Sydney, New South Wales 2000
Telephone: (+61 2) 9250 7111
Web site: https://www.sydneyoperahouse.com
Total Assets: AUS 54.7 million ($40.2 million) (2017)
NAICS: 711310 Promoters of Performing Arts, Sports, and Similar Events with Facilities
Considered to be one of the architectural wonders of the modern world, the iconic Sydney Opera House presides over Sydney Harbor as a familiar symbol of the rich artistic and cultural heritage of its home country of Australia. It is operated by the Sydney Opera House Trust, a government-chartered nonprofit organization charged with the physical maintenance of the site, the management of its performance schedule, and the development and continued renewal of the opera house as a focal point for both Australian and international arts and culture. The opera house hosts around 1,800 performances every year in its seven venues and generates more than 80 percent of its operating revenue through ticket sales, merchandising, and other activities. The government of New South Wales provides the remainder.
The movement to create a major fine arts performance center in Sydney can be traced back to the early 20th century, but most historians cite the arrival in the country of Sir Eugene Goossens in 1947 as the catalyst that put the construction of the opera house into motion. A widely traveled British conductor, Goossens had been hired to lead the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, but almost immediately, and quite publicly, he began expressing his dissatisfaction with the performance facilities that were available to the orchestra. Lacking a properly appointed concert hall, the symphony simply performed in the all-purpose, 19th-century-built auditorium of the Sydney Town Hall and visited even less adequate venues while on tour. The issue soon became something of a cultural embarrassment for the government of New South Wales.
When Joseph Cahill became the premier of New South Wales in 1952, one of his priorities was the construction of a first-class opera house for Sydney. In 1954 he organized a conference to study the matter, and soon thereafter concrete plans finally began to take shape. Sydney Harbor's Bennelong Point was officially selected as the site of the new facility in 1955. Named for an 18th-century indigenous chieftain, the point had been traditionally known as Tubowgule, or “Where the Knowledge Waters Meet,” and had been a hub for Aboriginal fishing, celebration, and performance for thousands of years.
Construction on the opera house began in March 1959. From the beginning, expense became an issue, with Cahill acting as a fierce advocate for the loosening of the parliamentary purse strings and casting the opera house as a critical investment in the country's cultural and economic future. The project would take 14 years to complete, but neither Cahill nor Utzon would be there for the ribbon cutting. Cahill passed away suddenly during the fall of 1959, leaving Utzon to contend with an uncertain budget and a shifting bureaucracy.
In March 1961 the New South Wales government committee that had overseen the launch of the opera house project turned the reins over to a trust that was created to supervise the remaining construction and to oversee the operations of the completed facility. As originally chartered, the trust largely consisted of representatives from the entities that were directly involved in the construction effort, along with consultants who began designing the facility's eventual management structure and operational policies.
As ground was broken on the base of the opera house structure in 1959, Utzon turned his attention to working out the engineering details of the crowning shells. This process took about four years, because design after design proved structurally unfeasible. Eventually, Utzon hit on the idea of designing the shells as sections of a perfect sphere. It was this innovation that allowed the second phase of the opera house construction to begin. By that point, however, the government of New South Wales had begun insisting on more direct oversight of the project because the building's projected cost had ballooned from AUS 3.5 million to AUS 13.7 million. Utzon was also having trouble getting along with the engineering firm that was supervising the practical aspects of construction.
In 1965 a new government took power in New South Wales and the project was placed under the supervision of the Ministry of Public Works, which ratcheted up the pressure on Utzon to control costs and speed up the process. By early 1966, with costs rising above AUS 20 million, the government had begun withholding payments to Utzon until he achieved specific design milestones. Unable to continue his work without the financial support, Utzon quit the project in February 1966. Despite a public outcry and personal entreaties from many involved, Utzon did not return. Even the project's lead engineering firm, which had frequently squabbled with Utzon, departed in a display of professional solidarity.
Utzon's replacement as lead architect was Peter Hall, an Australian who had previously worked for the Ministry of Public Works. Despite receiving public and professional criticism for accepting the assignment under such circumstances, Hall, by many accounts, handled the remainder of the project more than capably, putting order to the chaos left behind in the rapid departure of the original team. By 1967 the structure's exterior work had been completed and work began on the interior.
In 1969 the Sydney Opera House Trust was reorganized as primary construction wound down. The trust would now be structured as a standard board of management charged with overseeing the operations of the completed facility. The following year the new board launched a campaign to raise donations from individual and corporate sponsors to help support the opera house's artistic mission, although most of the building's AUS 102 million final cost was borne by Australian tax payers. In 1971 the trust joined the Ministry of Cultural Activities, a government advisory body made up of representatives from museums, arts organizations, galleries, theaters, and other cultural institutions from across New South Wales.
In 1974 the trust established the Dennis Wolanski Library of the Performing Arts, an archive and repository of memorabilia, records, props, costumes, and other artifacts that collectively documented the history of the performing arts. Besides the performing arts, the Sydney Opera House would host every manner of spectacle and public figure over the next few decades, from the Mr. Olympia bodybuilding competition to a 1988 appearance by Pope John Paul II. That same year the opera house's Forecourt, a flexible-use, open-air space, became a focal point for the country's bicentennial celebrations and thereafter for large-scale events such as a 1996 farewell performance by the band Crowded House that attracted more than 100,000 spectators.
The year 1996 also brought a restructuring of the opera house's management system and the accompanying dissolution of the Wolanski Library. Lloyd Martin, who had served as the general manager of the facility since opening day, resigned. A new chair of the trust board, Joseph Skrzynski, had also recently been installed.
Skrzynski presided over a reconciliation of sorts in 1999, when he helped arrange for Utzon to become an architectural consultant for future renovations and construction at the opera house. Although Utzon never returned to Australia, he did redesign the interior of the complex's reception hall, which was reopened in 2004 as the Utzon Room. He also helped redesign an exterior colonnade and several theater foyers that opened in 2006. The opera house continued implementing the architect's designs after his death in 2008, renovating its western foyer in 2009 and improving accessibility to the facility.
Another management restructuring that eliminated some positions and streamlined operations in the name of efficiency took place in 2010, in part in response to a major global recession that had recently descended, cutting into attendance at fine arts events and slowing tourist traffic at the opera house. Heading the trust at that point was Kim Williams, an Australian media executive who had replaced the departing Skrzynski. After Williams left during the summer of 2013, he was replaced by the businessman and arts patron John Symond, who abandoned the post just one year later citing scheduling conflicts with his business commitments. The trust was then led by the board member Helen Coonan, who remained acting chair until the summer of 2015, when the financier Nicholas Moore took the position.
Meanwhile, in 2013 the opera house had embarked on a long-range renovation and mission-reinvigoration program dubbed “Decade of Renewal.” Announced to coincide with the facility's 40th anniversary and largely spearheaded by Louise Herron, the CEO of the opera house, the campaign maintained its momentum throughout the executive shuffle in the trust's boardroom over the next few years. Funded by a AUS 202 million government grant, the campaign focused on improving and repairing the site's aging performance facilities and foyers and the construction of a learning center and a new events hall.
Opera Australia; Opera Queensland; State Opera of South Australia; West Australian Opera.
Brooks, Geraldine. “Unfinished Business: Jørn Utzon Returns to the Sydney Opera House.” New Yorker, October 17, 2005.
Maddox, Garry. “Sydney Opera House Conservation Plan Preserves Architect Jorn Utzon's Vision.” Sydney Morning Herald, October 4, 2017.
Murray, Peter. The Saga of the Sydney Opera House: The Dramatic Story of the Design and Construction of the Icon of Modern Australia. New York: Spon Press, 2004.
Pitt, Helen. “Opera House to Shine as Centrepiece of Utzon Centenary Celebrations.” Sydney Morning Herald, April 6, 2018.
Taylor, Andrew. “Sydney Opera House Trust Chairman John Symond to Step Down.” Sydney Morning Herald, November 14, 2014.