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Sydney Sights

Sydney Opera House

  • 2 Macquarie St. Map It
  • Circular Quay
  • Arts/Performance Venue
  • Fodor's Choice

Updated 01/15/2014

Fodor's Review

Sydney's most famous landmark (listed as a World Heritage site in 2007) had such a long and troubled construction phase that it's almost a miracle that the building was ever completed. In 1954 the state premier appointed a committee to advise the government on the building of an opera house. The site chosen was Bennelong Point (named after an early Aboriginal inhabitant), which was, until that time, occupied by a tram depot. The premier's committee launched a competition

to find a suitable plan, and a total of 233 submissions came in from architects the world over. One of them was a young Dane named Joern Utzon.

His plan was brilliant, but it had all the markings of a monumental disaster. The structure was so narrow that stages would have minuscule wings, and the soaring "sails" that formed the walls and roof could not be built by existing technology.

Nonetheless, Utzon's dazzling, dramatic concept caught the judges' imagination, and construction of the giant podium began in 1959. From the start, the contractors faced a cost blowout; the building that was projected to cost A$7 million and take 4 years to erect would eventually require A$102 million and 15 years. Construction was financed by an intriguing scheme. Realizing that citizens might be hostile to the use of public funds for the controversial project, the state government raised the money through the Opera House Lottery. For almost a decade, Australians lined up to buy tickets, and the Opera House was built without depriving the state's hospitals or schools of a single cent.

Initially it was thought that the concrete exterior of the building would have to be cast in place, which would have meant building an enormous birdcage of scaffolding at even greater expense. Then, as he was peeling an orange one day, Utzon had a flash of inspiration. Why not construct the shells from segments of a single sphere? The concrete ribs forming the skeleton of the building could be prefabricated in just a few molds, hoisted into position, and joined together. These ribs are clearly visible inside the Opera House, especially in the foyers and staircases of the Concert Hall.

In 1966 Utzon resigned as Opera House architect and left Australia, reportedly embittered by his dealings with unions and the government. He never returned to see his masterpiece, although he had been invited on several occasions.

A team of young Australian architects carried on, completing the exterior one year later. Until that time, however, nobody had given much thought to the interior. The shells created awkward interior spaces, and conventional performance areas were simply not feasible. It's a tribute to the architectural team's ingenuity that the exterior of the building is matched by the aesthetically pleasing and acoustically sound theaters inside. Joern Utzon died in Denmark on November 29, 2008, aged 90. Then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd paid tribute to Utzon's genius in speeches, while the lights of the Opera House sails were dimmed and flags on the Harbor Bridge were flown at half-mast as a mark of respect.

Sydney Opera House showcases all the performing arts in its five theaters, one of which is devoted to opera. The Australian Ballet, the Sydney Dance Company, and the Australian Opera Company also call the Opera House home. The complex includes two stages for theater, two smaller performance venues—the Playhouse and the Studio—and the 2,700-seat Concert Hall, where the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and the Australian Chamber Orchestra perform. The box office is open Monday to Saturday 9–8:30.

Guided tours include the one-hour Essential Tour, departing daily from the lower forecourt level between 9 and 5; the two-hour backstage tour departing daily at 7 am; and the Tour & Tasting Plate, which is the Essential tour followed by a three-tier plate of goodies such as wagyu burgers and fresh seafood from Opera Kitchen restaurant. All tours include discount show tickets. Call in advance for bookings (02–9250–7250). Visitors are free to walk around inside the building throughout the day and night.

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Sight Information


2 Macquarie St., Sydney, New South Wales, 2000, Australia

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Sight Details:

  • General tour A$35, backstage tour A$155; Tour & Tasting plate A$70

Updated 01/15/2014


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Apr 17, 2013

Be Sure to Take an Organized Tour

My spouse and I toured the Sydney Opera House in late August 2012. A few weeks prior to leaving home, we booked a tour using their on-line reservation system. A tour of the Sydney Opera House Tour lasts for approximately one hour. The cost is $30 per person. Because we booked on-line ahead of time, we picked up our tickets the morning of our tour at a kiosk that is located on the wharf (oddly, we did NOT pick them up on the actual Opera House property.)

We were also able to pick up our performance tickets for South Pacific, which we were scheduled to see a few evenings later. A variety of tours are available, some of which are private, some that go backstage, and others that include a meal and/or drinks on-site. Tours are presented in several languages as well. The tour was informative, leading us inside various theatres and teaching us the history of Danish designer Jorn Utzon’s architectural masterpiece under the sails. The Opera House complex is so much larger than we initially thought before visiting - it has hundreds of rooms and performance spaces. The Concert Hall, under the largest sail, has white birch paneling and a huge pipe organ that give it a cathedral-like atmosphere. The Opera Theatre (also called the Joan Sutherland Theatre), under the second-largest sail, is made of white birch, with an orchestra pit that holds 70 musicians and a flexible stage system. We are glad to have taken the Opera House tour, although our tour guide was flighty and batty (albeit entertaining)! Before beginning the tour, a photograph is taken of you against a blue screen, which they then superimpose in various locations around the Opera House property. (You cannot take your own photographs inside.) We bought the photo CD and some accompanying explanatory literature for about $40 total. You wear a headset for the tour so that you can hear the guide. Normally, we book private tours, so the group tour with about 20 participants was a bit difficult to get accustomed to; fortunately, the headphones helped. Before leaving home, we booked and paid for tickets on-line for an evening performance of the musical South Pacific at the Opera House. We paid approximately $175 per ticket, which we ordered and paid for a few weeks prior to our performance date on-line, including seat selection. We picked up our tickets at the kiosk on the harbour, not at the Opera House itself. The kiosk is open Monday to Saturday from 9:00 am to 8:30 pm and for two hours prior to performances, and they suggest arriving 60 minutes prior to performance to pick up your tickets. However, we were able to pick up our tickets two days previous to the performance when we picked up our tickets for our Opera House tour. Our seats were located in the premium stalls, seats M16/M17, which were right in the middle of the row. Unlike most theatres in New York City, there is no center aisle separating the two sides, which means that you could have to crawl over as many as 20 people in either direction if you are seated in the middle. And also unlike theatres in the United States, no one stands to allow you to pass; you truly must crawl over everyone else’s legs! It was quite awkward!

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Apr 6, 2007

Don't Miss The Icon!!!

What more can you say? It's beautiful, impressive and an international icon for Australia. The tour is well worth the time and effort to go on. As for seeing a show or concert, they are not as available as you may think. Make sure you check before you show up at the ticket office.

By Elisa

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Apr 22, 2003

Beautiful, wish you were here!

This was a wonderful place to visit. We even had the chance to hear some rehersing and the sound is incredible! The architecture is amazing!

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