After two-and-a-half years of painstaking and science-backed renovations, the Sydney Opera House’s Concert Hall is finally ready to welcome back concertgoers. More than $190 million has been invested in the top-to-bottom glow-up of the heritage-listed venue to improve its famously bad acoustics and increase accessibility to the entire footprint of the hall.
Due to corner-cutting in an effort to deflate ballooning construction costs, a move which resulted in the Opera House’s visionary architect, Jorn Utzon, walking away from the project before its completion, Australia’s most iconic building has had notoriously flawed acoustics since its opening in 1973. While its external appearance has become one of the most recognisable structures ever built, the dull, splashy, uneven performance conditions in the Concert Hall have been a source of frustration for many artists who have come to Sydney over the past five decades. Giant perspex ‘doughnuts’ were installed above the concert platform in the ‘90s to adjust the acoustics, but these had to be manually winched, meaning changes in set-up, from an acoustic performance to an amplified one, for example, could take several days to complete.
The recently completed renovations have not only fixed these issues but have exceeded the expectations of the acousticians and engineers behind the upgrades. The perspex doughnuts have been replaced by 18 computer-controlled sound-reflecting ‘petals’ that can be positioned to alter the acoustic conditions with incredible precision. The walls have been lined with undulating wooden patterns – dubbed acoustic diffusion panels – designed in a computer to interact with soundwaves as they propagate through the air. The stage has also been lowered so that the musicians are closer to the audience, and motorised risers across the concert platform allow for numerous set-ups depending on the demands of the ensemble or repertoire.
While the Concert Hall was originally conceived as the home venue for the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, largely focused on the performance of classical music, it has become just as in-demand as a venue for modern musicians. To meet these evolving needs, a state-of-the-art sound system has been installed, as well as acoustic banners that can be lowered automatically from the ceiling to deaden the reverb of the space. All of the possible acoustic settings can be altered in a matter of hours or even minutes, so punters can be enjoying an orchestral concert one night and a thrash metal gig the next, without the need for days of downtime.
Musicians who have been brought in to test the upgrades say the improvements have totally transformed the experience of playing in the Sydney Opera House, but the engineers behind the renovations have also been careful to ensure the changes are as aesthetically pleasing as they are aurally. The acoustic petals have been coloured the same magenta hue as the upholstery of the auditorium seating, to better integrate the tech into the space, and the undulating wood panels have a sculptural beauty all of their own.
Accessibility was not a high priority in the Opera House’s original designs and for the past 50 years, wheelchair users have been unable to reach the Northern Foyer, a multi-level lounge and bar space that has some of the most breathtaking views of the Harbour Bridge and North Shore. To address this a new tunnel has been cut into the structure and a new ‘Willy Wonka-style’ glass elevator has been installed, making all four levels of the northern end of the Concert Hall finally accessible to all.