Great opera houses of the world: your guided tour

Limelight gives you a front-row seat inside the world's most illustrious opera theatres, old and new: their history, classic performances and the hottest tickets coming up.

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Find more features and interviews on opera in Limelight's July Opera Issue, on sale now.


Page 1: Italy Page 2: Germany & Austria Page 3: France Page 4: UK 

Page 5: Spain Page 6: USA Page 7: Australia & Asia


Teatro alla Scala, Milan 

One of the world's oldest and grandest theatres, La Scala has become synonymous with opera in Italy, the birthplace of the artform. Designed by Giuseppe Piermarini in Neoclassical style, it first opened its doors in 1778 with Salieri's L'Europa riconosciuta for its inaugural performance. Built at the behest of Empress Maria Theresa of Austria to replace Milan's Royal Ducal Theatre destroyed by fire two years prior, La Scala became the home of opera seria, especially the music of Rossini. It hosted the world premieres of Bellini's Norma (1831), Catalani's La Wally (1892) and Puccini's Madama Butterfly (1904). 

Legendary Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini became artistic director in the early 20th century, cementing La Scala's reputation for Verdi performance as well as bringing a new focus to the works of Wagner. Toscanini left a lasting legacy, with the 135-strong Teatro alla Scala Orchestra now considered one of the world’s best for in the genre. Claudio Abbado and Riccardo Muti have also taken up the baton, the latter leaving in 2005 - citing "staff hostility" - after 19 years as music director.

The building sustained severe damage in WWII bombings, and a major restoration effort ensued. Extensive renovations again took place in 2002 - 2004 to expand the backstage area and modernise technical mechanisms. Today, the theatre seats 2,800 and boasts one of the largest stages in Italy (16.15m d x 20.4m w x 26m h).

Fun Fact: The loggione gallery above the boxes are famously peopled with the most critical and often merciless opera devotees, who have been the cause of many a fiasco and audience riot over the years. As recently as 2006, they booed Roberto Alagna off the stage during Verdi's Aida, his understudy replacing him mid-scene without time to don his costume.

In the 19th century, opera-goers were even rowdier thanks to a casino stationed in the foyer.

One to watch: Verdi's Rigoletto in a new Luc Bondy production, with Vittorio Grigolo as the Duke and Gustavo Dudamel conducting. November 6-17, 2012.  

Captured on film: This visually stunning 2009 production of the first opera, Monteverdi's L'Orfeo, takes a Titian painting and the traditions of commedia dell'arte as its inspiration.


Teatro La Fenice, Venice

Inaugurated in 1792 with Paisiello's musical drama I Guochi d'Agrigento, La Fenice ("The Phoenix") has risen from the ashes more than once to loom large in the city of canals. It was the first theatre in Venice which sought to claim its status in the classical, elegant facade, designed by G A Selva. Even after it was burned down and rebuilt in 1837, it remained one of Italy's leading theatres.

Verdi composed five operas for La Fenice: Ernani (1844), Attila (1846), Rigoletto (1851), La traviata (1853) and Simon Boccanegra (1857), and the theatre helped Giacomo Meyerbeer rise to stardom with his Il crociato in Egitto (1824).

From 1949, the names of Maria Calls and Renata Tebaldi began to appear in the playbills when Callas took on the role of Elvira in I Puritani. In 1960, La Stupenda graced the Fenice stage in the eponymous role of Alcina in Handel's opera.

On January 1996 a devastating fire destroyed much of the theatre. Riccardo Muti heralded its triumphant reopening in 2003. To safeguard against more bad luck, the theatre's entire historical archive has been digitised and is available to browse online.

One to watch: La Fenice is staging a new production of Verdi's Il Trovatore in December 2011, following Rigoletto and La Traviata as a trilogy celebrating the 150th anniversary of the unification of Italy. Directed by Lorenzo Mariani with set and costumes by William Orlandi.

Captured on film: The incredible male soprano Michael Maniaci's aria in Meyerbeer's Il crociato in Egitto.


Teatro di San Carlo, Naples

Italy's oldest surviving opera house claims opera buffa as a particular specialty. After just eight months of construction, the Real Teatro di San Carlo opened in 1737 with Domenico Sarro's Achille in Scirro to a libretto by Metastasio. The ambition and speed at which the theatre was built earned the Sicilian architect Giovanni Antonio Medrano the nickname, "the Man of Miracles".

Alas, in 1816 the theatre was burned to the ground by a stage lantern. Rebuilt in just ten months on a design by Antonio Niccolin, the new theatre prompted Stendhal to remark on its splendour: "It dazzles the eyes, it enraptures the soul". It is this theatre we see today, and that attracted Malibran, Colbran and other illustrious singers of the day. Rossini was engaged as San Carlo's artistic director and composer-in-residence for seven seasons, composing ten operas during his tenure. Donizetti was next in line for the post, building on the San Carlo prestige over ten years and premiering Lucia di Lammermoor there in 1835.

A €67-million renovation was completed in 2009, restoring the theatre to its original glory (with San Carlo's famed acoustics remaining intact) while introducing more modern amenities and replacing outdated technical facilities. 

Fun fact: There is an apocryphal story of how the San Carlo came into being. King Charles VII of Naples and his queen were on their way to attend an opera at the run-down Teatro San Bartolomeo. When their horses were tripped up and their carriage upset by loose paving stones, the queen, fuming, insisted her husband build her a new opera house. 

One to watch: See Lucia di Lammermoor in the house for which it was written, February 10-18, 2012.

Captured on film: Pergolesi's charming opera buffa, La Serva Padrona

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Great opera houses of the world: your guided tour
The Chagall-painted ceiling and grand chandelier of the Palais Garnier theatre.
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