The men who built the Opera House reflect on 40 years

The Sydney Opera House – a masterpiece of modern architecture and an icon of Australia – is celebrating its 40th birthday.

Take a look at the controversy and celebrations that have made the building part of the nation’s psyche:


‘We need an opera’

Eugene Goossens, conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and the director of the NSW Conservatorium for Music, is introduced to then NSW premier Joseph Cahill and the two men agree that Australia needs an opera house.

In December 1955, Mr Cahill announces an international design competition for an opera house, with Sydney’s Bennelong Point approved as the site for the project.

The main requirement of the competition is a design for two performance halls – one for opera and the other for symphony concerts. The guidelines also request a restaurant and two public meeting rooms.

The competition closes in December 1956 after 222 entries have been submitted from 28 countries.

Organising judge Harry Ingham Ashworth, government architect Cobden Parkes and the head of architecture at Cambridge University, Sir Leslie Martin, begin the judging process.

The fourth judge, American architect Eero Saarinen, arrives in Sydney late and finds his colleagues have already narrowed their choices.

January 29, 1957

Winner announced

Danish architect Jørn Utzon is announced the winner of the competition.

There is no clear record of how Mr Utzon was chosen but popular belief is that judge Eero Saarinen looked through the rejected entries and stopped at Mr Utzon’s design to declare it a clear winner.

Sir Leslie also backed Mr Utzon’s design, leaving Harry Ingham Ashworth and Cobden Parkes content to agree with their more experienced colleagues.

Mr Utzon is awarded 5,000 pounds for his work.

In July 1957, the NSW Parliament votes in favour of building Mr Utzon’s design and allocates 3,500,000 Australian pounds of public funds to the project.

The same month, Mr Utzon makes his first trip to Sydney.

Although he designed the Sydney Opera House he never saw the site in person, relying on photographs and first hand accounts of the area.

Once in Sydney, Mr Utzon is required to pass an examination by the NSW Board of Architects and is coached by local architects.



Construction of the Opera House becomes as controversial as the design itself, with the building work taking more than a decade.

It took more than three years just to complete the design for the glazed ceramic tiles that make up each of the house’s shells.

Following this, it took eight years to build the shell structure – one of the most difficult engineering tasks ever to be attempted.

In October 1959, premier Joseph Cahill dies from gastric ulcer complications and is succeeded by Robert James Heffron.

Mr Cahill makes his minister for public works, Norman Ryan, promise not to allow the Opera House to fail.


Utzon resigns

In mid-1965 a new state Liberal government is elected and problems arise between Mr Utzon and the new works minister, Davis Hughes.

Sir Davis questions Mr Utzon’s designs and costings – which have blown out significantly – and eventually takes financial control of the project.

In 1966 Mr Utzon quits the project, telling Sir Davis in a letter: “You do not respect me as an architect. I have therefore today given my staff notice of my dismissal.”

Sir Davis announced the resignation on March 1, stating: “The government will complete the Opera House.”

Mr Utzon leaves the country, never getting the chance to realise his design vision for the interior of the building and never to return again to see his masterpiece.

His resignation prompts street protests with many calling for him to be reinstated.

A panel of Australian architects, Peter Hall, DS Littlemore and Lionel Todd, are appointed to finish Mr Utzon’s vision.

The Opera House is formally completed in 1973 having cost $102 million. The original completion date was January 26, 1963 and the original cost estimate was about $7 million.

October 20, 1973

The opening

After a number of test performances, a production of Sergei Prokofiev’s War and Peace is given in the Opera Theatre on September 28, 1973 – the first public performance in the Sydney Opera House.

The following night, the Concert Hall is inaugurated with a performance of an all-Wagner program by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.

The house is formally opened by Queen Elizabeth II on October 20 in the ceremony complete with fireworks and a performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No 9.

Thousands of boats crowd the harbour along with thousands on the shore to get a view of the proceedings, which are also broadcast to around 3 million television viewers around the world.

Mr Utzon was not invited to the opening ceremony, nor was his name mentioned.

1978 – 1996

Australia’s world stage

In October 1978, Irish rockers Thin Lizzy play a free concert on the steps of the Sydney Opera House to an estimated crowd of 100,000 people.

Countless major performances follow over the years, including a Royal variety performance in 1980 which Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh attend.

The all-Australian concert features performances from Julie Anthony, Roger Woodward, Paul Hogan, Olivia Newton-John and Peter Allen.

In 1987 Pope John Paul II visits Australia gives a speech in the Concert Hall.

In 1990, Mandela-mania hits Sydney following Nelson Mandela’s release from prison in South Africa.

During a visit to Australia, the anti-apartheid hero addresses the nation from the steps of the Opera House on October 24, 1990.

Mr Mandela thanks Australia for its support of the African National Congress and asks then prime minister Bob Hawke to maintain economic and sporting sanctions against South Africa.

The next year, Australia’s opera darling Dame Joan Sutherland, affectionately known as La Stupenda, gives her final performance in a gala production of Les Huguenots at the Opera House.

In 1996, Melbourne-based band Crowded House give their Farewell to the World concert on the Opera House steps.

More than 100,000 people attended the concert. Some estimates put attendance at 250,000.


Utzon re-engaged by Opera House

After a series of conversations and meetings with the Opera House Trust and the New South Wales government, Jorn Utzon agrees to be re-engaged as a design consultant for future work on his masterpiece.

Over the next few years, he develops a set of design principles as a basis for all future changes to the building.

Mr Utzon said his renewed contact with Sydney felt like a “wonderful welcome back to Australia, a hand extended in the spirit of reconciliation, a hand I shake with warmth and gratitude.”


Olympic centrepiece

The Olympics opening ceremony focuses on the Opera House, with swimmer Samantha Riley standing on top of one of the Concert Hall’s shells with the Olympic Torch to send the flame on its final journey to light the cauldron at Stadium Australia.

The Opera House is also a focal point for triathlon events during the Games, with the circuit taking in the Opera House grounds and Botanic Gardens.


Pritzker Prize for Utzon

Jørn Utzon is awarded the Pritzker Architecture Prize, the most prestigious architectural award in the world.

The judges recognise Sydney Opera House as a masterpiece of the 20th Century.


Canvas for protest

On March 18, Briton Will Saunders and NSW Central Coast man David Burgess climb one of the Opera House sails and paint the slogan “NO WAR” in protest of the Iraq War.

The men are eventually talked down by police but the stunt lands them in jail for about nine months.

The protest prompts the Opera House to put security guards on duty 24 hours, seven days a week.


Utzon honoured

On September 16, the newly refurbished Reception Hall – the first interior space rebuilt to an Utzon design – is renamed the Utzon Room in the Dane’s honour.

Mr Utzon describes it as the greatest honour he could ever achieve.


World Heritage site

The United Nations adds the Sydney Opera House to the World Heritage list of culturally significant sites.

The harbour-side landmark wins the approval of around 800 delegates at a World Heritage committee meeting in Christchurch, New Zealand.

It takes its place on the register among more than 800 sites of outstanding cultural and natural significance, including China’s Great Wall and India’s Taj Mahal.

In 2005 the Opera House was added to the National Heritage List.

November 29, 2008

Jørn Utzon dies aged 90

Mr Utzon dies peacefully in his sleep in his hometown of Copenhagen on November 29, 2008.

His legacy lives on in a number of architectural projects in various countries but his masterpiece remains the Sydney Opera House, though he never got to see the completed work in person.

Mr Utzon is survived by his wife, two sons and a daughter.


Lighting of the sails

The first Vivid light festival takes place, illuminating the sails of the Opera House in an array of colours, shapes and images.

The festival, billed as the biggest sound and light show in the Southern Hemisphere, attracts around 200,000 people to The Rocks and Circular Quay.

The opening night is streamed live to a worldwide audience.

March 2010

The Opera House stripped bare

Around 5,200 people strip off in the name of art to transform the Opera House forecourt into a sea of naked flesh.

Entitled The Base, it is the latest installation by US photographer Spencer Tunick who has made a name for himself by snapping mass nudity at iconic locations across the globe.

December 2010

Stunt gone wrong

Hugh Jackman makes international headlines with a spectacular entrance-gone-wrong at an Oprah Winfrey television special at the Opera House.

The actor swoops in on a 100-metre flying fox strung between the building’s sails and a stage set up in the forecourt but applies the brakes too late.

He crashes into a piece of lighting equipment, sustaining an eye injury and temporarily halting the show.

October 20, 2013

Sydney Opera House celebrates 40th birthday

Hailed as one of the 20th Century’s greatest buildings and an icon of modern Australia, the Sydney Opera House today attracts over 8.2 million visitors every year.

With its gleaming white sails set against against the blue water of the Sydney Harbour, it is one of the most photographed sites in the world.

Through a combination of tourism, travel, hospitality and other activities, the Opera House is estimated to contribute more than $1 billion to the Australian economy.

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