Opera trivia

Our Picks for Top 7 Opera Houses Around the World

From the 18th century home of Mozart’s Don Giovanni to the Parisian theater that set the stage for “Phantom of the Opera,” browse through our selection and gain insight into some of the world’s oldest and magnificent theaters.

Teatro alla Scala, Milan, Italy

Teatro alla Scala

Teatro alla Scala (or “staircase” in Italian) was built on the same site as the Church of Santa Maria della Scala in Milan, Italy. Designed by Giuseppe Piermarini in 1778, this world-famous opera house is where many great composers first performed their masterpieces, including Verdi and Puccini.

Fun fact: The first performance of Puccini’s unfinished title Turandot took place here in 1926. At the end of Act III, Conductor Arturo Toscanini halted the orchestra, laid down his baton and stopped the show — as this was the last scene Puccini wrote before his death.

Sydney Opera House, Sydney, Australia

Sydney Opera House

With more than 8.2 million visits each year, the Sydney Opera House is one of the most recognizable buildings of the twentieth century and is Australia’s number one tourist destination. Construction was expected to only take four years, but completing the opera house took 14 years to finish and involved 10,000 construction workers. Completed in 1973 and opened by Queen Elizabeth II, the opera house’s first production was Prokofiev’s opera War and Peace.

Fun fact: Long before the building was finished, American singer and civil rights activist Paul Robeson sang “Ol’ Man River” to construction workers in 1960, making him the first person to perform at the opera house.

Estates Theatre, Prague, Czech Republic

Estates Theatre

Home to the world premiere of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, The Estates Theatre was built in less than two years thanks to aristocrat František Antonín Count Nostitz Rieneck in 1783. Constructed in the classicist style and characterized by teal velvet inside, it’s among the only theaters in Europe preserved in its near-original state.

Fun fact: The inscription written above the theater entrance, “Patriae et Musis,” means “To the Native Land and the Muses,” which many believe is a testament to the Count’s intention of spreading the ideas of the Enlightenment period.

Drottningholms Slottsteater in Stockholm, Sweden

Drottningholms Slottsteater
Machinery used to simulate sound on stage. (Atlast Obscura)

One of the oldest preserved opera houses in the world, the Drottningholms Slottsteater (or the Royal Theater of Drottningholm) is among the few 18th-century theaters that still use the original stage machinery a wooden pulley system is operated entirely by hand. The theater closed after King Gustaf III’s death in 1792, but was reopened more than a century later in 1922.

Fun fact: In addition to the original scene-change mechanism, the opera house also features wave, thunder, and sound machines (pictured above) that date back to the 18th century.

Palais Garnier, Paris, France

Palais Garnier
Palais Garnier chandelier

Named after its architect Charles Garnier, who won the public competition for the job in 1861, Palais Garnier’s large stage can host 450 people at once. Designed to be grandiose, Palais Garnier is extravagantly decorated with bronze busts, marble and velvet seating, and an eight-ton chandelier.

Fun fact: There is a water tank beneath Palais Garnier! After many failed attempts to keep groundwater out of the building, Garnier and his team finally installed a cistern to hold it all. Rumors of this eerie “lagoon” spread throughout the city, and inspired one Parisian, Gaston Leroux, to write “The Phantom of the Opera.”

The Metropolitan Opera, New York, United States of America

The Metropolitan Opera (Untapped Cities)

Initially built on Broadway and 39th Street in New York City by a group of wealthy business men in 1883, The Metropolitan Opera moved to the Lincoln Center in 1966 for an upgrade in space. Also known as The Met, the opera house hosts 800,000 people each season and continues to run its successful radio series, the longest-running classical music series in American broadcast history.

Fun fact: Soprano Kristina Mkhitaryan will make her Met debut this season, and will appear as Violetta in Palm Beach Opera’s La traviata, our first blockbuster opera of the season.

Royal Opera House, London, England

Royal Opera House

After two previous theaters were destroyed by fire, the extravagant Royal Opera House opened in 1946 at London’s Convent Garden. By the 1980s, the facilities needed improvement and after the creation of the National Lottery, the Opera House was awarded enough money to expand and transform the theater as we know it today, complete with a smaller auditorium and restaurant.

Did our list leave you inspired? What are some of the opera houses that you’ve visited… and which is your favorite? Leave comments below.

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A Brief History of Opera
Featured, Opera history

A Brief History of Opera

Opera was not an art form that grew organically from a long tradition. Rather, it was deliberately invented by a group of scholars, who named among its members none other than Vincenzo Galileo, the father of the famous astronomer.

The group was formed in the city of Florence during the 1590s, and they were known as the Camerata. They sought to revive the power of Greek drama, incorporating musical features, just as the Greeks did, to enhance the emotion of the story. These experiments led to the development of the stile recitativo, which became a precursor of opera lirica, the opera that we know today.

Around the same time in the same city was another group called Accademia della Crusca. Their main objective was to define and preserve the vulgar Florentine tongue as a model for a standardized Italian language. Within this larger goal was a stated objective to create a language that sounded as beautiful as possible; a language that lent itself to music, even when spoken in daily conversation.

All the pieces were in place for opera to be conceived. It wasn’t long after that when it was officially born.

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Featured, New productions

Mozart’s Librettist

Not often mentioned with the same reverence as the composer, the work of a librettist is no less important to a genre which, from its inception, sought to combine the magical forces of music and drama to create something greater than the sum of its parts.

While Mozart is the very definition of a household name (even among folks who can’t even name one of his works), his most successful collaborator is all-but-unknown to those who are not ardent opera fans. The Venetian writer, Lorenzo Da Ponte, wrote the libretti for three of Mozart’s most celebrated operas; The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Cosi Fan Tutte. And yet you may have never heard of him.

The Life of Lorenzo Da Ponte

By Michele Pekenino (engraver, 19th century) after Nathaniel Rogers (American, 1788-1844)

Born in the Jewish ghetto of Venice, Lorenzo converted to Christianity as a youth when his widower father married a Catholic woman. Emboldened by an opportunity not yet given to Jews, he entered the priesthood to have access to higher education.

But while a priest in name, he often “overlooked” the vows of his order to compete with his good friend Giacomo Casanova (yes, THAT Casanova) for being the most scandalous scoundrel in all of Venice. He allegedly lived in a brothel and organized “entertainment” there for himself and other gentlemen of Venetian society on a regular basis.

Eventually he was arrested, convicted, and banished from the city for “public concubinage” and “abduction of a respectable woman.” The “respectable woman” in question was probably the mistress with whom he, the ordained priest, had two children.

So perhaps he knew what he was talking about from first-hand experience when he wrote the (in)famous “Catalog Song” from Don Giovanni, in which the title character’s servant lists the number of women his master has seduced:

In Italy six hundred and forty; in Germany, two hundred and thirty-one. A hundred in France, in Turkey ninety-one, but in Spain already a thousand three!

Exile from Venice brought him to Vienna and to the court of Emperor Joseph II, who had just created an Italian opera company. There Da Ponte coaxed his way into the role of “theater poet” without ever having written an opera in his entire life.

But it was in Vienna that Da Ponte first encounters Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. They were both living near the Stephansplatz at the time, neighbors in one of Vienna’s most trendy quarters. While collaborating on Le nozze di Figaro during a six week period in 1786, they scampered back and forth between Da Ponte’s humble abode and Mozart’s’ opulent apartments.

According to The Librettist of Venice, by Rodney Bolt:

“We do not know the full extent of that back-and-forth across the Stephansplatz, of how much composer and librettist argued, of whose ideas shaped what, but it is clear that as Da Ponte delivered page after page of prose drama transfigured into poetry that sang in itself, and a form that would be effective as opera, Mozart was able to take the pragma­tically simplified plot and re-endow the characters with subtlety, providing an audible commentary, one moment sarcastic, the next touching, then deliciously witty.”

“And so the simple conversation between Susanna and the Countess, as they compose a letter to entrap the Count, became a duet of extraordinary sweetness and intimacy; Susanna’s aria ‘Deh vieni‘, when pretending to be waiting for a tryst with the Count, intertwined her aim to teach Figaro a lesson for doubting her with a heartfelt expression of desire — a genuine hymn to love in a stock scene of buffo deception. The music-infused the characters that the words had conjured up with the contradictions, doubts, ironies, and warmth of richer humanity.”

Da Ponte’s American Career

In the United States, Da Ponte settled in New York City and became the first professor of Italian literature at Columbia College. While living in New York he produced the first full performance of Don Giovanni in the United States.

In 1828, at the age of 79, Lorenzo Da Ponte became a naturalized U.S. citizen. Five years later he founded an opera house in the United States, called “The New York Opera Company.” Sadly, due to an acute lack of business savvy, Da Ponte’s opera house lasted only two seasons. However, it paved the way for the New York Academy of Music and the New York Metropolitan Opera.

Lorenzo Da Ponte died in 1838 in New York. In 2009, the Spanish director Carlos Saura released a film in Italian called Io, Don Giovanni, a “half fact, half fiction” account of Mozart’s librettist, which attempted to parallel his life with his most famous libretto, Don Giovanni.

Da Ponte and Mozart in Palm Beach

You can see Mozart’s dark Don Giovanni in a film noir version right here at Palm Beach Opera. Tickets are on sale now at pbopera.org.

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