While the Opera House is today recognized as an iconic building throughout the world and one of the main symbols associated with Australia, it also has a very interesting history, which we learned all about on the official Sydney Opera House tour. We thought this tour was well worth the money as it was very informative, it allowed us to see the building's interior while no one else was there, and it got us a great discount on a show that night!
Opera House History
The Opera House sits at the end of a narrow peninsula jutting out into the harbor from the central part of Sydney. Until the early 60’s, this site housed an industrial area and an unsightly rail yard. The city’s government proposed to clean up the site and the decision was made to build an opera house. They decided to seek proposals for the structure’s design from around the world, and launched a design competition. Over 250 submissions were received from all over the world, most of which involved rather conventional rectangular structures.
The concept that led to the ultimate design of the Opera House was initially discarded by the panel of judges. One judge was late to the discussion, and asked to see the submissions that had already been discarded. Upon seeing this proposal, he reignited support for this winning design, submitted by Danish architect Jørn Utzon. The only problem was that this design was very conceptual- just a series of sketches, really - and no structure like this had ever been built before. Utzon was confident he could figure out how to build it, so the judges took a risk and selected this unconventional design, giving Utzon $7 million and 3 years to complete the project.
Art & Science: The Struggle & Solution
Over the next several years, as the construction of the base of the building got underway, there was no solution for how to construct the massive sails comprising the structure’s roof. Utzon and the structural engineering team, Ove Arup & Partners simply could not figure out how to build a structurally sound roof that would satisfy Utzon's vision. Art & science were working against each other. Finally, a breakthrough was achieved, which entailed the concrete roofs being fabricated as slices of the same sphere and then joined together in mid-air. Honestly, I don't quite understand how it works, but it does, and I'm really glad they figured it out.
A Sad Ending (for Utzon)
This unique approach, which had never before been undertaken, led to massive cost and time over-runs. By 1970, a new Sydney government, frustrated with the slow progress, decided to replace the architect who poured so much creativity and work into this massive piece of art. Thus, Jørn Utzon returned to Denmark and never returned to Sydney to see the structure completed.
Finally, in 1973, the completed Opera House was opened after 13 years and over $100 million. Today, most people in Sydney still believe that all this time and investment was worthwhile, as it is one of the most important symbols of Sydney and Australia. In fact, even the cost overruns were not ultimately a problem, as the Sydney government ran a lottery upon its completion to raise money to repay the bonds issued to fund the construction. Amazingly, the lottery was hugely effective and the debt was repaid within just 18 months!
Today, the Opera House is one of the most financially successful public opera houses in the world, with over 85% of its operating budget funded by performances and events.
We enjoyed being able to see the different theaters within the two buildings comprising the Opera House along our tour. Here is some of what we saw:
During our tour, a classical orchestra was rehearsing for their opening performance the next evening. We watched the rehearsal for about 15 minutes (our small tour group were the only people in the huge empty concert hall) and it gave me chills. Some folks on the tour were tearing up. The music was so exquisite and I could hear and feel every single note - all without amplification due to the hall's excellent acoustics. I was in awe that some people have the ability to create and beautifully execute something so complicated. What is even more mind-boggling is that it takes a multitude of diverse talents - both artistic and scientific - and hundreds of years to perfect a symphony. Those wonderful 15 minutes of music were the result of years of work from composers, instrument makers, architects, engineers, conductors and musicians. It was a good reminder about the importance of mixing diverse talents in an effort to improve, progress, inspire and (in my case) amaze.
Another benefit of taking the Opera House tour is that you are able to get big discounts on performance tickets for that evening, if any are left. That night they were showing South Pacific, a musical I regularly watched with my grandmother growing up. So we decided to check it out. We really enjoyed the show, and especially the chance to see a show in this magnificent building!