Ahead of the grand reopening of the Sydney Opera House’s Joan Sutherland Theatre on New Year’s Eve, the media were invited today for a behind-the-scenes look at the renewal projects that have been taking place over the last seven months.

“When audience members take their seats in the JST they may not notice huge changes in the auditorium, but behind-the-scenes it will be a different story,” said Opera Australia CEO Rory Jeffes. “The backstage machinery upgrades, orchestra pit works and acoustic enhancements will transform the experience for artists and audience members alike, allowing us to push creative artistic boundaries in entirely new ways.”

Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House, RenewalThe new-look Joan Sutherland Theatre. Photo © Daniel Boud

The renewal of the Joan Sutherland Theatre, included a $45 million upgrade of theatre machinery that had reached the end of its operational life, funded by the Opera House, while the NSW State Government contributed $26 million for additional improvements – such as the addition of six extra female toilets for audience members.

“Investing in our arts and culture is absolutely critical,” said NSW Arts Minister Don Harwin. “The State Government is spending $200 million dollars because we want this building not just to be a symbol of Australia, a monument, one of the great buildings of the world, we want it to be a living breathing performance space that stays relevant, stays cutting edge, and that’s why we’re reinvesting in this performance and of course shortly in the Concert Hall as well, improving the experience there as well.”

Key upgrades to the venue include a new theatre flying system that is quieter, safer and more reliable, an improved grid deck providing a more flexible system of hoists and a clearer, more open work area, an upgraded orchestra pit – now about 10 percent larger – and a state-of-the-art acoustic enhancement system to better distribute orchestral sound around the theatre.

“There is a lot of kit that gets flown above the stage here,” Jeffes told the media at a tour of the renewed facilities, explaining that the machinery was “getting really old and getting to the point where it was no longer safe”.

Joan Sutherland Theatre, RenewalThe Joan Sutherland Theatre Renewal. Photo © Daniel Boud

The renewal project has addressed these concerns and more, however. “We really have a state of the art theatre set up here, which will enable us to operate really safely for all of our staff and all of our singers etc., but also will enable us to be able to undertake artistic developments that previously we didn’t think we’d be able to do,” he said. “So this becomes a cutting-edge opera theatre for the world, which is really exciting.”

For audiences, the biggest change will be in the sound. “The orchestra pit has always been something which has not been absolutely the best in the world,” Jeffes said. “What has happened over the last seven months is the pit has actually been increased in size and with some really clever use of materials in terms of the lining of the orchestra pit, it’s made it almost like one of those old fashioned gramophone horns, on the old HMV sets, which now really projects the sound out, and that is something that our audience is going to notice.”

The electronic acoustic enhancement system will also contribute to the audience experience. “If you stand right in front of the pit where the front row will be sitting, the quality is really excellent,” explained Jeffes. “What this system does now is actually enable that sound, with that quality, to be heard right the way through the hall.”

The upgrades to the pit also included realignment of air conditioning and upgraded fold-back systems – changes which have also apparently been embraced by the orchestra. “We had our musicians in here yesterday and they were just blown away by the difference of experience,” said Jeffes.

Joan Sutherland Theatre, Renewal, Sydney Opera HouseThe Joan Sutherland Theatre’s new lift. Photo © Daniel Boud

One of the big changes behind the scenes includes an upgraded stage lift, which is now faster than the old lift, safe enough to lift performers as well as scenery, and quiet enough to be used during performances – not just between acts. The renewal also includes a partial replacement of the auditorium lighting, a new sound console and follow spot room – the follow spot has also been repositioned and will now be able to reach right to the back of the stage.

Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House, GraffitiThe Joan Sutherland Theatre’s technicians over decades. Photo © Angus McPherson

While the renewal has stripped out and replaced equipment which has, in some cases, been there since the Opera House’s opening in 1970, some care was taken to preserve details of the venue’s behind-the-scenes history, with graffiti from technicians over decades preserved rather than simply painted over.

“We just couldn’t be happier with the results of the work that’s been going on over the last seven months,” Jeffes said.

While the Joan Sutherland Theatre will reopen on New Year’s Eve with a performance of The Merry Widow, staring Danielle de Niese and Alexander Lewis, the upgrades to the theatre will continue. A new passageway on the western side of the venue leading to a new lift to provide greater accessibility to all levels of the Northern Foyer and a new accessible bathroom will be completed in mid 2018. Upgrades to the Concert Hall – including improvements to acoustics, accessibility, stage and backstage areas, will begin next year.