Birth of a national icon

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 27 February, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 27 February, 2003, 12:00am

Looking out over a breathtakingly beautiful harbour, its sail-shaped roofs gleaming white against a deep blue sky, the Sydney Opera House has been called one of the wonders of the modern world.

It stands alone on a point of land uncrowded or threatened by other buildings. It has only sea and sky for company.

No other building looks like the Sydney Opera. Since its opening in 1973, it has become Australia's most famous man-made icon and one of the world's most familiar buildings. Show someone a photograph of the Sydney Opera House and chances are they will recognise it. This is fame that most cities only dream of.

The building covers an area of two hectares on a point of land jutting out into the sea. Underneath the 10 spectacular segmented roofs, there are three principle venues that stage hundreds of opera, dance, concert, theatre and film performances every year.

The ceilings and walls of the Opera Theatre are black so the audience's attention is focused on the stage. The usherettes in the Opera Theatre will tell you that Box C is haunted by a music-loving ghost. The Concert Hall, which seats 2,679, is used for symphony, choral and pop concerts. The Playhouse is an intimate theatre with 400 seats where audiences can watch modern and classical stage plays. And packed tight around these three main auditoria is a maze of small rooms used for administration and rehearsal.

The Sydney Opera House is a cultural cathedral that is constantly alive with music, movement and art. It is solidly at the centre of Sydney's artistic life, and the story of its conception and building is as dramatic as any of the dramatic plots played out in its theatres.

It took 14 turbulent years to build the Opera House and from day one the planning and building were beset by argument and controversy.

In the late 1940s, Sir Eugene Goossens, conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, began to lobby the Australian government with the idea of building an opera house in Sydney. Nothing much happened until 1954, when John Joseph Cahill, the Australian Prime Minister at the time, took the idea on board and set up a committee to choose a design and site.

In January 1956, the Government announced an international competition for the design of a National Australian Opera House. A young Danish architect, Jorn Utzon, saw the competition advertised in a magazine, sent off for details and submitted his design. He wanted to build a living sculpture that would be much more than an opera house. A year later, Utzon was chosen as winner and the new Sydney Opera House was up and running.

An appeal fund was set up to finance the project and an Opera House lottery raised the balance of the total cost. Construction began in 1959, and builders and additional architects began a long-haul struggle to solve the architectural and engineering problems posed by the winning design. Some of Utzon's original design proved impossible to actually build, and after a lot of arguments Utzon walked away from the project and has never returned to Australia to see the completed building.

The first public performance took place in 1973 and since then the Sydney Opera House has earned a reputation as one of the world's great architectural and artistic successes.

Answer these questions about the Sydney Opera House in one word or a phrase.

1. What nationality is the designer of Sydney's Opera House?

2. How many roofs does the building have?

3. What colour are they?

4. What is the plural of the word auditorium?

5. How was the winning design chosen?

6. When did building begin?

7. How were construction costs financed?

8. When did the Sydney Opera House stage its first opera?


1. Danish; 2. 10; 3. white; 4. auditoria; 5. by competition; 6. in 1959; 7. by appeal fund and lottery; 8. in 1973