The Sydney Opera House
A Tainted Tale

Sydney Opera House
Sydney Opera House | © Sophie Deutsch

The Sydney Opera House stands as the flagship of modern Australia. Universally praised as a key architectural monument of the 20th century, the beautifully arched exterior sails serve as the gateway to Sydney’s exquisite harbour. But such positivity surrounding this iconic masterpiece did not always abound.

During the years of construction, engineering complications and accumulating costs became grave causes for concern. And since the opening of Australia’s most famous house in 1973, the building has been plagued with accusations of inferior interior design and sub-par acoustics. Despite these alleged shortcomings, the Opera House draws more than 8.2 million visitors per year, and is universally revered as one of the world’s most magnificent, revolutionary and instantly recognisable buildings.

Architectural Marvel

From the outset, Danish architect Jørn Utzon had a vision to create a striking sculptural form, one that would relate naturally to the undulating waves of Sydney’s superb harbour. Organic materials and colours therefore form the fundamental elements of Utzon’s design: a strong red-granite base anchors the arched white sails that soar elegantly into Sydney’s skyline.
But constructing these billowing sails proved to be a challenging technical exercise. After altering the original concept, Utzon eventually settled on an innovative design based on the geometry of a sphere. Considered a pioneering technique, three-sided segments were carved out of spheres of varying curvature then joined together with steel tendons. The striking visual impact of Utzon’s billowing sails, scaled perfectly in proportion to the Harbour Bridge, brought the initially unassuming city of Sydney onto the international stage.

Checkered History of the House

Although groundbreaking, Utzon’s visionary idea was overshadowed by cost overruns, construction delays and looming political tensions. Over the nine years that Utzon worked on the project, no construction occurred for the first three. The original budget for the Opera House was seven million dollars, yet under Utzon, the government spent 22 million dollars. According to Danish economic geographer Bent Flyvbjerg, the overall mammoth cost blowout of 1,400 per cent makes the Opera House one of the most expensive architectural projects in the world.

Concert Hall Concert Hall | © Sydney Opera House Expressing disdain towards Utzon and the previous government for having initiated the Opera House scheme, the Minister for Construction, David Hughes, stalled on paying Utzon, forcing the architect to eventually resign in 1966.

Upon Utzon’s departure, the government deviated significantly from the architect’s original design. Premier Askin decided that the major hall, intended to house operas and symphonies, would accommodate the latter only. Instead, opera would be held in the minor hall, which was originally designed for stage productions. This major modification has had long-lasting consequences for Sydney’s object of operatic beauty. The minor hall, known today as the Joan Sutherland Theatre, now has a miniscule orchestra pit and an inability to stage grand operas. Meanwhile, the major hall, or Concert Hall as it is named today, comprises no staging gear to accommodate a great performance of Aida, Turandot, Madame Butterfly or the like.
Despite these marked changes that deviated from Utzon’s original design, in 1999, the renowned architect was re-engaged to guide future modifications to the Opera House. “My job is to articulate the overall vision and detailed design principles for the site” Utzon stated proudly. “The Sydney Opera House is like a musical instrument, and like any fine instrument, it needs a little maintenance and fine tuning, from time to time, if it is to keep on performing at the highest level.”

Modern Marvel or Mayhem?

With its checkered history, the Sydney Opera House has aroused critique from designers and directors alike. After rehearsing for Don Giovanni in 2014, Scotsman David McVicar, a world-renowned opera director, described the Joan Sutherland Opera Theatre as a space with “extreme” problems, simply “inadequate for opera.” The front of house is deemed too small for excellent acoustics, and the orchestra pit is famously tiny, making it crowded and somewhat claustrophobic for performers.

Joan Sutherland Theatre Joan Sutherland Theatre | © Sydney Opera House Similar criticism has plagued the Concert Hall. According to the Sydney Symphony Orchestra concert master, Andrew Haveron, poor acoustics have contributed to a listener’s experience that is often like “having cotton wool in your ears.” With its 25- meter high ceiling, the sound is often muffled or lost.

Revamp and Renewal

The shortcomings of the interior have spurred Chief Executive Officer of the Sydney Opera House, Louise Herron, to embark on a “decade of renewal.” As the biggest renovations since the opening of the Opera House, the upgrades will significantly improve the experience for future generations of visitors, audiences and performers.
A new acoustic ceiling will be constructed in the Concert Hall with reflectors that can better distribute sound, creating a more pleasing experience for listeners. “We are trying […] to give this wonderful hall an acoustic that will make it truly world class,” said Managing Director of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Roy Jeffes. “This building will then be an absolute world class icon both inside and out.”
Improving accessibility for people with a disability is also a key feature of the current upgrades, with the construction of a wheelchair accessible pathway and the addition of up to 26 wheelchair-accessible seating positions in the Concert Hall.

An Enduring Symbol

The Sydney Opera House continues to receive international acclaim for its cutting edge design and billowing sails that soar triumphantly into Sydney’s shining skyline.
In 2007, the United Nations declared the masterpiece a World Heritage site – the expert report by the International Council on Monuments and Sites to the World Heritage Committee noted that the Sydney Opera House “stands by itself as one of the indisputable masterpieces of human creativity, not only in the twentieth century but in the history of humankind.”

Sydney Opera House Sydney Opera House | © Sophie Deutsch The enduring power of Utzon’s masterpiece was recognised in 2013 when the Sydney Opera House celebrated its fortieth birthday. On the grand forecourt, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, along with the Sydney Philharmonia Choir and Opera Australia soloists, recreated the performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony – the classical piece that opened the venue 40 years ago.

The eruption of fortieth birthday celebrations at the Monumental Stairs of the Sydney Opera House signifies the enduring legacy of this architectural masterpiece. As NSW Deputy Premier and Minister for the Arts Tony Grant noted, “The Sydney Opera House is the symbol of modern Australia. It is our responsibility as custodians of this extraordinary place to maintain and renew it for all Australians.”