The Sydney Opera House is an iconic performance arts facility located on Bennelong Point at Sydney Harbour, New South Wales, Australia. It was designed by Danish architect, Jørn Utzon, and formally opened on 20 October 1973. Recognised as one of the most distinctive and famous buildings of the 20th century, the Opera House is Australia’s number one tourist destination having over 8.2 million visitors every year.
Aside from being a famous tourist destination, the Opera House is also one of the busiest performing art centres in the world. It holds more than 2000 shows a year, which are attended by over 1.5 million people. The entire facility and its daily operations are managed by one of New South Wales State Government’s agencies, The Sydney Opera House Trust.
Because of its immense popularity, the Sydney Opera House has been listed on several heritage registers in Australia. Some of these are Register of the National Estate (1980), the National Trust of Australia register (1983), the City of Sydney Heritage Inventory (2000), the New South Wales State Heritage Register (2003), and the Australian National Heritage List (2005). Finally on, June 28 2007, it was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
In 1947, Eugene Goossens, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s resident conductor, pointed out the need for a musical facility large enough to host huge theatrical productions. Goossens gained the support of the state’s premier Joseph Cahill in 1954. He gave official approval for the proposition citing the city’s need to aspire global recognition as a cultural capital.
So in 1955, Cahill launched an international design competition for the proposed facility. The design was for a building with two halls – a large, 3000-seat hall for big concerts, and music and dance productions; and a small, 1,200-seat hall for smaller music events and dramatic presentations. The state government received 233 entries coming from architects from 32 countries.
Two years later, in 1957, the judging committee announced the winner. It was Danish architect, Jørn Utzon, who submitted an innovative design showing a building set on a large podium facing the harbour, with two main halls placed side by side. Each hall had three rows of interlocking and overlapping sail-shaped roofs, commonly referred to today as “shells”.
His winning entry gave Utzon not only the 5,000-Australian-pounds grand prize but also international fame. However, the construction that started in 1959 encountered many problems. The Opera House was planned to be formally opened on Australia Day (26 January 1963), but problems with the costing and in executing the design caused them to move the opening date to a much later time.
Further complications ensued with the election of new state premier and new Minister for Public Works in 1965. Both were a critic of the said project and refused to show support. This led Utzon to resign from the project on 28 February 18966. He then left the country, never returned and saw its completion in 1973.
While its name suggests otherwise, the Sydney Opera House is actually a complex structure consisting of multiple venues. Aside from musical and theatrical performances, its other venues can also serve other purposes.
The Concert Hall
The largest venue within the Opera House is the Concert Hall. It is a large hall with a 2,679-seat capacity that serves as host to events such as symphony concerts, choir performances, and other popular music shows. Being the largest hall, it houses the Sydney Opera House Grand Organ – the largest mechanical tracker-action pipe organ in the world.
The Joan Sutherland Theatre
The second largest venue is the Joan Sutherland Theatre, also known as the Opera Theatre until 17 October 2012. It is a proscenium theatre with a 1,507-seat capacity. Most opera and dances performances are held in this room. It serves as home to Opera Australia and The Australian Ballet.
The Drama Theatre is a smaller proscenium theatre with only a 544-seat capacity. Although smaller than the first two venues, this theatre is equipped with a computerised flying system. It is also commonly used by dance and theatrical presenters such as the Sydney Theatre Company.
The Playhouse is a non-proscenium end-stage theatre with a 398-seat capacity. This venue is good for storytelling, dances and experimental theatrical productions. Originally planned for chamber orchestra recitals, it now usually hosts shows and presentations for younger audiences.
The Studio is a room with a maximum capacity of 600 audiences. It has a flexible seating layout that accommodates seated and standing crowds. This theatre is ideal for contemporary music shows, cocktail parties, circus acts and spoken-word performances.
The Utzon Room
The Utzon Room is a small multi-purpose room with only a 200-seating capacity. It was designed by Jørn Utzon himself, hence the name. Aside from chamber music performances and other small productions, this room can also be used for parties and corporate functions.
The Forecourt is an outdoor venue for community events and spectacular outdoor performances. It is known as one of the best outdoor performance spaces in the world. The Forecourt offers a flexible configuration that allows an audience capacity larger than any of the venues of the Opera House. Iconic celebrities like Oprah, Florence and the Machine, and Björk have held shows at this venue.
Most Northworthy Performances
Even before the construction of the Sydney Opera House was completed, performances were held at lunchtime for the workers. The very first performance occurred in 1960 and had American singer and civil rights activist Paul Robeson as the first artist to ever perform at the site. He sang Ol’ Man River to the construction workers while standing on scaffolding.
One month before the official opening, the Australian Opera performed Prokofiev’s War and Peace in the Opera Hall on 28 September 1973. This was followed by Opera singer Joan Sutherland’s first performance in the same hall. The theatre was later on named after her.
The Sydney Symphony Orchestra, together with Swedish soprano Birgit Nilsson and conductor Charles Mackerras, were the first to perform in the Concert Hall. They performed a series of works by Wagner. Pope John Paul II delivered a speech in the same hall during his visit to Australia in 1987. While Canadian singer Michael Bubble performed there in 2004.