Sydney Opera House concert hall closes for first time for refurbishment

Like many major cultural institutions around the world, the Sydney Opera House is currently closed to the public as the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19) brings life to a halt in major population centers.

The closure of the iconic Sydney Opera House Concert Hall, however, was a pre-planned and long overdue maneuver to allow much-needed rehabilitation of the acoustically and accessibility-plagued venue. Renovation work began in February, marking the first time in its history that the concert hall went dark for an extended period. Speak New York Timesthe gall and the opera complex surrounding it are normally open to the public 363 days a year.

A January 31 performance of Solange was the last to be held there for at least the next two years.

Pending any delays, the 2,500-seat hall is expected to reopen in mid-2021, ahead of the Opera’s 50th anniversary in 2023. (Other performances and gatherings held at other venues in the concrete-topped Opera complex of a sail that were to remain open during the refit have since been postponed as a proactive measure against the spread of COVID-19.)

Sporting a $200 million price tag covered by the New South Wales government, the refurbishment of the concert hall is a major undertaking which, after years of planning, will correct many shortcomings of the famous and notorious venue. The upgrades will solve not-so-trivial issues with sound quality, performance logistics and guest accessibility that have vexed Opera officials, performers and the general public for decades.

A magnificent concert hall with not so magnificent acoustics. (Jason Tong/Flickr)

As the Time and others have noted, the UNESCO-listed structure is one of the most distinctive and instantly recognizable works of modern architecture in the world. But its construction was notoriously troubled, with inflated costs, schedule overruns, technical missteps, bureaucratic infighting, a workers’ strike and the resignation of its architect, Jørn Utzon, long before it was completed. While the interiors are visually delightful thanks in large part to Utzon’s successor, Australian architect Peter Hall, the concert hall has long been considered mediocre when it comes to its sonic qualities, which is quite significant for a venue. world famous concert.

Writing The Guardian:

“Actor John Malkovich once said that the acoustics of the concert hall ‘would do an aircraft hangar a disservice.’ Members of the Sydney Resident Symphony Orchestra have long complained that they cannot hear their fellow musicians on stage. And the rise of the rock concert has further challenged the venue, with the amplified music and electronic sets being precisely the opposite of what the venue’s infrastructure has been. built to accommodate.

As The Guardian explains, these issues largely stem from the fact that the concert hall was originally designed to be more of a multipurpose space with an overhead theatrical rig that could accommodate operas and plays. But after Utzon’s departure, these types of performances were reassigned to a more intimate venue at the Opera, the Joan Sutherland Theatre, and the Great Hall was redesigned to host classical music performances exclusively. While symphonies continue to dominate the space, they are also heavily – and imperfectly – used for rock, pop and dance numbers.

In addition to the problems of poor acoustics, “more basic issues”, such as the Time he said, have long begged for fixing. This includes replacing outdated electrical wiring and upgrading a rather troublesome HVAC system.

“The air conditioning system is hopeless,” said Rory Jeffes, the head of Opera Australia and former chief executive of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. Time.“It blows cannon ports overhead, then drops onto the stage and very often turns the pages of the musicians as they play.”

Improving accessibility for the more than one million visitors that the Opera receives each year is also an absolute priority. Although a pressing issue today, how customers with mobility issues navigated the sprawling, stair-heavy space was not a major concern in the late 1960s and early 1970s. , when the building was designed and constructed. Opening the space to visitors of all ages and physical abilities has been a challenge, however, given its designation as a historic landmark.

A major aspect of improving accessibility to the concert hall entrusted to ARM Architecture, the Melbourne and Sydney-based company overseeing the project, was the installation of lifts, something that did not exist previously.

In addition to code-compliant elevators and accessibility modifications, other improvements include: a new acoustic ceiling, specially designed acoustic reflectors, new acoustic panels to be placed on stage and elsewhere, an automatic draping system, automatic stage lifts, a modernized theatrical grid system, redesigned backstage areas, and more.

ARM explains:

“The number and variety of performances staged in the concert hall, as well as their performance requirements, have increased enormously over the decades since the building opened.

It is essential that the Opera invests in new technologies and systems to ensure that the venue continues to meet the orchestral and contemporary performance needs and expectations of staff, resident companies, performers and audiences today. today and in the future.

In executing the overhaul, ARM is working closely with a team of acousticians as well as engineering firms Arup and Steensen Varming to better “understand the existing structural condition of the building” before carrying out more complex aspects. of renovation. All improvements and renovations are being carried out in accordance with the Opera House’s Conservation Management Plan and will adhere to Utzon’s original design principles.

“Not only do we need to maintain our fabulous heritage, but we need to be as prepared as possible for the next 50 years,” said Louise Herron, Managing Director of the Sydney Opera House. The Guardian. “What will audiences of today and tomorrow want and how can we best prepare the concert hall for it? This has been the driving force behind our approach.

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