The Most Beautiful Opera Houses in the World
One of the many pleasures of attending operatic performances is enjoying the many beautiful venues–the great opera houses of the world. In pre-20th Century Europe building an opera house was seen as a tribute to the ruling dynasty.
The Semper Oper in Dresden, for example, will always be associated with the Elector August the Strong, a massive equestrian statute of whom still greats visitors to this greatest of all opera houses in Eastern Germany, and one of the finest in all of Europe.
Today the enormous cost of building and maintaining an opera house can be sustained only by government and patrons of vast wealth. The very idea of building a purely functional opera house is considered absurd. Despite recurring wars, revolutions, fires, and the final cataclysm of World War II, many of Europe’s great opera houses survived or have been restored to their former grandeur. Even Berlin, a city prostrate and largely destroyed in 1945, again has three opera houses, one of which, the Staatsoper on Unter den Linden, is one of the most beautiful and impressive in all of Europe. Vienna, another defeated capital, could hardly be imagined without its magnificent opera house restored to its pre-war glory.
The world’s great opera houses have frequently been chronicled in photographs, posters, and lavishly illustrated books. The most recent of the latter is The Most Beautiful Opera Houses in the World, photographs by Guillaume de Laubier and text by Antoine Pecqueur (Abrams 2013). It is a large-format coffee-table book with superb photographs of the interiors and exteriors of 32 of the world’s finest opera houses, most of which are in Europe.
The two in the United States include one of my least favorite opera houses, the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, and one of my favorites, the Civic Opera House in Chicago. The Met, despite being the home of one of the finest opera companies in the world, is a vast barn of a place with mediocre acoustics. The Civic Opera House, also home to a very fine company, despite its large dimensions still retains a feeling of intimacy. Its art deco furnishings, such as decorative motifs in the form of stylized gilt sheaves of grain, exemplifies Chicago’s Midwestern identity and noble architectural heritage.
Bayreuth could hardly be left out, though it is not grand in the tradition of Europe’s other temples of operatic grandeur. Richard Wagner intended the Festspielhaus to exemplify his democratic principles, which were contrary to the perceptions of opera generally. The house that he built has an environment, both architectural and acoustic, that is unique in all the world.
Mention “opera” and one house immediately springs to mind: Teatro alla Scala in Milan, beautiful, extravagant, and steeped in the traditions of the art. No house has been the venue for the premieres of more of the enduring works of the operatic repertoire than this grande dame of all the opera world. It is the repository of Italy’s cultural soul. After being heavily damaged by Allied bombing near the end of World War II, it was restored and opened a few years later and only recently reopened after a controversial renovation that has brought its technical capabilities up to the standard of more modern houses, like the Met.
The book features photographs of more recently constructed opera houses in Oslo and Copenhagen, worthy examples of Scandinavian architectural modernism. Opera houses and performance halls of all kinds are being built at a furious pace in China, which is using its new wealth to validate itself as a cultural destination for the world. Although none of the Chinese halls are featured in the book, later chronicles of the world’s opera houses can hardly ignore them.
The photographs are beautiful, and the text is graciously written. The Most Beautiful Opera Houses in the World, belongs on the book shelves of all serious opera lovers.
Photography by Guillaume de Laubier; Text by Antoine Pecqueur
Abrams Books, 2013; Hardcover, 240 pages