It is by no means untrue to say that theater in Europe has its cradle in Classical Greece. And there, too, was held what could be considered the first theater festival. We are talking about the Dionysiac Festivities, where scenes from Greek mythology were performed.
With the passing of the centuries, society and theater advanced. Gods were no longer represented. Instead, fragments of the lives of flesh-and-blood people were staged.
Theaters established themselves as the main characters in the life of modern European cities.
Here is a small selection of what, over the centuries, have become the 10 most important theaters in Europe.
1. Magyar Állami Operaház, Budapest, Hungary
Although the tradition of theater in Hungary dates back more than 300 years, it received its main impulse when the Hungarian State Opera (Magyar Állami Operaház) opened its doors in Budapest in 1884.
Today home to the Hungarian National Opera and Ballet, the acoustics of the Magyar Állami Operaház are on a par with those of La Scala in Milan and the Palais Garnier in Paris.
Once inside the Renaissance building of the Magyar Állami Operaház, you should raise your eyes to the ceiling. A beautiful 3,050-kilogram chandelier hangs from the ceiling, illuminating a fresco adorned with depictions of the Greek gods of Olympus.
Guided tours are available almost every day in English, French, German, Hungarian, Italian and Spanish. It is also highly recommended to take advantage of your stay in the city to enjoy one of the many opera or ballet performances that the theater programs almost daily.
2. Opera Royal de Versailles, Versailles, France
Designed by Ange-Jacques Gabriel, one of the secrets of the Opera Royal de Versailles is the interior decoration by Augustin Pajou. Made almost entirely of wood, in the technique known as faux marble, this artistic resource is largely responsible for the exceptional acoustics of the building.
The decoration of some of the areas of the Opera Royal de Versailles -mainly the box and the King’s Cabinet- represents the first sample of what would later be known as the Louis XVI style.
The lyric tragedy Persée, with music by Jean-Baptiste Lully, and libretto by Philippe Quinault, was premiered at the Palace of Versailles in 1682. It was the year Louis XIV moved to live in the palace.
The Opera Royal de Versailles did not open its doors until 1770, coinciding with the celebration of the marriage of the dauphin, the future Louis XVI, with Marie Antoinette.
The Opera Royal de Versailles can be used not only as an opera house, but also as a theater and a ballroom. In the latter case, thanks to an ingenious system of elevators, the floor of the orchestra level is leveled with the stage level.
3. Teatro Massimo Vittorio Emanuele, Palermo, Italy
The Teatro Massimo Vittorio Emanuele, better known as Teatro Massimo, in Palermo (Italy), is the largest opera house in Italy and one of the largest in Europe.
The Teatro Massimo Vittorio Emanuele occupies the space where, before the reunification of Italy, three monasteries with their respective convents were built.
Tradition has it that a nun, whose tomb was desecrated during the construction works, still wanders around the theater.
To avoid, as far as possible, favoritism, a jury without Sicilians was chosen for the competition of ideas to choose the project for the construction of the Teatro Massimo Vittorio Emanuele.
An Italian, a Frenchman and a German participated. The list of names also included the German architect KF Schinkel… who had died 23 years earlier.
The inauguration of the Teatro Massimo Vittorio Emanuele took place on May 16, 1897 with Giuseppe Verdi’s Falstaff, a play that had not yet been performed in Palermo.
In 1974 the theater was closed for renovations, which lasted until May 12, 1997, when the theater was reopened with a concert performed by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. The musicians were conducted by conductors Franco Mannino and Claudio Abbado.
4. Stavovské Divadlo, Prague, Czech Republic
Considered one of the most beautiful historic theaters in Europe, the Stavovské Divadlo was built in less than 2 years and inaugurated in 1763.
The Stavovské Divadlo is famous for its connection with Mozart, who, besides living for a long time in Prague, premiered his Marriage of Figaro in this theater in 1786. Years later, the Austrian musician would personally conduct the orchestra during the inaugural performance of Don Giovanni, also premiered here.
While the exterior of the building has become a global architectural icon, it is the interior that takes visitors’ breath away. The gilded ceilings and light-drenched spaces make the setting of the Stavovské Divadlo (almost) as impressive as the stagings performed here.
5. Markgräfliches Opernhaus, Bayreuth, Germany
A World Heritage Site since 2012, the Margravial Opera House Bayreuth is considered one of the most spectacular Baroque theaters ever built.
The building is inspired by the opera houses of Vienna and Dresden, Built at the instigation of the Prussian Princess Margravine of Brandenburg-Bayreuth and inaugurated in 1748, the Markgräfliches Opernhaus is the work of the leading theater architect of the time, the Italian Giuseppe Galli Bibiena.
For the construction of the interior of the Markgräfliches Opernhaus, a novel technique was chosen. Architectural elements made of prefabricated wood and painted elsewhere were introduced.
6. San Carlo Theater, Naples, Italy
This is the oldest opera house in Europe. Built in 1737 by order of King Charles III of Bourbon, the Teatro San Carlo in Naples was inaugurated in 1737, 41 years before La Scala in Milan and 55 years before La Fenice in Venice.
Built in only 8 months, for a total cost of 75,000 ducats, the Teatro San Carlo is located in the center of Naples. The building is surrounded by the main architectural and monumental spaces of the city: Piazzas del Plebiscito, Trieste and Trento; via Toledo; Palazzo Reale; Galleria Umberto and Maschio Angioino.
Listed and protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Teatro San Carlo has played host to illustrious names in world music such as Paganini, Bellini, Bach, Handel and Mozart. Not to mention Giuseppe Verdi, who composed most of his major operas to be premiered in this theater.
The horseshoe-shaped floor plan of the Teatro San Carlo was later copied by some of Europe’s leading theaters.
7. Olympic Theater, Vicenza, Italy
Designed by Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio, the Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza (northern Italy) was built between 1580-1585. Together with the Teatro all’antica in Sabbioneta and the Teatro Farnese in Parma, they are the only three Renaissance theaters still preserved in Italy.
The proscenium of the Teatro Olimpico was built in wood and stucco imitating marble. This structure, dating back to 1585, is one of the most outstanding elements of the theater and the only one, in all of Europe, that has survived from the Renaissance period. The element, moreover, is preserved in excellent condition.
Since 1994, the Olympic Theater, along with other Palladian buildings in Vicenza and its surroundings, is part of the UNESCO World Heritage City of Vicenza and the Palladian Villas of Veneto.
8. Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona, Spain
The Liceu has its origins in the Sociedad Dramática de Aficionados, created in 1837 in the former Convent of Montsió.
The need to create a music conservatory in a Barcelona in full economic and demographic expansion soon led (1838) to its conversion into the Liceo Filarmónico Dramático Barcelonés de S. M. la Reina Isabel II (Barcelona Philharmonic and Dramatic Lyceum of H. M. Queen Isabella II). The new institution added, to the cultivation of theater, singing and music in the Italian style.
The success of the Liceo Filarmónico, together with the will of a group of prominent members of the Barcelona bourgeoisie led by Joaquim de Gispert i d’Anglí, led to the construction of a new and ambitious theater, worthy of the importance of the city.
The Gran Teatre del Liceu, which has lasted for more than a century and a half, was born on the site of the former Convent of the Trinitarians on the Rambla.
The fire of January 31, 1994, which destroyed the hall and the stage, caused an extraordinary emotional impact on Catalan society and radically redefined the very existence of the Theater.
In order to rebuild, improve and expand this emblematic building, a new legal approach to its public ownership became necessary after the fire: the Foundation of the Gran Teatre del Liceu was created (1994).
On the basis of Ignasi de Solà-Morales’s pre-existing Reform and Expansion project (1986, which was joined in 1988 by Xavier Fabré and Lluís Dilmé), the reconstruction was carried out, and the new Liceu – with a faithful appearance to the old one but equipped with a highly advanced technical infrastructure and enlarged with the neighboring lots on La Rambla, Carrer Sant Pau and Carrer Unió – opened its doors on October 7, 1999.
9. Teatro alla Scala, Milan, Italy
La Scala, or Teatro alla Scala in Italian, is one of the most famous opera houses in the world. Its sober and elegant exterior never ceases to amaze first-time visitors.
Archduke Ferdinand of Austria-East commissioned the construction of a new Ducal Theater when a fire burned down the previous theater in 1776. The opera house was built on the site of the former church of Santa Maria alla Scala, hence the name Teatro alla Scala.
Like other theaters of the same period, La Scala also housed a casino during its early years.
Many famous operas have had their first production at La Scala, such as Othello, Verdi’s Nabucco and Giacomo Puccini’s Madame Butterfly.
During its early years, the composer Giuseppe Verdi did not want his work to be performed at Teatro alla Scala because he was convinced that the orchestra modified his compositions. However, he later established a very close relationship with the Opera House.
10. Gran Teatro La Fenice, Venice, Italy
There has never been a better name for a theater. Just as the phoenix, a mythological creature, rose from the ashes in a continuous cycle of life and death, Venice’s most important theater was reborn after two fires. Ah… Fenice translates into English as Phoenix.
Devoured by two fires (1836 and 1996), the second inauguration was in 2003.
A curiosity about the second fire. If the first one was due to a bad stove, the second one was arson.
Two electricians working in the theater, realizing that they would not finish their work on time, decided to start a small fire, to attribute the delay to causes beyond their control.
Since the reopening of the Theater, and precisely since January 1, 2004, the Theater has hosted the famous New Year’s Concert, broadcast live by RAI and also by the main television channels in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Albania and France.
The concert always ends with the famous aria “Libiamo ne’ lieti calici”, the toast from Giuseppe Verdi’s Traviata.