05.07.2010 - 05.07.2010 14 °C
We are up early in this rainy morning for a tour of the other half of Sydney's iconography - the opera house. We make our way between the main steps to the box office where we are directed down further into the belly of Bennelong Point to the tour meeting point underneath the grey concrete gables of the magnificent sails. They don't form one building as the photographs and postcards suggest, but three - a small restaurant-cum-cabaret and two huge theatre halls. We are greeted by our tour guide who insists we have our photos taken before we start - we drop bags in the cloakroom (free, which is good as the tour is an hour long) and are informed of the various photography rules - the whole place is a working venue and many of the sets are copyrighted, so no pictures allowed in some places. We are supplied with radio headsets again and ushered up an escalator to the underneath of the first set of sails.
The inside is all marble and glass, very modern for the 1950's. We walk past the three smaller halls: the Playhouse, the Studio and Drama Theatre, and are shown a video detailing the conception of the opera house and how the design of a 38-year-old Dancame architect came to be one of the modern wonders of the world. Until 1902 Bennelong Point had been a fort and a site for cattle grazing, and after that it became a tram shed. But in 1955 it was chosen to be the site to build the winner of a worldwide design competition.
233 architects sent entries from over 30 countries but the final one chosen was the work of Jorn Utzon of Denmark. Despite that it broke several of the competition rules it was the only entry to make full use of the view over the harbour, the space on the headland and even the sunny climate of Australia. The design wowed the public and work started in late 1959 with a budget of $7 million and and e.t.a of 3 years. It was a magnificent flight of fancy by Utzon that didn't go entirely to plan - the construction ended up taking 16 years and costing $102million.
We enter the Studio, the smallest of the theatres. It is traditionally painted in black, with plush red seating in the gallery two rows deep and a wide, square floor space with round tables seating four persons each. The tables and circle seating go right up to the stage - it's a very intimate venue and sees performances as diverse as cabaret, Shakespeare and aerial circus. The floor space can be cleared and huge seated tiers pulled out from the back like drawers to create nine more rows, or the curtain at the back of the platform stage can be taken down and the middle floor itself used as the stage for theatre in the round. None of the three smaller performance spaces (the Studio, the Playhouse and the Drama Theatre) were part of the original design - the space used to be just storage.
Back outside and up some steps to the Concert Hall foyer, with it's panoramic views of the harbour and Kirribilli. Above there are concrete gables and below, purple carpet and wide stairs. You can see all the intricacies in the roof that took Utzon and his chief structural engineer four years to come up with. After rejecting over 16 schemes and very nearly giving up on the sails design Utzon found the answer - construct the pieces out of one spherical shape to be pre-fabbed and assembled on-site. It was an amazing feat of lateral thinking and saved the whole project, making the sails all part of the same curved surface.
They had to invent a lot of the technology involved in construction as they went along, and all of the techniques are still used in modern civil engineering. They even invented a new type of tile for the intricate designs on the roof, which took three years to manufacture. Utzon chose the pattern and the colours and commissioned the self-cleaning, entirely non-porous ceramic to make the tiles. The self-cleaning part is important, we are told - the cleaning bill for the windows alone is $30-40k per year.
The drama clouding the project began soon after the roof construction was started and despite Utzon's incredible design and input into the project the new Australian government ceased paying him in the mid 60's amid increasing public pressure to deliver. They hired a group of Australian architects to finish the job and Utzon never returned to Sydney to see his masterpiece.
Thoroughly overawed, we make for the concert hall. It seats 2,700 at full capacity and there is also room for a few hundred singers in the choir stalls behind the stage. The acoustics are mind-blowing - there are two maintenance men next to one another sanding down the wooden stalls for the choir and when our guide stops talking I can hear one of them ask the other if they have any paper - they are 50 metres away. The secrets of this are the arched and stepped ceiling and the fact that the entire place is made of wood of various kinds - literally everything apart from the seat cushions and the acoustic cloud - a set of lit plastic doughnuts hanging above the stage that give musicians a 0.4 second turnaround of the noises they make, a very useful addition.
Looming majestically above the stage is the organ, the largest pipe organ in the world. Three storeys high and stretching eight metres back from the wall, the organ has 138 visible pipes and another -- hidden behind the wall. It took 10 years to build and another 2 years to tune. It sees five to ten recitals a year but the Concert Hall is an amazingly diverse venue, having seen everything from Australian Idol to the Foo Fighters, from Cirque de Soleil to Arnie winning Mr Universe and even, once, Sumo Wrestling. It also gets a lot of play from the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, stand up comics and concert musicians. No speakers or amplification are used for any of the music.
Next, we cross over to the right hand set of sails to visit the Opera Theatre. Used by Opera Australia for eight months of the year and the Australian Ballet for the remaining four, it is a more traditional theatre inside - black walls and ceiling, tiered seating and boxes but a rather nice addition is standing room, where tickets go for about $30 a pop. They have usually about three productions on at once, taking the most volume of the Opera House which airs, on average, 7 separate performances per day throughout the five venues.
The most incredible thing is the total lack of roll-off stage space - there are only two metres or so in the wings so all of the sets have to be un-built and rebuilt for every single performance. Tosca performs thirty times? Sixty or so stage hands have to build and take apart the set thirty times, and if it's a Saturday (when there is a matinee and then an evening performance) they have an hour to do it. Just sixty minutes to take apart an entire set, flat-pack it, lower it down behind the stage on lifts to the lower level storage and winch up the parts to build another one. Another interesting feature of the lack of wing space comes with ballet - if the choreographer has written in a huge leap off the stage the company must employ "catchers" who literally catch dancers as they fly into the tiny wings. I always thought that was an urban myth, something Madame used to threaten us with! Amazing.
Aside from the incredible stage there is a 70-person orchestra pit, a 15m deep stage with an upward rake to bring the performers 'closer' and both the ballet company and the opera average 90% occupancy each performance. As we are leaving there are a few dancers on their way in and I stop for a chat. What are they performing? They are scoping for Swan Lake. The male principal shakes his head with a grin. "I think it'll be more like Swan Pond," he says, referring, I think, to the size of the stage versus the size of the cast of such a ballet. They take their leave as we head to the central foyer for one last video.
It has a happier message. Despite his initial alienation, Jorn Utzon accepted a commission to plan the ongoing developments of the opera house interior in 1999. He still never travelled to Sydney, working from home and sending his architect son to handle the implementation but he was involved from then until he passed away nine years later at the age of 90. The place is currently undergoing a $152m renovation of the backstage mechanisms - the space at the back of the Opera Theatre stage contains machinery to lever down the sets, in pieces, to storage areas but it is archaic and in dire need of renovation. The sheer logistics of doing what those stagehands and set builders do in sixty minutes with sixty-year-old machinery... Whoever orchestrates that deserves a medal or several.
Cliched? Maybe. Tourist trap? A little. But it is a fundamental part of Sydney's identity and you just have to see it. It is too interesting, controversial and beautiful to miss. Elated, we go for a pub lunch at the Parragon Hotel just behind Circular Quay and spend another afternoon shopping, this time for a pair of shoes for Fred. A boon of the Australian nation is that they have more provision for people with massive feet, and a lax definition of "dress shoes". A day very well spent, despite the rain which most Australians welcome - they have been in the grip of a water shortage here for ten years and a drought for eight - the reservoirs are the highest they have been in a decade at a frugal 53%. Everywhere uses short flushing toilets, it is forbidden to wash your car with a hosepipe or to even water plants as such. Looking at the maps detailing the locations and levels of the reservoirs is isn't harder to work out why they are low - they have built them all inland. Where it never rains. They get by purely by having such a small population, only around 20 million people in the entire country. Even so, everyone does their bit - not leaving the taps on while brushing their teeth and such makes a big difference. Tomorrow more rain is forecast - I say they can have some of Manchester's share.