Multi-purpose venues; Sydney Opera House

Artbeat column no 439 by Peter Entwisle
Published in the Otago Daily Times, 9 March 2009

Oh dear. A letter and reply in the Otago Daily Times suggest we’re still in confusion about theatres. Clarification and a cautionary tale may help.

Lindon Rayner wrote asking if the upstairs or downstairs of the Regent could be used as “a medium-sized concert venue” rather than providing a new venue, seeing the Regent is sometimes empty. Graeme Hall, general manager community life, Dunedin City Council, replied that it was a possibility “the Regent could be used as a medium-sized concert venue” and that the council is still investigating. (ODT 4/3/09)

The issue about the mid-sized theatre arose most recently because there are performance provider groups who have said the Regent with its 1800 seats is too big and the Mayfair with its 400 is too small for their purposes. The question has since been asked, and a survey and report have now answered it, whether there are such groups and a need for such a theatre in Dunedin. There are and there is. The suggestion the need might be met by somehow using part of the Regent has also been made before. The idea has two fairly obvious shortcomings.

The first is that it would preclude concurrent use of the venue by groups wanting it in different sizes, a significant handicap during events like festivals. The second is that there is no practical way of achieving the variable configuration while not leaving the performance in an oversize space, doing damage to a category 1 listed interior and/or imposing high additional costs on the owner or user.

I pointed out last week there is still confusion about the difference between a “full-facility theatre” and other types of venue. Full-facility theatres are not much used for concerts, unlike auditoriums. The question here is not whether Dunedin needs a mid-sized concert venue, but a mid-sized “full-facility theatre” - one of the type which is good for opera, ballet and certain forms of drama. Mr Rayner and Mr Hall illustrate my point. They are both still talking about a “concert venue”, not the other kind of theatre. This confusion has proved notably expensive before.

In the 1950s the city of Sydney decided it needed a new theatre complex. It held an architectural competition, won by a Dane, Jorn Utzon (1918-2008), which eventually produced the Sydney Opera House. The competition specified there should be a large hall seating 3,000 and a small one for 1,200, each to be used for “full scale operas, orchestral and choral concerts, mass meetings, lectures, ballet performances and other presentations.”

The project was troubled and protracted. Started in 1959 it was finished in 1973. Costs soared from an originally estimated $7m to $102m. Mr Utzon resigned in 1966 and the venues were never built to specification. What were built instead are the “Concert Hall”, an auditorium with a maximum seating capacity of 2,679, and “The Opera Theatre”, described as a “Proscenium Theatre” - in fact what I’ve called a “full-facility theatre” - with a maximum capacity of 1,507. (There are some smaller venues too.)

There was litigation between Mr Utzon and his employer. One of the issues determined was that inadequacies in the competition brief did not make it clear how the venues were to be used. Mr Utzon’s effort to make the large hall multi-purpose for both opera and concerts was abandoned. His highly expensive special fittings were taken out and thrown away. This is how the two venues each came to be designed for its special purpose - with the result “The Opera Theatre” is now considered inadequate for large-scale opera and ballet.

It is worth noting it is significantly smaller than the Regent, its direct Dunedin equivalent. And, too, that the “Concert Hall” is also a bit shy of its Dunedin counterpart’s 2,800 capacity, the Town Hall’s main auditorium.

One point is: lack of clarity about the different kinds of venue can prove very expensive and still result in inadequate facilities. It is more than just pedantry to insist on these concepts being crystal clear at the discussion stage. It matters this hasn’t happened yet in our present investigation.

Another point is that attempts to bridge the gap between one type of venue and another - and one can add, between two of the same type but of different sizes – in a single space, are likely to run into over-expense and dysfunction. Apart from the Sydney Opera House there are other attempts from the later 20thC where the results were poor to terrible.

“Multi-purpose” venues aren’t good for the special needs met by auditoriums and “full-facility” - “proscenium” - theatres. We should be careful not to reinvent the wheel.  To be serious about this we need to get more focused. The Sydney Opera House is an outstanding piece of architecture. It is also an underperforming theatre complex.

© 2009, Otago Daily Times