Sydney Opera House: Urban Sculpture


The Sydney Opera House is the busiest performing arts centre in the world. Since its opening 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. Even today, many visitors are surprised to find that the Sydney Opera House is really a complex of theatres and halls all linked together beneath its famous shells. In an average year, the Sydney Opera House presents theatre, musicals, opera, contemporary dance, and ballet, every form of music from symphony concerts to jazz as well as exhibitions and films. It averages around 3,000 events each year with audiences totalling up to two million. In addition, approximately 200,000 people take 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.
History and Background
Prior to the Sydney Opera House, Sydney had no adequate dedicated music venue. Orchestral concerts were given in its Town Hall, and staging opera was almost impossible due to the lack of suitable stages. The appointment of Sir Eugene Goosens to the posts of Chief Conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and Director of the NSW Conservatorium of Music in 1947 brought into Sydney's musical life a focal point for the need to create a better venue for the performing arts. Upon accepting his position, Goosens told reporters that his plans included the creation of a concert hall suitable for opera as well as orchestral performances. The idea was hardly revolutionary; indeed the post-war Labour government had given lip service to the concept as part of its reconstruction and redevelopment programs. However, apart from occasional public announcements and exhortation from Goosens, nothing happened for seven more years. Finally, late in 1954, the State Government of New South Wales, finding itself increasingly embarrassed by its own inaction, became involved in a moderately supportive manner. The Premier of the day, Joseph Cahill, was enthusiastic about the idea and it was he who set up the committee which got the project under way. He also set up an appeal fund to raise money for the building. When it became obvious that the fund would not even raise the $7 million the Opera House was first estimated to cost, Mr Cahill introduced the Opera House Lotteries. The original appeal fund raised about $900,000 and the rest of the $102 million that the Opera House ended up costing came from the profits of the lottery. The building was completely paid for by July 1975.The NSW Government today contributes about 30% of the annual cost of maintaining and operating the complex.
The committee set up by the Government selected the site for the building. Known as Bennelong Point, it was named after the first Aborigine to speak English, who was born on the site. Until this time, it was used as wharfing area and had a rather unsightly tram storage barn prominently occupying much of the site. An international competition was organised for the design of a performing arts complex, and although this was well known, the misnomer "Opera House" caught on. The competition called for a structure that contained two theatres within it - a large hall for opera, ballet, and large scale symphony concerts capable of seating 3,000-3,500 people, and a smaller hall for drama, chamber music and recitals, capable of seating approximately 1,200 people.

Dr. R. Kuberan,
Editorial Consultant,
Design entrants were told that they were free to choose any approach that they wished, and that there were no limits to what the potential cost of the structure could be. 233 different design entries were submitted from all over the world. The winner of the competition, announced in January 1957, was the Danish architect Jorn Utzon (born in 1918). It was originally envisaged that it would take four years to build the Opera House; in actual fact, it wasn't completed until mid-1973. Construction of the building commenced in March 1959 and proceeded in slow stages over the next fourteen years. At the time that construction was started, Utzon protested that he hadn't yet completed the designs for the structure, but the government insisted that construction get underway, and so it did! At least as much a problem as starting the construction prior to completing the revolutionary design, was the fact that the government itself changed the requirements for the building after construction had started. The original design called for two theatres. The government changed its mind and required the building to be altered and four theatres now be incorporated into the design. Recently, some internal changes to the structure have enabled a fifth theatre to be created. The original design was so boldly conceived that it proved structurally impossible to build. After four years of research Utzon altered his design and gave the roof vaults a defined spherical geometry. This enabled the roofs to be constructed in a pre-cast fashion, greatly reducing both time and cost. The project was subject to many delays and cost over-runs, and (probably unfairly) Utzon was often blamed for these. A new government was elected in NSW in 1965, partly on the campaign promise to "do something" about the cost overruns with the design. The government withheld fee payments to Utzon and refused to agree to his design ideas and proposed construction methods. This pretty much forced Utzon to resign, which he did in February 1966 as Stage II was nearing completion. A team of Australian architects took over and after an extensive review of the proposed functions of the building, proceeded with its completion. The first performance in the complex, in the Opera Theatre on 28 September 1973, 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.
The Building
There are nearly 1000 rooms in the Opera House including 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, an 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. It has about 4.5 hectares (11 acres) of usable floor space.
- It is approximately 185 m (611 ft) long and 120m (380 ft) wide at its widest point. The highest roof vault (above the Concert Hall) is 67m (221 ft) above sea level.
- 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 tonnes and are covered with exactly 1,056,056 Swedish ceramic tiles arranged in 4,253 pre-cast lids.
- The entire building weighs 161,000 tonnes. It is supported on 580 concrete piers sunk up to 25 m (82 ft) below sea level. The roofs are 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 which was 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 NSW.
- There are 6,225 sq m (67,000 sq ft) of glass, made in France, in the mouths of the roofs and other areas of the building. It is in two layers - one plain and the other demitopaz tinted. About 2,000 panes in 700 sizes were installed.
- There are 645 km (400 miles) of electrical cable. The power supply, equivalent to the needs of a town of 25,000 people, 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.
The Opera Theatre
The Opera Theatre is a proscenium arch lyric theatre with an orchestra pit accommodating up to 70 musicians. The three companies which present annual programs in the Opera Theatre are Opera Australia, The Australian Ballet and Sydney Opera House. It is most suitable for opera, ballet and contemporary dance. The maximum seating capacity is 1,507, with 883 in the stalls, 466 in the dress circle and 158 in boxes, some of which have restricted sightlines. The walls and ceiling are painted black and the floor is brushbox timber. The seats are made of white birch timber and are upholstered in red woollen fabric. The Opera Theatre has an extensive flying system and a maximum proscenium opening of 11.5m wide by 7.0m high. The height to the grid is 15.5m. The stage is 17.5m deep upstage of the safety curtain. Two lifts at the rear of the stage can add 7m to the stage depth and are used to move scenery from the dock area below. The orchestra pit extends in an arc downstage of the safety curtain to a maximum depth of 3m. The front section of the pit can be raised to stage level to increase the performance area. Wing space is restricted with only 3.5m beyond the proscenium on either side of the stage.
The Concert Hall
The Concert Hall is the largest interior venue at Sydney Opera House. With its high vaulted ceiling and interior finishes of brush box and white birch timber it is designed primarily for acoustic performances. The principal performing companies in the Concert Hall are Sydney Symphony, Australian Chamber Orchestra, Sydney Opera House, Sydney Festival and Sydney Philharmonia Choirs. Complementing the work presented by these companies, a wide variety of concerts including prominent touring contemporary music artists is presented by commercial producers and promoters. The maximum seating capacity is 2,679 with approximately 2,100 seats situated in front of the stage (most appropriate for amplified concerts). The concert platform is 14m to 17m wide x 11m deep with a floor area of approximately 200m2. Stage extensions can be added to increase stage depth with the loss of 85 seats. Stage access and wing space are limited. Proposals to stage events involving scenery should be discussed in detail prior to making a booking. Special consideration is also required for presentation of heavily amplified concerts.
The Drama Theatre
The Drama Theatre is a medium sized proscenium arch theatre. The performing companies that use the Drama Theatre are Sydney Theatre Company, Bangarra Dance Theatre, Sydney Festival, Sydney Opera House and Bell Shakespeare. It is most suitable for drama, dance and small scale musical productions as well as spoken word presentations. The maximum seating capacity is 544 in 19 rows. The auditorium is raked from the fourth row, ensuring good sightlines from all seats. The walls and ceiling are painted black and the floor is covered with blue carpet. The seats are made of white birch timber and are upholstered in tangerine woollen fabric. The Drama Theatre is equipped with a computerised flying system and twin concentric stage revolves (centre and ring). The maximum proscenium opening is 13.5m wide by 4.8m high. The height to the grid is limited to 10.4m. The stage is 14m deep upstage of the safety curtain with a forestage of 2m.
Play House
Playhouse is one of the most intimate performance venues within Sydney Opera House. It was originally designed for chamber orchestra recitals but has since been adapted and fitted out to accommodate theatrical productions. The performing companies that present annual programs in the Playhouse are Sydney Festival, Sydney Opera House and Bell Shakespeare Company. It is best suited to single-set productions and small musical and dramatic productions. It is acoustically excellent and a perfect venue for chamber music, film screenings and spoken word presentations. The maximum seating capacity is 398 in 17 rows. The fully raked auditorium ensures good sightlines from all seats. The walls and ceiling are clad in white birch timber and the floor is covered with red carpet. The seats are made of white birch timber and are upholstered in dark purple woollen fabric. The venue is designed in an 'end stage' configuration. The Asymmetric stage can be extended in two stages, 'half extension' and 'fully extended'. Each extension adds approximately 90cm to the depth of the stage and requires the removal of up to 23 seats. The stage area has a maximum depth of 8.6m with the stage fully extended and a usable width of approximately 10m (widest point is 13.6m). Twenty motorised battens are available above the stage for rigging lighting and scenery to a maximum height of 6.4m plus a single stick of tri-truss down stage on chain motors. The stage surface is masonite covering plywood that can be screwed into.
The Studio
The Studio is designed primarily for contemporary music and performances. It is suitable for film, cabaret, spoken word, cocktail parties and corporate presentations. The maximum capacity ranges from 220 to 350 seated, or up to 600 standing, depending on the venue and seating layout. The floor area is approximately 15m x 15m, within which tiered seating bank/s, cabaret-style seating and a standing audience may be arranged in various configurations. There are two rows of fixed seating on each of the four sides on the gallery level. (Please note there can be time and cost implications when changing the seating configuration). Venue rental for the Studio is inclusive of a sophisticated sound and lighting system, suitable for all types of events.