SYDNEY, Australia — The Sydney Opera House will celebrate its 45th anniversary this month with global dignitaries, including Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. But this week, its gleaming white sails became the focus of a bruising local debate over culture, sports, misogyny and national identity.
On Tuesday night, thousands of people turned up to protest a six-minute light projection on the Opera House’s tiled sails. Put on by Racing NSW, the governing horse-racing body for New South Wales, the projection was designed to promote the Everest — Australia’s newest, and richest, horse race.
Racing NSW’s chief executive, Peter V’landys, backed by the prime minister and one of Australia’s most infamous conservative radio hosts, said the projection would increase tourism. Many, however, including the Opera House’s chief executive, felt the move was a tone-deaf commodification of the building — a World Heritage site — the equivalent to turning Stonehenge or the Statue of Liberty into billboards to promote gambling.
“Even Donald Trump wouldn’t get away with putting advertising onto the Lincoln Memorial, but it’s akin to that,” said Ben Oquist, executive director at the Australia Institute, a nonpartisan think tank. “It was a step too far for everybody.”
The conflict, which played out over the past week with slights and insults that are likely to linger, has resembled the kind of dramas regularly seen in the Opera House theater.
It was a promotional gimmick that badly misfired, but the backlash has revealed deeper fault lines in Australian society. Sydney’s conservative old guard collided this week with a younger, more diverse electorate. The latter is frustrated over a city and a country that in its view have become enslaved to big corporations at the cost of shared values, and where sports, the right-wing media and rich insiders can dictate policy to politicians.
“The Opera House represents art that has never been biased to color and age and money,” Carlos Lara, a 27-year-old musician, said at the protest Tuesday amid a crowd chanting “not for sale” and “our house.” “That’s why people feel so passionate,” he said, “this represents so much more than a horse race.”
Built on a former island now known as Bennelong Point, the Opera House was designed by the Danish architect Jorn Utzon. After a conflict with the government over rising construction costs, he resigned in 1966 and left Australia before its completion in 1973.
Helen Pitt, author of “The House,” a book about the building and its history of discord and tragedy, has called it “our great Shakespearean story.”
In 2013, a report by Deloitte said the Opera House had a so-called national identity value of 4.6 billion Australian dollars, or about $3.25 billion. Every year, over eight million visitors come from around the world to see it, drawn to the dazzling white sails (some say clouds; others shells) that overlook the water.
The Opera House is the youngest member of Unesco’s list of World Heritage sites, and it hosts everything from pop concerts to classical music.
“It’s an everyman building,” said Eoghan Lewis, an architect who runs tours there.
It is also a building that stands for diversity. Constructed largely by postwar migrants — about 10,000 workers from 90 different countries — the Opera House was “very much the product of a new reimagined Australia,” Ms. Pitt said.
Critically, she said, it propelled Sydney from a provincial small town on the far side of the world to a global player. And while it is officially run by a trust overseen by the state government, in the public’s mind, the house belongs to all.
Reflecting that sense of shared ownership, a petition on Change.org, “Defend Our Opera House,” has racked up more than 300,000 signatures since Sunday. A survey conducted this week by the market research firm Micromex also showed that 80 percent of residents surveyed in New South Wales were opposed to the decision by the state premier, Gladys Berejiklian, to allow the advertisement.
Much of the anger has been aimed at Alan Jones, a right-wing radio host, whose withdrawal of support for former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull helped contribute to Mr. Turnbull’s ouster in August.
During an interview on his show Friday, Mr. Jones shouted down the Opera House’s chief executive, Louise Herron, who opposed the racing promotion.
“Who the hell do you think you are?” Mr. Jones asked Ms. Herron. “You don’t own the Opera House, we own it.”
Mr. Jones, who has since apologized, said on air that Ms. Herron should be sacked if she did not revise her stance and “come to the party” and that he would be speaking with Ms. Berejiklian about it.
Ms. Berejiklian later overruled Ms. Herron’s decision and allowed the ads.
To many, Mr. Jones represents an old world Australia: one that is white, wealthy, conservative and male. He lives in a luxury apartment block nicknamed the Toaster that looks over the Opera House and owns his own race horses.
His behavior has come to be seen as not just in his own interest, but also as another example of his penchant for bullying.
Jenny Leong, Greens representative for the Sydney suburb of Newtown, said of Mr. Jones: “The massive groundswell of public outrage about this was as much to do about the fact we had a conservative old school shock jock basically threatening a woman to lose her job.”
“What we have seen in the last few days is people saying, ‘This is enough, we want our city back,” she added.
Ruth Piggott, who was wearing an Opera House-shaped hat emblazoned with “Sack Alan Jones” across it at the protest on Tuesday, said she came specifically to show support for Ms. Herron.
“He verbally abused her and bullied her on national radio, and very few men have stood up and called that out, so the rest of us need to,” she said.
Adding salt to the wound, the projections occurred during Responsible Gambling Awareness Week, an annual event in New South Wales.
Based on per capita spending, Australia has the world’s most prolific gamblers. Critics say that the gambling industry is Australia’s equivalent to America’s National Rifle Association — a powerful lobby that donates heavily to political parties, giving it significant sway.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who grew up not far from where the Everest is run and who recently attended a preview of “Evita” at the Opera House, downplayed the uproar this week, calling the Opera House “the biggest billboard” in Sydney.
“It’s common sense,” he said “I don’t know why people are getting so precious about it.”
In an email interview, Graeme Hinton, chief operating officer at Racing NSW, said that the publicity that has arisen from the conflict has “certainly raised the profile of the Everest, which can only be a good thing.”
Tickets, he said, were selling fast.
But critics, including Mr. Oquist of the Australia Institute, are hoping the furor marks a turning point.
“For a relatively new country, our ethos hasn’t been about treasuring our heritage,” he said. “This should spark a bigger debate.”
Others hope the outrage will at least show that the Opera House is for all Australians — not just an elite few.
“Look around here, you don’t just see a bunch of white people,” said Mr. Lara, a second-generation Chilean-Australian, gesturing around the crowd on Tuesday. “This house has brought people together from all sorts of lives, rich and poor.”