Nestled on the shores of Sydney Harbour, the Sydney Opera House is an iconic symbol of Australia’s cultural heritage and a world-renowned architectural marvel. Its distinct sail-like structure and stunning waterfront location attract millions of visitors each year, making it one of the most recognizable landmarks on the planet.
But beyond its impressive facade lies a fascinating history of challenges, controversies, and triumphs that spanned decades before its completion. In this article, take a journey back in time to uncover the fascinating history behind this Australian treasure, from its inception to its current status as a global cultural icon.
Overview of the Sydney Opera House
Sydney Opera House is a performing arts center located in Port Jackson (Sydney Harbour), New South Wales, Australia. It is widely knoen as one of the world’s most famous and distinctive buildings. It’s also considered a 20th-century architectural masterpiece.
Designed by Danish architect Jørn Utzon but finished by an Australian architectural team led by Peter Hall, the building was formally opened by Queen Elizabeth II on October 20, 1973. The Sydney Opera House posed a challenge to engineering, construction, and design from its inception to completion. But when it opened in 197, it marked a turning point in Australia’s cultural identity, ushering in a new era of community engagement and artistic exploration.
The building is equipped with multiple performance venues, which host more than 1,500 performances annually and are attended by more than 1.2 million people. As one of Australia’s most popular tourist attractions, the opera house is visited by more than eight million people each year.
In 2007, the Sydney Opera House became a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was also a finalist in the New Seven Wonders of the World campaign list.
The Sydney Opera House has multiple performance venues and facilities. These include:
- Concert Hall – A venue for large orchestral concerts, operas, and ballet performances. It has seating for 2,679 people.
- Joan Sutherland Theatre – A venue for opera, ballet, and musical theatre performances. It has seating for 1,507 people.
- Drama Theatre – A venue for plays, dance performances, and smaller-scale musical productions. It has seating for 544 people.
- Playhouse – A venue for plays, cabaret shows, and smaller-scale musical productions. It has seating for 398 people.
- Utzon Room – A smaller venue used for chamber music, lectures, and small-scale performances. It has seating for 210 people.
- Recording Studio – A facility used for recording live performances, film scores, and other audio recordings.
- Rehearsal Studios – Multiple rehearsal studios for theatre, dance, and music rehearsals.
- Backstage Areas – The Opera House also has backstage areas for performers, including dressing rooms, green rooms, and production facilities.
In addition, the Opera House houses several bars, restaurants, gift shops, and a range of other facilities such as a box office, exhibition spaces, and meeting rooms.
History of the Sydney Opera House
Here’s how the Sydney Opera House came to be:
Origins and the Design Competition for the Opera House
The Sydney Opera House sits on Bennelong Point (originally known as Cattle Point), on the southern side of the Sydney Harbour, just east of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. The promontory was named after Bennelong, an Aboriginal man who served as a mediator between the British settlers and the local population. The site was once home to a small dwelling where Bennelong resided, and later, in 1821, Fort Macquarie was constructed on the same spot, which was eventually demolished in 1902.
In 1947, Eugene Goossens, the resident conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, recognized the need for a dedicated musical facility in Sydney that would serve as a home to various musical groups, including the symphony orchestra, opera, and chamber music groups. The Sydney Town Hall, which was the usual venue for large theatrical productions, was deemed inadequate for this purpose. In 1954, Goossens gained the support of New South Wales Premier Joseph Cahill, who called for designs for a new opera house.
Consequently, the New South Wales government established an advisory group, the Opera House Committee, to choose a suitable site for the new facility. In 1955, the committee recommended Bennelong Point, which Goossens had insisted upon despite Cahill’s preference for a location near Wynyard Railway Station northwest of the central business district. With the official approval of the government, planning for the Sydney Opera House began, paving the way for its eventual construction and its status as a world-renowned cultural landmark.
In 1955, the New South Wales government launched an international design competition for a new musical facility in Sydney. The competition attracted 233 entries from architects in 32 countries. The design brief called for a large hall that accommodated 3,000 people and a smaller hall for 1,200 people, suitable for various musical and theatrical performances.
In 1957, the judging committee announced that the winning design was that of Danish architect Jørn Utzon. His featured a complex of two main halls, with each hall topped by a row of sail-shaped interlocking panels made of precast concrete.
Utzon’s design was selected from 30 finalists by an international judging committee. The runner-up was the Philadelphia-based team of architects led by Robert Geddes and George Qualls, both professors at the University of Pennsylvania School of Design. Utzon won a grand prize of 5,000 Australian pounds. He visited Sydney that same year to help supervise the construction and moved his office to Sydney in 1963.
Design and Construction
The construction of the Sydney Opera House began after the demolition of the Fort Macquarie Tram Depot in 1958. The building process was divided into stages, such as:
Stage 1: Podium
Stage 1 of construction of the Sydney Opera House began in March 1959 with Civil & Civic as the building firm and Ove Arup and Partners as the engineers overseeing. Although the government was eager to start the work early, Jørn Utzon had not yet finished the final designs, and there were still major structural issues to be resolved.
By January 23, 1961, work was delayed and running 47 weeks behind due to various unexpected difficulties, including inclement weather, changes in the original contract documents, and construction starting before proper construction drawings were prepared. Despite this, the podium was finally completed in February 1963. However, the forced early start caused significant problems, such as weak podium columns unable to support the roof structure, which had to be reconstructed later.
Stage 2: Roof
The second stage of the construction, involving the roof of the Sydney Opera House, began with a series of design challenges. The original competition entry proposed shells of undefined geometry, which were later imagined as parabolic shapes supported by precast concrete ribs. However, due to the high cost of formwork for using in-situ concrete and the absence of repetition in any of the roof forms, it took a lot of work to find an economically acceptable form of construction.
The design team spent six years trying various schemes, including circular ribs and ellipsoids, before settling on a solution in 1961. This involved creating the shells as sections from a sphere, allowing for arches of varying lengths to be cast in a common mold and for several arch segments of common length to be placed side by side to form a spherical section. The design work involved one of the earliest uses of computers in structural analysis, which helped the engineers understand the complex forces to which the shells would be subjected.
The roof was tested on scale models in wind tunnels at the University of Southampton and later at NPL to establish wind-pressure distribution around the roof shape in high winds. Hornibrook Group Pty Ltd was responsible for the extremely complex design and construction of the shells manufactured on-site in a factory.
The Swedish company Höganäs Keramik manufactured the roof tiles, and it took three years of development to produce the desired effect. The construction of the shells was supervised by Ove Arup and Partners’ site engineer, who used an innovative adjustable steel-trussed “erection arch” to support the different roofs before completion. On April 6, 1962, it was estimated that the Opera House would be finished August 1964 to March 1965.
Stage 3: Interiors
The third stage of the Sydney Opera House project, which involved the interiors, started when Utzon moved his office to Sydney in February 1963. However, the project faced setbacks when a change in government in 1965 put it under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Public Works. The Ministry criticized the project’s costs and Utzon’s designs, which led to his resignation in 1966. At this point, the cost of the project was only A$22.9 million, but the projected costs for the design were much higher. Peter Hall took over Utzon’s position and was largely responsible for the interior design, along with other appointments made to replace Utzon. The acoustic advisor, Lothar Cremer, confirmed that Utzon’s original design only allowed for 2,000 seats in the main hall and that increasing it to 3,000 would be disastrous for the acoustics. The stage designer, Martin Carr, also criticized several aspects of the design.
The design of the Sydney Opera House underwent significant changes, including alterations to the layout and function of the halls, the addition of a theatre, cinema, and library, and changes to the external cladding and paving. Utzon’s original designs for the interior, including his plywood corridor designs, and his acoustic and seating plans were scrapped entirely.
His design for the Concert Hall was rejected due to its limited seating capacity, and the subsequent designs by Todd, Hall, and Littlemore had acoustic issues.
The orchestra pit in the Joan Sutherland Theatre was cramped and posed a risk to musicians’ hearing, and the Concert Hall had a high roof, leading to poor onstage acoustics that were unsuccessfully addressed with the addition of perspex rings.
These changes were made due to inadequacies in the original competition brief and a lack of clarity on the Opera House’s intended use.
These alterations are documented in the 1968 BBC TV documentary Autopsy on a Dream.
Jørn Utzon’s submitted concept for the Sydney Opera House was a groundbreaking design that received universal admiration. However, tensions arose between Utzon and the Cahill government as the project progressed due to progressive revisions and a lack of appreciation for the costs and work involved in design and construction.
Also, the demand for an early start to construction despite an incomplete design resulted in a series of delays and setbacks while various technical engineering issues were being refined. When Robert Askin became the Premier of New South Wales in 1965, the relationship between clients, architects, engineers, and contractors became increasingly tense, culminating in Utzon’s resignation.
Differences ensued, such as Utzon’s belief that the clients should receive information on all aspects of the design and construction through his practice, while the clients wanted a system where architects, contractors, and engineers each reported to the client directly and separately. Utzon was unwilling to compromise on some aspects of his designs that the clients wanted to change, and by February 1966, Utzon was owed more than $100,000 in fees. Hughes then withheld funding so that Utzon could not even pay his own staff.
This made Utzon resign that same month, and he never returned to the country. There was great controversy about who was in the right and who was in the wrong following his resignation.
Opening of the Opera House
Queen Elizabeth II formally opened the Sydney Opera House on October 20, 1973, in the presence of a large crowd. Utzon was not invited, and his name was not even mentioned. The opening, which included a dazzling fireworks display and a performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, was broadcast on television.
Reconciliation with Utzon
During the late 1990s, the Sydney Opera House Trust reestablished communication with Utzon, aiming to reconcile and involve him in future changes to the building. In 1999, Utzon was appointed as a design consultant for future work. The first interior space, rebuilt to a Utzon design and containing an original Utzon tapestry called “Homage to Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach,” was opened and renamed “The Utzon Room” in 2004. In April 2007, Utzon proposed a major reconstruction of the Opera Theatre. He passed away on November 29, 2008.
A state memorial service was held in the Concert Hall on March 25, 2009, featuring performances, readings, and recollections from prominent figures in the Australian performing arts scene. The largest building project since Utzon was re-engaged in 1999 was commissioned on November 17, 2009, including refurbishing the Western Foyer and accessibility improvements. The project was designed by Utzon and his son Jan and provided improved ticketing, toilet, and cloaking facilities, as well as new escalators and a public lift for enhanced access for the disabled and families with prams. Paralympian athlete Louise Sauvage was announced as the building’s “accessibility ambassador” to advise on further improvements to aid people with disabilities.
In 2013, a 60-meter-long artwork by artist Reg Mombassa called “The Gumscape, Road and Creatures” triptych was unveiled at the Sydney Opera House to cover the scaffolding concealing refurbishment building work. An original 1959 tapestry by Le Corbusier called “Les Dés Sont Jetés (The Dice Are Cast),” commissioned by Utzon to be hung in the Sydney Opera House, was finally unveiled in situ on March 29, 2016, after being owned by the Utzon family and held at their home in Denmark for over 50 years. The tapestry was bought at auction by the Sydney Opera House in June 2015 and now hangs in the building’s Western Foyer, accessible to the public.
In the second half of 2017, the Joan Sutherland Theatre was closed to replace the stage machinery and for other works.
Notable Performances in the History of Sydney Opera House
There have been many notable performances that have taken place at the Sydney Opera House throughout its history. Here are some examples:
- 1973 – Opening gala concert in the concert hall with music by Richard Wagner.
- 1973 – The Carol Burnett Show performed comedy sketches with song and dance.
- 1974 – Opera singer Joan Sutherland performed for the first time in the theater that was to be named for her.
- 1978 – The first full-length ballet show entitled “The Merry Widow” was performed by the Australian Ballet.
- 1983 – Luciano Pavarotti performed, and it was recorded and released as a live album.
- 1987 – Pope John Paul II gave a speech in the Concert Hall when he visited Australia.
- 1990 – “The Phantom of the Opera” premiered in Australia. The play ran for more than ten years and became the longest-running musical in Australian history.
- 1991 – Joan Sutherland gave her final performance.
- 1995 – The annual Sydney Opera House New Year’s Eve Concert started and featured a spectacular fireworks display over Sydney Harbour.
- 2000 – Standing atop one of the shells of the Concert Hall, swimmer Samantha Riley holds the Olympic Torch before passing it on for its final journey to illuminate the cauldron at Stadium Australia.
- 2009 – First VIVID Live Music program curated by Brian Eno.
- 2011 – Oprah Winfrey filmed her Ultimate Australian Adventure in the forecourt.
Famous People Who Performed in the Sydney Opera House
There have been many famous performers who have graced the stages of the Sydney Opera House over the years. Some of them include:
- Luciano Pavarotti
- Maria Callas
- Placido Domingo
- Dame Joan Sutherland
- Ella Fitzgerald
- Frank Sinatra
- Mikhail Baryshnikov
- David Bowie
- Elton John
- Taylor Swift
- Hugh Jackman
- Cate Blanchett
- Meryl Streep
- Oprah Winfrey
- Nelson Mandela