Posted by: Anna | August 10, 2011

Sydney Opera House

From guest blogger Sally Field (Anna’s mom):

I cannot say what a treat it is to be in Australia and then traveling to New Zealand with my family.  Jerry and I have never taken a three week vacation before and doing it with adult children (almost adult in Jack’s case) is a rarity that you have to treasure.  Taking it with Anna and Tommy in the middle of their around the world adventure is an even bigger rarity.  This is the trip of a lifetime for me.

Like many trips to an unknown city or foreign country, getting around can be the most challenging part of the day.  This is true even when you think you have a plan.  Sydney’s public transportation is pretty confusing by anyone’s standards.  Thank goodness Anna and Tommy have such a good attitude about it and never hesitate to ask directions or for help.  The 555 free shuttles around the CBD stopping at the Circular Quay near the Opera House is what we had counted on.  However, we learned that morning that it didn’t start running until 9:30, which didn’t work for our 9:00 tour.  With limited bus information and even more limited time, we had to think cab.

We had figured out already that with 5 people a taxi is about as cheap as light rail or bus, at least one way.  However you cannot ride just any taxi with five people — you have to have a maxi taxi. A maxi taxi is a van that seats usually up to 8.  Unfortunately, they are scarce and time was ticking away.  So Tommy and Jack elected to walk the almost two miles down to the Harbour, freeing Anna, Jerry and I to take a cab.  Our cab driver was great as he drove us right up to the door of the Opera House to preserve Anna’s still healing ankle.  Tommy and Jack got there in plenty of time too.

The view of the Opera House, even before we went in, was spectacular. It is as beautiful as its reputation and is THE landmark of Sydney.  It is modern and epitomizes the word “organic” in its design.  It seems perfectly designed for its location, even more so when you know the whole story of its design and construction.  It almost seems to be part of the landscape as much of the sandstone rock formations around Sydney.

It is located on Bennelong Point, a small peninsula jutting out near the Circular Quay and just across from the Harbour Bridge.  It is surrounded on almost all sides by water making a complete viewing of it impossible without being out in the Harbour.  When we arrived we went downstairs to pick up our tickets at will call and then stood outside enjoying the views of Sydney and the Bridge.  One thing to know is that there is a great brekkie (breakfast in Aussie) to be had at the Opera Bar.  It was a gorgeous day — all blue skies and blue water.  Eat your heart out in Dallas with the heat wave and near 110 degrees — it was chilly in the morning and the temperature would peak for the day at about 75.

We met up for the tour and were fortunate to have a small group of about 15.  As we saw much larger groups later we knew we were lucky in that as well as that we would get to see the Concert Hall, the Opera Theatre and The Utzon Room.  None of the groups after us would get to the interior of the Opera Theatre or The Utzon Room, apparently pretty commonly missed on tours.  They were already setting up and going to have rehearsals for events that evening.  Our tour was lead by Pam using headphones that she handed out to us.  The headphones were great, making hearing Pam very easy but they do isolate you a bit from the reactions of others.  We started with the Concert Hall which is where the Sydney Symphony performs.  They were taking down the decorations from the Aussie version of the Tonys held there the night before, quite a red carpet event according to Pam.  In the Hall each musician can hear every note they play almost immediately.

During the tour we saw a series of three videos telling the story about the architect Jorn Utzon and the design and construction of the Opera House.  The story was fascinating and definitely added to the personality of the Opera House.  Apparently Utzon’s plans were originally rejected by the selection committee but when a new Finnish American judge was added he insisted on going through all the previously rejected entries.  When he saw Utzon’s designs he said that was the design even though Utzon’s designs violated a couple of the rules of entry, particularly in the area of details to be provided.  The drawings he submitted, which the first video showed, were very rudimentary but compelling in how modern and even revolutionary they were, especially for 1957. That was the beginning of a troubled journey to get the Opera House built.

My favorite of the three videos was the second one and was shown on one inside concrete wall of the Opera House highlighting the challenges of building it and the troubled relationship during construction between the city leaders and Utzon.  Apparently the biggest challenge of building the Opera House was that current technology did not provide a solution as to how to build the spherical pieces.  For this and other reasons the cost ballooned from $7M to $107M and the timeline from about 3 years to an ultimate completion date of 1973 or about 14 years.  While Utzon ultimately solved the construction challenge, before the Opera House was completed he was forced out.  He was replaced with a committee of Aussie architects.  There is a happy ending, even though Utzon never saw the House completed in person.  He was brought in later to help complete the interior consistent with his original vision.

The Utzon Room, which is rarely part of the tour, was part of that healing process with Utzon.  It was built and dedicated in his honor.  He was allowed to participate in that design long distance from Denmark as his health prevented travelling to do it in person.  The wall hanging is particularly compelling as it was designed by him with all fabrics from Australia except for one patch of fabric in gold thread from Germany.  It is supposed to represent what he saw when he closed his eyes and listened to music.  The black and grey spots to represent percussion.   Quite imaginative.  When it was hung he saw pictures of it and announced it was hung too low (something like 5/16th of an inch).  It was moved.

I found the story of his design very moving. It was also moving that his son an architect, and his daughter-in-law, an artist, are even still actively involved in the Opera House’s maintenance and design.  It is an immense accomplishment and a world treasure and during my time in Sydney I never tired of admiring it.

My favorite moments in touring the Opera House were definitely the second video, the Utzon Room tapestry, and seeing bits of the roof and interior architecture juxtaposed against each other that the wide windows throughout provided.  I would have loved to attend an event there and if I get to return someday, that will be at the top of my list.  I am so glad we made it first thing we did our first day in Sydney.



  1. One of the highlights of my time in Sydney was the tour of the Opera House also. I did get to see a play there that evening, so it was even more memorable.

  2. Oh is sounds like you all are having a fabulous time! You aren’t missing anything here. It’s like living in a skillet! Stay cool!

  3. Sally, your post made me absolutely want to visit! The drama of the facility, as well as the drama of the story behind it are absolutely fascinating. I hope you had a wonderful birthday too! Love you, and safe travels, Sandy

  4. Great commentary, even the funny part about this being your first 3 week vacation. Have fun

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