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The Opera House’s biggest venue is closing for a huge two-year renovation

By
Ben Neutze
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It’s been almost five decades since the Sydney Opera House opened to the public, and since then everybody has voiced an opinion on our city’s shimmering jewel. It’s widely regarded as one of the most beautiful buildings of the 20th century, but there have been plenty of complaints about the functionality of some of its key spaces. The Concert Hall, which was originally intended to be a more versatile theatre for opera, has come under fire for its acoustics more than anything – in 2014, actor John Malkovich said the venue had “acoustics that would do an aeroplane hangar a disservice”.

Ouch.

Now, 47 years after opening, the Opera House is putting its money where its mouth is, with a major upgrade designed to improve its acoustics and the versatility of the space. It’s the biggest part of the Opera House’s renewal project, which will cost just shy of $300 million to improve and future-proof the building. The Joan Sutherland Theatre has already been given a facelift, but the Concert Hall will be closing from the start of February for the project. The current timeline will have the venue closed for at least 18 months, and potentially up to two years.

But the Opera House’s head of contemporary music, Ben Marshall, is keen to remind audiences that the venue is still open. 

“There are six other internal venues unaffected by the Concert Hall renewal,” he says. “Every major performance venue needs to close from time to time to undertake upgrades, and it’s no different for us.”

So what’s on the cards for the renovations? 

  • New automated sound reflector panels will be added, alongside a new automated draping system, designed to improve the acoustics for both amplified and unamplified concerts and make a quick switch between the two.
  • The stage will be lowered by about 400 millimetres, to create a sense of intimacy, improve sightlines and improve access to the backstage facilities. 
  • New hydraulic lifts will be installed below the stage so it can transform with different platforms at different heights.
  • The facilities above the stage will be improved so heavier lighting systems and setpieces can be hung from the ceiling.
  • A lift and passageway will be added to allow wheelchair users to access all levels of the Concert Hall.
  • A new, fully integrated sound system will be installed to improve the sound for amplified music.

This last improvement is a particularly important step for the Concert Hall given that the number of contemporary concerts staged in the venue has risen sharply in recent decades. The number of tickets the Opera House sells to contemporary music has risen from 30,000 to 120,000 in the past ten years (although the Concert Hall is still very firmly dominated by orchestral music, as is the Joan Sutherland Theatre), but it’s been difficult to house artists like Lizzo, Prince, Solange, Janet Jackson and Kanye West on a stage that was designed specifically for unamplified music.

Lizzo in the Concert Hall, January 2020. Photograph: Daniel Boud.

“Amon Tobin at Vivid 2012 – was when we really did our first big electronic music performance in that room, and it was astonishing feeling this concert hall work as a bass pit just brilliantly to the point that several front-of-house staff got motion sickness from the level of reverberation,” Marshall says.

But there have been instances where the Opera House has had to say no to certain productions as the Concert Hall has lacked certain capabilities.

Image: Supplied.

“There are limits to what we can currently stage in that room,” Marshall says. “Not that we’ve ever got into a serious conversation with Chemical Brothers, but you look at their stage show, and there’s just no way that’s ever going to go into the Concert Hall as it currently stands.”

But that hasn’t stopped the Opera House from diversifying. The biggest struggle has been in ensuring that the venue – full of bare timber designed to resonate unamplified sound – can be transformed so that amplified sound doesn’t become murky as it bounces around the space. This has required draping to be hung around the hall and above the stage, but it’s been particularly cumbersome for crews to transform the venue manually depending on the style of concert. 

Photograph: Daniel Boud.

The interior of the Concert Hall won’t look dramatically different and will retain its timber and colour scheme. In fact, the only major visual difference people might notice is that the plastic doughnuts that have long hung above the stage will be replaced by new acoustic reflector panels. Those doughnuts have been a divisive visual feature since the Concert Hall opened, so does Marshall think audiences might miss them?

“I’ve seen what the architects and acousticians are proposing, and I think it’s incredibly elegant and really in keeping with the room,” he says. “I imagine everyone will fall in love with it when they’re in the room, and really hear the difference.”

Check out our guide to Sydney's live music scene.

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