House calls

Author: lisa pryor
Photography: prue ruscoe

Harry Seidler described it as poetry, Frank Lloyd Wright dismissed it as a circus tent. Paul Keating said the city got tapped on the shoulder by a rainbow when it settled on the design by a young Danish architect named Jørn Utzon, and that "the odds of Sydney picking up the building of the 20th century must have been millions to one."

Not only is it the most compelling icon of the city, it is one of the most compelling pieces of architecture in the world. When the Sydney Opera House joined UNESCO's World Heritage List in 2007, placing it alongside Egypt's pyramids and the Great Wall of China, it became the youngest cultural site ever to make the grade. So I feel fortunate to have passed by and moved through this building all my life, yet sorry to have taken it for granted. As a four-year-old, high on the promise of a real princess, I dragged my mother to the crowded forecourt to watch Princess Diana glide past. Later I would pass by the white sails on ferry trips, gaze down upon them from city office jobs, or race up the endless steps, five minutes late for the symphony or a play. In the summer months the bar on the promenade became my destination of choice for gin and tonics in the sun as I welcomed back friends escaping harsh winters in adopted homes like London and New York.

Now the icon enters a time of transformation greater than any since its opening. As Opera House chief executive Richard Evans explains, "Utzon could never have foreseen how busy the precinct was to become." Evans says when he met with Utzon before his death in 2008, they talked a lot about the precinct. "He was very, very clear that the building had to change to the way performers and the public wanted to use it over time."

The construction works which will commence in the coming months will be the biggest the site has seen since its opening in 1973. The renovations are expected to cost $152 million and take three years, with most of the work taking place behind the scenes while the House remains fully operational. A tunnel will be dug from Macquarie Street to a new loading dock under the venue, so pedestrians will no longer have to compete with trucks for space on the forecourt. "Utzon himself designed the idea of the underground loading dock 10 years before his death," says Evans.

In the Opera Theatre a new platform lift will be installed so sets can be assembled more smoothly, while the theatre awaits a complete revamp which has been delayed for at least a decade thanks to an $800-million price tag.

The months to come offer a series of firsts and lasts for visitors and locals alike: a last chance to view the behind-the-scenes workings of the Opera Theatre and the forecourt before they are handed over to builders. And a first chance to sample the offerings at Opera Kitchen, a new group of restaurants with a shared dining space along the seawall. Evans is keen to underline the relevance of the precinct even for those who are not on their way to one of the six performance spaces. "We want to create an environment where you don't have to be going to a show; there's WiFi, there's good wine," he says.

With such changes afoot at the Opera House, it seemed the perfect time for a native Sydneysider to experience its offerings anew, spending an entire day and evening above, below and around it.

7AM To see the secret machinations behind Sydney Opera House, you have to get up early. While the city is still rising from slumber, we are deep in its belly on a backstage tour which grants us special leave to explore spaces usually forbidden to the public. At this hour, blokes in shorts and boots, one with a hammer in his back pocket, pass through the stage door, well before there are bassoonists, sopranos and ballerinas to disturb.

For us, the quiet hour gives us the run of the stages and orchestra pits, guided by Ann Toltz, who takes us through the magical, measured chaos behind the stage with a fluidity that hints at her past career as a dancer. Along the way she shares stories which have become Opera House legends: the battered service lift which Dame Joan Sutherland used as a dressing room for quick changes; the same lift which swallowed a hapless Russian vocalist, taking him down to the basement when he meant to rise to the action, sabotaging his moment of glory; the mesmerised chickens which toppled from stage to orchestra pit, leading to the installation of a safety net to protect humans and fowl alike.

We pick our way past sets which arrive like jigsaw pieces, ready for assembling, past crates of props for the latest Australian Ballet production - "candelabra" stamped on one crate, "goose" on another - before winding our way up a spiral staircase to the orchestra pit and then to the stage above. Along the way we admire the mechanics behind the artistry, the hydraulic lift which raises sets, whole choirs, up to the stage. When the renovations are complete this lift will be joined by another one, raising scenery from the loading dock below.

Later we pass the muffled sounds of a lone violinist, arrived early for practice, and a warning notice pinned to the stage manager's door: "Children left unattended will be sold to the circus." It is these little details which make the tour, the small forbidden things glanced along the way. In the dressing area, peeping out of immaculate white boxes, we discover giant mouse heads and tails, costumes for The Nutcracker that night. By the time we make it to the Drama Theatre, we find evidence of mice less balletic and more literal: a box behind the stage labelled "Rodent bait poison, do not touch". At the Opera House! Who knew?

10AM By the time we emerge from the darkness within, the morning is warm and the city busy. The white sails catch the light, a reminder that this is as> much a sculpture as a building, designed for viewing in the round.

One of the most stunning ways to experience its grandeur, a revelation for visitors and locals alike, is from the air. So a water taxi carries us from a surging pontoon right next to the Opera House across to Rose Bay, where seaplanes rocket along the water and into the air.

Stepping aboard the tiny plane, it is difficult not to notice the period detail - knobs, levers and round dials, windows with vents to the open air. For a second it dawns on me that vintage is a quality not normally sought out in a contraption which is about to lift human beings high above land and harbour, but in this case the age of the 1963 De Havilland aircraft adds a sense of romance, even a touch of James Bond, to the journey.

Within a quarter of an hour we travel the full sweep of the northern beaches all the way to Palm Beach, before doubling back over the lighthouse which marks the northerly tip of the peninsula.

Then, in the final minutes of the flight, we pass close to the Opera House. From this angle the extraordinary geography of the site is made plain, lapped by sea on three sides, the lush green of the Royal Botanic Gardens making up the fourth. We gaze down at those brilliant ceramic tiles from Scandinavia, more than a million of them, spread over more than a hectare. From this angle the surface looks lacquered and almost yellowing, like teeth.

1PM Such a full morning calls for some serious lunch, today at Opera Kitchen on the promenade. Open since December, Opera Kitchen fills the gap between fine dining and finger sandwiches, bringing together four diverse names in Sydney food. Justin North contributes Bécasse Bakery and Charlie & Co burgers, while seafood industry veteran John Susman brings the catch of Cloudy Bay Fish Co to the table. There's the Vietnamese fare of rice paper roll queen Nga "Nahji" Chu at Misschu, and Kenji, the Japanese offering from Kenji Nishinakagawa.

The layout consists of restaurant counters lined up in a row, each facing out to a shared outdoor dining space seating 350. Diners order at the counters before taking a seat anywhere they like, or, in the case of Kenji, pulling up a stool at the sushi bar.

According to Susman, the collaboration is a meeting of "the old guard and the new". He and Nishinakagawa were pioneers of the Sydney food scene back in the early 1990s, Nishinakagawa introducing the town to serious sushi at what was then the ANA Hotel, Susman supplying seafood to the top restaurants through the Flying Squid Brothers. The ascendency of North and Chu followed, with North opening his acclaimed Bécasse restaurant in 2001 and Chu's Vietnamese hawker cuisine more recently becoming a staple on the Darlinghurst dining scene. What these two generations have in common, says Susman, is that they're driven by produce and seasonal availability; most of Susman's own seafood, for instance, is caught by the Cloudy Bay team in Marlborough Sounds, New Zealand. Being fresh, high quality and affordable, it's exactly the kind of food which was notoriously difficult to find in Sydney's CBD not long ago. "It brings authenticity," Susman says. "The kind of food that's typically found in the urban villages rather than downtown."

We range over the menu, travelling from the delicate simplicity of Kenji's seared scallop carpaccio to plank-roasted salmon from Cloudy Bay, presented on a slab of cedar and served as a salad with bread or on a roll with salad, crisps and a pickle for those on the run. With the Harbour Bridge in full view before us, it's easy to see how Opera Kitchen makes the most of its location. Just don't call it a food court.

3PM It is the middle of the afternoon and the House is busy with artists readying themselves for the evening's performances. In the green room ballerinas stream past, lithe and otherworldly, even in singlets and tracksuit pants. Then over the loudspeakers comes a call for the Sydney Symphony: "All musicians for the serenade, to the concert platform."

Weaving in and out of the building over the course of the day, a contradiction becomes apparent. Theatre, ballet, opera and many of the other art forms hosted in this multifaceted performance venue (2500 events a year including comedy, puppetry and jazz) demand enclosure and darkness. By necessity, the halls and theatres are sealed off from the very things which makes the location so magnificent: the glittering sunlight and blue water.

With the warmth of a summer afternoon beckoning, it seems only right to leave the darkness until the evening and spend the final daylight hours experiencing the surrounds, which are buzzing with activity.

The House is the perfect launch point for a saunter through the Royal Botanic Gardens, following the curve of Farm Cove all the way to Mrs Macquarie's Chair, with its view back towards the city. Or to venture inland to the depths of the gardens, the herb plots and the palm house.

By the time the walk is done it may be possible to justify a cocktail at Opera Bar, next door to Opera Kitchen. Over the years this bar has morphed from tourist haunt to local staple, attracting office workers wining away the stresses of the day, post-theatre sippers and those keen to show visiting friends what Sydney offers for the price of a beer: a view that makes you feel you have been transported into a postcard.

There are loads of glammed-up girls drinking cocktails, whether it be a Dirty Carpet Disco (yes, it's a drink) blending Chambord, vanilla-infused vodka and wild strawberry liqueur with apple juice, soda and berries, or an Opera White Tea, a vodka and pear concoction.

6PM The Opera House offers a sense of occasion in a country which prides itself on informality. Situated within its very own sails - the smallest ones, nestled at the back of the structure - is Guillaume at Bennelong, Guillaume Brahimi's three-star fine-diner.

We are seated at one of the spacious round tables with a view across the water towards the city, so we are able to enjoy the sunset as it settles over the western corner of the CBD. The dramatic tiered structure of the space, with a bar on the top level cascading to the seating area down below, lends a sense of drama for the diners; romancing couples at the smaller tables, business gatherings at the larger ones.

While we await the arrival of our entrées - basil-infused yellowfin tuna with soy and mustard seed vinaigrette, and duck foie gras deglazed with sherry vinegar on date chutney with a salad of fig and endive - we admire the graceful arc of the concrete ribs above us. The grace belies the tortuous journey which brought it all into being. Sixteen years elapsed between the time when Utzon submitted his plans from his home in Denmark and the eventual opening. Between those two dates stood years of delay, millions of dollars, the resignation of Utzon, all the practical business of gluing, anchoring and cabling to make the drawings a reality. The government ran a series of lotteries to pay the bill. As we dine, I think of these lotteries and how typical it is that this temple of arts was financed, in the true brash style of Sydney, by gambling.

8PM The day began with a view of the Opera Theatre's orchestra pit from within; now the view turns and we are watching the pit from outside. Below that safety net attributed to mesmerised chickens, musicians are tuning up, preparing for The Nutcracker.

The woman beside me leans over to ask whether her tiny daughter can swap seats with me for a better view. We scramble as the lights go down and the orchestra begins; in the confusion Maltesers drop and scatter across the timber floor.

The curtains rise to reveal the set, which seemed so slapdash in the morning when we stood on the stage, the walls messily painted in red. Now it has come alive under lights as rich, glowing velvet. Dancers are met with lively applause; the alternating seasons of ballet and opera are known for attracting passionate audiences.

By the time the Sugar Plum Fairy makes her entrance the little girls sitting in the stalls are asleep, the one next to me wrapped in a shawl on her mother's lap, not rousing even to the applause for the Arabian dancers, the Snow Fairy, the Rose Fairy.

At the end the children are nudged gently awake, before joining the crowd streaming back down the stairs and along the promenade towards the city. Opera Bar is loud and packed tight as young women elbow space for themselves on the dance floor. Back inside the Opera Theatre, perhaps now, or closer to midnight, or early the next morning, someone will be sweeping up those Maltesers ready for another performance.


Opera Kitchen is a collection of restaurants offering everything from banana and salted peanut brittle tarts at Bécasse Bakery to rice paper rolls with tiger prawn and green mango at Misschu. Misschu, Charlie & Co, Kenji and Cloudy Bay Fish Co are open for lunch and dinner until late, while Bécasse Bakery also opens for breakfast from 7.30am. Lower Concourse Level, Sydney Opera House

Guillaume at Bennelong serves lunch and dinner as well as Opera High Tea, with private opera recital, every second Wednesday, $145 per person. Entry via lower concourse, next to concert hall entry, (02) 9241 1999. For Opera High Tea bookings, phone (02) 9250 7250.

Opera Bar is open daily from 11.30am, with live music from 2pm on weekends and 8.30pm each night. Lower Concourse Level, Sydney Opera House, (02) 9247 1666

Theatre bars
Theatre-goers who teem at these foyer bars during interval have been enjoying a new choice of wines since the range was refreshed last year by sommelier Nick Hildebrandt of Bentley Restaurant & Bar. Bars are located outside the Concert Hall and the Opera Theatre and in the foyer shared by the Playhouse, the Studio and the Drama Theatre. (02) 9250 7868

Opera House Box Office
Much more than opera takes place on the stages of the Opera House, with regular performances by the Australian Ballet, Bell Shakespeare, Sydney Theatre Company and Sydney Symphony among others. Bookings (02) 9250 7777

Royal Botanic Gardens
Established in 1816 and covering 30 hectares by the harbour, the gardens offer respite from the bustle of the city. Free guided walks depart daily at 10.30am from outside the Gardens Shop at the Palm Grove Centre and last an hour and a half. Shorter lunchtime walks depart weekdays at 1pm. Mrs Macquarie's Rd, Sydney, (02) 9231 8111

Opera House Tours
The Backstage Tour departs daily at 7am, $155 per person. An Essentials Tour through the public spaces of the House, which delves into the history and architecture of the building, departs every 30 minutes between 9am and 5pm, $35 per person. (02) 9250 7250

Sea Plane Tours
Sydney Opera House and Sydney Seaplanes offer two packages departing daily. For the Backstage Tour and the Sydney Secrets flight the cost is $499 per person. The Essential Tour and the Sydney Highlights Flight costs $265 per person. 1300 732 752


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