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Biggest ever renovation set to commence at the Sydney Opera House

Biggest ever renovation set to commence at the Sydney Opera House
May 20, 2017

Building work on the Sydney Opera House’s biggest ever renovation is set to get underway, and while the famous white sails will stay intact the work will focus on technical and sound problems which have dogged the venue since it opened more than 40 years ago.

Opened in 1973, the Sydney Opera House has a "national identity value" estimated at $4.6 billion by accountants Deloitte, attracts 8.2 million visitors a year and is a World Heritage site listed as a "masterpiece of human creative genius".

Part of a "decade of renewal", the $202 million revamp is due to finish in 2023 in time for the Opera House's 50th anniversary.

Work will include the installation of a new creative learning centre and function centre in former office space, a $45 to $50 million upgrade to stage machinery in the Joan Sutherland Theatre, improved access for wheelchair users, and the creation of a car-free entrance under the Monumental Steps.

Sound issues that have impacted orchestral performances will also be tackled, with $150 million to go towards improving acoustics and accessibility in the Concert Hall, which sits up to 2,679 people.

Such works are "essential" in a structure erected before the digital revolution, insists Sydney Opera House Chief Executive Louise Herron, who explains “the Opera House is one of the busiest performing arts centres in the world, staging more than 2,000 performances a year for more than 1.5 million people.

"We need to equip it to keep inspiring people well into the 21st Century."

Herron envisions the upgrades as allowing seamless movement between different "modes and moods" of performers who might range from a full symphony orchestra to a rock band to one-man talks from the likes of celebrity chef Jamie Oliver or philosopher Alain de Botton.

Past renovations have included the refurbishment of the Reception Hall in 1999 while in 2006 a 45-metre Colonnade was constructed along the western facade, with glass windows providing panoramic views of the Harbour.

More recently, a three and half year construction project transformed access to the famous venue.

Completed in early 2015, the $150 million project saw the construction of an underground access road servicing the venue and its surrounding food and beverage outlets.

As a result around 1000 heavy vehicles a week have been removed from the Opera House forecourt, redirected to an underground and automated loading bay able to handle four trucks simultaneously.

Located below sea level, the loading bay features five service lifts able to carry freight and supplies.

With the forecourt made more pedestrian-friendly, the Opera House’s F&B outlets can now suppliy more patrons while the forecourt’s ability to stage events has been enhanced.

However, renovations are not entirely welcome.

Local residents have objected to the increased number of events on the Opera House forecourt while Gerard Reinmuth, a professor of architectural practice at University of Technology Sydney, wrote on The Conversation website that success will be measured in balancing "justifiable alteration (against) the gamble of compromising a masterwork.”

Reinmuth believes that hiring four different architectural practices for the renovations is a risk, stating "the Opera House is the work of a single vision ... while such oversight (in spreading the responsibility) may not result in a poor outcome, it is unlikely to elicit a great one.”

Jan Utzon, a member of the architectural panel reviewing the plans and the son of Opera House architecnt Jørn Utzon, preaches on the side of caution: what is crucial is not "implementing changes that could detract or ruin this iconic value for Australia".

Utzon, however, believes his father would have approved: "I think he always felt that the Opera House is alive and has a life brought about by the society at the time."

By contact, David Robertson, Chief Conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, who rehearse in the Concert Hall is looking forward to the changes.

He explains "for Australians it shows a sense of pride which is unparalled - it's like how the French look at the Eiffel Tower or the Indians look at the Taj Mahal.”

Robertson fears that acoustics in the Concert Hall lag behind other major worldwide venues, stating "you don't hear all the wonderful colours and blends and subtleties and choices that the (orchestra) are making.

"Given that there are various shadings - and we would like acoustics that go from a single speaker to a whole orchestra and chorus to the possibility of jazz and rock groups that use amplification - the demands on the hall are quite substantial.”

Such acoustic drawbacks were present when the hall first opened. To attempt to rectify this clear plastic "doughnuts" were retrofitted as acoustic reflectors, black curtains added as sound dampeners, and risers used on stage to vary the height of musicians.

The challenge is the "huge size of the hall, with a really large distance between the stage and the last row of the audience," says Gunter Engel, an acoustic consultant at Munich-based Muller-BBM, the firm hired to work on acoustics.

Engel adds "the distribution of the volume in the hall is very unusual with the main volume above the stage instead of above the audience. This presents … difficult conditions not only for the audience but also for the musicians on stage."

New designs include an adjustable stage and wing-like panels that will act as sound reflectors. Air-conditioning plants on the ceiling - currently equivalent in size to four shipping containers - will also be replaced to lower background noise.

Robertson says such acoustic improvements are akin to sending the Hubble Telescope into space. For musicians and audience alike, he concludes it wll be like seeing "the wonders of the universe for the first time."

Images: Renovations are set to improve the acoustic clarity of the concert hall (top), the Opera House's undergroung loading dock (middle) and a recent concert at the venue (below).

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