I feel sure you do not need me to tell you that the Sydney Opera House is Australia’s, and indeed one of the world’s, most iconic and recognisable buildings.
Situated on Bennelong Point on the edge of Sydney’s beautiful Harbour, the Opera House, with its soaring white shell sails shaped roof, covered with 1,056,006 tiles, atop a massive red granite faced concrete platform, is known worldwide and is Sydney’s number one tourist attraction.
Construction of the Opera House began in 1957. Due to delay after delay and dispute after dispute it wasn’t completed until 1973 though many, including me, would hold that its extensive, and frankly ugly, raw brick interior suggests that the building was never fully completed. Completed or not, it was opened on 20 October 1973, by Queen Elizabeth II, ten years late and 1,457% over budget, in real terms.
Delays and escalating costs during the construction phase lead to major and unrelenting public criticism until the building was completed and took its place as one of the most admired buildings in the world. Now everyone loves it.
The Opera House was designed by Danish architect, Jørn Utzon. After almost 10 years work and a series of bitter disputes with his client, the New South Wales Government and David Hughes its Minister of Public Works, Utzon resigned, packed his bags and departed Australia, for good, in 1966 describing the situation as “Malice in Blunderland.”
Sadly, Utzon’s resignation was as much to do with the personal ambitions of a disgraced politician as anything else. Australian architecture critic, Elizabeth Farrelly would later write:
“At an election night dinner party in Mosman, Hughes’ daughter Sue Burgoyne boasted that her father would soon sack Utzon. Hughes had no interest in art, architecture or aesthetics. A fraud, as well as a philistine, he had been exposed before Parliament and dumped as Country Party leader for 19 years of falsely claiming a university degree. The Opera House gave Hughes a second chance. For him, as for Utzon, it was all about control; about the triumph of homegrown mediocrity over foreign genius.”
Utzon was not invited to the opening ceremony in 1973, nor did his name rate a mention. Today Utzon’s architectural talents and achievements are well known – Hughes’ talents and achievements less so. Enough said.
While the replacement architects retained Utzon’s exterior design they completely changed his interior vision. The changes included reversing the main performance spaces such that the large opera theatre became the concert hall. Opera was banished to a small side theatre, once described by Dame Joan Sutherland as a ‘pocket handkerchief of a stage.’ Ironically Dame Joan was referring to the theatre now named in her honour!
Despite its name suggesting a single venue, the building contains numerous theatres and performance venues, in addition to its grand 2,679 seat concert hall. The latter is very tastefully decked out with birch plywood panelling though, nice as it looks, it has a poor reputation from an acoustic perspective.
Today, the Opera House, home to Opera Australia, The Australian Ballet, the Sydney Theatre Company and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra is one of the busiest performing arts centres in the world with up to 2,500 performances and events each year drawing 1.5 million patrons plus the 7 million odd tourists that visit it. Lest you not be an opera aficionado do not let the building’s name put you off attending an event here. In addition to an opera you can enjoy a ballet, a play, pop music, a symphony, comedy, contemporary dance, musical theatre and much more here.
Tours of the interior of the building (frequent tours of the front-of-house spaces, and a daily backstage tour) are available though I won’t comment in detail on these as it is around twenty years since I took a tour. I recall it being interesting and worth what I paid at the time. See website below for tour and general access details. You will also find details of shows and on-site eating options there.
In any event, what justifiably attracts tourists is the exterior as opposed to the interior of the building. While everyone naturally wants to, and should, walk up to it and sit on the steps it is much better viewed from a distance. This can be easily, and should be, done from numerous angles from land, sea (any ferry leaving Circular Quay) and air, given its location on the waters edge. In terms of from the air, while you can take a helicopter tour of it and the city more generally, the less affluent visitor like me can enjoy the stunning sight of it, the Harbour Bridge and the city skyline from most flights arriving into Sydney Airport, assuming you sit on the left hand side of the plane. What a sight and welcome to Australia (or indeed welcome home, if appropriate) this makes if you have just endured 20 hours plus on a long haul flight.
The sails are regularly lit up in various colours in support charities and other causes and for special events. Most recently (November 2015), and in unison with countless buildings around the world, the white sails were lit up in red white and blue as a mark of respect for those who lost their lives in Paris, and in solidarity with the people of a city in shock and mourning, at the hands of terrorists.
In 2005 the Opera House was included on the National Heritage Register and in 2007 it was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
Jørn Utzon died on 29 November 2008 having never returned to Australia to see, in real life, the building which for ever his name will be most associated. On a happier note, there was a sort of reconciliation between Utzon and the Sydney Opera House Trust (building owner/manager) in 1999 and Utzon became a design consultant for future work on the building. In 2004 an interior space built to Utzon’s design was name ‘The Utzon Room” in his honour.
The sight of this building is truly unforgettable. While I have seen it hundreds of times I never tire of the vision and I feel confident neither would you.
A note on my pictures attached:-
1. View from The Rocks area across Sydney Cove – during the annual Vivid lights display
2. View from The Rocks area across Sydney Cove
3. View from Ferry leaving Circular Quay
4. View from top of AMP Building – not readily accessible – see my separate review – AMP Building – Sydney’s First Skyscraper
5. View from Bradley’s Head on the Harbour