The Sydney Opera House celebrates its 50th anniversary


View the amazing 'sails' of the building from Sydney Harbour while cruising on a ferry to Manly.

For many, travel appears to be ticking off lists of iconic landmarks to see, and vibrant activities in which to participate.

There are numerous lists detailing famous built structures such as the Eiffel Tower (Paris, France), the Great Pyramids (Giza, Egypt), the Leaning Tower of Pisa (Italy), La Sagrada Familia Basilica (Barcelona, Spain), the Taj Mahal (Agra, India), Big Ben (London, England), and Hagia Sophia (Istanbul, Turkiye).

Our own Petronas Twin Towers also make it on numerous lists of the world’s most famous buildings.

It’s safe to assume that anyone heading “Down Under” will have specific buildings, locations, and activities clearly itemised on their itinerary.

Most likely, the Sydney Opera House will be at the top of such a list, and on its 50th anniversary, it’s worth investigating the path taken to get it into the minds of every traveller to the picturesque harbourside city.

There are many ways in which visitors can engage with the building now inscribed on the Unesco World Heritage Site list, and simply admiring and photographing it is free. However, on its 50th anniversary this month, there are many activities lined up to take in all that this amazing building of “sails” has to offer.

Building for the times

Providing a perspective on Australia in the 1950s is important in understanding the trials, tribulations, and successes of the Sydney Opera House.

Australia was rebuilding after World War II. It was a time of optimism, economic growth, and general well-being. This large continent was then populated by just 10 million people, of whom, two million resided in Sydney. It was an era of migration, with many immigrants arriving from war-torn Europe.

Television first went to air in Australia in the mid-1950s, in time for the fortunate few to watch the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. Australia’s First Nations people were not recognised by the constitution until 1967. It took a Qantas 707 jet 30 hours to fly from Sydney to London, and overseas tourism was almost non-existent then.

To say that Sydney in the 1950s was very different from what it is now, is an understatement.

Sport dominated social life in the 1950s, and the arts were mostly alien to Australian culture. Australia has always been a sporting nation, and its citizens rally around any of its teams wearing the green and gold. Australians are also great gamblers, and it came as no surprise to many when it was announced that funds for the construction of the Sydney Opera House would be generated by a state lottery.

Tickets for the first Opera House Lottery were sold in November 1957. This initial lottery was drawn in January 1958, with tickets priced at £5 each and a prize of £100,000 (Australia only converted to decimal currency in 1966). These lotteries raised more than AUD105mil, so in fact, the Opera House cost the taxpayers nothing apart from their individual investments in purchasing tickets.

The theatre opening in 1973 was the city’s biggest social event for decades. — Leo Davis CollectionThe theatre opening in 1973 was the city’s biggest social event for decades. — Leo Davis Collection

Object of reverence

Work began on building the Sydney Opera House on March 2, 1959 with a projected budget of AUD7mil and a four-year timeline. Some 14 years later, it was completed at a cost of AUD102mil, a cost overrun of 1,357%.

The initial enthusiasm and optimism for the building soon waned, and what was considered a pursuit of perfection gave way to political pressure to lower the construction costs.

It is important to put the early days into context. The idea to develop what was a tram depot at Bennelong Point into a venue for opera, concert, and ballet was mooted in the mid-1950s. Some considered this ambitious at the time, as Australia had neither an opera nor a ballet company. The Australian Ballet was formed in 1962, and Opera Australia only became a permanent state company in 1967.

In 1955, the New South Wales (NSW) government called for submissions of interest and staged a competition that attracted 233 entries from 32 countries.

Danish architect Jørn Utzon’s design was announced as the successful candidate in 1957. Reports of the time suggest that Utzon hadn’t completed all the design detail when construction commenced in 1959 and that even then, there were questions asked about the building’s structural integrity. Much of this was in relation to the revolutionary “sails” roof (if assembled together, the sails of the Opera House would form a perfect geometrical sphere).

Today, the sails comprise over one million glossy white and matte cream tiles arranged in a chevron pattern.

Disagreement, criticism

The Opera House’s interior was as problematic as its exterior. In 1965, a change in state government saw Premier Bob Askin and Minister for Public Works, Davis Hughes, elected. Both were staunch critics of the Opera House.

Disagreements between the minister and the architect came to a head in 1966 and resulted in Utzon being forced to leave. Many were appalled by Utzon’s treatment. Hughes would argue that Utzon resigned and that all design elements had to be considered in relation to cost.

The government appointed Peter Hall, a young architect, to lead a new architectural team to complete the task at hand. Along with his associates, the 34-year-old Sydney University graduate set about making sense of Utzon’s designs, many of which were still just briefs and sketches.

The architects, contractors, and consultants working on the construction of the Opera House were dogged by controversy, cost overruns, political expediency, and design challenges. The biggest hurdle was that there was no clear understanding of what was expected of the building when it was completed, with architect Hall asking the question more than once: “What were we supposed to build?”

Completion and opening

The Sydney Opera House was completed within 14 years and was opened by Queen Elizabeth II on Oct 20, 1973. The opening was televised and included fireworks and a performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9.

The first operatic performance was Prokofiev’s War And Peace.

Its opening was euphoric, with many forgetting that the original plan was to see it completed in just four years. Construction problems were forgotten by most, and tourists began flocking to the site. They haven’t stopped, with an estimated 11 million visitors attracted annually.

The former site for Sydney trams at Bennelong Point was slowly transformed into the iconic building. — Sydney Opera House TrustThe former site for Sydney trams at Bennelong Point was slowly transformed into the iconic building. — Sydney Opera House Trust

Contemporary facelift

The landmark building has just undergone an extensive renovation and refurbishment for its 50th anniversary.

Its interior was carefully reworked to create the appropriate sound levels required for audience appreciation. One of Hall’s legacies was that the premium-quality wool incorporated into the seating is mostly original despite looking new.

One of the main problems with the original design was the lack of access to the foyer on its upper levels, with patrons required to use steps. A lift was installed during the recent works. Hall’s Australian brush box timber panelling and vibrant purple carpet were mostly retained too.

The “people’s house” is accessible to many, and visitors pay nothing to admire its exterior. The building dominates the harbour and is clearly visible from many different locations, both on land and on the harbour.

Numerous tours are offered, including a Mobility Access Tour, the Architectural Tour, Taste of the House (a culinary tour through on-site bars and restaurants), the Hidden Tour (rarely seen backstage precincts), and the Junior Adventure Tour (for children). Tours are offered in seven languages and a fee applies for these guided tours.

The Opera House has six food and beverage outlets, including iconic restaurants such as Bennelong and Midden by Mark Olive. Being the landmark that it is, it’s also a good idea to step back a little and enjoy a meal or drink from afar. There are numerous outlets around Circular Quay to accomplish this.

Utzon’s legacy

For his efforts, Utzon was awarded the highly acclaimed Pritzker Architecture Prize in 2003. The award noted: “There is no doubt that the Sydney Opera House is his masterpiece. It is one of the great iconic buildings of the 20th century, an image of great beauty that has become known throughout the world – a symbol for not only a city but a whole country and continent.”

Celebrated Canadian-American architect Frank Gehry, one of the Pritzker Prize judges, is on record saying Utzon’s building was well ahead of its time, far ahead of available technology, and he persevered through extraordinarily malicious publicity and negative criticism to build a building that changed the image of an entire country.

After admiring the Sydney Opera House, visitors could also proceed to the University of Technology Sydney to admire the Frank Gehry-designed Dr Chau Chak Wing Building.

If not for Utzon, Bennelong Point would have looked very different, and many visitors to Sydney would have been less impressed. The architect declined an invitation to the opening and, up until his passing in 2008, never set foot in the building that changed Sydney’s landscape forever.Travel notes

Malaysia Airlines flies direct from Kuala Lumpur to Sydney several times weekly; AirAsia flies a few times a week, with at least one stop per route in Melbourne. Batik Air flies twice daily to Sydney from KL, with a stopover in Bali.

For a detailed list of events lined up in celebration of the Sydney Opera House’s 50th anniversary, check out these websites: Sydney Opera House (sydneyoperahouse.com), Destination NSW (destinationnsw.com.au), and Tourism Australia (australia.com).


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