The SYDNEY OPERA HOUSE, with its distinctive sails, has become a symbol both of Sydney and of its cultural life. The building is on a finger of land known as Bennelong Point which juts into the harbour below the Botanic Gardens. It previously housed Fort Macquarie, the colony's inner harbour gunnery defences, and later wharf areas and a somewhat decrepit workshop for the city's trams.

State governments had talked about providing a dedicated music venue for the city from the end of the second World War and finally, in late 1954, Premier Joseph Cahill instituted a committee to undertake the project. They organised an international competition for the design of a performing arts complex and in 1957 this was won by Danish architect Jorn Utzon. The competition brief had been very general and the winning concept was little more than design sketches. It took the next sixteen years to build the Opera House, and there were both constant engineering challenges in its construction and heated political debate over altered specifications, changed plans for its use and finance. The cost was met by a series of lotteries, but Utzon was blamed for many of the other problems and he left the project, amid animosity and considerable publicity, in 1966. The Opera House was finally opened by Queen Elizabeth II on 20 October 1973.

The Opera House covers about four and a half acres of its five and a half acre site. Inside it has about eleven acres of useable floor space. Utzon's concept for the interior of the building was not implemented and there has been considerable alteration within the exterior walls since its opening. As it is presently configured, it has nearly one thousand rooms and five main auditoria. These are the Concert Hall, the Opera Theatre, the Drama Theatre, the Playhouse and the Studio.

The Concert Hall is entered from one of the main shells. This is the largest space, seating two thousand six hundred and seventy nine people. There is a concert platform approximately fifteen metres wide and eleven metres deep, an organ and organ stalls seating. The stage has only limited access for settings and little wing space.  There are eighteen adjustable acrylic acoustic rings hung above this stage to aid the acoustic quality of the hall. The interior walls of the auditorium are faced with timber cut from brush box and white birch. 

The Opera Theatre, also entered from a shell, faces the same way as the Concert Hall. Its auditorium seats just over one thousand five hundred people in stalls, a dress circle and side loges. The seats are upholstered in red wool and, like the Concert Hall, it is panelled in wood, with a timber floor. The ceiling and upper walls are painted black.

The Opera House stage has a revolve and both an extensive flying system and various platform lifts, but it has very restricted wing space.  The front section of the orchestra can be raised to stage level, but the pit itself has been much criticised as being too small for the requirements of the orchestra.

The other three theatres, the Drama Theatre, the Playhouse and the Studio are all entered through the one long foyer from a broadwalk on the western side of the Opera House. The Drama Theatre, the largest, seats five hundred and forty four people. It has a proscenium arch stage about fifty two feet square, which contains two concentric revolves. The auditorium has a rather low ceiling, and the interior walls are painted black.  The seats are in tangerine upholstery and the floor has blue carpet on it.

The design for both the Opera and Drama Theatres included woven curtains. These, known as the Curtain of the Sun and the Curtain of the Moon, were prepared to an abstract design by artist John Coburn, They are acknowledged as works of art and are seldom used as theatre drops.  

The Studio, the most recent remodelling of the performance spaces, opened in March 1999. It is intended for contemporary works, and has flexible seating for around three hundred people. When configured in tiers it has a steep downward slope to the performing area, which is about fifteen metres square.  

The third venue, the Playhouse, seats just under four hundred. It is a full raked auditorium, with timber panelled walls, dark purple upholstery on its chairs and a red carpet. It was originally designed for chamber music and is also a fully equipped cinema. Its stage uses the full width of auditorium and consequently has no proscenium and no wing space. .


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