The Modern Opera House

Modern and Opera - a Contradiction?

The juxtaposition of the words ‘modern’ and ‘opera house’ is an oxymoron.

The earliest public opera house, opened in Venice in 1637, was built with multiple levels of seating in a roughly horseshoe shape, with space for an orchestra between the stage and the audience, and a proscenium arch framing the action on stage.  The best part of 400 years later, most modern opera houses adopt the same template.

  Was the little Teatro Tron in the parish of San Cassiano so perfect that it cannot be improved; only expanded in scale? Unfortunately, there is no extant image of Teatro San Cassiano.

It took almost 240 years before the composer Richard Wagner banished the visible orchestra to his hidden, sunken pit at Bayreuth, and raised the proscenium so high that it is scarcely discernible in the darkened auditorium.  Yet his architectural revolution has not been copied elsewhere.  Was it really so unsuccessful; or have others lacked Wagner’s courage?

During the last fifty years, some of the greatest architects have designed opera houses which have iconic exteriors but traditional interiors.  It is as if their invention meets a brick wall when confronted with the demands of musicians for acoustic perfection.  Is this physical barrier a paradigm for opera’s failure to re-invent itself, for its ultimate irrelevance in today’s society?

Opera is no more and no less than theatre.  Or rather, it is theatre plus, the added ingredient being music.  The composer is the dramatist, and, like a playwright, seeks to engage with an audience drawn from contemporary society.  A public theatre or opera house is designed with that in mind.  Let us examine the examples which have changed history: the ancient theatre of Epidavros; Shakespeare’s Globe; the Festspielhaus in Bayreuth; the Stratford Festival Theatre in Ontario; Peter Brook’s Empty Space.

Buildings change the Play

Epidavros is enormous, capable of holding up to 14,000 spectators.  It was designed by Polykleitos the Younger for occasional use, for short festivals which would envelop the whole populace in a cathartic experience.  It was the Glastonbury Festival of the ancient world.  Its triumph is that its acoustic and sightlines enable a large audience to be involved in the action.  Its fan-shaped, steeply raked amphitheatre has been the model for the auditoria at Bayreuth and the Olivier at London’s National Theatre.

In contrast to the court or inner city theatres where many of Shakespeare’s plays were first performed, the Globe was built south of the river to produce ‘rough’ popular theatre.  Its semi-circular galleries enclosed a pit area where poorer people might stand in close proximity to the performers.  The open stage literally ‘thrust’ the action into the laps of the audience.

Wagner sought to re-imagine the ancient Greek experience as a total work of art or Gesamtkunstwerk and place of pilgrimage for modern times.  His tetralogy The Ring of the Nibelung was composed on the model of Aeschylus’s linked tragedies.  The Bayreuth design, which houses 1,700 people, was replicated on a smaller scale at the Prinzregententheater in Munich at the beginning of the 20th century.

The Festival Theatre in Canada’s Stratford was designed in the 1950s by Tanya Moiseiwitsch to a brief by the director Tyrone Guthrie.  It combined elements of Greek amphitheatre and Shakespearean thrust stage, and resembled a huge tent able to accommodate 1,800 spectators, all within 65 feet of the stage, and has been a model for other theatres in America and Britain, notably the Chichester Festival and Sheffield Crucible.

Close to the Audience 

Each of these examples was designed to bring the actor into close contact with the audience, to strengthen the bond of communication.  Peter Brook’s concept in his book The Empty Space takes the idea a step further.  It explores four aspects of theatre: Deadly, Holy, Rough and Immediate.  Brook abjures a theatre building and declares: ‘I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage.  A man who walks across this empty space whilst someone else watches him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged’.

By contrast, much that happens within an opera house appears to erect barriers to engagement.  The most visible is the orchestra pit, which has grown in size to accommodate the extravagant demands of composers and the health-and-safety requirements of musicians.  Beyond the proscenium, increasingly complex technical effects have necessitated expensive machinery and multi-level excavation below stage and ugly fly-towers above it.  Tiered auditoria, distant balconies and restricted-view positions have exacerbated class divisions among an audience whom it was intended to bring together for a common experience.  What are the architects and perpetrators of modern opera houses doing, at least to mitigate these divisions, at best to resolve them?

The most famous opera house of the 20th century is the Sydney Opera House.  Finally inaugurated in 1973 after protracted struggles which led to the resignation of the Danish architect Jørn Utzon and the switch of  halls for opera and concerts, its interiors must be judged a failure from both acoustic and spatial perspectives, though recent work has done something to improve them.  Yet, the exterior design remains a miracle.  Its huge shells or sails overlooking the harbour have become the symbol of the city and of Australia itself.  Near the end of the 23-hour flight from London, I remember being elated when the pilot announced: ‘Welcome to Australia and to the Sydney Opera House’.  The Opera House represents the aspirations of the country.  Sydney stands as the image for opera in the world.  There can be no higher accolade.

When President Mitterrand opened the Opéra Bastille in 1989, prematurely but the anniversary of the storming of the Bastille in 1789 was unmissable, it was designated as an ‘opera of the people’ in contrast to the ornate grandeur of the Palais Garnier.  Accordingly, its main auditorium held 2,745 people, an unprecedentedly large number for a European opera house.  Carlos Ott’s design is imposing as befits its site, but the distance of many of the spectators from the stage discourages intimacy.  Perhaps the most interesting element of the project, the salle modulable, inspired by the composer Pierre Boulez’s concept of a flexible space to encourage new forms of opera, remained unrealised at the time.  The idea has been revived 30 years later and is destined for completion in 2023 with space for 800 spectators. 

Opera Boom in the 21st Century 

The 21st century has already seen significant investment in new buildings for opera, belying the accusation that it is a dying art.  Scandinavia has been at the forefront, with Copenhagen opening in 2005 and Oslo in 2008.  The former was the initiative of nonagenarian shipping magnate Maersk McKinney Møller, who insisted on hands-on supervision of architect Henning Larsen’s design, in order to ensure its practicality and durability.  The Norwegians applied a more democratic process in seeking consensus support for Snøhetta’s design, which emphasises public ownership with a sloping roof that enables people to walk over it, and a location on the harbour area which it has helped to regenerate.

Spain has experienced a renaissance in opera appreciation during the past quarter-century.  The pioneer was Teatro de la Maestranza, seating 1,800, which was conceived for Seville’s hosting of Expo 1992, designed by Aurelio del Pozo and Luis Marín.  In the late 1990s, both Barcelona’s Liceu and Madrid’s Teatro Real were extensively renovated and modernised, the former after a fire, the latter after lying dormant for fifty years.  But the most dazzling building is Valencia’s Palau de les Arts, which opened in 2005 as part of the huge City of Arts and Sciences dug out of the diverted Turia riverbed.  The main auditorium seats 1,800 but together three performance spaces can accommodate 4,000 simultaneously.  This masterpiece of Valencia-born architect Santiago Calatrava has transformed the city with a bold vision reminiscent of Sydney.

The impact which an opera house may deliver in terms of international attraction has been recognised in hitherto untilled lands.  Sultan Qaboos of Oman commissioned the spacious Royal Opera House Muscat in a mixture of Islamic and Italian influences with a magnificent German pipe organ, and opened in 2011.  Two years later came the similarly hybrid Astana Opera House, initiated by President Nursultan Nazarbayev in his designated capital of Kazakhstan.  Both buildings boast superb technical facilities, welcome foreign as well as native artists, and fly the flag for their emerging economies.

Despite its proud imperial and soviet history, Russia has been busy creating new facilities. Conductor Valery Gergiev has added to the historic Mariinsky Theatre an acoustically superb Theatre Concert Hall in 2007 and its Second Stage, designed by Canadian architects Diamond Schmitt and seating 2,000 which opened in 2013.  In Moscow, both Bolshoi Theatre and Stanislavsky Music Theatre have been rebuilt.  The latest addition is Dmitry Bertman’s new Helikon-Opera on Bolshaya Nikitskaya, a wholly individual and intimate theatre seating 250 within a former 18th century nobleman’s house, which was inaugurated in 2015.

Thinking Opera anew 

The evidence of this survey, which excludes examples such as Dallas in America and multiple new buildings in China, is that the appetite for opera is by no means dead.  On the contrary, governments and philanthropists are willing to invest substantial sums to ensure its legacy.  But the modern opera house is a hybrid beast.  It is a secular cathedral, whose spires and domes dominate the landscape, but within the body of the church it performs familiar rituals.  Few want it to abandon the true faith or repudiate the masterpieces of its heritage.  Yet, there is a yearning to harness technological invention and to reach out to unconverted audiences.

Can that be achieved?  How might a building contribute to the educative process?  Is a building even necessary?  Is an empty ‘found’ space enough? Graham Vick was inspired by ancient Greece to create an inclusive Birmingham Opera Company, which is deliberately homeless and performs in warehouses, clubs, tents and station concourses.

An opera house building has two primary functions.  It provides an acoustic.  Not for nothing is hiring an acoustician nowadays regarded as equally important to engaging an architect.  This presupposes that opera involves the natural transmission of unamplified sound, as it has in the past.  On the other hand, contemporary composers are increasingly using sophisticated means to doctor sound.  Performing in large arenas in the open air demands amplification but compromises sound quality. How long before that problem is solved?  Likewise, opera has traditionally involved most of the performers inhabiting the same room to homogenise the ensemble.  What if it became possible to remove the orchestra to another space without affecting quality? That would abolish the Grand Union Canal between performer and audience!

Such a solution might even benefit the second function which is the union of performer and spectator in a mutual exchange in a common space.  If that was the aim of giants like Aeschylus and Shakespeare and Wagner, of Tyrone Guthrie and Peter Brook, should we not be striving to exploit every modern means at our disposal towards the same end?

During this first quarter of the 21st century we have been tinkering with the available technology, rather than inventing the breakthrough discoveries.  Projecting video presents another option to painted flats, but it neither saves money nor transforms visual perception.  Surtitles have much improved since their introduction in 1983 and have become a convenient crutch for those too busy to read the text in advance, or a substitute for the largely discarded practice of performing opera in the language of the audience, as you would expect in a play.  Sound engineers are able to mix the balance of what you hear in the theatre.  Live relays, or on-demand catch-ups, can bring close-up performances to a cinema near you or the convenience of your computer at home.  Undoubtedly, these devices are to be welcomed as benefits to accessibility, but they do not transform the essential experience.

That is the challenge to the next wave of architects and builders.  Utzon, Calatrava, Snøhetta, Piano have designed dazzling cathedrals which have the power to inspire the imagination of a wider constituency than merely opera-goers.  Now we look to those who will animate the interiors and create music drama in the empty void. 


BTR Ausgabe 4 2019
Rubrik: English texts, Seite 106
von Nicholas Payne