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German engineers to improve Sydney Opera House acoustics

Stefan Dege / dbAugust 12, 2016

Slammed for its bad acoustics and cramped orchestra pit, Sydney's world-famous Opera House is being revamped. German engineers are tasked with overhauling the sound, and they told DW how they'll do it.

Sydney Opera House, Copyright: AP
Image: AP

It may be the country's most recognizable building, a veritable landmark - but the opera and concert hall opened in 1973 by Queen Elizabeth II has been grappling with extremely poor acoustics for decades.

German engineers now have taken on the job of changing that once and for all. The company tasked with the revamp is Müller BBM from Munich, which has also contributed to the sound design for the Moscow Bolshoi Theater, London's Royal Albert Hall, the "Felsenreitschule" venue of the Salzburg Festival and La Fenice Theater in Venice.

Sydney Opera House is next for Müller BBM.

On the Unesco World Heritage List since 2007, the opera house draws at least eight million visitors a year - but it's too small and convoluted, critics say. It's been said that the orchestra pit in the concert hall is big enough for midgets playing tiny octave flutes.

Danish architect Jorn Utzon isn't to blame. He retreated from the ambitious project in 1966, fed up with infighting over exploding costs, missed deadlines and the steady criticism of his daring construction. Government architects finished the project.

Decades later, the state of New South Wales has earmarked 202 million Australian dollars ($153 million, 139 million euros) for renovation, it announced Thursday.

Gunter Engel und Jürgen Reinhold Copyright: Privat
Engineers Gunter Engel and Jürgen ReinholdImage: Privat

The sound doesn't 'linger'

As part of the major renovation project, due to be completed in late 2020, Müller BBM has won commissions for the acoustic optimization of both the main opera hall and the smaller concert venue.

The concert hall's reputation is actually worse than its actual acoustics, says the project's co-manager Gunter Engel. His colleague Jürgen Reinhold agrees that the acoustics, which were altered a few years ago, are actually "pretty good."

The room's proportions are a problem, he told DW, adding that the partially vaulted ceilings create an unwanted reverberation. Modifying the building seems inevitable, the acoustics engineer says.

Acoustics in the opera hall also show "certain shortcomings," Reinhold says. Whether Mozart, Beethoven or Grieg is on the program, the sound doesn't linger, an effect experts call "dry acoustics."

"A top European orchestra wouldn't accept the cramped conditions in the orchestra pit for very long," Engel says. The acoustics in both the pit and the hall need to be optimized.

Engel and Reinhold plan to replace the smooth, sound-reflecting panels with sound-absorbing surfaces as much as possible. They can't change the size of the pit, however.

Electronics to improve the acoustics

The German experts have to adhere to monument preservation regulations, since the Sydney Opera House is UNESCO-listed. "Whatever we put in, we have to be able to take out again," Reinhold says, adding that they are not allowed to change the appearance of the Opera House. It's a job akin to "squaring the circle."

Sydney Opera House concert hall Copyright: Privat
The engineers hope to improve the audience experience in the concert hallImage: Privat

Electronics are the solution in this case, Engel says. "Where the room acoustics reach a natural limit, we use microphones and loudspeakers - but only to the point where people don't notice." The acoustics experts have used similar techniques in London's Royal Albert Hall and at the Staatsoper Berlin.

The Sydney Opera House is the number one attraction in Australia. About 1.3 million people attend an event there yearly, 300,000 take a tour, and seven million stop by to take pictures and soak up the view.

How Australia became a cultural destination

When Jorn Utzon won the bid to construct the opera in the late 1950s, the idea that tourists might come to Australia to see a building was absurd. "Culture" and "Australia" didn't belong together. That has changed, not least thanks to Sydney's Opera House.

In 2003, just five years before his death, Jorn Utzon recieved the prestigious Pritzker Prize, a kind of Nobel Prize for architecture. He never saw the completed Opera House, nor die he ever hear a concert in the magnificent building.

According to his plans, the interior of the Opera House would have been used differently: the hall he planned for operas became the Concert Hall, and the smaller space he'd designed for concerts is today the venue for operas.