Drama and Grandeur – The Bitter Sweet Story of Sydney’s Opera House

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sydney opera house

Photo by Iza Sanchez

Back in the day, when I was a crazed teenager chasing my idols to their hotels, I was able to corner Alanis Morisette before she slipped inside the elevator. I took a snapshot as the annoyed bodyguard looked on. Then, I handed Alanis my Jagged Little Pill album cover, those were the cassette tape days. She was nice enough to sign it and when she was gone I was in shock and star-struck. It was a fan’s moment of glory. That’s the best way I can describe how I felt when I first saw the Sydney Opera House. The structure is a celebrity itself with more than 500,000 followers on facebook.

It was my 3rd day in Sydney and my first time in the city. From the train we hurried on to Wharf 6 to catch the 2pm ferry. When we were finally settled at the wharf, I caught sight of the white shell shaped roof against the clear blue sky. There she sat elegantly on Benelong Point. What a spectacular sight.

sydney opera house

Photo by Iza Sanchez

Since its completion in 1973 the Sydney Opera House has become a symbol of Sydney, Australia. On October of 2013 the Opera House celebrated its 40th birthday and for the anniversary month, the foundation was giving away complimentary tickets to the open house tours. A Sydney resident with a visiting companion was entitled to a free ticket. My sister and I grabbed the freebie and booked our date on the last day of October.

The tour was about one and a half hours. Our guide took us inside some of the theaters as she shared insider trivia and gossiped about the prince and princess of Denmark. “You don’t have to kiss a frog to have a prince, just go to a bar,” said our guide jokingly. Apparently, Princess Mary, an Australian native met the crown prince of Denmark, Frederick at a bar in Sydney during the Sydney Olympics in the year 2000. From there it was a happily ever after story.

I only saw the couple on tv while they were in town, a picture perfect pair who were invited to grace the 40th anniversary ceremony of the Opera House as it is significantly linked to the Danes because of its Danish creator and architect Jørn Utzon,

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Photo by Iza Sanchez

The guided tour was a good opportunity to delve into the history of the Sydney Opera House. What moved me the most was the story of Jørn Utzon. It was in 1957 when the New South Wales Premier Joseph Cahill, announced an international contest for the design of a national opera house. Top architects from around the world participated. The judges had 233 entries to review.

During the initial selections, the Utzon design was rejected. Perhaps, the design was too avant-garde for the times. Then, by chance or probably by fate an American Judge Eero Saarinen, decided to review the rejected entries and was impressed with the Utzon design, it was one of a kind. Jørn Utzon was back in the game and at the final judging he emerged the winner.

sydney opera house

Photo by Iza Sanchez

It was a life changing event for Mr. Utzon, not only did he win a good amount of cash, but he also had to uproot his business in Denmark and relocate to Sydney to join the team of experts who would oversee the construction. The work began in 1959 and for the next six years Jørn Utzon collaborated with the NSW government on the project. Like many large-scale projects, there were delays, setbacks and surging costs. By, 1965 a new government was elected and the Ministry of Work’s began inquiries on Jørn Utzon’s plans, recommendations and cost estimates. Payments to Utzon were suspended which eventually urged him to resign as the Chief Architect in 1966.

When the news of his resignation went public there were marches and protests in Sydney with demands that the government reinstate Mr. Utzon. That never transpired and a few months after his resignation Utzon returned to Europe.

He would continue to create outstanding designs like the parliament building in Kuwait in 1983 and would receive multiple international design awards. But, he was never able to travel back to Sydney to see his greatest work completed. Mr. Utzon died in Copenhagen in 2008.

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Photo by Iza Sanchez

From the documentary, I recall it was stated that the estimated time and cost of the project was 6-7 years and costs of up to 7 million dollars. Instead the project lasted 13-14 years with costs of up to 102 million dollars. Although, our guide noted that the NSW government was able to gain back those costs  from the Opera House’ earnings in just a few short years after its inauguration.

sydney opera house

Photo by Iza Sanchez

Time heals all wounds and in 1999 the NSW government succeeded in inviting Jørn Utzon to collaborate with them in designing principles to be used as references for future projects and maintenance of the structure. Jørn Utzon agreed and with his son Jan Utzon, he once more worked hand-in-hand with the NSW government. Also, in 2004 the then Premier Bob Car dedicated the enhanced Reception Hall to Mr. Utzon and renamed it the Utzon Room.

sydney opera house

Photo by Iza Sanchez

The Sydney Opera House is a UNESCO World Heritage site, recognized as one of the monumental architectural achievements of the 20th century. The product of one man’s vision, creativity and boldness. An inspiring legacy and what I’d like to think of as Jørn Utzon’s gift to humanity.


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Iza Sanchez

Iza Sanchez is a freelance ESL Teacher, adventurer and moderator of Take The Travel. She writes about solo-backpacking, travel saving tips and other awesome travel resources.

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4 Responses

  1. Lara says:

    Amazing photographs and a beautiful story. It’s sad the architect didn’t get to see the Opera House in person. Thanks for sharing this.

  2. Iza Sanchez says:

    Hi Lara, Thanks! Yes, I got depressed hearing about that during the tour. But, I’m sure he was able to see it many times on TV and in photographs. On a positive note, at least Mr. Utzon’s name and creativity will live on through the Opera House.

  1. 22 December, 2013

    […] Drama and Grandeur – The Bitter Sweet Story of Sydney’s Opera House […]

  2. 30 December, 2013

    […] Drama and Grandeur – The Bitter Sweet Story of Sydney’s Opera House […]

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