Sydney Opera House: The Colossus of Australia
Europe’s Paris has the Eiffel Tower, Africa’s Egypt has the Pyramids, and North America’s New York has the Statue of Liberty. Australia, on the other hand, has the Sydney Opera House, a performing arts center built in 1973 by Danish architect Jorn Utzon. Utzon received the prestigious Pritzker Prize in 2003 for his works in architecture (mainly for the Sydney Opera House), and the citation he received for the award says why this particular structure is important. In the citation, the award-giving body says the Sydney Opera House serves not only the icon of a city and a country, but also of an entire continent. True to form, the Sydney Opera House is indeed Australia’s most recognizable and most iconic symbol—with some saying that the Sydney Opera House is “Australia” itself.
What makes the Sydney Opera House more astounding is how, with its less than 50 years in existence, it already managed to attain a statue comparable to that of older and more established man-made sites. The Statue of Liberty, for instance, is a symbol of the American-French alliance, while the Pyramids in Egypt are a sign and a testament to a particular time in Egyptian history. On the other hand, the Sydney Opera House, built during the 70s, is pale in comparison when it comes to deep history. However, it certainly does not pale when it comes to significance and importance. As proof, the UNESCO already included this structure in its World Heritage Site list, a list which includes older locations. More than its function, everything about the Sydney Opera House is a wonder, a colossal structure that represents Australia.
For many, the fact that Australia’s most iconic structure was built by a Danish architect seems ironic. However, this only underscores the original intentions of the construction of this arts center. The intention and the plan to build a theater of considerable size began during the later parts of the 1940s, when English composer Eugene Goossens proposed for the construction of a suitable theatrical venue for large theater productions. The Sydney Town Hall was their usual venue for such productions, but this was not suitable for most productions, especially for those in a grander scale. Today, the area is surrounded by towering skyscrapers, making it unfit for such lavish productions. From the early 1900s to the mid 1900s, however, the Sydney Town Hall was only marked by the St. Andrew’s Cathedral. Of course, the Sydney Town Hall as a normal concert hall wasn’t exactly unusual, since this is a normal practice around the world, but it is perhaps Australia’s rich artistic and theatrical history that prompted Goossens to lobby for a fitting theater for the country.
Goossens lobbied the proposal to the New South Wales government, with the help of New South Wales Premier Joseph Cahill. The proposal was approved sometime during the 1950s, and Cahill organized a competition in search for a suitable design for what will be the Sydney Opera House. Launched in September of 1955, the competition garnered more than 200 entries from more than 30 countries. The criteria set for the competition was to design an opera house with 3000 seating capacity and a smaller hall with a 1200 capacity, with the rooms functioning for different types of theatrical performances—from opera to plays, from lectures to mass meeting. The winner was announced in 1957. Utzon’s design won which won him 5,000 Pounds.The first stage of the theater’s construction began in 1959.
Interestingly, two of the main proponents of the Sydney Opera House didn’t see through the end of the theater’s construction. First was Goossens, who died even before the Sydney Opera House was completed. A few years after his proposal, he was plagued by intrigues that ultimately ruined his credibility as a composer and conductor. This scandal involved his interest in the occult, which was then forbidden. This left him devastated and destroyed, and he died in 1962.
However, before his ultimate demise of his career, Goossens also became instrumental to what is now known as one of the Sydney Opera House’s trademarks. While Cahill wanted to build the theater near the Wynyard Railway Station, Goossens wanted to build the theater Bennelong Point, which overlooks the Sydney Harbor.
It took almost 20 years to finish the entire Sydney Opera House. Although the technology then was already advanced even for an overwhelming structure such as the Sydney Opera House, the construction faced a number of road blocks. Part of what caused this delay is the design. However, perhaps what made the Sydney Opera House iconic to this day is its unbelievably exquisite design of the opera house. Utzon created a design that was diagrammatic, as the jurors of the competition said, but was not, in any way, practical or even conceivable during the time it was conceived. In fact, during the construction of the opera house’s podium, the team already stumbled upon their first problem—how to actualize Utzon’s creation. It took the architect around three years to finalize the design, causing the construction to be delayed for more than 40 weeks. By the time the podium of the Sydney Opera House was completed, the intended budget for the project was almost used up, and the structure was nowhere near from being built. In fact, the whole opera house was supposed to be done by 1963. However, only the podium was built by that year—and the construction had two more stages to go.
The second stage, the roof of the Sydney Opera House, took four years, from 1963 to 1967, mainly because of the elaborate but seemingly impossible design of Utzon. Again, the roof of the Sydney Opera House—particularly the “sails”—is another iconic signature, so it’s no surprise it took them so long to finish it. Utzon intended the sails of the structure to have an undefined geometry, but given time and budget constraints (as well as the plausibility of actually creating the original plan), he had to recreate his design. The solution they came up with: the shells that will be used as the sails of the roof will be created from sections of a sphere. With the use of a sphere, they were able to use casts of different lengths and sizes, all of them coming from the same mold. After the roof, the team started on the interiors.
It was during this time, in 1967, when the team came across another problem—the resignation of Utzon. In 1963, Utzon moved his office inside the Sydney Opera House, but the change of government in 1965 prompted him to leave the project. The new government was openly unsympathetic with the project, and rumors circulated that Robin William Askin would fire Utzon as soon as he assumed office. It was well known that Askin was no big fan of culture, arts, and architecture, which turned Utzon off, prompting him to leave. Askin’s critical view on the construction of the Sydney Opera House was not without basis—after all, even before the completion of the project, the cost of construction already exceeded twice the original budget.
Despite these problems, the Sydney Opera House was completed in 1973, and was opened formally by Queen Elizabeth II. A few weeks before the formal opening, the Opera House saw its first production: War and Peace by Sergei Prokofiev. Although Utzon was not credited during the opening, the Sydney Opera House Trust began to reconcile with Utzon during the late 1990s, which lead to the construction of the Utzon Room, finished in 2004.
Today, the Sydney Opera House seats more than two million audiences a year and it holds more than 3,000 events annually. The Sydney Opera House has a number of spaces, such as the main Concert Hall, with more than 2,000 seats. Later during the construction, the new team sans Utzon wanted to make the hall a 3,000-seat affair, but the plan was discarded since it would destroy the room’s acoustics. Two other popular spaces in the theater are the Opera Theater (with more than 1,500 seats) and the Drama Theater (with more than 500 seats). Additional rooms that were added in the original plan are small spaces, such as the Playhouse, the Studio, and the Utzon Room. The Utzon Room has 210 seats, and has the distinction of being the only interior in the structure designed by Utzon. The Forecourt, on the other hand, is an open-air venue. Besides the usual theatrical performances, operas, ballet performances, and others, the Sydney Opera House is also a popular venue for renowned lectures and events.
Today, the Sydney Opera House is seen as an example of expressionist architecture. Expressionism is marked by the distortion of standard form as a means to attain a specific emotional effect (such as the shells on the opera house’s roof). An expressionist architecture is also not confined to one single concept, which makes it new and original. Obviously, The Sydney Opera House fits these categories.
From the simple desire to have an adequate performance hall to a behemoth of a structure, the Sydney Opera House may be famous for its striking design and size, but its influence is more than just due to architecture and physical beauty. The Sydney Opera House is noted for its influence in Australia’s performing arts.
For one, the Sydney Opera House is home to a number of world-renowned theater companies, such as the famous Sydney Theatre Company. This theater company, in turn, was and is home to a number of popular and esteemed actors of today, including Geoffrey Rush and Hugo Weaving. The current artistic director of the Sydney Theatre Company is Oscar Award winning actress Cate Blanchett, with husband Andrew Upton as co-director. This is added prestige to the already esteemed company and the opera house that holds their performances—not that they need the additional press or publicity. Besides the Sydney Theater, the Sydney Opera House is also home to the Australian Ballet, the Australia Chamber Orchestra, the Ensemble Theater, and the famed Bell Shakespeare Company. This theater company is known for being provocative with their texts and their performances, using contemporary styles rather than classical ones despite tackling creations by Shakespeare (as well as other older materials).
This isn’t surprising at all, since Australia’s artistic heritage is deep and varied. This is mainly because the government funds most of the performing arts companies in the country. As the list of performing companies in the Sydney Opera House also demonstrates, almost all the performing arts are covered in Australia—opera, dance, drama, and others. This is perhaps the reason why a number of esteemed actors in Hollywood today are natives of Australia. A number of them received training from these groups, and maybe some of them have even performed in the Sydney Opera House. Regardless, the list of actors from Australia is an eminent an admirable list, which includes Naomi Watts, Russell Crowe, Toni Collette, Nicole Kidman, and Hugh Jackman. Jackman is a good example of how Australia’s love for theater can foster talent. As a theater actor, appearing in a number of stage productions in Melbourne, Jackson saw acclaim in London’s West End (their equivalent to New York’s Broadway). This isn’t to include other mainstream actors who became popular worldwide thanks to the training they got in Australia’s performing arts scene.
This is merely a glimpse on how the construction of the Sydney Opera House made a huge difference in Australia’s art and performing arts scene. Without it, who could tell what difference it would make to the Australia’s cultural heritage? And beyond that, who could say what architecture would be without the Sydney Opera House? This iconic Australian performing center is more than just an opera house—it has revolutionized how and what people think of and about design. Sydney Opera House broke the rules, and it has influenced a number of structures after it. With the achievement and influence of the Sydney Opera House, it certainly deserves to be Australia’s representation to the world.