my degree. I wanted to quit all the time. It was only after I finished studying languages and went to the Law School in the city that I could lose myself in law, and began to enjoy it.”
She says university was significant because “it’s about transformation from being a child into a thinking and creative adult. I did not know what I wanted to be when I started university. In my view, university is non-vocational. You do not want to know what you are going to do.” She has passed this message on to her own sons: “Do what you love. If you find you’re doing something that you don’t love, don’t do it.”
As the first woman to be appointed CEO of the Opera House in its 40-year history, Herron also believes that university helped shaped her view of women’s capacity to excel in public life. “I was amazed at how well women did in law from an early age. It actually stunned me. My year had Julie Ward, now a judge (NSW Supreme Court), Sharon Cook, now Managing Partner at Henry Davis York Lawyers, and Anne Britton, also a judge (Federal Court).
“I looked around and saw women doing incredible things and found that very inspiring. It actually surprised me that I could do things. I had thought: ‘that’s a boys’ game’. I had grown up with two brothers, and always in a very male-dominated world. University showed me that it was not only blokes who can achieve great things; women can, too.”
After graduating, she spent 20 years as a corporate lawyer (including a decade at Minter Ellison) and then a corporate adviser. During this second period she joined the board of the Belvoir Street Theatre Company. “I was not a natural theatre person in my youth. I loved music and sang with the University Madrigal Choir when I was on campus. But theatre was not my thing.”
In my view, university is non-vocational. It is about transformation from being a child into a thinking and creative adult.
However, her friend Anne Britton was already on the Belvoir Street board. “One day, when our five-year-old sons were at gymnastics together, she asked me if I would like to join. I thought: ‘wow’! I saw it as an ideal way to use my knowledge of the corporate world to ‘give back’ to the community.” Herron also honed her philanthropy skills through this role, eventually becoming chair of the Belvoir board, which in turn became a powerful credential for the Opera House job.
Through all of these career twists and turns, Herron returns to the theme of herself as an explorer. “Someone once asked me to boil myself down to just one essential thing. My answer was that I am an explorer. I loved to explore the connection between French, Italian and German poetry of the same era. I love taking the less travelled path.
“I did that as a lawyer at Minter Ellison in establishing a practice in outsourcing and information technology when that wasn’t really a well-known area. I built it up with a great team. When I felt the task was completed, I thought: ‘I’ve done this now.’ And that was when I left. Now, this job at the Opera House is another period of exploration.”
Under the umbrella of renewal, Herron has initiated a number of innovations since taking over: these range from All About Women, a festival of ideas launched by the Opera House in April last year, to addressing issues of access, having recently instituted a ‘Meet Your Seat’ program for children with autism. Children are brought in to get acquainted with their seat a month before going to see a performance. Another new initiative is training up volunteers to accompany blind people going to a show. During breaks or the intermission, the ‘Audio Describers’, as they are known, will explain to their designated patrons what has happened on stage.
Herron clearly loves the totality of her job, the big picture and small detail. Indeed, she claims each of her previous roles was a stepping stone to this one, all-encompassing challenge. When she says “I love to throw myself into it”, you get the feeling she’s still back at university, learning French poetry.