Exploring Australia 15: Sydney Opera House

Opera House, Sydney

Opera House, Sydney

The one building in Sydney that can’t be missed is, of course, the Opera House, the youngest of all World Heritage Sites and a world-class icon.  The whole building is a magnificent piece of sculpture, and it houses two astonishing auditoria.  It provides Sydney with a cultural feast all the year round:  on the day I visited I would cheerfully have booked for three of the five productions on offer.  Sydney people tell me that it has a curious quality of drawing people in to performances, and then releasing them at the interval into the stunning setting of the harbour in a way that no other theatre or concert hall in the world can possibly do.

Its story is remarkable.  Planned by the conductor Eugene Goossens, on a location that had previously been of all things a tram-depot, the architectural competition was controversially won by the Danish architect, Jørn Utzon, whose sketchy but inspired design was pulled out of the reject pile by a Finnish judge who recognised its potential.  The penalty of choosing an inspired design based on imprecise drawings was that work started on the foundations before anyone had any idea how to build the superstructure.  Even the great engineer, Ove Arup, eventually despaired, until Jørn Utzon spotted a simple way to conceive and construct the unique geometry of the shapes which people generally refer to as “sails”, though to me they look more like shells.  By the time the exterior was completed far behind schedule, with no final specification for the interior and a monumental budget over-run, the New South Wales government lost patience with Jørn Utzon, who resigned.

Once the Opera House was opened in 1973 it was quickly recognised as one of the great, arguably the greatest of modernist buildings of the twentieth century.  At the end of his life, showered with honours, Jørn Utzon was re-employed to update his building, which is today overseen by his son, Jan Utzon.  Jørn Utzon never set foot in Sydney after his resignation, and never saw the completed building except in images.

For all these reasons, and the sheer pleasure of the place, anyone who loves buildings, theatre, music and art really must see the Opera House if they’re in Sydney.

That said, I was disappointed by the building tour I went on.  My heart sinks when a guide hands out headsets:  I know that I’m going to be subjected to ambient noise, the sound of doors being unlocked, mutterings and individual, irrelevant conversations.  This particular guide had a habit also of switching off her microphone (to give her voice a rest, she said) and then walking off talking.  She also took us into an undistinguished auditorium, carved out of the basement, to spend a long time asking each of us where we were from:  I could see no purpose to this gratuitous exercise, except that it saved her telling us about the Opera House.  When she asked for questions, someone asked when it was built:  she replied that she’d tell us later, when we’d seen the video.  Later I overheard, through my headset, someone ask her if there was a basic factsheet:  no, she said, but there’s a book you can buy in the bookshop for A$20 [about £12.50].

The videos were peculiar.  The footage was excellent and the commentary informative.  I simply couldn’t understand why, in a world-class venue with six auditoria and lavish conference facilities, we had to view the first film on a plasma screen while sitting on a flight of stairs, the second projected on to the bare sculptural concrete that the footage described (an interesting art concept but not flattering to the images), and the last two in a bar-area where most of us had to stand.  It felt arbitrary and unwelcoming.

We had the privilege, which alone was worth the price of the tour, of stepping inside both major auditoria, in one of which a lighting check for a touring production was taking place.  Both spaces are unforgettable.  The great shell-shapes (for so I can’t help seeing them) provide acoustically efficient, visually spectacular, remarkably intimate spaces in which respectively 2,678 and 1,507 people can watch and listen to the greatest drama and music the world can offer.

Having travelled across the globe to see this place, I felt offended that the tour I was offered did such poor justice to the building and its story.  I appreciate the practical difficulties of herding groups of 30-40 people round a working building (and while I ate lunch on the terrace afterwards I watched at least four other groups set off in succession on the same hike within less than an hour).  I don’t see why it’s beyond the wit of the Opera House management to offer a clear exposition of the building, its layout, its chronology and its excitement to an audience which includes everyone from casual tourists to knowledgeable students.  After all, Jørn Utzon and Ove Arup eventually found a way to build the place.  Managing guided tours of it should surely be on this side of what Jørn Utzon called “the edge of possibility”.


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