October 2017


This is not an opera house

By Darryn King
Image of the Sydney Opera House

© Franciscus Tan / Getty Images

Beautiful on the outside … the tragedy of Bennelong Point

When the actor John Malkovich appeared in The Giacomo Variations, a chamber-opera bio-play of Giacomo Casanova, at the Sydney Opera House in 2011, he wasn’t exactly seduced by the venue.

“It’s lovely to drive by on a motor boat and it has a very nice crew and very capable, but the acoustics are hideous,” he told the Daily Telegraph. “For a catholicity of reasons, it’s not the wisest place to put on anything … with the possible exception of maybe a circus.”

Malkovich’s comments hit a sore point, not just for the Concert Hall, the Sydney Opera House’s largest performance space, but also for the building as a whole. Since being dreamed up 60 years ago, the site has inspired breathless arias of adulation (“On a moonlit night,” wrote Ruth Cracknell in her memoir, “one could die of excess”), countered by basso-profundo grumbles that its splendour is only as deep as its Sweden-sourced ceramic skin.

Conductor Sir Simon Rattle complained that the sound in the Concert Hall lacked richness and clarity, and came “from all sides”. Former Sydney Symphony Orchestra chief conductor Edo de Waart described the sound as “barren”, “cold” and “not alive”, and threatened to boycott the “ugly” venue. “[It’s] like you’re in a barn,” he said.

The same year as Casanova dropped in, the Concert Hall’s conjoined smaller sibling, the Opera Theatre (since renamed the Joan Sutherland Theatre), was voted the worst of Australia’s 20 major classical music venues in a Limelight magazine industry poll. (The Concert Hall itself came in 18th.) The Opera Theatre was inadequate for anything bigger than a Mozart opera buffa, said Scottish opera director David McVicar.

Brian Thomson, a regular scenic designer for Opera Australia, has recommended that the whole building be gutted. Even Dame Joan likened the interior of the building to an airport terminal.

The fact that one of architect Jørn Utzon’s inspirations was the castle Kronborg in Elsinore – Hamlet’s castle – aligns with more than a few theatre artists’ and technicians’ feelings about the fatal flaws of the building.

Thomson calls it a “mad opera … It’s a miracle it was built. As a building, it’s the greatest in the world. But as a theatre, it’s almost the worst.” Lighting designer Nick Schlieper agrees, calling the structure “a spiralling tragedy”.

Even when taking tall poppy syndrome into account (“People who’ve never been in there have an opinion,” says Opera Australia’s artistic director, Lyndon Terracini), no one very familiar with the Sydney Opera House will deny that, as a performing arts venue, it’s a difficult one.

On Saturday, 20 May, lavish Tchaikovskian chords rang out as the lights dimmed on the Opera Theatre stage for the grand finale of the Australian Ballet’s Nutcracker: The Story of Clara. That night’s clean-up and bump-out was more comprehensive than most. As well as clearing the scenery, props, costumes and stage lights, a crew began emptying the theatre of its heritage-listed, hot orange–clad seats, to make room for scaffolding and equipment – a mighty exhalation worthy of La Stupenda herself. This was the first obvious sign of the Sydney Opera House’s $273 million renovation project, announced in 2015. It will be the building’s most extensive upgrade since its opening in 1973.

“Expectations of great performance have moved a long way,” says Sydney Opera House chief executive Louise Herron. “Just as it was a revolutionary place when it was finished, we need to bring it back to that standard. Because it’s the symbol, the icon, of Australia, and the symbol of Australia needs to be forward-looking, and magic, and perfectly fit for purpose.”

“To me, and to my ears, it’s got too much air to it,” says the Australian Chamber Orchestra artistic director, Richard Tognetti, of the Concert Hall’s acoustics. “The sound is ‘boomy’ and not direct. It’s not the most present sound.”

“[A building is] like an instrument,” he continues. “They always seem to sound how they look. And the Concert Hall is no exception.”

Originally, the auditorium was intended to accommodate large-scale opera as well as symphonic music. Long after Utzon withdrew from the chaotically managed project in 1966, the design of the Concert Hall was begun anew by a team of local architects led by Peter Hall – ironically, as it seems now, to serve the needs of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. Yuzo Mikami, a member of Utzon’s team, called the resulting space, with its 22-metre ceiling crown, “a skull without a brain”.

Part of the problem, notes David Robertson, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s current chief conductor, is that the quality of sound varies so greatly depending on where you are in the auditorium. “The large shell above the audience and the main part of the stage is where most of the sound goes,” he says. “It’s a huge space, where I imagine the sound must be very beautiful. But no one’s sitting up there. Unless you hang them from a rope.”

Asked if there’s a particular mode in which an orchestra might still especially shine in the space, Robertson says, laughing, “No, I find it all suffers equally, to be really frank.”

There have been innumerable efforts to improve the acoustics of the hall. A constellation of clear acrylic doughnuts – “clouds”, officially – has been suspended nine metres above the players since the first test performance in 1972. (The clouds are visible behind a flexing Arnold Schwarzenegger on the cover of Muscle and Fitness magazine, in a picture taken when the Mr Olympia bodybuilding contest was held at the Concert Hall in 1980.) Edo de Waart, for one, was not convinced of the clouds’ effectiveness: “They might as well be toilet seats,” he said. “They do nothing whatsoever.”

There’s no mucking around this time. With German acoustic engineers Müller-BBM overseeing the process, and a price tag of $202 million, the Concert Hall will boast a new adjustable stage (players won’t have to play “over” each other as much), a soundwave-directing acoustic ceiling and reflectors, and less unwanted noise from the overhead air-conditioning system, by late 2021.

“What I’m hoping,” says Robertson, “is that one of the most iconic halls outside will have an acoustic inside commensurate with the amazing idea of the building.”

Slotted in beneath the seats of the Concert Hall is a rehearsal room; crammed beneath that is the Drama Theatre, which is an occasional venue for Bell Shakespeare, Sydney Theatre Company and Bangarra Dance Theatre. It’s a space that has eccentricities of its own. The auditorium is rectangular, with an abnormally wide stage under an abnormally low ceiling – the dimensions of an art-house cinema rather than a theatre.

“[It’s] one of the toughest spaces to crack in Sydney,” says Sydney Theatre Company’s artistic director, Kip Williams, “especially with regards to creating intimacy, or the relationship that an actor has between heaven and hell that a high proscenium creates.”

One of the peculiar aspects of the Drama Theatre is that performers are in danger of colliding with cleaners, caterers or administration staff in its relatively public “backstage” passageway. Actor Jack Charles caused quite a stir when, playing Bennelong in Michael Boddy’s play Cradle of Hercules in the 1974 opening season, he traversed the thoroughfare in between scenes in the nude. More seriously, it’s a distracting arrangement for in-the-moment performers. (Writer-actor Jonathan Biggins: “[On] matinee days you are trying to concentrate while people in security tags walk to and fro.” )

But if the Drama Theatre is awkward for drama, that’s nothing compared to the Opera Theatre’s downright hostility to opera.

“Oh, I think it’s very straightforward,” says theatre and opera designer Michael Scott-Mitchell, on why the Opera Theatre is so singularly tricky for artists. “It’s a space that conforms to the shape of a shell. Simple as that, really.”

One of the snooty early criticisms of Utzon’s overall design was that it was “dishonest”; American critic Lewis Mumford wrote that it epitomised the architectural trend of “dazzling Christmas packages that have no relation to contents”. But, in the case of the Opera Theatre, the reality is even more concerning than that: a case of form not just prioritised over function but aggressively inhibiting it.

“A functioning opera house,” says director David McVicar, “almost universally follows the pattern of a proscenium theatre with a fly-tower to accommodate flown scenery, and backstage space for storage. The shells simply weren’t designed to accommodate those. It’s a very limiting blueprint.”

The Sydney Opera House has special needs that no one could have anticipated 50, 60 years ago: that, every five years, its 1,056,006 roof tiles require individual inspective prodding with a rubber hammer, a process that is undertaken manually; or that a three-person team needs to be permanently occupied with the maintenance of the building’s bronze, applying endless protective coats of olive oil mixed with methylated spirits to surfaces besieged by sea air. There is also the need to defend the building against the indecent amorous attentions of the occasional too-enthusiastic visitor, for whom the concrete crevices are, it seems, erotically irresistible. (Louise Herron declined to discuss the issue of “objectophiles” on the record.)

The tremendous complications involved with the Opera Theatre, though, ought to have been anticipated.

In 1956, a young, visionary Danish architect entered the “International Competition for a National Opera House at Bennelong Point”, seemingly for kicks. At that time, Jørn Utzon’s only realised designs were for low-cost housing. His preliminary sketches for the competition included that of a cluster of puffy cumulus clouds hovering above a horizontal plane. The drawings he finally submitted were mind-blowing but, in defiance of the competition rules (he defied a few), essentially conceptual.

It has been said that Utzon was as taken aback as anyone when he was announced the winner. It wasn’t until several years later, with the construction of the podium well under way, that he finally figured out how the sails might actually be built. (Though he was a sailor, and the son of a naval architect, Utzon preferred to think of them as more like orange segments.) An extraordinary amount of time, energy and money was spent on conceiving and realising those concrete vaults. Even a display scale model cost $12,000 to produce.

Those efforts, laudable as they were, may have distracted from how well those fantastic shapes would serve the most basic but specific needs of a performing arts complex. Around the same time, one of architect Wallace Harrison’s many rejected designs for the New York’s Metropolitan Opera House intentionally emulated Utzon’s exotic curvilinearity. But, as Harrison would later lament, he was hammered down by “opera people”, and box-shaped conventionality prevailed.

It’s tempting to think that the opposite was the case in Australia: a shortage of experienced opera people on hand to offer constructive, effective critique of Utzon’s idealistic vision. “To have a pesky theatre technical person saying ‘By the way, that’s not going to work’ would have been the last thing that team of engineers and architects wanted at the time,” says Nick Schlieper. “But we are now paying the price.”

“All it would have taken was for someone to say you can’t put two theatres side by side,” says Brian Thomson. “I’m sure that [Utzon] would have solved the problems.” Thomson is sceptical of the current Sydney Opera House renovations for somewhat similar reasons. “The people who actually have to create the scenic elements for these places – none of them were talked to or brought in, as far as I know.”

In fact, Utzon consulted dozens of theatre experts, including two key advisers, but apparently not with the intention of altering the layout of the shells; the primary concerns were auditorium acoustics, reverberation times. When the team of architects led by Peter Hall took over, Hall commented that they had no option but to “treat the building as a ‘found object’ which dictates the character of what is built in it”. One might reasonably argue that Utzon had taken the same approach.

The $71 million renovation of the Opera Theatre will replace ancient machinery, provide better sound and lighting, improve accessibility, and produce six additional female toilets for patrons. (“I fought for that,” Lyndon Terracini says of the latter.) But it won’t, and can’t, fix the fundamental problem of the shell.

Picture a parabola, tapering to a point. Now, within that parabola, imagine the various rectangular shapes required for an opera theatre: the picture-frame proscenium arch, the fly-tower for the grid and tech crew above the stage, extra space on the sides of the stage. Unless the parabola is disproportionately huge, that geometry is tricky at best – and brings to mind square pegs and round holes.

The Opera Theatre stage is crushingly small: 19.5 metres wide, wall to wall – a footprint that gets smaller and narrower the farther one is upstage. (In comparison, Melbourne’s State Theatre stage is almost 46 metres across.) In the early 2000s, a proposal to extend the 11.4-metre width of the Opera Theatre proscenium by one metre was priced at $1 billion. It was not pursued.

Those dimensions are a significant constraint for art forms that traditionally make use of scale, spectacle and surprise. The acclaimed 1991 touring production of The King and I, for example, downsized its elephants when it was revived in the Opera Theatre in 2014. More often, whole chunks of the set, usually centrepieces, are removed.

The effect can be stultifying. “La Fille mal gardée in Sydney really does look like a farmyard or courtyard,” the Australian Ballet’s artistic director, David McAllister, told the Sydney Morning Herald in 2006. “In Melbourne, it looks like a town square.”

The extra cost of creating two different sets for the Australian Ballet’s 2007 production of The Nutcracker was reported to be $500,000. (It’s the same story in the Drama Theatre: the sets for Bangarra Dance Theatre’s touring production of Bennelong were unusable anywhere else, requiring scenic extensions after the Sydney run.) A potential solution for Opera Australia, says Terracini, will be less reliance on built sets, and more projections and digital technology.

As it is, it gets crowded up there. Ballet dancers sometimes bump into sets, or snag tiaras and costumes. Choreography is reined in, particularly for busy corps de ballet scenes, or fewer performers are used. Even then, it can be a squeeze.

“There’s been times where I’ve done half the material in the wings,” says Australian Ballet dancer Alice Topp. Fellow dancer Richard House agrees: “Sometimes it’s like, you may be half offstage, but half on, so that half of you still has to dance.”

Particularly in Swan Lake, ballerinas are in danger of careering into walls when they flock from the stage at high speed, so backstage personnel stand on the sidelines, as vigilant as slip fielders in cricket.

“The girls would race off the ramp in the second act, and we’d have someone there to catch them and push them off to the side,” McAllister said in 2006, “so the girls didn’t go smashing into the wings.” At other times crash mats are used.

It’s a cute story that momentarily distracts from the most debilitating, maddening feature of the theatre. Ideally, opera houses boast wings and rear stages as luxuriously spacious as the stages themselves. House describes the wings in Melbourne’s State Theatre as being like “a couple of football fields”. At the press of a button, a scene might simply glide off the stage; at the press of another, a new scene will take its place, drifting in from the opposite direction. There’s ample space for crew, props, costumes, and dozens of dancers or chorus members to assemble and wait their cue. By comparison the Opera Theatre’s wings are, in one designer’s estimation, “a couple of metres on one side, a little bit less on the other”.

In placing the Concert Hall and Opera Theatre side by side, Utzon left virtually no space for the wings to be extended. Even a decade before the building’s opening, Martin Carr, a visiting stage director from the Royal Ballet Company, remarked presciently that “the wing space provided in Sydney is, to say the least of it, ludicrous … I can only think that the audiences will be so overjoyed at the excellent bar accommodation that they will not mind lengthy scene changes.” Fifty-five years on, Carr’s concerns still ring true: as a dancer, House has experienced this limitation firsthand. “It’s really tight, especially when you’ve got techies, stage crew, costumes.” He says that the issues are compounded with a show such as Sleeping Beauty. “The costumes are massive. You have one girl and a tutu down there and it’s like, all right, we’re full.”

The space above the stage is also too small (again, think of that shrinking space towards the top of a pointy parabola) to accommodate large set pieces out of view of the audience, as would normally be the case. In the absence of storage options alongside, behind or above, Utzon’s idea was to conceal the scene dock and backstage operations below the theatre. It was a brainwave that’s caused a lot of headaches since.

Scenery in the Opera Theatre is hauled up from below, via a malfunctioning 45-year-old mechanical lift, and cajoled into place. That lift will be replaced by December, but the new vertical-loading system will still be incredibly time-consuming, resulting in expensive technical rehearsals crammed into short, punishing schedules that are exhausting for technical staff, performers and creatives alike.

“There’s a lot of people that come to the Opera House, either touring or with a short turnaround here,” says the theatre integration manager, Lou Rosicky. “They kind of walk away with the scars of it. If you try to wedge in a show as you’ve done it exactly elsewhere you’re going to come up against walls. Literally and figuratively.”

It was the scarcity of backstage areas that architect Richard Johnson, who collaborated with Utzon, had in mind when he described the building as “internally haemorrhaging”. However modern the new equipment will be, the fundamental level of difficulty for the tech crew will remain.

“We’re not able, out of this process, to solve the space issues,” says Rosicky, referring to the wings and storage spaces offstage. “Those architectural features of the building are still there. Quite quickly we’re going to find ourselves in a situation where the directors and the designers are pushing the limits of what the equipment can do.”

The conventional wisdom is that the tribulations of the Opera Theatre are the result of the post-Utzon decision to shunt opera to the smaller of the two main shells (in order to let the Sydney Symphony Orchestra have the larger shell to itself). If only Utzon had been allowed to complete his interiors, some believe, all would have been fine.

Others will point out that, major hall or minor hall, the situation would be fundamentally the same. “All the same principles apply,” says Nick Schlieper. “It’s not like the Concert Hall is that ginormous compared to the Opera Theatre shell. You would still have the same issues because you’d naturally have a wider and higher proscenium arch in that space. Yeah, you might gain a little bit of space on the side, and a little bit of height. But you’re still fighting the taper of the curve and the shape of the building.”

The musicians in the orchestra pit might have it worst of all. Even under normal circumstances, pit players perform for longer than their stage-playing counterparts, making them more susceptible to fatigue-related injuries and mental-health issues. But the conditions endured by the Opera Australia Orchestra are especially dire.

Here, again, the Sydney–Melbourne comparison is un-avoidable: Melbourne’s State Theatre orchestra pit has an area of 88.3 square metres, compared with the Opera Theatre’s 28.7 square metres. The players in Sydney are almost entombed beneath the stage, where space is tight and visibility is low, resulting in damaging adaptive postures and awkward movement challenges for conductors and musicians alike.

Not only do the players lack crucial contact with the singers onstage, but many of them, shoehorned under the platform, depend on monitors to maintain contact even with the conductor, and endure extra reflected noise from above, such as the thudding of dancers’ feet onstage.

Unsurprisingly in those cramped quarters, noise level readings regularly exceed the Work Health and Safety–stipulated 85-decibel average daily limit. Efforts to minimise harm to musicians have been implemented: personal sound shields, sectional sound shields, “active earplugs”, alternative seating plans, tag-teaming musicians switching out at interval. But, more often than not, the solutions themselves cause problems. Sound shields that protect the string players from the thundering of the brass section, for example, will compel those brass players to exert more physically, in order to push their sound out to the audience who, by the way, ends up hearing the music, the fruit of considerable labour, as muffled and boxed in.

For opera singers, the design of the auditorium, with no resonating ceiling or dome above, means that their voices are absorbed by a steeply raked wall of audience members. They depend totally on electronic foldback, even to hear the orchestra.

Even counting the side boxes with their dismal views of the stage, the Opera Theatre’s official 1507 seating capacity is measly by world standards, leading to additional strain on everyone involved. “It necessitates us doing more performances,” says Terracini. “If we had 2000 seats we could do fewer performances, and the per-performance fee would be much lower.”

“The seating capacity is one of the reasons that opera tickets are so expensive,” says Schlieper, who contends that, due to sightlines, far fewer seats are sellable than the Sydney Opera House likes to let on. “When you’ve only got 1100 or 1200 seats at best to sell, a little more than half of what you need, your only options are to cut your production costs in half, which is not particularly viable, or double your seat prices.”

Pity, too, the audience member forced to ascend to the back of the auditorium – an odyssey the equivalent of climbing to a building’s sixth floor – who must then squeeze past up to 25 pairs of knees due to the absence of longitudinal or radial aisles in the seating plan.

On the plus side …?

Despite and due to the miseries above, a production at the Opera Theatre is a supreme showcase of the tireless efforts and ingenuity of directors, designers, performers, technical crew and countless others. The intimate scale is fine for smaller operas, and some performers actually like being able to make eye contact with the first six or seven rows of the audience.

“And it’s less distance to cover in a very cardio-based ballet, so you’re not as puffed out in Sydney,” says Alice Topp. “Not as far to travel!”

But the recurring motif at the Opera Theatre, whether audiences on the whole are cognisant of it or not, is of inhibition, encumbrance and short-changing at every turn.

To top it all off, and perhaps most cringe-inducing of all, there’s the name of the thing. The colossal misnomer of the “Sydney Opera House” would have been unhelpful enough as it is, without drawing attention to precisely the most compromised art form offered in the building. “[N]ot a very fortunate name, perhaps,” admitted one of the interiors architects in 1972, “but it is too late to change it now.”

In 1964, Utzon designed a theatre in Zurich. It was never built, but the dissimilarity with the Sydney Opera House speaks volumes: straight lines, right angles, and ample, generous space allocated for the wings and backstage.

Of course, it would’ve had nothing on the building at Bennelong Point.

Maybe it’s the Sydney Opera House’s outer magnificence – on show from every direction, poised miraculously between expanses of sea and sky – that makes the grievances inside feel all the more aggrieving. But then even the building’s toughest critics will admit that the damned thing can cause them to momentarily forget their complaints.

“Sometimes I arrive at the Opera House with a feeling of dread over the problems I have to solve that day,” says Nick Schlieper. “Problems that are presented largely by the shortcomings of the building. But I still sometimes catch myself looking up at that building and going, ‘This is just so fucking beautiful.’”

When bluntly asked if, in the pressure-cooker heat of a gruelling production, there’s any cursing of Utzon’s name in the fly-tower, Lou Rosicky chuckles. “Oh look, there’s a lot of, you know, grumbling about it. But at the same time, [when] I started working here as a teenager the one thing I got told, but didn’t really believe until I went off and started working in the UK and other theatres: if you can put a show on here, you can put a show on pretty much anywhere.”

As for why Opera Australia has stuck with the Sydney Opera House (it’s hinted, by some, that the company has considered alternative venues in the past), Lyndon Terracini cites practical, commercial reasons rather than artistic ones. “We can probably assume that 30% of our business comes from tourists. When we play in other places, we lose that business.” One might also wonder if a national opera company would attract the same generous government subsidy if it set up shop somewhere else.

A former Opera Australia chairman suggested that a second opera theatre might be added to the eastern side of the building, extending over Farm Cove. “I wonder how he would feel,” Utzon said of the idea in 1993, “if I suggested that another movement be added to Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony.”

Terracini, however, does entertain a dream of a larger opera theatre, taking the place of the car park underneath the forecourt. “You could do Mozart, Rossini, musicals, et cetera, in the [existing Opera Theatre], and we could do the big things, The Ring, Don Carlos, Aida, and so on, in the bigger theatre. That would solve all of our problems. It would be a wonderful leap forward for opera, not only in Australia, but internationally.” He adds, “But, of course, the income from the car park is enormous.”

Scenic designer Brian Thomson maintains that the Sydney Opera House ought to have its innards removed entirely, with new interiors designed from scratch. He, too, fantasises of a larger opera theatre close by, carved into the low sandstone cliff across the forecourt, beneath the Bennelong Lawn in the Royal Botanic Gardens. One of the attractions of such a theatre, he promises, would be the view during interval, surely one of the greatest from any theatre in the world.

“The view would be the Sydney Opera House,” he says. “Beat that.”

Darryn King

Darryn King is a freelance journalist based in New York.


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