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Opera Houses

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Opera was invented in Italy in the 16th century as soon as people had money and power and, for probably the first time in the history of the world, leisure because they weren’t constantly preoccupied trying to hang onto that money and power. And what did they do? They invented opera – a fusion of music, drama, singing and storytelling. And why not? In all fairness, what would you do in a similar situation?

To this day, opera is seen as a global symbol of western cultural values and the aspiration to them. It’s not for everybody. Like architecture, it’s not a popular form of entertainment.

This site has a brief history of opera. It’s full of stuff. Recommended. Me, my preferences hover around Italian bel-canto operas – Verdi, Bellini, a bit of Donizetti. Maybe a bit of Mozart. I’ve no time for Offenbach and complex recitatives in French, or anything Wagnerian. Musically, dramatically and architecturally, I prefer Verdi’s exhilarating invention of multiple perspectives of the same scene sung simultaneously. This next clip is a brilliant illustration of the device. We see it clearly because there’s no ornamentation.

It’s amazing how much joy five people and a piano can make. Even if your living room has a reverberation time of between 1.0 and 1.6, keep it real. It’s probably not going to happen there. That’s why people go to opera houses where they’ll also get some scenery, staging, lighting, costumes, an orchestra, a chance to dress up, see and be seen, and some drinks at interval. It all gets put together in this next clip. Stay with it, it’s wonderful. Focus.

Regrets, I’ve had a few but one is that I never saw Joan Sutherland or Luciano Pavarotti sing live. We forget how electric they really were. All this has been a roundabout way of saying that wonderful things can and do happen in opera houses. Here’s Milan’s La Scala.


Here’s its 2013-2014 season. I’m actually listening to Il Trovatore as I write this – insane story, beautiful singing.

la scala

Here’s Paris’ Opera National de Paris. Yep, that’ll be the Garnier building.


Here’s Paris Opera’s 2014–2015 season. It looks good.

paris opera

Okay then, so how about The Met?


New Yorkers are spoiled. That’s a very nice programme until early 2015. I hope Bluebeard’s Castle is sung in Hungarian for maximum opacity. The Met is a temple of opera. It exports its performances and makes them available online in real time. It’s a cultural giant, and a friendly giant as well.


It doesn’t matter that the New York Metropolitan Opera is housed in a Wallace Harrison [apologies to all] building that by all accounts does its job quite well.


It opened in September 1966, seven years before the Sydney Opera House.


Let’s go to to, see what’s on and see if Sydney Opera House deserves to be called an opera house. (It’s not the fastest site on the planet, but) they’re doing Rigoletto from June 28 to August 14.


The fires are burning merrily in the Duke’s palace as beautiful people at magnificent candlelit dinners, party on into the night. Meanwhile, in the streets of Mantua, shadows tread softly. Words pass between hooded figures, their meaning drowned out by the sounds of drunken revelry. Are they whispering sweet nothings, or bitter secrets? Sometimes it is hard to tell the difference in the gloom. Verdi’s dark tale glitters with passion and suspense in this glamorous new production. Tell your jokes, lock up your daughters and trust nobody.

Sounds fab. I love a dark tale. The forseeable future is also fairly replete. 

opera australia

The building has had its own well-documented troubles in terms of functioning as an opera house but they seem to be making it work. Unfortunately, the Sydney Opera House started the fashion for opera houses to be added to cities as some kind of cultural bauble. It was the birth of the iconic building, the Guggenheim effect pre-Guggenheim. Opera houses were hot – until cities decided art galleries were cheaper and less hands-on. Not too many opera houses get built these days. Here’s one that famously didn’t get built for the Welsh National Opera in Cardiff


and here’s what did, but since it’s called an arts centre it doesn’t really count. The Centre comprises one large theatre and two smaller halls with shops, bars and restaurants. It houses the national orchestra and opera, dance, theatre and literature companies, a total of eight arts organisations in residence.

November 28 – Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff, Wales, is opened. The Welsh seem to like it.

The Centre comprises one large theatre and two smaller halls with shops, bars and restaurants. It houses the national orchestra and opera, dance, theatre and literature companies, a total of eight arts organisations in residence.

This next one’s a new and dedicated one – Snøhetta’s Oslo Opera House.


Not too many posts back, I linked to this video because it showed what went on inside an opera house. I forgot to say I really liked the central light feature in the auditorium. It’s perfect – a good call. I’ve never seen it mentioned anywhere.

So let’s see what’s coming up! Operatically, it’s an assortment of the favourites you’d choose if you wanted to cultivate a culture of opera-going. There’s Madame Butterfly August 15-September 6,


The Tales of Hoffman [urk] October 2-25,


Don Giovanni October 18–November 4,


Carmen January 23–March 26,


The Barber of Seville December 21–February 20,


Lohengrin March 8–April 11,


La Traviata April 24–June 8 …


So now let’s go to the Guangzhou Opera House and see what’s on.


Here’s the 2014 season. If you want any opera then you’ve missed the three performances of Carmen June 27-28-29. What is it with Carmen by the way? Is it the “Spanish heat and gypsy passion” or is there definitely something that translates across cultures and languages?

Missed that? You’ll have to make do with July 13’s Whole Summer’s Fun 2014 Do-Re-Mi Pods’ Rainbow Dream The Ju Percussion Group Concert for Kids.


Or one of the six performances of Whole Summer’s Fun Dora the Explorer Live! Search for the City of Lost Toys in July. There’s no more opera indicated for the rest of 2014.


This post is not about cultural elitism, imperialism or suprematism. People can pay money to see what they like ONLY DON’T SAY IT HAPPENS IN AN OPERA HOUSE! Sure China has a big history of song and drama that’s usually translated as “Chinese Opera” because that’s probably how we’re going to understand it even though it contains ballet and a bit of acrobatics as well. Though audiences are thinning out these days, it’s always been a popular form of entertainment much like music hall, vaudeville and burlesque used to be out west.


What we are seeing around the world now are music hall acts filling buildings touted as opera houses.  Back in the day, an opera house was planned for Dubai. It was to have looked something like this.


But now it’s not. Instead

The city is set to make a lasting contribution to the performing arts and events sector with Dubai Opera, a 2,000-seat multi-format venue for opera, theatre, concerts, art exhibitions, orchestra, film, sports events and seasonal programmes, within The Opera District, the newest development by Emaar Properties in Downtown Dubai.

It will look something like this.


To be used for opera, theatre, concerts, art exhibitions, orchestra, film, sports events and seasonal programmes, Emaar said it would be the centerpiece of the district to promote the arts, culture and events scene in Dubai.

It’s a far more useful building than the sand-duney one and in a far more sensible location. It is however, a multi-purpose hall even though the area it’s going to be in is now being marketed as “The Opera District”.


It’s futile getting too huffy about it, but a building’s name should at least reflect its purpose.



  • And don’t forget that Edward Durrell Stone’s great marble sarcophagus–docked on the banks of the Potomac and dedicated to the memory of John F. Kennedy as a living public memorial and maintained by the US National Park Service–includes a dedicated Opera House. After decades of hemming and hawing, the KenCen Opera House is the permanent home of the Washington National Opera since 2011.
    You can see what Jackie was thinking if you visit the Kennedy gravesite, high on a hill overlooking DC, in Arlington National Cemetery. When you turn around and look eastward, there is a breathtaking view of the entire length of the National Mall from the Kennedy Center to the Capitol, all framed with a backdrop of greenery covering the rim of the topographic bowl surrounding the city.

  • No comment on Bayreuth? 😉
    It’s a somewhat unfortunate irony that Richard Wagner (who despised the elitist opera scene he grew up with) worked basically his whole working life towards creating a “democratic” amphitheatre for the people only for it to become a highly exclusive cultural scene in itself (nine-year waiting list to attend!) Too ambitious, too exceptional, too expensive.

    But now we have iTunes and Youtube so…

    • Thanks Koff, I’ve just been reading about the Bayreuth Festpielhaus. At first I thought it strange that it wasn’t called an opera house but I don’t think anyone needs to be told what goes on there. But yes, opera anywhere has always had the attraction of the music and of the scene accompanying it. I guess that’s what happens when all those people get compressed into such a small space. Nine years is a long time to wait. iTunes has been good as I’ve been able to rebuy CDs I’d given away or shared over the years. And as for YouTube, the other day I found this, which is rather special.


  • says:

    Dear Misfit,

    The Metropolitan Opera in Lincoln Center NYC was designed by Wallace Harrison NOT Philip Johnson.. Please corect.

    Yours, Carlos Brillembourg

    212-431-4597 Carlos Brillembourg, FAIA Carlos Brillembourg Architects 611 Broadway Room 612 New York, New York 10012