“It was like a ceremonial cutting of the wire,” says Kya Blondin, the Sydney Opera House’s director of people and government. She says while uneventful in terms of fanfare, this was quite a big moment, signifying the start of the biggest upgrade to the venue since it opened in 1973. The concert hall will be closed for two years from next Friday, January 31, while work takes place.
“People have a sentimental attachment to the doughnuts – and they associate the concert hall space with them,” she says.
“I love them because they remind me of the whole drama of the place and are symbolic of that time and era of Sydney,” says Willy Hall, son of Peter Hall, the Australian architect who completed the building after the departure of the original Danish architect Jorn Utzon in 1966. The doughnuts were the brainchild of Hall and Danish acoustician Dr Vilhelm Jordan to solve the awkwardly shaped hall’s acoustics issues.
Dr Jordan was the acoustics expert brought on by Utzon, who stayed on working with Hall and his team of Australian architects – now known as OpusSOH – who worked to complete the building.
The Hall and Jordan families will be offered first dibs on some of the doughnuts, which are now safely packaged in custom boxes and stored off-site. Others will be offered to other institutions, some will be kept within the Opera House collection and possibly re-fashioned with the help of artists, others may be auctioned off.
But the $200-million question for the biggest project in the Opera House’s decade of renewal is will it improve the hall’s often-complained of acoustics?
“I can’t guarantee what the acoustics will be like,” says Opera House CEO Louise Herron, whose team have spent five years planning every single aspect of this renewal process.
“But I am confident we have called in all the world’s best experts to try to, we haven’t spared a cent to update the concert hall so it can deal with the next 50 years,” says Ms Herron.
The doughnut removal is perhaps the most visible change to the concert hall, she says, but they will be replaced with fibreglass reflectors and a state-of-the-art sound system. In keeping with original architect Utzon’s nautical theme, these will be made by an Australian boat building company that specialises in high-performance yachts.
A new automated draping system will make it easier to switch from classical to amplified mode to absorb and reflect sound the genres of music performed there. Accessibility will be improved with a new lift and passageway, making it possible for wheelchair users to independently access all levels of the concert hall, including the Northern Foyer, for the first time.
We haven’t spared a cent to update the concert hall so it can deal with the next 50 years.
Louise Herron, Sydney Opera House CEO
Accessible seating will improve from four to 34 places, the stage will be lowered and extended, and the front three rows of seats will be able to be lowered and placed under the stage to lengthen it when necessary. As well as a host of experts, from original engineers Arup’s to OpusSOH, the Hall and Utzon families have been involved in the renewal process. Jorn Utzon’s son Jan was active in the renewal until he lost sight in an eye due to macular degeneration, as his father did.
To members of the public, the remodel won’t look that different other than the new-look reflectors; the seats will remain the same shade of magenta.
“It will be like when someone shaves off their beard, you still recognise them but they look younger,” Ms Herron says.
Ms Herron concedes this is a huge disruption for the 10.9 million people who visit the building each year: tours will need to be rerouted, not to mention that the concert hall will become a construction site.
“We hope the public understands that things need to be renovated like any house after 50 years might need kitchen or bathroom renovations,” she says.
The greatest inconvenience is of course to the concert hall’s resident companies, whose revenues may be at risk in the move.
The Sydney Philharmonia Choirs, a resident company of the concert hall since last August, will move their performances to Sydney Town Hall, and their Christmas carol concerts to the new Sydney Coliseum at Rooty Hill.
“There’s never a great time to lose your home but we know that it needs to be done and have been involved in the testing for new acoustics … its an inconvenience but it is great that it’s happening,” says Sydney Philharmonia Choirs’ general manager Hannah Mason.
A spokesperson from the Australian Chamber Orchestra, which will move its seven annual Opera House performances to City Recital Hall (reducing capacity from 2600 to 1200), says: “The musicians will miss performing in the concert hall but the renewal is for the greater good. For our subscriber base this is not a huge problem.”
The greatest inconvenience is for the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, which will return to its 1932-1973 home: the Sydney Town Hall. CEO Emma Dunch remains bullish about the move. “Our musicians love performing there because of the clarity and depth of the sound,” she says.
This is ironic given SSO conductor Eugene Goossens was the architect of the Sydney Opera House idea, lobbying the NSW government at the time for a new home for his orchestra, claiming the Town Hall was designed for town meetings rather than concerts.
Goossens’ conviction was that Australian music lovers deserved better, especially from an acoustics viewpoint.
Whether or not the renovation of the Sydney Opera House concert hall will deliver that is a question for CEO Herron, who will be among the crowd on Friday night watching Grammy-award-winning singer Solange, the final performance before work begins on Saturday, February 1.
Helen Pitt is a journalist at the The Sydney Morning Herald.