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 four 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.
Although you can access the building throughout the day and early evening, all you really get to see, unless you have ticket to a performance, is the main foyer area, which is less than inspiring. To see the best of "the house" join one of the guided tours, which include the one-hour Sydney Opera House 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 general 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.