Fun facts about the Sydney Opera House

The Sydney Opera House is turning 50 this year.

It’s one of Australia’s most recognisable sites, but how much do you know about this cultural and tourism icon?

Here are some interesting facts.

Lucky loser

Initially, Danish architect Jorn Utzon’s design didn’t even make the shortlist for the design competition for the opera house.

Lucky for him – and us – a panellist who recognised his talent snuck it back on.

Take a bow Eero Saarinen, for who knows what we would have ended up with if not for his subterfuge.

Saarinen ended up designing the TWA passenger terminal at John F. Kennedy International Airport, a building that bears more than just a few similarities to the opera house. Coincidence?

Money pit

It was estimated it that would take four years and $7 million to build. It took 14 years and cost $102 million to build and was largely funded by a state lottery.

Unfinished business

Utzon never saw the finished product in real life.

As the project turned into a cash vacuum, he came under increasing pressure about the design and costs and left the country, never to return.

The project was completed by architect Peter Hall who is responsible for most of the interior.  

Robeson’s performance

The first person to perform at the Opera House was US singer Paul Robeson. In 1960, he sang Ol’ Man River to construction workers as they ate lunch.

The first official performance was held more than a decade later, in 1973, with a production of War and Peace.

It was opened by Queen Elizabeth II, who visited the opera house four times during her reign.

Famous people and acts who have graced the stage at the opera house include Bob Dylan, Crowded House, Dame Joan Sutherland, Nick Cave, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Pope John Paul II and Nelson Mandela.

A less famous, but more regular visitor is Benny the seal, who has been sunning himself on the opera steps off and on since 2014.

One of a kind

The opera house has a few hidden design quirks.

The house is cooled by seawater taken from the harbour and circulated through 35km of pipes to power both the heating and air-conditioning.

More than one million roof tiles cover the exterior. They were designed to be self-cleaning through rainwater and are not, in fact, white, although they appear white.

The designers quite sensibly thought pure white tiles would create too much glare.

According to Architectural Digest, they are made out of what became known as ‘Sydney stone’.

The tiles have a low percentage of crushed stone and have blue and cream hues that can only be viewed close up.

You might expect fancy tiles like that to be manufactured at some specialist site overseas, but, no, they just bunged up a temporary factory on the steps below and got on with it.

Playing chicken

A net was installed above the orchestra pit in the Joan Sutherland Theatre during the 1980s, following an incident during the opera Boris Godunov. The opera featured live chickens and one bird walked off the stage and landed on top of a cellist.

Have you been to the Sydney Opera House? What did you see there. We’d love to hear about your experience in the comments section below.

Also read: The Sydney must-stays for every art lover

Jan Fisher
Jan Fisher
Accomplished journalist, feature writer and sub-editor with impressive knowledge of the retirement landscape, including retirement income, issues that affect Australians planning and living in retirement, and answering YLC members' Age Pension and Centrelink questions. She has also developed a passion for travel and lifestyle writing and is fast becoming a supermarket savings 'guru'.
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