Sydney Opera House

March 25, 2009 § Leave a comment

Graham Abbott’s musings on the vexed questions surrounding one of our most famous icons.


Sydney Opera House, Australia

Originally uploaded by paddy_28

Sydney Opera House – my two-cents’ worth.

“As a child visiting my grandmother in Milson’s Point in the 60s I have vivid memories of the Opera House being built across the harbour. I was a high school student when it opened in the 70s and I attended one of the first concerts in the Concert Hall (the German Bach Soloists with Monika Leonhardt and Marilyn Richardson as soloists in an all-Bach program).

The current talk about the renovations to the Opera Theatre seem to be viewed by some people as an attempt to restore the building to Utzon’s original plan. Whatever the merits (or otherwise) of the current proposal, they most certainly do not represent a return to Utzon’s original plan, as far as I am aware.

If I remember correctly, the original plan was the have the big hall (now the Concert Hall) as a proscenium theatre which would double as an opera/ballet venue AND a concert venue. For this, some of the most advanced stage machinery in the world at the time was built, and this explains the height of the Concert Hall ceiling, as this was the original fly tower.

The smaller hall (now the Opera Theatre) was to be a drama theatre, so no provision was made for a pit of any great size.

When Utzon left the project the interior plan was changed to what we now have. One result of this (much-mentioned in arts circles at the time, I recall) was that the stage machinery for the original large theatre was sold for scrap as it was obviously too large for the proposed Opera Theatre. The continuing problems with the smaller theatre as an opera and ballet venue are too well-known to mention.

The fact remains that if we were to return to Utzon’s original plan we would have a building totally inadequate for the needs of Opera Australia, the Australian Ballet AND the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. Can you imagine these three organisations attempting to share the one venue? Such a thing was conceivable in the 50s when the building was designed, but it’s certainly not an option now. So let’s not pretend that returning to Utzon’s original plan will solve all our problems. And let’s not pretend that the current discussions about the Opera Theatre renovations are anything to do with Utzon’s original ideas either.

If anyone wants to see how lousy an “all-purpose” proscenium theatre trying to be a concert hall can be, one need look no further than the Adelaide Festival Theatre. The fact remains that because of this line of thinking, Adelaide still has no concert hall worthy of the name.

The Sydney Opera House is miraculous in so many ways and like many such things, it has its flaws. I think we’re stuck with it and that a larger theatre for larger opera and ballet productions should be built elsewhere. Not an ideal solution but one which would probably alienate a lot less of the public than spending a billion dollars on the present building.”

Graham Abbott is a professional conductor, and a radio presenter on “Keys to Music” on ABC Classic FM.

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