A Tourist's Eye View of the Sydney Opera House

Connie Wilson By Connie Wilson, 18th Sep 2014 | Follow this author | RSS Feed
Posted in Wikinut>Travel>Oceania>Australia>Sydney & Around

A firsthand look at the Sydney Opera House and its origins from a recent tourist who visited there, with the history of its construction included.

The Sydney Opera House

I became one of the 84 million tourists annually to visit Sydney (Australia's) iconic Opera House in February, 2013, on Valentine's Day, and here is what I learned from our expert guide and the guidebook and headsets provided
. As we entered ($35 a ticket) I noted that "La Boheme - Puccini" was the opera slated to start on February 1, 2013. With 1600 shows a year given, the ticket price on Saturday, February 16, 2013 for that show started at $68.

The Sydney Opera House also hosts weddings and other events----2,500 of them annually, according to our guide--- with 1.5 million people having watched a play in its theater, where we saw stagehands setting up for "Falstaff" and listened to "Preacher Man" as Cliff Richards prepared for his evening show (tickets: $100+).

Talk of building an Opera House in Sydney first arose in the 1940s when Eugene Gooseens, Director of the New South Wales State Conservatory of Music suggested same, but it wasn't until 1955 (some sources say 1957) that a design competition was held. Bennelong Point was chosen for the site. It had originally been the site of a brick house built for a native close to the Governor (one of 3 kidnapped to learn the secrets of growing crops from the indigenous peoples) and, later, was the site of a tram station, which was demolished.

Two hundred thirty-three architectural drawings were submitted from 32 countries, all competing for a prize of 5,000 pounds. Jorn Utzon, the 38-year-old Danish-born eventual winner of the competition (as judged by such notables as Eero Saarinen) had won 7 of 18 competitions he previously entered, but his drawing was initially rejected.
Utzon's unorthodox vision for the Opera House was only selected as the winner of the competition when Saarinen plucked it from 32 previously rejected submissions, saying, "This is your winner." It was not a very comprehensively-drawn design (when you see the original design, your first thought is that it was not drawn by a professional architect [/i[i]at all), but it was a bold one that would ultimately win architecture's Pritzker Prize for Utzon with these words from the Pritzker committee regarding the Sydney Opera House:

"There is no doubt that the Sydney Opera House is his (Utzon's) masterpiece. It is one of the great iconic buildings of the 20th century, an image of great beauty that has become known throughout the world---a symbol for not only a city, but a whole country and continent."

Original estimates for completing the building and its cost were $7 million and 3 years. The reality is that it cost 14 times that amount, ending up costing $102 million. It was finally opened in 1973 by Queen Elizabeth II. Jorn Utzon was not invited to the opening and his name was not mentioned at the ceremony.

"Malice in Blunderland"

During the period of time when the immense difficulties posed by the project were being worked on by Utzon and his engineers, especially Ove Arup & Partners, the cost over-runs and impatience of the government caused growing tension between the architect and the committee formed to provide oversight on the project.
When one of the Opera House's most vocal critics, Robert Askin, became Premier of New South Wales in 1965, it was only a matter of time before what was called "the triumph of homegrown mediocrity over foreign genius" played out, resulting in Utzon's resignation-partially over nonpayment of over $100,000 to Utzon ( he could not even pay his workers, and it was once said that the construction of such a revolutionary building was just "on the edge of the possible.")

Utzon was offered the choice of resignation or staying on as an adviser in 1965 when Askin came to power (*Note: Askin had once lied about a college degree on his resume and been sacked from a much more local post as a result).

Utzon resigned as the architect on February 28, 1966 and never returned to Sydney to see his masterpiece, famously referring to the project as "Malice in Blunderland."

Construction in Stages

The Opera House was completed in stages:
Stage I - podium, $5.5 million
Stage II- Roof shells - $12.5 million
Stage III - Completion of interior - $56.5 million
Separate contracts and such items as the largest organ of its kind in the world, with over 10,000 pipes - $9 million

Performance Areas Within the Building

Within the Sydney Opera House there are actually 6 different performance areas:
The Concert Hall, with 2,679 seats, which is home to the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. (Cliff Richards was preparing for a concert that night and we heard strains of "Preacher Man." Tickets were said to cost $100 and up.)

The Joan Sutherland Theater (as it was renamed on Oct. 16, 2012), which seats 1,507 and is home to the Sydney Opera and the Sydney Ballet Company. The venue can perform up to 4 Operas in succession, so that the performance of the same opera, night after night, is not too wearing on the performers. Twenty-five meters high, it has a false ceiling to try for better acoustics (which have been rumored to be a problem, due to the venue's size and height) and such performers as Ella Fitzgerald, Sammy Davis Jr., and the Foo Fighters have performed there, with Arnold Schwarzenegger taking one of his bodybuilding titles onstage.

The Drama Theater, which seats 544.
(It was preparing for "Falstaff" when we were touring.)
The Playhouse, which seats 398.
The Studio, which seats 400. Twenty-one heads of state, including George W. Bush,
The Utzon Room, which seats 210. There is also a Forecourt which is often used for events.

The poured concrete ribs each had to be perfect. Four times the amount of steel as was used in the longest span of the Sydney Harbour Bridge was used in construction of the building. The project was not without its setbacks. Although the architectural firm. Engineers and contractors began work well together, it did not remain harmonious and various pressures brought discord to the construction project. The taking of bids (how it should be handled) was one sticking point.

Since Utzon was, in essence, solving design problems as they arose, pressure to "hurry up" led, at one point, to pedestals being built that were not strong enough to support the roof, which meant they had to be removed and replaced. Political pressure, as mentioned, especially after the election of 1965, led to some nationalistic issues and eventually architect Peter Hall of Australia was hired to undertake finishing the building, at a point that was still 9 years away from completion.

The roof, alone, has 1 million, 56 thousand glossy Swedish-made tiles from Hagamas AB, a firm that normally produced stoneware for paper mills. From a distance, the roof appears to be solidly white, but, up close, you can pick out the million-plus individual white tiles. White birch from Wauchope was used for floors and ceilings. In 2009, a redesign of such areas as rest rooms and guest shops was undertaken, enlisting Utzon's son Jan (Utzon, himself, died on Nov. 29, 2008). Note the futuristic long white strip of sinking in the women's rest room, with no "bowls" but one single undulating white strip that catches the water and then spills it behind as it is tilted to do.
Besides being a building that Upton said was inspired by Mexican pyramids and the design solution for which, it is said (versions differ) came in a "Eureka!" moment when Utzon was peeling an orange and considered each segment (each concert hall is a separate cocoon), the Sydney Opera House, with its 2400 precast ribs and its 4000 roof panels, boasts many "firsts."

Sydney Opera House Innovations

The Sydney Opera House was among the first architectural projects to use a computer to help solve engineering problems. The Sydney Opera House pioneered a method of harnessing harbor water to create a water-cooled pump still in use today to provide over 600, 000 cubic feet of air per minute to air condition the building.

At roughly $35 a head to tour the building, with 300,000 tours taken annually, the building, itself, brings in at least $10,500,000 just from the tourist trade on tours of the building, which does not include any of the performance revenue. UNESCO has named the Sydney Opera House a World Heritage Site and touring it, while a strenuous undertaking with much climbing and as many as 300 steps (handicapped access is not as cutting edge as in newer structures), is well worth the effort.


A Tourist Visits The Sydney Opera House, How Did The Sydney Opera House Get Built, Sydney Opera House

Meet the author

author avatar Connie Wilson
Author - 27 books. Yahoo Content Producer of Year (2009); MWC Writer of the Year (2010); IWPA Silver Feather winner (Chicago), 2012 & 2014. Professor: 6 IA/IL colleges.

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