SOH’s Joan Sutherland Theatre Reopens

Posted on Monday, January 8th, 2018












After seven months of major building works, the world-famous Joan Sutherland Theatre (JST) reopened on NYE with Opera Australia’s performance of The Merry Widow.

The much-loved theatre closed in May this year for the first time since opening in 1973, to replace theatre machinery that had reached the end of its operational life – the more than 40-year-old ‘engine’ of the JST – and to use the opportunity to make significant improvements to the orchestra pit, acoustics and safety.

The Opera House and the NSW Government have together invested $71 million to renew the theatre for the 21st century, opening up new possibilities for artists, audiences and staff.

Work on the JST was carried out by principal contractor Laing O’Rourke, with specialist sub-contractors, including leading acoustic engineers Müller BBM and stage systems specialist Waagner-Biro.

Changes to the theatre include:

• New theatre flying system that is quieter, safer and more reliable;
• Improved grid deck providing a more flexible system of hoists and a clearer, more open work area;
• Partial replacement of the auditorium lighting and a new sound console and follow spot room;
• Upgraded orchestra pit and the installation of a state-of-the-art acoustic enhancement system to improve playing conditions for musicians and better distribute orchestral sound around the JST; and
• Six additional female toilets to better service audience members.

Opera Australia CEO Rory Jeffes said: “We’re thrilled to be back in our Sydney home and back in a revitalised venue that will now, more than ever, showcase Opera Australia’s amazing performers. There’s a feeling of excitement across the whole company that we’re a part of something quite historic, the reopening of the JST with our new production of The Merry Widow.

“Throughout the testing and bump-in phase of the JST renewal works, we have put various aspects of the theatre upgrades to the test – including the orchestra pit and acoustics. The feedback from musicians has been overwhelmingly positive – frankly they have been blown away. We hope the audience will feel the same when they experience the much warmer and more lively sound you can now hear around the venue.”

Simon Wheatly, Staging Supervisor, SOH said: “Before the upgrades, we would be backstage manually setting up the sets – it was often quite frantic and unpredictable due to the reliability and limitations of the old machinery. Since getting back in the theatre, we can already see how the new machinery gives us more control and support.

“Before an audience comes in, the crew are always busy backstage flying in scenery, setting up lights or rolling out the sets that transform the stage. This is where we need machinery that is flexible and functional. This new set-up has completely changed the way we work.”

Fun facts about the JST upgrades

• The new state-of-the-art theatre machinery has been built by Waagner-Biro – the same company who built the original machinery when the venue opened in 1973.

• The new theatre machinery filled 17 x 40-foot shipping containers while it was transported from Australia to Sydney.

• The new bridging mechanism that closes the gap between the stage edge and orchestra pit takes 46 seconds to complete. Previously, it would have taken eight crew members two hours to manually do this.

• The two new rear stage lift s can each carry up to ten tonnes of stage sets. People can also safely use the stage lift, unlike its predecessor.

• A specially-made conveyor belt was designed to remove/put back all the distinct red auditorium seats individually. It took close to a week to put all 1,500 seats back into the venue.

• Over 400 tonnes of material and steel from the original theatre machinery was removed from the theatre during the JST works.

• During the upgrade, there were some unique discoveries including graffiti on the walls and a newspaper from 1973, which were carefully documented for heritage significance.

Work on a number of accessibility upgrades will continue after the JST reopens, including a new passageway on the western side of the theatre leading to a new lift to provide greater accessibility to all levels of the Northern Foyer and a new accessible bathroom. These works are due for completion in mid-2018.

The JST upgrade is the first part of a larger program of Renewal works at the Opera House totaling $273 million. This includes a $202 million investment by the NSW Government in upgrades to the Concert Hall, entry foyers and arrival area under the Monumental Steps, a function centre and a new creative learning centre.

Photos: Daniel Boud