Sydney Opera House guide

A brief history of the Sydney Opera House plus a select list of records relating to the design, construction and official opening.

A brief history

The Sydney Opera House stands on Tubowgule land of the Gadigal people. It was built on Bennelong Point, a promontory that forms the east bank of Sydney Cove. The first known concert on Bennelong Point was held in March 1791 when Bennelong, a senior man of the Eora, an Aboriginal (Koori) people of the Port Jackson area, provided an evening of entertainment for the Governor and his party. The site was initially occupied by Fort Macquarie which was designed by Francis Greenway in 1817. Later, it was the site of the Bennelong Point Tram Depot. This in turn was demolished to make way for the Opera House.

Public pressure to build a suitable concert facility in Sydney intensified in the 1940s. In 1955 Premier J.J. Cahill announced an international competition for the design of 'an opera house'. Danish architect Jørn Utzon's entry was selected as the winning design. His design was for a complex with two theatres side by side on a large podium. This was covered by interlocking concrete shells, which acted as both wall and roof. A third smaller shell set apart from the others was to cover the restaurant.

The construction of the Opera House was at times difficult and controversial with Jørn Utzon resigning from the project in 1966. The Opera House was officially opened by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II on 20 October 1973.

Chronology of events

Eugene Goossens, conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra calls for "a musical centre housing a big hall for a symphony orchestra, a small hall for chamber music and a fine home for an opera company".
13 Sep
The Premier, J.J. Cahill, announces that the Government of NSW will hold an international competition for the design of "an opera house". It is to be suitable for many kinds of performing arts, with two halls, one to seat between 3000-3500 people, and the other to seat 1200. There is also to be a restaurant and two public rooms for meetings.
29 Jan
Out of 233 entries from 32 countries, Jørn Utzon wins first prize.
Jørn Utzon visits Sydney to discuss the proposed building.
Demolition of the Bennelong Point Tram Depot commences.
2 Mar
Work begins on the foundations. The work on Stage I — the building of the upper podium — is to be carried out by Civil and Civic P/L.
19 Oct
Premier J.J. Cahill dies in office.
Stage I completed.
Stage II commences — Construction of the shell roofs and some subsidiary work is carried out by MR Hornibook (NSW) P/L.
Newly elected Premier, Robert Askin transfers power over payments from the Opera House Committee to the Minister of Public Works, Davis Hughes.
28 Feb
Jørn Utzon resigns.
19 Apr
Replacements for Jørn Utzon announced a panel consisting of:E.H. Farmer, Government ArchitectPeter Hall, Design ArchitectD.S. Littlemore, in charge of supervision, andLionel Todd, in charge of contract documents
28 Apr
Jørn Utzon leaves Sydney.
17 May
The Government pays Utzon's representatives $160,000 in return for 130 architectural drawings for Stage III.
12 Dec
Hall, Todd and Littlemore submit "Review of Program" and suggest major changes to the use of halls.
Stage II completed.
28 Feb
The Premier, Sir Robert Askin, heads the Sydney Opera House Official Opening Committee.
17 Dec
First test concert in Concert Hall with Sydney Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Bernard Heinze.
Responsibility for the Opera House is given to the Sydney Opera Trust and the Minister of Cultural Activities, George Freudenstein.
29 Sep
First public concert in Concert Hall with Birgit Nilsson singing Wagner with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra under Charles Mackerras.
20 Oct
Official opening by her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.
The final cost of the Opera House is $102 million (excluding cost for the organ and car park.)
31 May
Architects' Certificate of Completion.
30 May
Organ finished.
17 Mar
A car park for 1,100 cars is built under the Royal Botanic Gardens by Enacom in association with the Department of Public Works. The Car park is opened by the Premier of NSW, Mr John Fahey
28 Mar
The Premier and Minister for the Arts, Mr Bob Carr, announced that in an endeavour to reflect the Government's commitment to open and accountable administration, all the construction records of the Opera House, irrespective of their age, were to be open to the public.


Dawn Troy, Sydney Opera House — Media Briefing Material, 25 March 1997

The Australian Encyclopaedia, Grolier Society of Australia, 1983.

A select list of record series

Department of Public Works and Services

Photographs taken by Max Dupain showing the various stages of construction of the Sydney Opera House
Department of Public Works Sydney Opera House FilesThese files consist of correspondence, minutes, reports, accounts and publications.
'An International Competition for a National Opera House at Bennelong Point, Sydney, New South Wales Australia: Conditions and Programme'This booklet is known as the Brown Book. All copies have annotations.
Negatives of Competition drawings
'Sydney Opera House'This printed booklet, known as the Gold Book, was issued to accompany the 'Ceremony to Commemorate the Commencement of the Sydney Opera House'.
2 Mar 1959
'Sydney National Opera House'This report, known as the Red Book, was presented by Jørn Utzon to the Premier and the Opera House Committee.
Mar 1958
 'Sydney Opera House'This report, known as the Yellow Book, comprises plans submitted by Jørn Utzon and consultants.
Jan 1962
'Sydney Opera House: Chronological Report on Planning and Design'This typescript gives brief comments on progress of various aspects of design including glass walls, stage lighting and electrical services.
2 Oct 1964
Sydney National Opera House: Structural Scheme Stage IIThese are copies of plans drawn up by Ove Arup Partners for roof elevations and internal contours of the shells for the minor and major halls.
NRS 12824(Reel 2559)
First designs by Hall, Todd and LittlemoreThese detailed drawings, known as the White Book, are of the Concert Hall and Opera Theatre by Hall, Todd and Littlemore.
Competition drawings submitted by Jørn Utzon to the Opera House CommitteeThese are the original competition drawings for which Jørn was awarded first prize of ₤5,000.Copies of the drawings are on display in our digital gallery.

Parliamentary papers and press statements

Parliamentary papers relating to the Sydney Opera HouseThese are mainly Parliamentary Debates.
Opera House press statementsThese press statements relate to the construction of the Sydney Opera House between August 1962 and December 1966.

Sydney Opera House Official Opening Committee

Correspondence filesThe files comprise minutes of meetings of the Committee, applications for invitations, guest lists, printed information sheets and correspondence.
Sydney Opera House Official Opening and Festival: Final Report
20 Oct-3 Nov 1973
Newspaper cuttings
17 Jan 1972-9 Nov 1973

Other records

For further sources researchers should also consult our catalogue using the search term 'Opera House'. Information on the following agencies may also be of use:

  • Premier's Office (Agency No. 5153)
  • Premier's Department (Agency No. 5154)
  • Architectural Division, Department of Public Works (Agency No. 47)
  • Ministry of Cultural Activities (Agency No. 404)
  • Directorate of Special Bicentennial (Agency No. 1736)
Red book, 1958

Sydney Opera House - the Red Book

This 1958 report (known also as the Red Book) was presented by Jørn Utzon to the Premier and the Sydney Opera House Committee in order to give … a project which realizes in practical form the vision of the competition