The Wolanski Foundation Project


Sydney Opera House Story: a chronology 1606 to date





0ur site
Performing arts & theatre
Music & opera
Film, radio, TV
Sydney Opera House











The Sydney Opera House Story: 2008

In response to visitor demand, this chronology has been compiled by Paul Bentley to record the story of the Dennis Wolanski Library of the Performing Arts and associated projects within the context of the Sydney Opera House story, theatrical associations with the Bennelong Point site, Jørn Utzon’s involvement with the House and changes to the building. It draws on and updates Philip Drew’s extensive chronology Utzon and the Sydney Opera House and a number of other sources. See also Sydney Opera House: an annotated list of sources

1606-1956 | 1957-1969 | 1970-1979 | 1980-1989 | 1990-1999 | 2000-2005 | 2006-2007 | 2008 | 2009-2010 | 2011-2013 | 2014


Jan 31 Evans sets course. In his first extended interview as CEO of the Sydney Opera House (In the Spotlight, Valerie Lawson, The Sydney Magazine, February 08), Richard Evans talks about the challenges of "having to report to so many bosses" and of raising funds for the proposed $700 million renovations to the House. He promises that the "secretive nature" of the House will change, as will the relationships with resident companies. "The hallmark of my time there, if I were to project 10 years — because I think it will take 10 years — would be for the work on the inside of the House to be as remarkable as the outside of the House."


Feb 07 Call for a new opera house instead of a better old one. Greg Lenthen, in Let's Rethink This Renovation, and Build a New Opera House, explores planned renovations at Bennelong Point and urges that "before the state and federal governments contemplate spending $700 million, or anything like it, on a significant overhaul of the existing structure, they should carefully consider whether a new opera and ballet would be better value. Sydney has the Eighth Wonder; its time it also had a first class opera house." [SMH]


Feb 07 Australian Galleries, Paddington, opens Playback, an exhibition of works on paper by Mika Utzon Popov, grandson of Jørn Utzon. The exhibition consists of 26 drawings in charcoal, pencil and acrylic ranging in price from $305-$5,940 and runs to 24 February.
Feb 08 Don't Create More Dramas for Utzon's Masterpiece is the heading for five letters prompted by Greg Lenthen's article in the SMH. David Brown, Head of Public Affairs at the Opera House (1970-1997), while acknowledging the genius of Jørn Utzon, notes the fragility of the building, limited wing space in the major halls, and the opportunity for spending the money on a new opera house, starting, for its design inspiration, on the inside. Architect Andrew Andersons says "the ill-considered [renovations] will produce an extremely expensive compromise, far removed from the quality and technical capabilities of recently completed houses, such as Copenhagen's." He suggests "the existing [opera] auditorium can be made into an excellent house by moving the pit forward by two rows, free of the overhang for much of the smaller scale repertoire. Echoing past criticism of other renovations recently completed, he says: "putting the theatre deeply into the podium will permanently defile the concept of this unique building." As a location for a new large scale opera theatre, he proposes the old Tivoli Theatre site, near Central Railway Station. For students of history, the NSW National Opera launched its first season in the Tivoli Theatre, on 7 March 1951, heralding the beginnings of a permanent opera company in Australia.


Feb 11 Another venue would lead to a decline in opera. Warren Kennedy in a letter to the SMH, says "30 percent of those who attend operas and other performances there say the bought tickets because they wanted to see a show at the Opera House."  If the Opera Australia were to present performances in another venue, "the result would be an unviable opera company and the decline of opera in Sydney."


Mar 13 Architect Richard Johnson receives the Royal Australian Institute of Architect's Gold Medal. In a commentary (Quiet Achiever Wins Architecture's Top Award, SMH 14 March), Elizabeth Farrelly applauds the award to "one of our most accomplished and intelligent architects". She says "[Johnson has]managed to sustain the mix of warmth and discipline, as major works like the luminous new Asian Wing at the Art Gallery, the handsome Hilton on George and the more ambitious but less successful Westpac Plaza on Kent street attest. All of it is disciplined, but none of it selfless. Perhaps the most selfless of Johnson's arrangements is simultaneously the highest profile: refurbishing the Opera House under the mantle of not one Utzon, but two. Which also means it will likely prove his least remembered." In contrast, Elizabeth Wynhasen (Constructive Offerings, The Australian, 15 March), commenting on his association with the Opera House says "the building for which he will be best remembered isn't his building at all, as he is quick to point out." Head of Public Programs at the Opera House and former member of the Trust, Dennis Watkins says "I think the work being done on the Opera Theatre is truly sensational...Of course I couldn't say anything else because I work here." Architectural historian Philip Drew, however, is quoted as saying that the medal "is evidence that the Institute has lost touch with what good architecture is" and of regarding the renovations that have been carried out on the building's western colonnade as dreadful. The project will no doubt continue to attract controversy until the designs are made public.


Mar 21 Architect Ken Woolley proposes a second opera theatre near the Sydney Opera House, adjacent to the Royal Botanical Gardens. He calls for the construction of an 1800-seat theatre at an estimated cost of $400 million, with "a large stage, proper wing spaces, backstage areas and fly tower, along with the association rehearsal rooms, workshops and other facilities." [Sydney Morning Herald, No Room for Compromise]. Not at original idea in terms of claiming the land for Sydney Opera House purposes (Architect Leif Kristensen submitted proposals to the Trust in 1989 to use the site as a discrete, subterranean exhibition space on the history of the House), but a new idea in terms of adding a new theatre.


Mar 24 Ken Woolley's proposal attracts a number of letters to the Sydney Morning Herald. Francois Kunc calls for a feasibility study, public debate and comment from Jørn Utzon. Garth Clarke draws attention to the need to solve the need for additional parking at the same time. Ian Farrier suggests that even if such a development were permitted under the terms of World Heritage Listing, other sites such as Darling Harbour or Barangaroo might be more appropriate. Geraldine Brooks hits the nail on the head by urging that we first take a look at what's already proposed within the Opera House itself: "It's ridiculous that Jørn Utzon's magnificent plans and sketches for the redesigned interior of the Opera Theatre have not been released to the public....It's time we all got a look-see."


Mar 25 Paul Keating is galvanised to rebut the Woolley proposal. "The city got tapped on the shoulder by a rainbow", he writes. "Let us rejoice in the that masterwork and the outcome and not pander to the interests of opera administrators and their willing pipers." The main points of his argument: the site is no place for a structure of the kind proposed, site lines to the Opera House would be negatively affected, the Botanic Gardens would lose some of its land, and it may be better to locate a new theatre — capable of performing large operas — in other precincts.  


Mar 26 The Sydney Morning Herald publishes cropped images of plans to refurbish the Opera Theatre in an article that raises more questions than it answers. Joyce Morgan's article, Revealed: Utzon's Finishing Touch, implies that proposed "closely guarded" changes by Utzon Architects and Johnson are still on the drawing board and that other options are still being investigated. After a decade of work on the refurbishment project, according to a spokesman for the NSW Premier Maurice Iemma, "Work is under way to look at how to resolve problems that resulted from the 1967 decision to use the small hall for opera and ballet, rather than the larger venue, now the Concert Hall. This project has the potential to be a massive undertaking, and there must be careful consideration of all the options. Suggestions that a new venue would be the best solution need to consider a number of factors including the viability and sustainability of having two, potentially competitive venues."


  In the same article, Sydney Dance Company head, Noel Staunton, suggests that the proposal has had limited circulation even among the major presenters and he gets to the essential foundation for informed debate. "The reality is none of us have really seen the detailed plans for the Opera House. When the industry sees the detailed plans we'll be able to make a valid judgment about whether — if all this money is going to be spent — it solves the problem. And if it doesn't solve the problem, how do you solve it? If it doesn't solve the problem, another theatre on the same site could be a very good idea. Because people will say they're going to the Opera House and if they're going to building one, two or three doesn't make any difference...At the end of the day, you want to hear and see the same scale of works you can do in Melbourne and Adelaide and Brisbane and be able do do grand opera."  The Herald's architecture critic Elizabeth Farrelly says by putting an extra theatre on Bennelong Point we would end up with a "self-effacing building" and proposes East Darling Harbour (Barangaroo) as a preferred location. Joyce Morgan concludes that, while the mounting of operas is already possible at other theatres  - The Capitol and Star City — no one wants to use them for opera. "There's no getting away from the magical — and box office — pull of the Sydney Opera House."  


Apr 10 Former Sydney Opera House trustee, NSW Supreme Court judge and Chancellor of the University of Sydney, Kim Santow dies. [See obituary Humble Judge with Brain for Business, Sydney Morning Herald 14 April 2008]


Apr 12 Sydney Opera House releases details of internal escalators (linking the box office with the southern foyers of the Concert Hall and Opera Theatre) and a new lift (linking the lower concourse and box office foyer). The designs "have been approved by the building's architect, Jørn Utzon" and the project report is on public exhibition until 2 May.

Apr 18 The SMH reports that the NSW Government will seek expressions of interest in 2009 for a new 4000-seat performing arts centre as part of the Barangaroo urban development neighbouring Walsh Bay. According to the Herald's sources, the centre would provide provide sufficient stage and backstage space to accommodate large theatrical productions and would act as an alternative space during a future closure of the Opera Theatre during renovations. [SMH]


Apr 22 Estaban Insausti, in a letter to the Sydney Morning Herald, supports the proposed performing arts centre at Barangaroo. He says something akin to  the new opera house in Toronto, Canada, costing $180 million, would be preferable to "wasting $700 million on the [Sydney Opera House] Opera Theatre only to achieve a better looking but still inadequate theatre." 


Jun 02 Utzon Centre, designed by Jørn and Kim Utzon, opens in Aalborg with exhibition about the Sydney Opera House, organised by former Powerhouse Museum curator Anne Watson. The centre, costing $A16 million and established in conjunction with the Institute of Architecture and Design, will serve as "a dynamic public venue for the display, development and discussion of architecture, design and art." [SMH]


Jun 14 The Sydney Morning Herald, in Quick Exits at the Opera, reports the firing of the Sydney Opera House Director of Facilities, Paul Akehurst, whose responsibilities included managing the refurbishment and maintenance of the building.


Jun 21 Jan Utzon in in a feature article by Luke Slattery, Work in Progress, reports on the status of plans to refurbish the Opera House. "We have made proposals to the Opera House Trust and are sitting and waiting for a debate on the cost. Once it goes public the politicians will have to give it a yes or a no." Jan Utzon, the 'eyes' for his father, says that he is planning to move to Sydney in September to oversee the realisation of his father's proposals which have been developed despite Jørn Utzon's visual disability, muscular degeneration.


Nov 10 British Precast presents its annual Creativity in Concrete Award to Jørn Utzon "for his incredible portfolio that includes the iconic Sydney Opera House." Chief Executive of British Precast, Martin Clarke said "Rarely do modern buildings become icons, but Utzon’s Sydney Opera House has come to symbolise modern Australia and is among the most recognisable structures in the world. And precast concrete plays a major role in the structure.”  The award is behalf of Utzon's grandson, Jeppe.


Nov 11 Will Henley, in Utzons Clash over Opera House Refurb (Building Design Online), reports that Jan and Jeppe Utzon have clashed over plans to renovate the Opera House. Jeppe, in London to collect the Creativity in Concrete award on behalf of his grandfather, is reported to have told Building Design that both his grandfather and father should never have become involved again. “It’s getting messed up [by other architects]. It will be hard to distinguish who did what — it’s a patchwork of ideas. It is dangerous for [my father and grandfather], not so much for their reputations but for the purity [of the architecture]. It’s strange they said yes to it.” But Jan Utzon said his son was not well informed enough to comment. “He is not involved in our projects for the Opera House, and cannot possibly have any idea of how we work or what our aims are or even what we are doing. He has chosen not to be involved with the Opera House, but wants to pursue his own career, which is perfectly understandable for a young and relatively inexperienced architect. My father, Richard [Johnson], and I have the best working relationship, aiming to modify the Opera House according to my father’s design principles as funding becomes available.”
Nov 21 Jeppe Utzon, in Building Design Online, seeks to correct facts in its earlier news story. "The Sydney Opera House was substantially messed up after its original architect, my grandfather, was ousted from the project. Most of this happened right after his departure as other architects replaced some of his creations with constructions of their own design. My grandfather and father were invited back to the project around 2000. If anyone is capable of restoring SOH to something closer to its original design, it is them. Their return is one the best things that could happen if the building is to be saved from further artistic degeneration, and to be better aligned with my grandfather’s original design principles. The danger lies in the present team not being given enough authority to properly restore the design of the building".
Nov 29 Jørn Oberg Utzon dies in Copenhagen at the age of 90.of a heart attack in his sleep after a series of operations


Dec 01 Elizabeth Farrelly, in her SMH obituary, characterises Utzon as Sydney's Prometheus. [He] "had it all: global fame, a huge cult following, an eponymous foundation, and one of the world's most glorious buildings indelibly attached to his name. Tall, principled, idealistic, with Gary Cooper looks and a Princess Diane shy-star quality, Utzon remains, nevertheless a lonely figure in world architecture, a tragic hero."


  The Sydney Morning Herald, in its editorial, The Power of an Idea, sums up things this way: "Like the grand operas played out in the Opera Theatre, the story of the Sydney Opera House and its designer Jørn Utzon, is one  of pathos and drama, mixing beauty, joy and triumph with conflict, pain and despair. Those inclined to believe in poetic justice would note with satisfaction that the hero of this libretto died peacefully in his bed aged 90, his reputation as resplendent as the sails of his masterpiece." Reconciliation from a distance was possible because "I have never really been away because my soul is in the building, I think about it all the time—it never leaves me...I will haunt it when I go."


  Davina Jackson in her Australian obituary, Naive Perfectionist, says that genius always captures and reveals a cluster of opposite or conditions. "Utzon, observers have noted that he was both politically naive and artistically complex, modest yet self-focused, unusually calm yet bitterly angry, exceptionally intelligent yet an anti-intellectual." Complicating his culture clash with Sydney's pragmatic culture and building industry mentality, was "Utzon's lack of experience as the leader of a major development. An idealist not a pragmatist, he temperamentally tended to avoid aggression and superfluous meetings but keeping is core studio physically distant from clients, builders and sub-consultants...As an artist striving for the 'edge of the possible' but without a great aptitude for mathematics, Utzon also failed to clarify accurate details of his geometrically ambitious structure" and depended on the involvement of Ove Arup.  A cordial detente was achieved with successors of his tormentors when he was persuaded to sign a new contract to work with son Jan and Sydney architect Richard Johnson on guidelines for future alterations to the building. "An acute sensitivity to nature and people was Utzon's genetic source of both inspiration and eternal virtue."


  The NSW and Australian Governments flag their latest intentions for the  proposed Opera House renovations. In the SMH, the NSW Premier Nathan Rees said the plans would be considered by the state and federal government in coming months and that he would push for adequate funding. A spokesman for the Arts Minister Peter Garrett said any funding for the renovations would be considered as part of the federal budget process.


  Deyan Sudjic in The Guardian's obituary, writes that the Opera House was the  building on which his architectural reputation is based, the project that made him famous, and which transformed the world's view not just of Sydney, but of Australia too. But "Utzon lost the political game, and was finessed into resigning without ever fully understanding that he was taking an irrevocable step ... Thereafter, Utzon maintained a dignified silence about his treatment by Sydney. When [he] was asked to take part in designing a resort in Queensland, he agreed to take on the commission, but sent his two architect sons, Jan and Kim, to deal with the client instead. Sydney tried to make amends by awarding him the freedom of the city in 1998, but the lord mayor had to take the keys to Denmark to present them. For the building's 25th birthday that year, Utzon's daughter, Lin, went to Sydney and joined the state premier in launching the Utzon Foundation, a trust to award a £37,000 biennial prize for outstanding achievement in the arts - but Utzon did not attend.


"Could it have been any different? On one level, there is a temptation to think that had the Opera House gone more smoothly, then it could have opened the way to a career that might even have matched that of one of the 20th-century's acknowledged architectural giants - Louis Kahn, perhaps, or even Le Corbusier. If Utzon had managed a sustained run of work exploring the themes that underpinned his work, he could genuinely have transformed the architectural landscape. But he didn't, and perhaps he never could have done...There was something in Utzon's psychological make-up that meant he found the idea of professional success too difficult to get to grips with...But the Sydney Opera House is a truly singular building, one that changed Utzon's life and probably the course of Australian history as well."


  Shirley Colless, Utzon's secretary, at the time of his departure from the project in 1966, recalls in a letter to the Sydney Morning Herald: "It is not correct to claim, as some people still do,  that Utzon quit as architect of the Sydney Opera House. "It was not a resignation letter but an explanation of how the government's decision to reject his fee claims meant that he would have to close his office...His and Mrs Utzon;s kindness in the face of our dismay and distress, are things I will never forget." [Shirley Colless recorded an interview with the Dennis Wolanski Library, as part of the Sydney Opera House oral history project, in 1994]. 


  Philip Drew, in A Man's House is His Legacy (The Australian) assesses the confrontation with Hughes as one of the great dramatic incidents in 20th-century architecture. Utzon appealed to Hughes to be allowed back to complete the Opera House. The offer was reject outright. Utzon's career was severely damaged by the tragic events.

"The architect radiated charisma from every pore and possessed great charm that was combined with a beguiling naturalness. He appeared to utterly lack artifice...Possessed of a kind generous nature, he loved being around children, with whom he felt great empathy. A loner, he was uncomfortable with fame, and preferred to live in nature away from society. He was also a loyal husband and generous father. Stories abound about his kindness to strangers and his wicked humour and practical jokes."


"Nature was the ultimate paradigm from Utzon sought to build. He thought architecture and life had to to be in tune with each other. If life changed then architecture must respond accordingly. Utzon rejected the notions of formal style, insisting instead that architecture achieve its style naturally, without artifice. The Sydney Opera House, designed to serve its magnificent harbour setting, was the ultimate triumph of his vision."


  Richard Johnson (in A Visionary Who Didn't Miss the Bigger Picture, The Australian), reflects on his work with Utzon on the Sydney Opera House project since 1999. Utzon wrote down the conceptual ideas that inspired the building and the principles used in its design. The pilot studies Utzon did for the refurbishment of the Utzon Room and the western foyer also show how a building should be progressively returned to his original idea. "By the time I met him, he was very focused on not looking to the past. He was not thinking.   about what had happened, but looking at the future, looking at a building that people clearly loved. The discussions wee always positive. They were always focusing on the good things and the opportunities ahead rather than the problems behind."


"[The Sydney Opera House] has this ability to bring out the best in all of us, to inspire us all beyond the ordinary or the everyday, Utzon was an inspiration to so many people. Not only architects, but musicians and all sorts of people who see that Opera House is almost an impossible dream to fill...The building demonstrates what is possible with imagination and persistent effort. It's being talked about as a symbol of place, culture and country. But it's also a symbol of excellence."



Murray Black (Acoustics Still in Need of Improvement, The Australian) urges that more work be done to improve the acoustics of the Concert Hall.


Dec 02 The Sydney Morning Herald, in its editorial, explores the fate of Utzon's masterpiece and concludes: "Left as it is, the Opera House could slowly become a museum piece. That must not happen. Sydney may need other auditoriums but the Opera House must live on as its premier performing arts venue. And the full realisation of Mr Utzon's last mature vision for his masterwork is the way to ensure it does so. To achieve it, NSW will need Canberra's help — but that is entirely reasonable. The Federal Government is already seeking nation-building projects that can invigorate the economy. Here is a particularly worthy one."


Dec 04 Elizabeth Farrelly in Let's Not Make the Same Mistake Twice (SMH) again questions plans to renovate the Opera House. Fantasising about a possible appointment of former Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett as CEO of NSW Pty Ltd, she contemplates steps he might take to save the rust bucket state. "One thing he surely wouldn't do is flog the $700 million dead horse of the Opera House renovation, an entire hospital worth of alterations and additions to convert a third-rate opera theatre into a second-rate one. More likely, given his record of crash-through flair, he'd buy into something breathtaking for Barangaroo, give Keating power and maybe a world-class landscape act like Beijing's Kongjian Yu or New York's Emilio Ambasz."


Dec 06 Jørn Utzon farewelled in a simple church ceremony at Hellebaek, north of Copenhagen, attended by his widow Lis, sons Jan and Kim and other members of the family. [SMH photo 8 Dec 2008]


1606-1956 | 1957-1969 | 1970-1979 | 1980-1989 | 1990-1999 | 2000-2005 | 2006-2007 | Top | 2009-2010 | 2011 -2013 | 2014-


 About usWhat's new Site map | Searching  | Managing  | Learning  |  LibraryResearch 

  Contact us | Home  

© 2000-2008 The Wolanski Foundation 

-- an initiative of the Dennis Wolanski Library & Archives of the Performing Arts Charitable Trust. 

 Email web manager.  URL:

Page last updated: 24 March 2009