The Sydney Opera House has found a perfect place for a kitchen: The Australian Ballet’s rehearsal room

When it comes to a choice of the dollar or the artist the winner is almost always the dollar.

For a model example of the dollar vs the arts, look no further than the Sydney Opera House.

The management and trustees of the largely self-funded entity are proposing new ways to rake in the dollars with plans to initiate various ‘experiences’ and to add a new permanent function centre at the northern end of the building, overlooking the Sydney Harbour.

The existing marquee on the site will be tucked around a corner and the space will be hired out to those who can afford to pay top dollar for their event, whether it’s a wedding, special birthday, anniversary or, more likely, a corporate or government event.

The Sydney Opera House already has several food and beverage venues, among them the theatre bars, the new “Lounge enabled by Samsung”, (that’s the correct title), the Bennelong Restaurant and, most importantly, on the western side of the building, the Opera Bar, a large and lucrative venue big enough to accommodate 1800 people and with multiple options for food.

The SOH revenue from food and beverage sites last financial year was $12.1 million, equal to 11 per cent of all self-generated operating revenue. You might think that the success of the Opera Bar alone – a draw card for both tourists and Sydneysiders – would boost the annual revenue far more than that amount.

But the SOH gets nowhere near the earnings of the Opera Bar, a venue operated by the partnership of Solotel – the pub, bar, bistro and restaurant group – and celebrity chef, Matt Moran.

In 2014, the partners signed a new contract with the SOH to operate the Opera Bar for a further 10 years.

The annual revenue of the Opera Bar is under wraps and so too is the percentage the operators pay the Sydney Opera House.

An attempt to find these details failed in 2014 when a request was made for copies of the contractual agreement.

The request was rejected under a section of the Government Information (Public Access) Act.

Enter the new Function Centre, another venue that the SOH hopes will boost the overall income.

Plans for the Function Centre and an adjacent kitchen were sent last year to the NSW Department of Planning and Environment.

Documents prepared by planners for the SOH describe the Function Centre as a long crescent shaped room that would stretch across the northern end of the eastern podium. The centre would “provide new and enhanced business opportunities”.

Now here’s where the “artist” element comes in.

The SOH wants to take over the Australian Ballet’s rehearsal room – where the company rehearses and the dancers take daily class – and transform it into a kitchen adjacent to the Function Centre.

The rehearsal room is under the Joan Sutherland Theatre, on the eastern side of the building.

A new rehearsal room would be located across the corridor that divides the eastern side of the house from the western side, the site of the Concert Hall.

The ballet performs in the Joan Sutherland Theatre and, of course, the dressing rooms and office space for the ballet are adjacent.

The relocation can be seen on the plans (left).

In the plans submitted, the new location is described as “temporary” but there doesn’t seem to be any information on a permanent location.

The move goes against Jorn Utzon’s concept for the SOH rehearsal rooms.

He wanted these rooms to be placed below their related auditorium.

Initially there were four rehearsal rooms underneath the smaller of the two theatres, now the Joan Sutherland Theatre, and one bigger rehearsal room under the Concert Hall.

Over time, the four rooms under the JST became one.

Right now it takes very little time to walk from the dressing rooms to the rehearsal room.

However it’s not the extra time needed to go to the new “temporary” space that matters so much but rather the plan to ignore Utzon’s original design concept.

In a submission to the NSW Department of Planning and Environment, Graham Jahn, the City of Sydney’s director of City Planning, Development, Transport, wrote: “This proposal removes the last remaining rehearsal room from beneath the JST, relocating it to a distant location on the other side of the central passage.

“The removal of the existing ballet rehearsal room to an alternate location in order to accommodate the function centre kitchen is an adverse heritage impact.

“Worse, it prioritises the function centre use over the performing arts.

“This is particularly unacceptable in consideration of Utzon’s specific warning against expanding functions, and in the context of the Opera House’s World Heritage Status as an architectural monument and world class state of the art performing arts centre”.

In a document titled Utzon Design Principles (UDP), “Utzon cautioned against introducing additional functions into the Opera House beyond those for which it was designed; precisely the objective of this proposal.

“The UDPs provide important guidance on the intended role of particular spaces and elements and on how they should be treated in the future.

“Relevant to this application is the following principle: “Danger in too many functions – building has limited size: The inherent danger in large buildings, which have become popular, is that there is a tendency to want to fill too many functions and rooms into those buildings.

“Moreover, it is not a good idea to fit more rooms inside the building… more functions than it can hold”. *

In its submission to the NSW Department of Planning and Environment the NSW Heritage Council also takes exception to the relocation of the ballet rehearsal room as it impacts on the space’s historical association with the building.

The Australian Ballet is not complaining about the move, at least not publicly.

(Its main priority is likely to be the temporary move it must make later this year to the Capitol Theatre due to upgrades at the Joan Sutherland Theatre.)

A spokesperson for the Australian Ballet said the Sydney Opera House had “consulted regularly and extensively with the Australian Ballet regarding the relocation of the second ballet studio. The Opera House has agreed to our requests re specification and fit out of the studio”.

The company, after all, hasn’t much say in the matter as the Opera House is not its home even though it spends many weeks there every year. Home for the company is the Primrose Potter Australian Ballet Centre in Melbourne, behind the Arts Centre where it performs.

The Sydney Opera House trustees and the chief executive, Louise Herron, seem to be focusing these days on the building, with the performing arts taking a second place as they investigate ways to make money from “experiences” in the various spaces.

The SOH’s 2015/16 annual report shows a 12 per cent growth in gross box office revenue from the previous year.

The growth was “driven” by an increase in the numbers and “popularity of Opera House productions, particularly the Forecourt experience”.

Last year, Jan Utzon, (the son of Jorn Utzon and a member of the Opera House’s architects’ panel), expressed his concern about these shows.

In a recent article in The Sydney Morning Herald, Andrew Taylor reported that last year Jan Utzon wrote to the SOH management: “I find it highly disturbing to see the negative impact that some of these performances have on the experience of the Sydney Opera House and its surroundings”.

The NSW Department of Planning and Environment is also assessing the SOH’s plan for spaces inside the Opera House to be used for “temporary experience accommodation”.

The Guardian reported: “The Utzon Room and the Board Room would be temporarily converted into ‘Danish-themed’ luxury suites – complete with queen-sized beds, desks and sofas – in which to house five guests for up to two nights, five times a year.

“As many as 100 guests would spend the night on cot-type beds in the northern and southern foyers of the Joan Sutherland Theatre and the Concert Hall on a single occasion each year.

“According to the proposal submitted by urban planners JBA on behalf of the Sydney Opera House Trust last year, allowing overnight stays would be a ‘new and innovative’ way to experience the building and ‘shift perspectives on a well-known public institution’”.

Among the public responses to the proposal on the NSW Department of Planning and Environment website one woman wrote: “I do not believe this submission by the Sydney Opera House Trust to host ‘sleepovers’ is about ‘temporary experimental accommodation.

“I am firmly of the belief that this is bold and brazen marketing, pure and simple”.

To which the SOH response was: “The Opera House hopes to join other cultural institutions and performing arts centres including Arts Centre Melbourne, Taronga Zoo, the Australian Museum and the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences (Powerhouse) in offering an overnight experience”.

That’s OK then. Everyone’s doing it. It’s just Airbnb on a larger scale.

Airbnb signed up for a two-year partnership with the Sydney Opera House in 2015.

Free tours of the House for Airbnb’s so-called ‘superhosts’ are just the beginning of the partnership.

* The Opera House spokeswoman, Jessica Gooch, has said the Opera House’s architects’ panel and conservation council supported the new function centre and the Opera House had considered it had addressed several of the City’s key concerns”.

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Jorn Utzon, © Utzon

Amber Scott and David Hallberg in the Australian Ballet’s rehearsal room at the Sydney Opera House, photo © Kate Longley

Where the Sydney Opera House plans to relocate the ballet rehearsal room

Where the Sydney Opera House plans to locate a kitchen in a space now used as a rehearsal room for the ballet

Disney in Concert – Under the Stars, Sydney Opera House forecourt, 2016