It’s impossible to take too many photographs of the Opera House. It changes shape from every angle and changes colour and tone with every shift in weather or time of day. It’s possibly the most sculptural piece of architecture in the world. It is the symbol of Sydney, and its design is said to reflect its waterside situation as representing the sails of a ship, or as a symbolic representation of a shell. It is an amazing building. A tour was a priority on my holiday itinerary, and our tour guide was a very knowledgeable man who had been working there for 18 years. He told us about the architecture, the history and the music of the building.
The story of the construction of the Opera House is a controversial and sad one.
In 1956 the government of New South Wales opened an international competition to design two performance halls, one for opera, the other for the orchestra. Jørn Utzon’s entry was reputedly reclaimed from a pile of discarded designs by the Finnish architect Eero Saarinen.
“The drawings submitted for this scheme are simple to the point of being diagrammatic. Nevertheless, as we have returned again and again to the study of these drawings, we are convinced that they present a concept of an Opera House which is capable of becoming one of the great buildings of the world.”
Assessors Report, 1957
Utzon`s design was a drawing with no specifications, and just like the builders of the Duomo in Florence, the architect did not know how he was going to construct the shell vaults. That didn`t stop the start of work on the site though. Working with the engineering firm of Ove Arup and Partners, Utzon went through countless designs to work out a realistic construction method for the shells. They were originally conceived as parabolas supported by precast concrete ribs, and while this wouldn`t have been structurally impossible, the cost involved would have made it prohibitively expensive. Two years after the beginning of work on the Opera House, they came up with a solution worthy of Brunelleschi. The shells were designed as sections of a sphere, allowing arches of varying length to be precast in a common mould (reducing the expense of casting individual forms) and allowing a number of arch segments of common length to be placed adjacent to one another, to form a spherical section.
In 1966, due to conflicts with an uncooperative government who witheld his fees, Utzon resigned. The designs for the interior were changed and finished by a different team of architects.
In 1973, the Opera House was completed at a total cost of $102 million, ten years late and overbudget by fourteen times. It was formally opened by Elizabeth II and Utzon was not invited nor was his name mentioned. Despite a reconcilliation between Utzon and the Sydney Opera House Trust in the late 1990s, Utzon never returned to Australia to see the finished building.
The complex is made up of three parts – a smaller shell in front for the restaurant, and two larger ones side by side. The main hall is used for orchestra and large concerts and has seats on all sides surrounding the stage. The smaller hall is used for the opera and all the seats face the front of the stage. Our tour guide told us that an interior extension of the opera stage is planned because it is simply too small for the sets of operas travelling with companies like The Met that are meant for much larger spaces. One of the members of our group asked him why the opera wasn`t staged in the main hall since the building is named after it. It came down to politics, explained our guide, as when the Opera House was opening, the orchestra had a stronger say with the people in charge so they got into the main hall and the opera was relegated to the smaller stage. I would have liked to see an opera or a concert but I was there just before the new season started so thre wasn’t anything very good on.
I had imagined the exterior of the Opera House to be a gleaming white smooth concrete surface and I often wondered how it was kept so clean, but it is actually covered in a mosaic of glazed white and off-white tiles.