Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The Sydney Opera House: An Insider's View

When you think of Australia, there are a few things that immediately come to mind: kangaroos, Crocodile Dundee, vegemite, and the Sydney Opera House. Today, I'd like to take you on a tour of Australia's iconic performing arts center.
Sydney Opera House on a rainy day

I have visited the Opera House twice now. The first time was last November when Drew and I spent a week in Sydney with our friends Chris and Taryn. My second trip came just a few weeks ago when my mom was visiting. Both times I took a tour of the venue which is more costly than you would expect but worth every penny. Which now that I think about it, isn't worth very much in Australia since they don't have pennies any more. Let's just say that it is worth every platypus-engraved 20¢ piece.
Your tour guide for the day

The Sydney Opera House and its gleaming domes dominate the view from the Sydney Harbour. It is such a key element to Australia's identity that it feels as if it's been there forever when, in fact, it opened its doors for the first time in 1973.
Sydney Opera House on a sunny day

From a distance, the Opera House's arches, or "shells" as they are called, look to be a pristine white. However, when you get close, you can see that each shell is made of chevron shaped tiles in various creamy, beige colors. If the tiles were perfectly white, on a sunny day it would be impossible to look at the shells due to the glare. 
Standing between two of the largest shells, this section is affectionately known as "the cleavage."

Once inside the Opera House, I was amazed at how huge everything feels. All of the ceilings are high, even in the foyers and the inside is decorated in massive chunks of concrete and wood.

Interestingly, while the ceramic tiles for the shells were made in Sweden, the wood inside of the Opera House was all sourced from Australian timber. The dark wood in the photos is brush box and is native to Australia. The other wood used is White Birch which is native to the United States, though this particular batch was grown in Australia.

There are seven performance halls within the Sydney Opera House, making it one of the busiest performing arts buildings in the world. So far, I've seen six of the seven venues. (The seventh one is currently out of commission as they build a new underground loading dock.)

The most impressive room is the Concert Hall. It's the biggest room and the stage actually sits in the center giving the audience a 360° choice of seats. The cheapest seats are the ones behind the orchestra, which look into the conductor's face. I think I would actually love those seats though - wouldn't that be such an interesting show, seeing the conductor's expressions throughout the performance?

The Concert Hall

The ceiling of the Concert Hall is so high that it would normally produce a 3 second delay between when a musician plays a note and when he/she can hear it. As you can imagine, if left uncorrected, this would cause chaos in the orchestra. The solution is what's known as an acoustic cloud. It's those acrylic donut-shaped circles that you see in the photo above. Whenever a concert is performed, these are lowered down over the orchestra so that the music has less distance to travel before it is bounced back.

The Grand Organ (which you can see on the back wall in the photo above) initially took several years to tune due to how large it was. It has over 10,000 pipes. Luckily, after the hard work that went into that first tuning, it only takes a couple of hours to tune these days.

My second favorite room in the Opera House is the foyer outside of the Concert Hall. It was designed to mimic the feel of a ship's bow. The glass windows curve out from the building, giving the impression that the Sydney Harbour is right below you. The foyer also has a very purple carpet leading into the Concert Hall. When he performed at the Opera House, the famous Italian singer Luciano Pavarotti refused to walk on the carpet because, in Italy, purple in the theater is an omen of bad luck.

Whether you're inside or outside, the views of the Opera House and the Sydney Harbour are astounding. Perhaps the most interesting story about the Opera House is that when the contract to build it was awarded to Danish architect Jørn Utzon, he actually had no idea how to do it! There was no precedent for building the curved shells. It took him six years to find a solution, during which time construction on the base had already started. 

But Utzon persevered and the Sydney Opera House was one of the first buildings in the world to utilize computer modeling in its design.

Like all good tours, I will end this one in the gift shop where even Barbie makes an appearance.

Sydney Opera House Barbie
Thanks for joining me on my tour today and be sure to enjoy the view of the Sydney Harbour Bridge on your way out.

(All photos on this post come from my two visits.)


  1. These photos are beautiful. And you are an excellent tour guide! I learned so much! I would love to go there someday.

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