The Icon: Sydney Opera House

The billowing Sydney Opera House was a gamble when it started. Literally.

Costs were estimated at $7 million, but the building’s final price tag came to $102 million, with the money coming mostly from the State Lottery. And the punters who paid for it had to wait to hear the fat lady sing — the construction, estimated to take four years when it began in 1959, took 14.

The final result was worth waiting for. Today, millions of tourists flock to the Opera House annually, photographing its gleaming roof (the shape of full sails enhanced by 1,056,006 white ceramic tiles) and marveling at the wonder Down Under.

Here are some fun facts about the iconic concert hall:

Nice pipes: Number in the building’s grand organ? A whopping 10,154.

Danish modern: Architect Jørn Utzon won the design competition in 1957. Judge Eero Saarinen described the Dane’s plans as “genius.”

What’s in a name? The Aborigines called the promontory on which the Opera House was built Tubowgule, or “meeting of the waters.” The settlers called it Bennelong Point in honor of Woollarawarre Bennelong,
one of the first indigenous Australians to visit England.

Repeat engagement: Queen Elizabeth dedicated the building on October 20, 1973, and has visited four times.

Pumped iron: In 1980 Arnold Schwarzenegger won the “Mr. Olympia” bodybuilding contest held in the Concert Hall.

Seven heaven: The Opera House hosts 1,800 performances a year at seven venues. The Concert Hall, with its grand organ, is renowned for its acoustics.

Cable stable: Construction included laying 217 miles of cable. Placed end to end, the cable would stretch to the capital city of Canberra.

Lighten up: Some 15,500 lightbulbs are changed annually. Workers are gradually replacing old bulbs with an eco-friendlier versions.

Croon with a view: African-American opera singer Paul Robeson was the first person to perform at the Sydney Opera House. In 1960, the baritone got up on the scaffolding and sang “Ol’ Man River” to the construction workers on their lunch hour.

Whodunit? The Opera House is the setting of mystery novel Helga’s Web, by Jon Cleary. He put a body in the basement.

This piece, written by contributing editor Andrew Nelson, appeared in the May 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveler magazine. 


  1. brianmcquillan
    June 20, 2013, 7:48 am

    opera house is symbol of Sydney a beautiful city of Australia. Sydney opera house is a iconic structure on the planet.

  2. Yengkhom
    June 8, 2013, 2:04 pm

    Wow what a beautiful sight! I wish I could visit this beautiful place one day in my life. Sydney is one of my favourite places I’ve dreamed visiting. I would love to watch the opera perform live.