Opera houses with impact
Acoustic perfection is the resounding star in these temples of high art, but it wouldn’t sound as sweet without the accompanying history and/or visual appeal
Teatro Am azonas, Manaus, Brazil
Opera in the Amazon? Well, yes. Manaus is the Amazon’s largest city, an incongruous pocket of urbanity in the middle of the jungle. Its famous opera house was opened in 1896, at the height of the region’s rubber boom, and symbolises the opulence that was once Manaus. The artists and most of the materials (Italian marble and glass, Scottish cast iron) were imported from Europe; the wood is Brazilian but was sent to Europe to be carved. One truly homespun feature was the roadway outside the entrance – it’s made of rubber, so late-arriving carriages wouldn’t make too much noise.
The annual Amazonas Opera Festival is a three-week gala during April and May that brings high-quality opera deep intothe rainforest.
Palais Garnier, Paris, France
The fabled ‘phantom of the opera’ lurked in this opulent opera house (aka the Paris Opéra), one of only two designed by Charles Garnier (the other is in Toulon). It was designed in 1860 to showcase the splendour of Napoleon III’s France – unfortunately, by the time it was complete (15 years later) the second empire was but a distant memory and Napoleon III had been dead for two years. Still, this is one of the most impressive monuments erected in Paris in the 19th century – and in a city full of architectural riches that’s really saying something.
Take a guided tour, or visit the attached museum, full of costumes, backdrops,scores and other memorabilia; see www .operadeparis.fr.
Operahuset, Oslo, Norway
Those Scandinavians sure know how to design modern opera houses. The new, white Oslo Opera House is a sheer delight – and is partially submerged in a fjord! The design was inspired by the image of two glaciers colliding – from afar, from some angles, it looks like a floating angular iceberg. Inside is a symphony of oak set in a translucent cube. The roof, though, might be the best treat. Essentially an urban promenade, its large, sloping planes extend down to the water. Follow the crowds up to scramble around, peer inside and look out over the fjord. It feels kind of like a playground for adults that happens to host opera.
Operahuset won the 2009 Mies van der Rohe Award, the EU Prize for Contemporary Architecture. See www.operaen.no for more.
Staatsoper, Vienna, Austria
In a city considered by many to be the world capital of opera and classical music, this is the premier opera venue. Built between 1861 and 1869, it initially revolted the Viennese public and Habsburg royalty and quickly earned the nickname ‘stone turtle’. Both the architects took this poorly: one hanged himself and the other died of a heart attack two months later.
Despite its frosty reception, its opening concert was Mozart’s Don Giovanni and it went on to house some of the most iconic directors in history. Productions are lavish affairs – the Viennese take their opera very seriously and dress up accordingly.
Feeling peckish? Directly across from the Staatsoper is Café Sacher, of Sacher Torte (rich chocolate cake with apricot jam) fame.
Sydney Opera House, Australia
Full of admiration for the Sydney Opera House, famous architect Louis Kahn said: ‘The sun did not know how beautiful its light was, until it was reflected off this building.’ Danish architect Jørn Utzon’s competition winning 1956 design is Australia’s most recognisable icon. Utzon is rumoured to have drawn inspiration from orange segments, palm fronds and Mayan temples, and the building has been poetically likened to a typewriter stuffed with scallop shells and the sexual congress of turtles. Construction commenced in 1959 and it was officially opened in 1973 after a soap-opera series of personality clashes, technical difficulties and delays.
One-hour tours of the Sydney Opera House depart half-hourly from 9am to 5pm; see www.sydneyoperahouse.com.
Teatro alla Scala, Milan, Italy
Like a true diva, Milan’s legendary opera house normally only goes by one name: La Scala. Its austere facade seems at odds with its sumptuous interior: six storeys of loggia (boxes and galleries) are bedecked in gilt and lined in crimson, and, for evening performances at least, audiences are similarly turned out. Milanese money, old and new, is deliciously on display. Yes, there is a dress code and yes, tickets need to be booked well in advance. Otherwise, you can peak inside as part of a visit to the in-house Museo Teatrale alla Scala, provided there are no performances or rehearsals in progress. Opera season begins on 7 December, also the feast day of Milan’s patron saint (St Ambrose); see www.teatroallascala.org.
Teatro Colón, Buenos Aires, Argentina
Recently reopened to its adoring public after a three-year makeover, BA’s major landmark and source of pride is the gorgeous and imposing seven-storey Teatro Colón, a worldclass facility for opera, ballet and classical music. Opened in 1908, it was the southern hemisphere’s largest theatre until the Sydney Opera House came along and stole its thunder. It occupies an entire city block, seats 2500 spectators and provides standing room for another thousand. Opening night was a presentation of Verdi’s Aida, and visitors have been wowed ever since – the Colón was described by Mikhail Baryshnikov as ‘the most beautiful of the theatres I know’. High praise. Two blocks south of the theatre is El Obelisco, the striking, 68m-high symbol of modern Buenos Aires.
Arena di Verona, Italy
Verona is certainly a town worthy of romance and drama (do the names Romeo and Juliet ring any bells?). And this extends to its impressive open-air opera house. The pink marble Roman amphitheatre known as the Arena, situated in the corner of bustling Piazza Brà, was built in the 1st century AD and survived a 12thcentury earthquake to become fair Verona’s legendary open-air opera house, with seating for 30,000 people. This is where Plácido Domingo made his debut, and the annual opera season (from June toAugust) includes 50 performances by the world’s top names. Not enough atmosphere for you? Just wait until the candles are lit around the stadium after sunset.
Tickets to sit on the stone steps are the cheapest option (cushion rental isavailable). See www.arena.it.
Festspielhaus, Bayreuth, Germany
With the backing of ‘Mad’ King Ludwig II, Richard Wagner turned the town of Bayreuth into a mecca of opera and high-minded excess. Today, the annual Wagner Festival draws some 60,000 opera devotees; their pilgrimage ends at the festival’s main venue, the fascinating Festspielhaus. Designed by Wagner himself expressly for his works, the theatre was built in 1872 and lacks much of the ostentation of other theatres from the era. Here, it’s all about how best to cleverly showcase Wagner’s works and grip the audience, from the hidden orchestra pit to the three storeys of mechanical works below the stage.
While in Bayreuth, also stop in to see the Markgräfliches Opernhaus (Margravial Opera House), a baroque bombshell built in 1750.
Magyar Ál ami Operaház, Budapest, Hungary
The gorgeously opulent, neo- Renaissance Hungarian State Opera House is one of Budapest’s most beautiful buildings. Near the banks of the Danube on the Pest side of the city, the opera house opened in 1884 and boasts one of the most elegant interiors in Europe. We might just like it best for its balls – the New Year’s Eve gala, and the prestigious Opera Ball, held in February/March. The latter is a Hungarian society event in which the stage and auditorium of the opera house are transformed into a huge ballroom, and the ball is opened by more than 100 debutante dancers.
See if you can wrangle a ticket to the Opera Ball – go online to www.operabal.com. Dress code: white tie.
The extract Opera Houses with impact is from Lonely Planet’s 1000 Ultimate Sights, available from shop.lonelyplanet.com, £15.99