Sydney Opera House is planning a major upgrade after receiving AUS$152m (about £88m) in the New South Wales Government budget, announced by the Premier Kristine Keneally last week.
The funds will be spent on improving backstage access to the Opera Theatre, including a new loading dock and lift system, linked to the nearest road by tunnel.
Recognised throughout the worldwide by its iconic architecture, the Sydney Opera House is in fact an arts centre comprising six venues, including the 1500-seat Opera Theatre and the 2500-seat Concert Hall. Vehicle access to backstage areas of the venues has until now been via a ground level road across the forecourt of the site. The resident companies, Opera Australia and the Australian Ballet, who between them use the Opera Theatre some 363 days of the year, share this road with buses, taxis, limousines, disabled access cars and routine deliveries, plus 7.4 million tourists who visit every year, mostly on foot. It is a bustling precinct from dawn until beyond midnight almost every day of the year.
Richard Evans, Opera House CEO Richard Evans confirms that the mix of pedestrians and heavy goods vehicles means accidents happen almost on a daily basis. “There have been 200 reported incidents, many of which have necessitated ambulances coming...many of these people are tourists and who end up getting flown home. It's really not a great situation.”
The tunnel, which is scheduled to be finished in 2013, will take the heavy goods vehicles off the forecourt road via a tunnel from Macquarie Street to a new underground loading dock, removing the potential for clashes with pedestrians. There will also be a new scenery platform lift to load and unload sets, and other tunnels connecting the loading dock to new lifts for food and drink deliveries.
Apart from safety concerns, it is projected that the improved access and extra backstage space will save Australia’s national opera and ballet companies (and resident orchestra, the Sydney Symphony, which presents 150 performances a year in the Concert Hall) up to AUS$430,000. The building work is expected to have minimal impact on the day-to-day functioning of the arts centre, with no interruption of performances.
The budget announcement comes only a week after media reports that the Opera House is in such a dire state of repair that it might have to close - something both the Opera House and NSW government have denied. The renovations also fall far short of the AUS$1 billion upgrade flagged last year by the former Premier of NSW, Nathan Rees. This massive investment was to address long-standing problems with the Opera Theatre, including the cramped orchestra pit, lack of space in the wings and aging stage machinery. The plan foundered when Prime Minister Kevin Rudd declined to offer Federal support, and Nathan Rees is no longer Premier.
Opera House CEO Richard Evans has welcomed the news. “In the current economic climate we thought it was prudent to break these renovations into smaller phases,” he said. “There's a range of infrastructure requirements for the Opera House over the next five, 10, 20, 50 years.”
Sydney Opera House was commissioned by the NSW Government in 1956, opened in 1973 and was included in the UNESCO World Heritage List in June 2007.