Far-sighted though he was, Sydney Opera House designer Jørn Utzon’s ideas for a room capable of hosting concerts of all kinds were rooted in the European tradition of opera and symphonic music. There was no way he could have anticipated that his concert hall at the Opera House would become a bucket list venue for some of the world’s leading rock, pop and electronic artists – many with staging requirements far exceeding anything imaginable in the 1960s.
“It’s become one of those venues artists really want to play,” says Ben Marshall, the Sydney Opera House’s head of contemporary music. “It’s a symbol of the avant-garde, a marvel of architecture. They have an experience you don’t get playing a series of interchangeable black box theatres from one city to the next.”
But playing the hall (which was completed by Australian architect Peter Hall after Utzon’s resignation from the project in 1966) has always involved a measure of compromise. Magnificent as it is, the room’s acoustics are famously haphazard, and its stage machinery has been unable to cope with some of today’s tech-heavy touring shows.
“Acts like Underworld, for example, who have been incredible playing in this room, use gigantic LED walls as part of their show,” says Marshall. “They’ve been impossible to hang properly in the concert hall. We’ve had to rest them on the stage itself.”
Fans missed out on a concert hall Chemical Brothers performance for that reason, too: “We couldn’t physically accommodate the set. Their rig was just too heavy and that was something they weren’t willing to compromise.”
All that changes with the $150m renovations that, among other things, involved the installation of 174 tonnes of steel in the hall’s roof space, 95 tonnes of new machinery below the stage and a new winch system above the stage capable of lifting four times the weight of the old one.
“We’ve also lowered the stage by about 40cm which makes the experience a bit more intimate,” says Marshall. “Having the place work for all kinds of contemporary music makes this place fit for purpose.”
For audiences, the most obvious physical changes to the concert hall are the large petal-shaped fibreglass sound reflectors installed above the stage (the largest weigh in at 160kg), the diffusive patterns on wooden panels on the box fronts around the stage and the retractable reflectors on the concert hall side wall. These are all designed to address sound issues that have bedevilled the venue since its inauguration in 1973.
The hall’s sonic shortcomings have been a staple of music critic columns for decades. Writing in 2007, critic John Shand decried a room in which “low frequencies turn to sludge, high frequencies ping around, and the presence of drums makes jazz sound like the 1812 Overture.”
Music critic Bernard Zuel’s review of Laura Marling’s 2012 concert highlighted “awful sound” that was “woefully thin and scattered”, adding that “not surprisingly, there were people at the interval confessing they struggled to feel a connection with what was happening on stage.”
Some of the harshest words spoken about the concert hall’s sonic properties came from the classical end of the music spectrum. Edo de Waart, chief conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra from 1993-2003, was among its most vocal critics. “The energy that we create on stage should go out into the hall,” de Waart told 24 Hours magazine. “That doesn’t happen now. The sound circles around and disappears into a dome above the stage.”
The clear plastic “donuts” installed in the concert hall’s 25-metre-high vault in an effort to lower the acoustic ceiling were no better than toilet seats, de Waart added. The label stuck.
The donuts have been removed now and Sydney Symphony Orchestra concertmaster Andrew Haveron won’t miss them. The acoustic renovation of the space is, he says, “better than anything we could have hoped for. Better, actually, than anything we dared imagine”.
The musicians of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, a resident company at the Opera House, arrived on Monday morning, two and a half years after they first relocated to Sydney Town Hall while the concert hall underwent renewal.
“They started playing and the faces of the people in the room were a sight to behold, they were incredulous,” says Haveron, a world-renowned violinist. “I managed to get off the stage at one point to listen to my colleagues. [Pianist] Simon Tedeschi was playing excerpts from Grieg and Mozart while I ran all over the auditorium, trying every seat in the house. I was flabbergasted. You can hear every minute detail now, every nuance – right up to the back row, everything pings through. It’s a miracle.”
Before the renovation, the brass players and the string section sounded like they were playing in different spaces, Haveron says. “The sound of different parts of the orchestra would arrive at different times and the players couldn’t hear each other properly either. Now no one is up there guessing how loud they need to be anymore.”
Contemporary music fans will notice a more nuanced sound, too, says Marshall. “With the sound system we’ve installed, we can be loud – incredibly loud, actually – yet still have the same kind of sonic precision you would expect to hear if you were listening to a symphony orchestra.”
The hall’s new automated acoustic draping system, designed to deaden the room for amplified concerts, also allows for a more efficient use of the space, he adds.
“We’ve hosted acts as diverse as Prince, Stone Roses, Wu-Tang Clan, The Flaming Lips, Nick Cave and Solange – and each time, our team has had to work some serious magic to turn the room from a concert space into a contemporary music room.”
The process was time-consuming and hard work, involving the hanging of hundreds of square metres of heavy black drapes (“the pirate ship sails”) along the walls and balconies of the auditorium. It took hours.
“Just about all of that is automated now,” Marshall says. “We can push a button, the sonic baffles come down, and the room is less reverberant in a matter of minutes.”
As a result, says Marshall, the orchestra can use the space to rehearse in the morning, a full-scale contemporary music concert can be bumped in and sound-checked that afternoon and ready to roll by early evening.
“Doing that before the renovations created a lot of stress,” says Marshall. “Now we can have a more relaxed changeover and hopefully, a more relaxed artist delivering a better show.”
The number of seats sold for contemporary music events in the concert hall has risen steadily over the decades, and has outstripped sales for classical performances since the early 2000s. The hope is that the hall’s renovations will continue to expand its appeal for artists and more diverse audiences.
“We sold more than 90,000 tickets [for contemporary music events] in the year up to closing for the renovation which was a 33% increase on the previous year’s sale,” says Marshall. “It’s a really big part of what we do at the Opera House and [the renovations] allow us to be a more representative venue for the people of Sydney.”