Art, Colour and Performance

Sydney Opera House interprets baroque principles in a modern setting, a work of art built for the performance and celebration of art

By Sydney Opera House

Sydney Opera House during the Vivid Sydney festival* (1) (2011) by Kazuhisa TogoSydney Opera House

Sydney Opera House is a UNESCO World Heritage listed site, significant for its iconic sculptural architecture and its continuing function as a performing arts venue. 

Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Visions of Vienna (2014) by Ken ButtiSydney Opera House

"The Sydney Opera House constitutes a masterpiece of 20th century architecture... It is a daring and visionary experiment that has had an enduring influence on the emergent architecture of the late 20th century... The building is a great artistic monument and an icon, accessible to society at large."
UNESCO World Heritage, 2008.  

Sydney Opera House, Concert Hall (1973) by Max DupainSydney Opera House

Alongside the building's modernist and innovative pedigree are deeply traditional roots in the history of performance venues.

By Alfred EisenstaedtLIFE Photo Collection

This tradition centered around the opera houses of Europe, many of which would be rebuilt in the post-war years.  

Opera House Competition Guidelines, Front cover (1956) by Government of the State of New South WalesSydney Opera House

When the NSW Government under Joseph Cahill published its competition guidelines for a national opera house in 1956, they called for the production of public theatre spaces very much in line with the European tradition.   

NSW Premier Joe Cahill (premier from 1952-9) (1959) by Sydney Opera HouseSydney Opera House

"The Sydney Opera House... will stand not merely as an outstanding example of modern architecture or even as a world famous opera house, but as a shrine in which the great artists of the world may be seen and heard."  JJ Cahill, Premier of New South Wales, 1959.

Opera di M. Bartolomeo Scappi, cuoco secreto di Papa Pio V Opera di M. Bartolomeo Scappi, cuoco secreto di Papa Pio V (1570) by Bartolomeo Scappi|Michele TramezzinoThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

The term opera house originates in the 18th century, evolving out of the Baroque Theatre tradition. The term Baroque describes the fusion of architecture, music and art that emerged in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. 

LIFE Photo Collection

By the late 1700s, opera houses were by far the most popular type of public theatres.  

Interior of the Teatro Regio in Turin (c. 1572) by Giovanni Michele GraneriPalazzo Madama

Opera and opera houses continued to flourish through the 18th century as performances, including ballet, grew in popularity amid theatre-going audiences.

Burgtheater: StageBurgtheater

The Burgtheater, opened on 14 March 1741. Between 1782 and 1790, three Mozart operas premiered there: 
Die Entführung aus dem Serail (1782), Le nozze di Figaro (1786) and Così fan tutte (1790).    

Margravial Opera House (2012) by Pierre SchoberthSydney Opera House

These theatres were classically baroque, characterised by ornate detail and brimming with festive atmosphere, in the celebration of vibrant colour and performance. 

Palais Garnier (2012) by Naoya IkedaSydney Opera House

Bold colours and artworks adorned these venues' internal spaces, from entrance ways right through to the proscenium and curtains of the stage.   

In the following three Google Street Views, you can look around the internal spaces of European opera houses.

Hungarian State Opera, Budapest, Hungary. (You can explore this Street View).

The Royal Theatre of La Monnaie is an opera house in central Brussels, Belgium.  

Teatro alla Scala, Via Filodrammatici, Milan, Italy.

Looking northeast toward the Sydney Opera House just before its official opening (1973) by Max Dupain, State Library of New South WalesSydney Opera House

Built in the 1960s, Sydney Opera House continued the tradition of incorporating colour and artworks into the venues themselves.

Jørn Utzon strikingly reimagined the architecture of the opera house, with an economy of form inspired through an eclectic fusion of modernist, organic, ancient and naval architecture.

Sydney Opera House features artworks, including textile artworks in the form of tapestry - a medium Le Corbusier described as "the mural of the modern age." 

Jørn Utzon with a small model of the spherical scheme (1962) by State Library of New South WalesSydney Opera House

From the outset of the design process in the late 1950s and through the early 60s, Jørn Utzon envisioned the use of modern art and colour in the building.

Utzon family home, Hellebæk (2015) by Doug SouthwellSydney Opera House

Les Dés sont Jetés, designed by Le Corbusier, was commissioned by Utzon in 1959, as he began to consider the decoration and colours of internal spaces of the opera house project.   

Le Corbusier's tapestry, Les Des sont Jetes (2020) by Sam DoustSydney Opera House

“I am going to make a building, here you came in and in front of you, you see a big tapestry by le Corbusier.” 
Jørn Utzon. Les Dés sont Jetés now hangs in the Western Foyers.

Northeast elevation showing stage machinery and back wall of the stage (1964) by Jenni CarterSydney Opera House

"The idea was to see a spectacular building as you arrive and as you enter the foyers you see additional colours. You also get a more intimate feeling..."

Major Hall, ceiling, detail (1964) by Jenni CarterSydney Opera House

"... As you enter the Minor or Major hall this explodes into a very rich expression of colours, which uplift you in that festive mood, away from daily life, that you expect when you go to the theatre, a play, an opera or a concert."  Jørn Utzon.  

Concert Hall, Northern Foyer (1973) by Max DupainSydney Opera House

When Utzon withdrew from the project in 1966, Australian architect Peter Hall completed the interiors of the building and interpreted Utzon's design intent for colour inside the venue.

Curtain of the Sun (1973) by Max Dupain, Mitchell Library, State Library of New South WalesSydney Opera House

This included commissioning Australian abstract artist John Coburn to create two tapestry artworks for use as curtains for the opera and drama theatres. Here, the Curtain of the Sun  adorns the opera theatre stage at the opening of the building in 1973.

Curtain of the Moon (1973) by Max Dupain, Mitchell Library, State Library of New South WalesSydney Opera House

John Coburn's Curtain of the Moon, in the Drama Theatre in 1973.

Recital setting in the Utzon Room (2004) by Eric SierinsSydney Opera House

Homage to Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach was designed by Jørn Utzon and completed in 2004, as part of a process of re-engagement with the Sydney Opera House's principal architect.

The tapestry adorns the western wall of the Utzon Room, providing aesthetic and acoustic functions to the room's design. Explore the Utzon Room in more details here.  

Colour, festivity and anticipation

Lin Utzon describes the importance of colour and festive feeling in her father Jørn Utzon's approach to the internal spaces of Sydney Opera House. 

Baroque principles in opera houses a century apart: the Palais Garnier, 1875 and the Sydney Opera House, 1973.

Palais Garnier, Naoya Ikeda, 2012, From the collection of: Sydney Opera House
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Joan Sutherland Theatre: view from the stage, Latchkey, 2015, From the collection of: Sydney Opera House
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Curtain of the Sun (1973) by Max Dupain, Mitchell Library, State Library of New South WalesSydney Opera House

The Curtain of the Sun, designed for the Joan Sutherland Theatre, radiantly demonstrates a modernist interpretation of the Baroque Theatre traditions, blending colour, art and festivity in the anticipation of performance. 

“When we meet for performance, when we are together to be moved in our minds and in our soul... colours would support that.” Jørn Utzon.  

"As you enter the Minor or Major hall this explodes into a very rich expression of colours, which uplift you in that festive mood." Jørn Utzon.

Credits: Story

Curated by Sam Doust
Thanks to Laura Matarese

Image Credits: State Library NSW, Government of the State of NSW, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Palazzo Madama, Burgtheater, LIFE Photo Collection, Sydney Opera House, Max Dupain, Kazuhisa Togo, Ken Butti, Doug Southwell, Jenni Carter, Eric Sierins, Pierre Schoberth, Naoya Ikeda, Sam Doust/Latchkey.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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