Sydney Opera House Celebrates 20 Years the Arts Complex, Said to Be the World's Busiest, Draws an International Crowd to Its Myriad Cultural Events

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THE Sydney Opera House. That soaring, white-winged palace of the arts, which has been likened to everything from nun's caps to sails to sections of an orange, is 20 years old.

The gleaming shells, jutting out of sparkling-blue Sydney Harbor, are a symbol recognized around the world. More than 36 million people have visited since its opening.

Some of the international artists who have performed in the more than 53,000 events staged there include Joan Sutherland, Luciano Pavarotti, Marilyn Horne, Jessye Norman, Kiri Te Kanawa, Peter Allen, Bob Hope, and Ella Fitzgerald.

But in keeping with its populist image, some of the festivities marking the anniversary include an outdoor concert with rock singer Wendy Matthews, Aboriginal singer Archie Roach, and the Aboriginal Islander Dance Theatre.

The highlight of the festivities was a repeat, on Oct. 22, of the original Beethoven concert performed for Queen Elizabeth at the 1973 official opening.

ON an azalea-festooned stage, the Sydney Opera House Orchestra and the Sydney Philharmonia Choir gave a rousing performance of Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 in D minor. The piece with its notoriously difficult choral music and rapturous conclusion seemed a fitting choice to mark the opening of an opera house that had finally triumphed over great difficulties.

The story of the building of the opera house starts with an English conductor of Belgian descent, Eugene Goossens, who was amazed when he came to Sydney in 1947 that the city didn't have a first-class opera house. (He conducted his opera, "Judith," with a young stenographer, Joan Sutherland, at the New South Wales Conservatorium of Music.)

Goossens began lobbying for a proper hall, and he won over the New South Wales government in 1954.

An advisory committee chose Bennelong Point, a tram turnaround that jutted out into Sydney Harbor and overlooked the famous Harbor Bridge, as the site. In August, 1955, a competition for the design was launched. Danish architect Jorn Utzon beat out 232 other contenders.

The dashing young Dane won on the strength of rough designs, not detailed plans. It was estimated to take three years and cost $7 million. Engineering hurdles proved enormously difficult, however; roof vaults of this size and curvature had never been built before.

Years passed while mathematicians, engineers, and architects scratched their heads, drew and redrew, the public got bored, and the project became a political issue.

A new conservative government was voted in, vowing to get the job done. Architect Utzon resigned when his ideas didn't mesh with the new administration's. Others completed the project, which in the end took 14 years and cost $103 million. …