The first major project in the $273-million Sydney Opera House renewal program, the Joan Sutherland Theatre (JST) upgrade, is just weeks away from completion. This morning, Architecture & Design went behind the scenes to offer a first look at the near-complete $71-million project.

Most of the upgrades have taken place in the backstage area of the theatre, meaning that the difference from the auditorium will be more experiential than aesthetic.

“The general public will come in and hopefully not notice too much at all,” says Louise Herron, the Sydney Opera House chief executive.

One of the more significant changes is made apparent deep in the underbelly of the Jørn Utzon-designed building: a new lift to bring set designs up to the stage, which formed part of the $45-million upgrade of the JST’s machinery.


The Opera House ran an international competitive tender process for the new lift, which was won by the same Austrian company – Waagner-Biro – that built the original machinery over 40 years ago, when the venue first opened in 1973. Two-and-a-half times faster than the old machinery, the current machinery is graded to carry people as well as sets, whereas the previous system was not considered safe enough for the former.

Much of the other behind-the-scenes stage works concerned improved safety for the theatre crew and performers. For instance, a new theatre flying system was installed that is safer, quieter and more reliable; and improved grid decking above the stage provides a more flexible system of hoists and more open work space. These upgrades – which incorporate a significant upgrade in theatre technologies, such as within the orchestra pit upgrades – will also allow the Opera House to stage feats, performances and experiences that were not possible with previous systems.



“The transformation of the JST is an incredibly exciting and important moment in our company’s history,” says Rory Jeffes, CEO of Opera Australia. “Despite the challenges presented by the closure, we are hugely excited to return to our Sydney home and to a renewed venue that is better equipped to meet the needs of 21st-century performance.

“When audience members take their seats in the JST, they may not notice the huge changes in the auditorium, but behind the scenes it will be a different story. 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.”

The Joan Sutherland Theatre is one of the busiest venues within the Sydney Opera House, staging approximately 330 performances per year. After seven months of closure while the renewal works took place, the JST will re-open on New Year’s Eve for a performance of The Merry Widow.