The Sydney Opera House ʻDoughnuts’

We speak with the Sydney Opera House’s Heritage Manager, Laura Matarese, about the iconic building, the decommissioned acoustic reflectors affectionately known as the ‘doughnuts’, and the Opera House’s upcoming 50th birthday.

Sydney Opera House Concert Hall with orchestra and audience, April 1973. Photograph by Max Dupain Credit/ Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW

What is your role and what do you love about it?

I’m the Sydney Opera House’s Heritage Manager. In my role I help take care of the World Heritage listed building and its collections. I love the Opera House because it’s both a work of art and a stage for it. The best way to see it come alive is to watch a performance and see this combination at work. I still get goosebumps every time I see the building. When I leave work, I love seeing people arriving to enjoy a show, families watching the sunset on the steps, and kids playing on the forecourt.

What are the ‘doughnuts’ that used to hang in the Opera House’s Concert Hall?

The ‘doughnuts’, as they’re often referred to, were the acoustic reflectors in the Concert Hall. The 21 Perspex rings were first installed in 1972 to improve the acoustics. What is now the Concert Hall was originally going to be the opera theatre. After Danish architect Jørn Utzon’s departure in 1966, there was a change in brief by the government and the venue became a Concert Hall. However, the height of the ceiling was too high for orchestral music, so the design solution was to install acoustic reflectors over the stage. This was the brainchild of Peter Hall, the Australian architect who completed the building after the departure of Utzon, and Danish acoustician Dr Vilhelm Jordan. 

Doughnut removal at the Sydney Opera House
Credit / Daniel Boud

Why were they decommissioned?

The acoustic reflectors were brought down in 2020 to make way for the renewal of the Concert Hall. The upgrades were completed over a two-year period, with acoustic improvements being a key goal. To achieve this, we replaced the doughnuts with state-of-the-art acoustic reflectors resembling petals, which have significantly improved the sound quality of the venue.

What has the Opera House done with them?

As significant items in the Opera House’s history, we developed a plan to manage the future of the doughnuts. We accessioned three into our heritage collection and offered them to the families of the designers and manufacturers. In November, the remaining doughnuts will be auctioned to the public through Leonard Joel. In 2022, we engaged director Angela Goh to create a film, The Concert, as a way to reimagine the acoustic reflectors. There is also an online exhibition on the Opera House’s Google Arts and Culture webpage.

Sydney Opera House Credit / Hamilton Lund

What are some other nicknames for the Perspex rings?

Over the years, they have had various nicknames including giant ‘lifesavers’, and ‘calamari rings’, but ‘doughnuts’ has been the term of endearment that has stuck. When they were brought down in 2020, the team honoured the moment by eating Krispy Kreme doughnuts on stage.

The Opera House is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. How can people get involved?

In October, the Opera House kicks off a month-long festival to celebrate 50 years. We have more than 50 events including contemporary art, theatre, music, and a new public artwork. This is a joyous occasion for our community to come together and celebrate five decades of this extraordinary building.

The auction of the Sydney Opera House’s iconic ‘doughnuts’ will take place on Tuesday 21 November in Sydney. For viewing times and to see the full catalogue please visit our website.

MADELEINE NORTON / Head of Decorative Arts & Art, Sydney

Banner Image: Concert Hall with Musica Viva March 1973, photograph by Max Dupain. Credit / Sydney Opera House Trust and Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW

October 2023