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Only a handful of buildings around the world are as architecturally and culturally significant as the Sydney Opera House. But what sets it apart from some other famous buildings is that this white-sailed construction caught midbillow over the waters of Sydney Cove is a working building housing a full-scale performing-arts complex with four major performance spaces. The biggest and grandest is the 2,690-seat Concert Hall. Come here to experience chamber music, symphonies, dance, choral performances, and even rock [’]n’ roll. The Joan Sutherland Theatre is smaller, seating 1,547, and books opera, ballet, and dance. The Drama Theatre, seating 544, and the Playhouse, seating 398, specialize in plays and smaller-scale performances.

The history of the building is as intriguing as the design. The New South Wales Government raised the construction money with a lottery. Danish architect Jørn Utzon won an international competition to design it. Following a disagreement, Utzon returned home without ever seeing his finished project. The project was budgeted at A$7 million, but by its completion in 1973 it had cost a staggering A$102 million, most raised through a series of lotteries. After a A$152-million upgrade over the past couple of years, the Opera House has never looked better.

Guided tours of the Opera House last about an hour and are conducted daily from 9am to 5pm, except on Good Friday and Christmas Day. If you don’t get to see everything, it’s because the Opera House is a working venue. There’s almost always some performance, practice, or setting up to be done. Reservations are essential and tour sizes are limited, so be prepared to wait. Backstage tours include about 200 stairs, and are not available for children under 12. Tours for people with limited mobility are run daily at noon.

The Tourism Services Department at the Sydney Opera House can book combination packages, including dinner and a show; a tour, dinner, and a show; or a champagne-interval performance. Prices vary depending on shows and dining venues. Visitors from overseas can buy tickets by credit card and pick them up at the box office on arrival, or contact a local tour company specializing in Australia. Advance purchases are a good idea, because performances are very popular and it’s worth doing to ensure a good seat.

The Opera House is where you will see performances by the Australian Ballet (which is based in Melbourne) during its Sydney season, from mid-March until the end of April. A second Sydney season runs November through December ([tel] 02/9253 5300; www.australianballet.com.au). Opera Australia ([tel] 02/9319 1088 bookings; www.opera-australia.org.au) performs at the Joan Sutherland Theatre from January through March and June through September. Sydney Symphony Orchestra ([tel] 02/8215 4600 box office; www.sydneysymphony.com) performs throughout the year in the Opera House’s Concert Hall. The main symphony season runs March through November, and there is a summer season in February.

Free performances take place outside on the Opera House boardwalks on Sunday afternoons and during festival times. The artists range from musicians and performance artists to school groups.