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Sydney Opera House goes quiet . . . finally

A vast renovation, budgeted at close to A$300 million, of the Sydney Opera House shut the concert hall for the first time in its history. It was shuttered in February for the start of a two-year upgrade.


JUST after dawn one recent morning, Lou Rosicky was walking, slightly stooped, through a covered catwalk tucked just below the tip of one of the famous, towering concrete sails of the Sydney Opera House.

Around him was an almost impenetrable mechanical thicket - pipes, wires, machinery and conduit, all servicing amplifiers, control boards, lights, sprinkler systems, winches and cooling ducts. The feel? The gullet of a cyborg, circa 1964.

"The weight of history is everywhere in this building," Mr Rosicky said. He is the opera house complex's point man in a vast renovation project aimed at bringing all those innards up to date. The endeavour, budgeted at close to A$300 million (S$275 million) led to the closure of the complex's concert hall for the first time in its history. In the past, the hall has been open 363 days a year, a point of pride, but it was shuttered in February for the start of a two-year upgrade.

Miles of wires and piping will be removed and replaced. Huge heating, cooling and electrical banks will be dismantled and relocated. Winches capable of holding four tons each will be placed above the auditorium's ceiling, their movements fully digitised. New audio and lighting systems are being designed and installed.

As the building approaches its 50th birthday, in 2023, the interventions are necessary. While its architect, Jorn Utzon, is now widely recognized as a visionary and his creation is a Unesco World Heritage Site, the hall's construction was troubled, and certain problems have never been solved. Years of testing have produced a new plan for the concert hall's acoustics - as well as for more basic matters.

"The air conditioning system is hopeless," said Rory Jeffes, the leader of Opera Australia, who for many years was managing director of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, which plays in the opera house.

"It blows out of cannon ports up above, and then falls onto the stage, and very often turns the pages of the musicians as they play."

The complex has been in constant use since it opened. It hosts nearly 2,000 events a year, attended by about 1.4 million people, in five theatres and two outdoor spaces. A total of nearly 11 million visitors per year tramp around the public spaces, inside and out.

Louise Herron, the opera house's chief executive, arrived eight years ago for what she saw as an opportunity to finally accomplish the rehabilitation the institution had been eyeing for decades. "I said, 'I would like to renew the opera house for future generations,' " she recalled.

Ms Herron put together the hundreds of millions in funding, mostly from government sources. She said she quickly saw that while the acoustics and electrical wiring needed attention, so did the customers.

When it came to the customer experience, however, the opera house had to contend with the Scylla and Charybdis of modern renovation: accessibility and historical heritage. "Everything, absolutely everything, is heritage," Mr Rosicky said, meaning that alterations were limited or prohibited because the building is a historical landmark. "All the bathrooms, they are all heritage - the toilets, the taps, the clothes hangers, everything."

In the 1960s, accessibility issues were an afterthought, and to this day getting to a toilet at the Sydney Opera House is not easy. At a recent Sydney Symphony performance, a visitor set out from a box seat above the orchestra to find a restroom, and found himself traversing some 110 steps, up and down - each way.

As a consequence, some visitors have never seen the opera house's spectacular common area, the elevated North Foyer, where before-show talks are given and concertgoers can sip wine during intermission while gazing out at Sydney's sparkling bridge and harbour.

Installing elevators would not be as easy as it sounds. Mr Utzon's sails are shells; inside, exquisitely nested, are smaller shells containing the performance halls, which themselves are ringed by the walkways and stairs the audiences use. The structures don't have sides or a back where new elements like elevators could be easily introduced. The renovation architects, ARM Architecture, settled on sluicing in small-footprint glass elevators on outside corners of each of the complex's halls.

That created a new problem: how to achieve pedestrian access to those corners. The concert hall is embraced by two giant parentheses of stairs, which rise to the North Foyer and the elevated back of the hall. With no other place to go, the architects are puncturing the grandest of these stairs to construct a tunnel that will take visitors with mobility issues to the new elevators.

The creation of the Sydney Opera House was an arduous process, marked by setbacks and compromise. Its genesis was in 1947, when the Sydney Symphony hired a British conductor, Eugene Goossens, to help give the orchestra and the city cultural prestige. The vibrant Goossens adopted Sydney as his own, discovering the young soprano Joan Sutherland, who went on to become an opera superstar.

He found support for a new opera house from the premier, or governor, of the state of New South Wales, Joe Cahill, a stout union man who bought into the idea that Sydney needed big ideas for a big future. The year was 1956; a worldwide call for designs was put out.

The unexpected winner of the design competition was the brilliant and iconoclastic Utzon. The wild surmise of his design sketches beguiled virtually all who saw them. Privately, Mr Utzon hoped he could figure out how to build it. He and Mr Cahill assured Australians that construction would take four years. Mr Utzon's lack of progress eventually brought him to a confrontation with the state government, and he was forced off the project, the cost of which eventually spiralled to more than 10 times the original estimate.

The work was finished by the young Australian architect Peter Hall, who solved many lingering issues and designed the luscious interiors.

Some sniffed at the new building. "This circus tent is not architecture," said Frank Lloyd Wright. But it swiftly became widely beloved, contributing far more than it cost to Australia's tourism industry.

"We don't want them to make perfect concrete and then try to blend it in with imperfect concrete," said Mr Rosicky. "You're not allowed to pretend it was always there." It's as if the Sydney Opera House is allowed to tell its own story, he said. "It's loud and expressive enough to do that." NYTIMES