From Valencia to the Amazon, New York to Buenos Aires, Alex Sakalis investigates the stories behind the world’s most beautiful opera houses.
Opera has always been regarded as one of the most prestigious disciplines in the Western musical tradition since its inception in late 16th-century Italy. To complement its continued popularity, architects have sought to create opera houses that evoke the majesty of the art form while also meeting its complex technical and acoustic requirements.
From opulent Neoclassical palaces to radical, modern icons, here are eight of the world’s most stunning opera houses.
Palais Garnier, Paris
When Charles Garnier, an unknown 35-year-old architect, won the competition to design Paris’s new opera house in 1858, it raised eyebrows. His daring winning design was built with the extravagant, no-holds-barred eclecticism that flourished during Emperor Napoleon III’s reign. Drawing inspiration from Baroque cathedrals, Greek temples and Renaissance villas, he also introduced radical modern technologies such as steel and glass. When asked what style his building was, Garnier quickly replied, “Napoleon III style,” inadvertently coining an architectural epoch.
During excavations, builders encountered an unexpectedly high level of groundwater, threatening to halt construction. Garnier devised a brilliant solution, building a double-layered foundation and storing groundwater as a reservoir for use in the event of a fire. However, the entire event spawned a persistent rumour that the theatre was built over a subterranean lake, a rumour that Gaston Leroux exploited for his 1910 novel The Phantom of the Opera, whose numerous adaptations have done more than anything to establish the Palais Garnier in the realm of popular culture.
Teatro Colón, Buenos Aires
The Teatro Colón, South America’s premier opera house, is emblematic of Argentina at the turn of the century, when the country was booming and waves of European migrants, particularly from Italy and Spain, descended on Buenos Aires. The new theatre was intended to cater to the tastes of these new Argentines while also cementing European cultural norms in the country.
The architects (Francesco Tamburini, Vittorio Meano, and Julio Dormal) were European immigrants themselves, and the building they designed is a kind of aesthetic summation of European history, with Italian, German, and French styles all represented. It debuted in 1908 with a performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida.
The theatre is frequently regarded as having the best acoustics in the world, though Luciano Pavarotti, a long-time favourite there, was not a fan. “The theatre’s greatest flaw is that its acoustics are perfect!” he once opined. “Imagine what this means for the singer: if one sings something bad, it is immediately noticed.”
Sydney Opera House, Sydney
The Sydney Opera House is one of those rare modern structures that feels like it has always been and will always be iconic. Despite this, its construction was plagued by issues such as cost overruns, a workers’ strike, frequent design changes, and, eventually, the resignation of its architect, Jrn Utzon. In fact, we were on the verge of creating an opera house that looked nothing like the one we know today.
The theatre was formally opened in 1973, but many unofficial performances occurred prior to that. The baritone and activist Paul Robeson is widely regarded as the first person to perform at the Sydney Opera House. He climbed the scaffolding and sang Ol’ Man River to the construction workers while they ate lunch in 1960.
Utzon was awarded the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize in 2003. When the Sydney Opera House was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2007, Utzon became only the second person in history to receive such honour for one of his works. Oscar Niemeyer, the architect of Brazil’s capital Brasilia, was the first.
Teatro alla Scala, Milan
The Teatro alla Scala, which has long been a landmark of Milan, has an air of reverence about it. Mary Shelley described it as “not only the universal drawing-room for all the society of Milan, but every sort of trading transaction, from horse-dealing to stock-jobbing, is carried on in the pit; so that the snatches of melody one can catch are brief and far between.”
The Teatro alla Scala was the venue of choice for premieres by Rossini, Verdi, and Puccini during the golden age of opera. It also staged world premieres of composer-provocateur Karlheinz Stockhausen in the 1980s, never one to rest on its laurels.
The loggione, or upper gallery, where the cheap seats are located, is particularly well-known. The regulars here, referred to as loggionisti, are probably the most discerning, no-nonsense opera fans in the world. During a performance of Aida in 2006, they famously booed tenor Roberto Alagna off the stage, forcing his understudy, Antonello Palombi, to quickly replace him mid-scene without time to change into a costume.
Metropolitan Opera House, New York City
The most prestigious opera house in North America was established in 1883 and relocated to its current location in 1966. Wallace K Harrison, the architect, had grand atriums and imposing statues in mind, but this was scaled back to a minimalist design with concrete porticoes and waves of white travertine cladding.
The results inside were even more impressive, with revolving stages, five underground floors, and two massive Marc Chagall murals now worth $20 million. The current venue debuted with the world premiere of Antony and Cleopatra by Samuel Barber, directed by Franco Zeffirelli and starring Leontyne Price and Justino Diaz. The theatre’s sheer size – with 3,850 seats, It is the world’s largest opera house, and its technologically advanced stage mechanisms continue to inspire awe. It also evokes an innate fondness. “This majestic place—she just gleams, you know,” Price said of the Met.