The Ghost of a Machine

Sydney Opera House

The original stage machinery for the two halls of the Sydney Opera House, though realised and in part installed, was ultimately never used. The decision to scrap and replace it reflects one of the greatest changes to the original intention for the building, as well as the presentation of the performing arts.

On 28 April 1966 Jørn Utzon flew out of Australia for the last time, after resigning from the project of the Sydney Opera House, unable to reconcile his differences with the New South Wales Minister of Public Works, Davis Hughes.

Utzon's withdrawal was a devastating blow to the project on many levels and caused an unprecedented outcry at the time, including street marches petitioning for his reinstatement and letters of protest from eminent artists, designers and intellectuals across the globe.

Aside from the personal and professional impacts, the character of the Sydney Opera House would undergo dramatic changes as a result of Utzon's absence. Salient among these was the redesign of the Major Hall for concerts only, which resulted in the scrapping of the stage machinery designed for the dual-purpose of concerts and operas.

The destruction of this original stage machinery, underreported at the time, became in retrospect a painful reminder of the break with the original intentions for the Sydney Opera House. It would redefine the hierarchy of performing arts in Australia in the years to come, eliminating the production of grand operas and elevating concert performances above intimate opera and theatre.

More recently this hierarchy has changed again to incorporate a far greater diversity of concerts and events in the Concert Hall, softening the poignancy of this buried but serious wound in the building’s history, and its effect on the performing arts in Australia.

The stage machinery reaches up into the highest spaces of the tallest of the roof shells, known as A2.

On hearing the decision to abandon Utzon's design for the Major Hall, resulting in the scrapping of the already installed stage machinery, engineer Ove Arup wrote to NSW Minister for Public Works Davis Hughes on 28 March 1967:

"I understand that your Government has now finally decided to abandon the idea of using the Major Hall for opera. It is a very dramatic – almost one might say, tragic – decision because it makes a nonsense of the whole form of the shells, which were meant to house the stage tower."

Waagner Biro stage machinery is used today throughout Sydney Opera House, including in both the Concert Hall and, as shown here, in the Joan Sutherland Theatre.

Credits: Story

Created by Sam Doust and the
Sydney Opera House GCI Team


State Library of New South Wales
State Records NSW

Credits: All media
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