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About the Sydney Opera House

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, 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 totaling 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 approx 1,200 people.  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 that 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.

About 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 demi-topaz 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 Concert Hall

The largest hall is the Concert Hall, which seats 2,679. It is used for a wide variety of performances including symphony concerts, chamber music, opera, dance, choral concerts, pop, jazz and folk concerts, variety shows and conventions.

The acoustics of the Concert Hall are highly regarded internationally. The ceiling, which rises up to 25 meters (82 feet) above the platform, and upper walls are paneled with white birch plywood, and the lower walls, stairs, boxes and stage platform are paneled with a hard brown wood, brush box. These Australian woods are used throughout the building.

The volume of 26,400 cubic meters (880,000 cubic feet) gives a reverberation time of approximately two seconds allowing symphonic music to be heard with a full, rich and mellow tone. Above the platform are suspended 18 adjustable acrylic acoustic rings or "clouds", which assist musicians by reflecting some of the sound of the instruments straight back to the platform.

The Concert Hall Grand Organ was designed and built by Australian, Ronald Sharp, between 1969 and 1979. It is the largest mechanical tracker action organ in the world with 10,500 pipes. There are five manual and one pedal keyboards and 127 stops arranged in 205 ranks.

The Opera Theatre

The Opera Theatre, seating 1,547, is mainly used for performances of opera, ballet and dance. The auditorium, like the Concert Hall, is paneled in wood for acoustic reasons, but the ceiling and walls are painted black to allow the audience to focus its attention upon the stage. The proscenium opening is 12 metres (38 feet) wide and 7 metres (24 feet) high and the stage extends back 25 metres (82 feet). Built into the stage floor is a revolve 14 metres (46 feet) in diameter and there are four platform lifts 10.5 by 3.5 metres (35 by 12 feet) which raise and lower the scenery between the set storage area at ground level and the stage 10 metres (33 feet) above. The orchestra pit can accommodate up to 75 musicians.

The stage curtain is a tapestry designed by the Australian artist John Coburn and is woven from Australian wood at a factory near Aubusson in France. Of abstract patterns in bright warm colours it is known as the Curtain of the Sun.

The Drama Theatre

The Drama Theatre accommodates performances of drama and dance. It seats 544. This auditorium, like the Opera Theatre, is black but the rather low ceiling is made of refrigerated aluminum panels which help to create an even temperature without a draught. The stage, which is about 15 metres (52 feet) square, contains two revolves, one inside the other, which can turn separately or together. The stage curtain, also designed by John Coburn, is similar to that in the Opera Theatre but is woven in dark colours. It is known as the Curtain of the Moon.

The Playhouse, Studio, Reception Hall, and Foyer

Seating 398, the Playhouse is used for small cast plays, lectures and seminars. It is also a fully equipped cinema. Originally designed for chamber music as well, the Playhouse is paneled with the white birch plywood.

A new venue, The Studio (created by redesigning some of the interior spaces) was opened in March 1999.  This is designed for "contemporary" and modern performing arts, and depending on the seating layout, can seat up to 364 people.

The Reception Hall and the large northern foyers of the Concert Hall and the Opera Theatre, all with spectacular views overlooking Sydney Harbour, can be hired for a wide variety of functions including meetings and conferences, wedding receptions, lunches, dinners and parties. There are also four restaurants as well as bars in all the foyers.

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