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It may be the most beautiful and instantly recognisable building in the country, synonymous the world over with fine music-making and prestige, but musicians who play regularly at the Sydney Opera House say its acoustics don’t befit its stature.
A survey conducted by Limelight magazine of 200 performers, critics and industry experts has yielded damning results for the Sydney Opera House’s 1,507-seat Opera Theatre, which was voted the worst of 20 major classical music venues around the country. Its 2,679-seat Concert Hall ranked 18th.
The country's most frequented concert and opera venue has been plagued by accusations of sub-par acoustics since its opening in 1973. The imbalance between the building’s aesthetic and acoustic standards is said to be the legacy of the famous switcheroo that occurred during the construction process. When architect Jørn Utzon quit the project amid tensions in 1966, his plans were altered: the larger hall, originally intended for opera, became the cavernous Concert Hall, and a cramped orchestral pit was installed in the smaller performance space, now the Opera Theatre.
The most outstanding acoustics in Australia, according to the survey, belong to the Perth Concert Hall, which opened in the same year as the Sydney Opera House. On the outside it may be the ugly sister, but musicians who tour nationally know that beauty comes from within. Richard Tognetti, artistic director of the Australian Chamber Orchestra, agrees with the number one ranking. “If I had to single out one great concert hall in Australia, I would pick Perth. It’s amazing. A fluke maybe.
“It’s warm, giving and fair, without being muddy. Some halls can be good, but a bit cruel, other halls can be overly forgiving, which means you get a very diffuse sound. Perth is honest without being cruel: it’s a wonderful hall.”
In the Limelight survey, respondents were asked to rank the acoustics in halls for three types of classical music – Orchestral, Chamber and Vocal. Each hall was then given an Overall Rating based on these three categories. The Perth Concert Hall topped the list in both the Orchestral and Vocal categories, while the Melbourne Recital Centre was named the most acoustically satisfying Chamber venue. The MRC also grabbed second place in the Overall Rating.