The Sydney Opera House is a stunning example of 20th-century architecture at its best, and one of the planet’s most identifiable modern landmarks. The story of its construction and completion, though, is a bit less lovely.
In fact, that story, full of conflict and controversy, might seem operatic in scale. Composer Alan John and librettist Dennis Watkins certainly thought so. Their opera, The Eighth Wonder, concerns the facility’s troubled backstory. The work had its 1995 debut at – where else? – the Sydney Opera House.
The Sydney Opera House is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. Jutting out into Sydney Harbour, the center’s two main buildings are each topped with three overlapping, massive concrete “wings.” It was officially opened on Oct. 20, 1973, by Queen Elizabeth II.
The queen was the first reigning monarch to visit Australia. Her first trip was in 1954, the same year the New South Wales government convened an advisory group to choose a site for a planned Opera House.
To choose a design for the center, an international competition was held, with Danish architect Jørn Utzon’s the winner. The design he submitted included the concrete wings (some say sails) that, aside from their striking appearance, also would serve as the buildings’ roof and wall.
Construction began in 1959 with a projected opening date of Australia Day, Jan. 26, 1963 – 10 years and nine months before the actual opening.
Problems stemmed from the demands of Utzon’s unusual design, and also from construction being started before his design was complete. Delays, missed deadlines and cost overruns were the norm.
Public support for the project began to erode. The 1965 elections brought in a new administration for New South Wales, one where opinions on the Opera House ranged from apathy to contempt. Utzon resigned the next year.
A petition demanding Utzon be rehired was circulated. Among the signers was Australian architect Peter Hall. Hall, though, and his partners David Littlemore and Lionel Todd assumed responsibility for the project when it became apparent no reconciliation between Utzon and the government was possible. Hall took on the crucial design role.
Hall discovered that many aspects of the interior design, including seating capacity, acoustics and structure, had been left unresolved by Utzon. Hall studied foreign performance halls and brought in stage and acoustic consultants. He was able to guide the project to its completion in 1973.
Utzon, incidentally, returned to the Opera House to oversee an improvement project. He redesigned the former Reception Hall, which was reopened in 2004 as the Utzon Room. It is used for chamber music performances as well as receptions, seminars and meetings.
Utzon and the Opera House reconciled, but the children of Peter Hall, who died in 1995, have criticized recent renovations that they say dishonor their father’s work.
In spite of all the controversies, the headaches, confusion and bickering, the Sydney Opera House remains a point of pride for Australia. It has presented some of the finest talent in the world: Ella Fitzgerald performed there. So did Prince, on his Piano & a Microphone Tour, in February 2016, just two months before his untimely death. Nelson Mandela spoke there, as did Pope John Paul II. Joan Sutherland, Australia’s greatest opera star, took the stage for the last time there in 1991. The hall devoted to opera and ballet was named for her.
Also, in an event which would have future ramifications in the studios of Hollywood and the halls of government, Arnold Schwarzenegger won his final Mr. Olympia body-building title in a competition held in the Concert Hall. A beautiful building with a messy origin story, the Sydney Opera House brings to mind an old adage about sausage: If you want to enjoy it, don’t see how it’s made.