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SYDNEY OPERA HOUSE ACCESSIBLE TOUR

If you’ve looked at the Sydney Opera House and been put off by the massive staircase assuming that it’s not accessible, I’m here with good news. Not only is the Opera House accessible but there is a wheelchair accessible tour daily. This tour is designed for anyone with mobility restrictions and avoids the 200 stairs which are part of other tours.

Last weekend we joined four tourists who were doing the accessible tour. The majority of the others on the tour had a mobility restriction and one lady had a hearing impairment.

Sydney Opera House Accessible Tour
Sydney Opera House Accessible Tour

Maryann was our guide for the day and she met us at the Stage Door entrance to the building (this is effectively under the stairs). Her first words to the group were, “this is your tour, we’ll go at your pace.” I can only imagine what a relief that is for someone, who, due to their mobility restrictions, needs to go at a slower pace. At no time during the tour did we feel we were on a schedule or that Maryann was winding up the tour.

We were ushered from the stage door to a lift which took us to our first stop on the tour. Maryann was cheerful and filled us in on snippets of information as we made our way to the Joan Sutherland Theatre. The theatre was being prepared for the afternoon’s performance of Swan Lake. Maryann shared the logistics of previous performances and how the Opera House can even accommodate horses on the stage. It is fascinating to hear the behind-the-scenes information and we were all amazed to hear that diluted coke is what was being mopped on the floor to keep the dancers from slipping. My mind takes me off into odd directions and I wondered how they discovered that diluted coke is a good non-slip solution for dancers. Was a dancer rehearsing with coke in hand, spilt a bit, pirouetted over it and amazed she didn’t slip? Anyway, I fear I shall never know the answer.

Sydney Opera House
Taking a closer look at the tiles on the sails of the Sydney Opera House

Next we headed outside to admire the structure of the Opera House and learned that 1,056,006 tiles cover the sails. Best bit of all – they are self-cleaning.

Sydney Opera House.
Watching a video on the construction of the Sydney Opera House.

We then watched a video on the construction of the building. I love the fact that seating is provided for visitors doing the accessible tour. Maryann pulled out benches ensuring there was enough seating for all of us, despite our protests that we were fine to stand. The video was particularly informative for those that had no knowledge of the construction of the building or the Danish architect Jorn Utzon. Imagine a time when construction was done without safety harnesses or OH&S intervening. Remarkably there were no deaths during the build. When the video finished Maryann filled us in on how the government of the time cleverly paid for the construction of the Opera House through a lottery.

Sydney Opera House
Sydney Opera House Accessible Tour

My favourite theatre we visited is home to the biggest pipe organ in Australia. 10,000 pipes, 10 years to build and 2 years to tune. There is something very special about sitting in the Opera House and I am thrilled to have been to many performances there.

If you are visiting Sydney and have time to see a performance I highly recommend it. The Opera House has a varied program including opera, ballet, modern theatre and children’s performances. We recently visited as a family and you can read about theatre access and our experience here.

TIPS

The accessible tour operates daily at 12pm (at time of publication).

Auslan tours are offered on request (bookings must be made for Auslan tours 14 days in advance.)

Book ahead for the accessible tour.

Accessible bathrooms are available on the same level as the Stage Door entrance. There is a stand-alone unisex bathroom and accessible cubicles within the male and female bathrooms.

Let the tour guide know at the start of the tour if you have a hearing impairment. Sit close to the front.

TAKING ACCESS TO ANOTHER LEVEL

Access means different things to different people, the tour I mention above is mainly aimed at people with a mobility restriction although there is the opportunity to have a tour with an Auslan interpreter. For our family access is simply wheelchair access to a building and then appropriate wheelchair accessible seating and viewing. Others need other facilities for appropriate access including captioning for shows, hearing loops and more. Very few venues incorporate more than the basics when it comes to inclusive and accessible facilities. I am thrilled to say that our iconic Sydney Opera House is striving to do more than the basics.

Sydney Opera House
Photo credit – Sydney Opera House.

Recently I was invited to the launch of the Sydney Opera House’s Strategic Access Plan 2016-2018. As one of the speakers commented, “it sounds dry” but as promised it was far from a dry evening.  After our recent visit to the Opera House I was more aware of some of the access services like Auslan interpreted performances, wheelchair access and accessible performances. However, at the launch I realised the full extent of the Opera House’s efforts to fulfill the commitment, “The Opera House belongs to everyone. As an organisation, our goal is to provide barrier-free access, making the site, building and experiences they offer accessible to all people.” A pretty big statement but after watching videos, hearing from a performer with cerebral palsy and watching an Auslan actor performing alongside an opera singer, I am convinced the Opera House is committed to making this a reality.

Opera House Accessibility Manager Jenny Spinak also announced a series of initiatives as part of the 2016 Access Program at last night’s event:

  • Out There – The Australian Ballet’s education outreach program for school-aged children arrives at the Opera House for a week-long residency in August. Supported by Samsung and held in the Utzon Room, this series of workshops and performances for students with disabilities will provide a fun introduction to dance.
  • Together with Dance for Parkinson’s Australia, the Opera House presents its new Dancing Connections Series. Building on last year’s Dance for PD program with the renowned Mark Morris Dance Group, each workshop will be linked to a specific dance performance. The first – a collaboration with The Australian Ballet – will infuse the themes, aesthetic concepts and movement materials of Swan Lake into the class.
  • ACO MOVE offers music and movement classes for young people with disability. Students will be invited to go behind the scenes with the Australian Chamber Orchestra to see how the players prepare for a performance, while discovering new ways of making music and interacting with musicians.
  • After a successful pilot last year, in collaboration with the Art Gallery of NSW, Starting with Art at the House gives students with intellectual disability the chance to visit the gallery and then take an Opera House tour. The full-day excursion offers stimulating and engaging workshops through discussion, role-play and the use of sensory materials. Students also have the opportunity to make their own artworks.
  • In partnership with Lifestart, the Opera House’s Accessible Babies Program and Sing Play sessions return, offering play-based activities alongside a number of performances for pre-school kids and their families.

Ongoing initiatives include: a partnership with the Museum of Contemporary Art to introduce students to visual and performing arts through a joint excursion to both venues; and The Balnaves Foundation Open House Program provides $5 tickets to people who face barriers to accessing live performances at the Opera House due to social and financial disadvantage. Year-round accessible performances by Opera House resident companies and audio-described tours round out the 2016 program.

The Sydney Opera House Access Strategic Plan 2016-18 is available online. You can also find full details of the 2016 Access Program on the website.

We would like to thank the Sydney Opera House for providing a complimentary tour for our family so we could share it in detail with you. I’d have loved to share more about the tour but I have to leave some surprises for you.

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