Sydney Opera House Review – A Vision Realized

The magnificent Sydney Opera House

On our first visit to Sydney, Australia seeing the Sydney Opera House was high on our list of things to do.  We chose to take a tour thinking this the best way to experience this famous structure. There were many tour choices but we selected the one that had most recently been developed.  The Opera House was spectacular and the tour fascinating.

Neville, our experienced and knowledgeable guide, lead us through many of the existing spaces in the Sydney Opera House, while weaving in its amazing story.  The story of architects, engineers, builders, politicians, residents would seem to contain enough drama to create an opera of its own.  The particular tour my husband and I took contained several short video segments showing the way the harbor looked before construction began.  The video clips were especially interesting, employing sophisticated techniques that allow sight and sound on walls as the tour moved through the building.

An early sketch of the Sydney Opera House

Information about the Sydney Opera House states, “ The Sydney Opera House was a daring and visionary experiment that has had an enduring influence on late 20th century architecture and beyond.  This masterpiece of late modern architecture by Jorn Utzon is a story of vision, courage, belief, dedication, challenge, controversy and triumph”.  The tour tells the story very powerfully.

This amazing and controversial structure that changed a city, a country and the world was initiated in 1957 when 38-year old Jorn Utzon was announced the winner of a competition for the then  “National Opera House”.  The selecting of Utzon was a surprise in itself.  Another winner had been selected when the committee almost accidentally saw Utzons’ rather rough sketch and was so moved by its beauty they selected it.  However, techniques required to actualize the design did not exist at the time.  In the end, it took 16 years to build at the cost of $102,000.000 and pushed architecture and engineering to its limits.  The builders, Ove and Arup & Partners spoke of the project as “an adventure into the unknown”.  After the building had progressed to the point that completion seemed possible, controversy was so great that Jorn Utzon resigned in 1966 and has never returned to see his masterpiece which was inscribed on the World Heritage List in 2007.  

Constructing the Sydney Opera House

In 1999 Utzon was re-engaged as the building’s architect to design projects for the interior and currently remains actively involved in his 90’s.  Projects have included renovation of the Reception Hall which was renamed the Utzon Room when it reopened in 2004 and the Colonnade which opened in 2006, the accessibility and Western Foyers (currently under construction) and the design for the renewal of the Opera Theatre.

The Sydney Opera House is the busiest performing arts centre in the world. Since it opened in 1973, it has brought countless hours of entertainment to millions of people and has continued to attract the best in world-class talent year after year.

Newly designed and built room has Utzons' name

We were surprised to find that the Sydney Opera House is really a complex of theatres and halls all linked together beneath its shells.  In an average year, the Sydney Opera House presents theatre, musicals, opera, contemporary dance, ballet, and every form of music from symphony concerts to jazz as well as exhibitions and films. It averages around 3,000 events each year with up to two million attendees.  We were among the approximately 200,000 people taking a guided tour of the complex each year. The Opera House operates 24 hours a day, every day of the year except Christmas Day and Good Friday.  The New South Wales ( NSW) Government today contributes about 30% of the annual cost of maintaining and operating the complex.

Bennelong Point was the site the committee selected for the Opera House to be built.  It was named after the first Aborigine to speak English, who was born on the site.  It was used as wharfing area with an unsightly tram storage barn prior to the start of construction.

Many dignitaries have spoken here

The building is truly remarkable. Its’ nearly 1000 rooms include the five main auditoria. There is also a Reception Hall, five rehearsal studios, four restaurants, six theatre bars, extensive foyer and lounge areas, sixty dressing rooms and suites, library, artists' lounge and canteen known as the "Green Room", administrative offices and extensive plant and machinery areas.

The building covers about 1.8 hectares (4.5 acres) of its 2.2 hectare (5.5 acre) site with has about 4.5 hectares (11 acres) of usable floor space.

The roofs are made up of 2,194 pre-cast concrete sections. These sections weigh up to 15.5 tonnes (15 tons) each. They are held together by 350 km (217 miles) of tensioned steel cable. The roofs weigh 27,230 tons and are covered with exactly 1,056,056 Swedish ceramic tiles arranged in 4,253 pre-cast lids.

Sails of the Sydney Opera House with the bridge behind

The entire building weighs 161,000 tons and is supported on 580 concrete piers sunk up to 25 m (82 ft) below sea level. The roofs being supported on 32 concrete columns up to 2.5 m (8 ft) square.

The exterior and interior walls, stairs and floors are faced with pink aggregate granite quarried at Tarana in New South Wales. The two woods used extensively to decorate the interiors are brush box and white birch plywood, which were both cut in northern New South Wales.

The 6,225 sq m (67,000 sq ft) of glass, made in France, are in the mouths of the roofs and other areas of the building. It is in two layers - one plain and the other demi-topaz tinted. About 2,000 panes in 700 sizes were installed.

There are 645 km (400 miles) of electrical cable. The power supply is equivalent to the needs of a town of 25,000 people, and is regulated by 120 distribution boards. Twenty- six air-conditioning plant rooms move more than 28,500 cubic metres (1,000,000 cubic feet) of air per minute through 19.5 km (12 miles) of ducting.

Looking at Sydney Harbour from the Opera House

With its’ first performance in the complex, in the Opera Theatre on 28 September 1973, which was The Australian Opera's production of “War and Peace “by Prokofiev, the Sydney Opera House was officially opened by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II on 20 October 1973 and not a minute too soon.

As our fascinating tour drew to a close, our guide said that with our tour ticket, we were entitled to a discount for two of the performances.  We chose to see Handels' “Orlando”; an opera in three acts sung in Italian with projected subtitles.  We could see and hear very well.  Never having seen the opera previously, it was a new experience and there seemed to be a humorous aspect to this production in the way in which sheep played a part in the action.  At the very least, it contrasted sharply to Lyric Opera of Chicago’s style in staging.

What a sight at night

We loved being in the Opera House for an event.  The excitement of the patrons, the beauty of the Harbour when people went for refreshment during snacks, the warmth of the evening air were memorable.  We were staying nearby and so chose to return the next night to experience the Concert Hall.  What a treat we had.  Elvind Gullberg Jensen was the conductor and Gabriela Montero was the pianist and the execution of Edvard Grieg’s “Piano Concerto in A minor, op.16 is a performance that will remain with us.   All of the music that night was wonderful.  The sound quality was very good and the look of the hall with its huge organ and exposed concrete reminded me of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.  But there is no Sydney Harbour there.  The Sydney Opera house is a great place to tour, to watch many kinds of performances, to enjoy a snack or meal or to just walk around and enjoy the atmosphere and the beauty.

Sydney Opera House
Bennelong Point
GPO Box 4274, Sydney NSW 2001, Australia

Photos: Leon Keer and Sydney Opera House

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