Time Out Sydney

One of the most photographed and famous (if controversial) performing arts venues in the world

As one of the most photographed and famous (if controversial) performing arts venues in the world, the pearly shells of the Sydney Opera House are synonymous with Australia's image - an iconic and irreplaceable part of Sydney's skyline. 

Built on Bennelong Point - and named for the Cadigal tribal elder captured and befriended by Governor Arthur Phillip - Eugene Goossens, Director of the Conservatorium of Music, announced its imminent arrival via a contest inviting architects worldwide to participate. Danish architect Jørn Utzon's uniquely fluid sketch won. (Apparently, the other designs were ugly and square. Can you imagine another UTS building on the Harbour's edge?). Formally completed (without Utzon, who'd been sacked) in 1973, the building's distinctive design has been pondered and interpreted in variously from shells, to waves, even a family of swans. Utzon never revealed his vision, only that he relied on spheres to make the architectural feat happen.

The Opera House is all about performance, invitation and suspense. From walking through its intricate corridors, to its aesthetically pleasing and sound-enhancing performance halls, to its slanted windows (so you can look into the Harbour without a reflection), there's plenty to marvel at. Today, the Opera House offers different tours that allow you to get intimate with the building, including some hosted in different languages and full ‘experience' packages.

But if you don't feel like shelling out, it's still free to sit on the steps for a quick lunch and walk by the water and gaze in marvel at those 1,056,000 pearly, self-cleaning Swedish tiles.

Best for... architecture enthusiasts, precocious children, arty buffs.
Worst for... fidgets, troglodytes, cultural ingrates.

Where to eat and drink near the Sydney Opera House

Check out the Opera Kitchen, a harbourfront dining area that features a host of Sydney food identities including John Susman. Meander around to Bulletin Place for cocktails. Later in the evening kick the glamour up a notch at Hemmesphere and enjoy matched cigars and more cocktails into the morning.

Back stage tour

Why not be one of the few to take the Backstage Tour and explore every inch of Jørn Utzon's masterpiece from within? With access into areas normally reserved for stars and their minders, the tour will have you treading the boards of its illustrious stages and sneaking into the dressing rooms of the Concert Hall, Opera and Drama Theatres, Playhouse and The Studio. Or perhaps you want to take on the conductor's baton in the Opera Theatre orchestra pit. Hear about the secrets and stories that go on behind the curtain involving the likes of Pavarotti, Dame Joan Sutherland, Michael Bublé, and other less impressive types such as the Australian Idol crew.

The tour kicks off at 7am and includes a hearty breakfast served in the Green Room. (Time Out insiders' tip: avoid selecting the all-Australian breakfast, unless you don't want to fit in another meal until dinner.) The tours take place in groups of eight only and the two hours go by in a flash. 

Sydney Opera House Backstage Tours run daily at 7am. $165 including breakfast (the Green Room is not open on Sun or public holidays). Flat, enclosed rubber soled shoes must be worn. For safety reasons children 12 years and under are not permitted. Bookings essential.

There are also junior tours of the Opera House for kids.

Who selects what is on at the Opera House?

Who decides what music is performed at the Sydney Opera House? It could be anyone. Maybe even you. Few know this, but even the flagship Concert Hall itself is ultimately a room for hire: if you're willing to pay $50,000 for a Monday night in 2016, you can invite 2,679 of your closest friends along for karaoke. If that's not expensive enough, you could probably get the Sydney Symphony Orchestra to play. If you've got that kind of cash but would prefer to turn a profit, try bringing out a big overseas name instead: bingo, you're in the live entertainment business. The SOH will print and even sell the tickets for you, with your name up on the web page as the presenter.

But wait, asks the worried punter: if shows at the world-famous venue could ostensibly be anything, doesn't the cachet of an SOH ticket end up kind of... devalued? Well, one could make the argument. Certainly the House has seen the occasional shocker. But the standard mostly ranges between high and world-class; Sydney has never endured anything like Florence Foster Jenkins, the amateur soprano who rented Carnegie Hall in 1944. (Listen to her recordings if you dare.)

The tip for concert-goers is to look at what is listed after the word "presenter": if it says SSO for example, their artistic director and programmers decided what to play, so the repertoire will be up to their rigorous standards. If the presenter is someone else – even if the orchestra is shown as the SSO – their musicians could end up playing Whitney Houston. Similarly, when the presenter is one of the other long-term resident companies at the SOH (which include Opera Australia and the Australian Chamber Orchestra), you can place your trust in their reputation. And some independent promoters do get internationally famous artists: for example, Andrew McKinnon Fine Entertainment are putting on David Helfgott in August, and have previously brought the magnificent Ukraine-born pianist Alexander Gavrylyuk back to Sydney twice.

But over the past few years a new presenter has become, without being much noticed, one of the most powerful cultural forces in town: the SOH's own in-house programming team, led by Jonathan Bielski. Just look for the brand-name sentence "Sydney Opera House Presents". They've made some big and risky bets with impressive paybacks, at least from the artistic point of view: their World Orchestras Series has nabbed many of the greatest conductors alive, along with scores of musicians and their carefully packed instruments. In November it's Valery Gergiev and the London Symphony Orchestra, the world's most recorded. For the SOH's smallest space, curator Yarmila Alfonzetti has been able to recruit dozens of the world's top artists for the Utzon Music Series. One extreme example: superstar conductor Simone Young plays in July as a piano accompanist (whoops, sorry: "collaborative artist") for Danish baritone Bo Skovhus, himself widely sought by the opera houses of Europe. "She's the busiest woman in showbiz," says Alfonzetti.

Musicians of this calibre aren't flying those long-hauls just for the money: the legend of Utzon's fabled architectural masterpiece is an undeniable drawcard itself. Says Bielski: "[Artists] know the other greats who have played here since 1973, and they like the idea of following in their footsteps." The NSW government's $102 million investment in getting it built – not to mention the work of the artists who've performed there for the last four decades – have given our city a huge artistic payback. There may never be a night free for karaoke.

Book activities and tours around the Opera House and Circular Quay

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First published on . Updated on .

By Jason Catlett   |  

Sydney Opera House video

Sydney Opera House details

Address
Bennelong Point, Sydney 2000

Telephone 02 9250 7111

Open Box office: Mon-Sat 9am-8.30pm; Sun two hours prior to performance (in person only)

Sydney Opera House website

Sydney Opera House map

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