Sydney Sydney is a city obsessed with youth and good looks. No wonder, then, that the 35th birthday of the Sydney Opera House, its futuristic architectural masterpiece, is being approached with such trepidation. Despite being ranked alongside the Taj Mahal, the Acropolis and the Pyramids as a Unesco World Heritage Site, the iconic building with its distinctive scalloped roof is showing signs of premature ageing. It's not just the dowdy carpets and garish 1970s light fittings, the Opera Theatre (the main venue for both opera and ballet) has been condemned as 'Dickensian': the orchestra pit is so cramped that players have to be rotated to avoid hearing damage, and the wings so narrow that ballet dancers risk colliding with a concrete wall when they perform a grand jete. 'Unless something is done over the next few years, the house will become dysfunctional and ultimately obsolete,' says British conductor Sir Richard Hickox, the music director of Opera Australia. For the house's 450 staff, life under the famous white shells is frequently more pantomime than grand opera. The relationship between management and its employees is strained - even the tour guides threatened to go on strike last year. Faced with a A$700 million (HK$4.7 billion) price tag to modernise the Opera Theatre and simmering unrest among its employees, the Opera House Trust, the body that runs the building, hired a white knight to come to its rescue, slay its enemies and provide a happy ending. Clean shaven, youthful and with a penchant for dark, well-cut suits, Richard Evans, 40, may not resemble the hero of Wagnerian myth, but is acutely aware of the challenges that await him when he takes up the role of chief executive officer on January 28. Mr Evans, a New Zealander, has wisely refrained from laying out an agenda for his five-year tenure in the top job, simply describing the task ahead as 'incredibly demanding' and promising to uphold the 'spirit of invention and pride' demonstrated by the building's Danish architect, Jorn Utzon - whose genius was rewarded with the sack in 1966. Mr Utzon fled Australia amid the furore, never to return. Commentators say that Mr Evans, previously general manager of Australian Ballet, faces the Herculean challenge of not only raising the millions required to rebuild the Opera Theatre, but the logistical nightmare of running Sydney's premier arts venue during the three-year construction phase. 'Utzon quit the project after clashing repeatedly with state and federal authorities over the feasibility and cost of his plans,' says arts writer Matthew Westphal. 'Australian architects provided radically scaled-down designs for the interiors. Neither the acoustics nor the orchestra pit, wing space or backstage facilities are adequate.' Mr Utzon, now 89, and his architect son Jan, have already drawn up detailed plans for the new-look Opera Theatre, including dropping the theatre floor down two storeys, excavating a larger backstage area and replacing the ageing stage machinery. 'At the moment, there is so little space in the wings that ballerinas coming off stage have to have someone to catch them so they don't hit the concrete walls,' says Jan Utzon, 62. 'Some members of the orchestra are sitting up to 12 metres under the stage.' Since neither the federal nor state government has indicated that they are willing to fund such an ambitious project, the new chief executive has been naturally circumspect about when - or if - work may begin. Australia's tourist chiefs will no doubt be hoping that the Utzon plan is never realised. With an estimated 4.5 million visitors a year, turning the precinct into a construction site is hardly going to enhance its image.