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Work begins to transform Concert Hall for new era

Better sound, better access and more ambitious performances to be enabled by $150 million upgrade.

Gabriel Wilder

In 2010, Fiona Winning and a group of friends headed down to Circular Quay and to the Sydney Opera House, where they were going to see Barcelona’s Ojos de Brujo in the Concert Hall, a venue more used to staging orchestras, school groups and the odd royal command performance.

“I had seen operas in the Joan Sutherland Theatre and we often went to the Studio but we never went ‘upstairs’ to the Concert Hall,” Fiona says. “And we were blown away by the performance and the fact that we could take a drink in and dance. It was a fantastic ‘ahhh moment’ that the Concert Hall was a venue for me and my mates. It was the beginning of regular contemporary music nights out there to see artists like Nile Rodgers and CHIC, Nick Cave and many others.”

Seeing a contemporary music show provided that “ahh moment” for many people, bringing hundreds of thousands of people to the Opera House in the decade since, and many – like Fiona – for the first time, to the Concert Hall.

Now, as Director of Programming, Fiona oversees the Opera House’s internal programming arm, Sydney Opera House Presents, which books contemporary acts throughout the Opera House, including big names for its largest and arguably most famous indoor venue. Artists who have performed on the iconic stage over the years include Prince, Kanye West, Herbie Hancock, Bon Iver, Erykah Badu, Lizzo, Wu-Tang Clan, Janet Jackson, Janelle Monáe and countless others.

But after 46 years of welcoming artists and audiences to the Concert Hall, the venue is getting a major upgrade. With works to commence on 1 February 2020, this project will result in better sound for artists and audiences, more ambitious performances, improved access for people with mobility needs and a safer venue for staff working behind-the-scenes.

Andrew Mackonis, the Opera House’s production manager, says for many artists a performance in the Concert Hall is “on their bucket list”. This is not surprising: the Opera House is a globally renowned cultural centre and a World Heritage-listed building. But the Concert Hall has also gained a reputation for something else over the years: challenging live audio, particularly for amplified music.

“The room is essentially a giant timber echo chamber,” says Andrew. “Which obviously can be a challenge for orchestral music, but it’s also problematic for amplified music.” It’s a testament to the Opera House’s production team that musician Ben Harper described the Concert Hall as “the greatest indoor performing space on earth”, given that Andrew says they are often “fighting with the space” when staging shows.

“Currently we spend a lot of time working with compromises to balance all the technical requirements for a space that was never really designed to do what we do now.”

The room is essentially a giant timber echo chamber, which obviously has its problems for orchestral music, but it’s more problematic for amplified music.

Andrew Mackonis, Production Manager, Sydney Opera House

When construction began on the Opera House in 1959, Elvis Presley was a young GI soldier and The Beatles were still known as The Quarrymen. Over the next decade, Beatlemania, Motown and hippie counter culture would give pop, rock and R&B a prominence in society that continues to this day.

But in the 50s, this was inconceivable.

“When it was designed and built nobody thought that rock bands or circuses or talks would be held in such a room,” Fiona says. “It just wasn’t done at that time. Rock’n’roll was just not something that would be held in an opera house.”

Yet within a year of its opening in 1973, the Concert Hall stage was hosting two iconic Australian rock bands: Sydney sons Sherbet had already had a number of Top 10 hits while Melbourne’s Skyhooks, appearing in their first Sydney gig, had just released their first album Livin’ in the 70s, which would go on to sell more than 300,000 copies. The latter took to the stage in outlandish costumes and make-up and opened with You Just Like Me Cause I’m Good in Bed – one of six songs on their album that had been banned from radio. This boundary-pushing performance foreshadowed some of the groundbreaking acts that would grace the Concert Hall stage decades later.

Andrew and his team have spent a lot of time retrofitting the Concert Hall to stage such performances. But after more than 45 years it’s time to renew this beautiful and beloved hall so that it can continue to inspire the performers and audiences of the future.

Extensive upgrades to the Concert Hall are part of a 10-year program of renewal works totaling more than $275 million that will transform the global cultural icon ahead of its 50th anniversary in 2023. It follows the completion of major projects such as the renovation of the Joan Sutherland Theatre, creating access for wheelchair users to the JST’s Northern Foyer, opening of the function centre the Yallamundi Rooms, and a number of accessibility and foyer improvements to the areas under the Monumental Steps. The Opera House will also open a new accessible lift in the Southern Foyers in January 2020 which will mark the completion of all works on the eastern side of the building.

All renewal works are being undertaken in line with the Opera House’s Conservation Management Plan, Utzon’s Design Principles and with respect to the original interiors, designed by Peter Hall, the architect who completed the Opera House after Utzon departed the project.

But the Concert Hall renewal is the most ambitious of all, taking the artist and audience experience to another level, and ensuring it can switch between moods and modes as seamlessly and efficiently as possible.

“It will make it safer, more efficient and it will give us more flexibility. In a lot of ways the Hall will be catching up to the shows we are already putting on in there. The idea is we are trying to future proof the venue so it’s good to go for the next 50 years,” Andrew says.

The visiting experience for artists and audiences will be immeasurably improved, but some of the upgrades won’t necessarily be obvious in and of themselves. Many different measures are being taken to improve sound across the entire hall; the drapes (also used to improve sound), will be automated, saving hours of manual labour; the stage will be lowered to improve visibility and theatre flying system will be improved to allow the crew to set more ambitious sets. A large chunk of the funds allotted for the renewal is going towards increasing the “weight capacity” of the roof. This will mean, says Andrew that “the opera house will be able to stage more spectacular and high tech shows”.

“It's fantastic that we are able to use the Concert Hall for such a diverse range of programming,” Fiona says, “but it can be a lot of work to convert it into the right venue for the requirements and vision of modern day works. The Renewal project will enable us to do that in a more streamlined and faster way but also it will give audiences a better experience in terms of accessibility, acoustics and intimacy.”

Nobody thought that rock bands or circuses or talks & ideas would be held in such a room. Rock’n’roll was just not something that would be held in an opera house.

Fiona Winning, Head of Programming, Sydney Opera House

Katherine “Charlie” Charlton, a wheelchair user who is passionate about live music and performance, welcomes any upgrades that give her more independence. She and her son Luke, who is also a wheelchair user, are regular visitors to the Opera House and see a show roughly every month, although she says, “If I had my way I’d go all the time!”

Together they’ve seen the Just for Laughs comedy galas, Steve Backshall’s Deadly 60 animal shows and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s performance with the acrobatic Cirque de la Symphonie.

“I had some people who were into heavy metal or Australian rock go, ‘Oh I’m not sure about classical music,’ and I said, ‘No, trust me, you will enjoy this,” she says.

She and Luke were thrilled when upgrades to the Joan Sutherland Theatre gave them access to the sweeping harbour views from its Northern Foyer for the first time. When the Concert Hall renewal is completed, they will be able to visit its spectacular Northern Foyer, which is currently not wheelchair accessible. Other accessibility upgrades include new wheelchair accessible positions throughout the Hall and wheelchair accessible toilets in the Northern Foyer.

When all of the upgrades are finished, audiences will be able to experience the full potential of the new Concert Hall in an opening season of diverse performances. It’s something Andrew and Fiona are looking forward to.

“We’ll be able to spend more time focusing on the art that the artists are trying to put on stage and less time worrying about the constraints of the space,” Andrew says.

“We can’t wait to get into the new space in its new form,” Fiona says. “We’ll be able to present some artists that we haven’t been able to before, and there will also be the capacity to realise the incredible vision of some of the artists that we have already worked with.

“It will be a beautiful space that has all the history and beauty of its original architecture, but with the updated theatre machinery that makes it a high-tech 21st century venue.”

But first, Fiona will be busy overseeing a full schedule of programming for the Opera House’s six indoor venues, as well as the Forecourt and Northern Broadwalk, while the Concert Hall is being renovated.

“We’re concentrating on using the Opera House’s six indoor venues and two outdoor performance spaces while the Concert Hall is closed for up to two years to make sure we remain a vibrant cultural centre and still have the very best performances and experiences on offer for our community. So the Opera House is still going to be really active.”

For stories, videos and an interactive map of the Opera House’s Renewal projects, visit

Gabriel Wilder is a Sydney-based journalist and news producer. She has written for The Guardian Australia, Sydney Morning Herald, The Lowy Institute and the University of Sydney.

Twitter @gabrielwilder