The 10 Greatest Opera Houses

The 10 Greatest Opera Houses

Divas and dancers have long been the stuff of legend, but where they practice their art has no less of a history. Here, 10 of the best places to watch your favorite performers.

For those who suffer from what Cocteau called the "red-and-gold disease," relief is found only in the glittery, cavernous darkness of an opera house. Yet one does not always enter what Jean Harlow would have called a "rafeened" atmosphere. To be sure, the opera house serves up the food of the gods, but blood sport is also part of its history. Maria Callas herself was booed many times. Someone once threw a bunch of old radishes at her feet, and the myopic diva, thinking they were flowers, picked them up and caressed her cheek with them. Then there's the Italian tenor who cracked on a high B-flat and was heckled until he emerged from the wings on his knees, arms outstretched, imploring forgiveness.

Opera houses were built not only for the delectation of opera buffs and balletomanes, but also as urban temples to the romance of music and the magic of stage illusion. In selecting what I would call today's 10 best, I have consulted only my own highly colored opinions. (Several of the most beautiful historic houses have been omitted because they are undergoing reconstruction—London's Royal Opera House, La Fenice in Venice, and the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona among them.) I'm lucky enough to make my living writing about music and dance, and sometimes when I travel, the opera house is the only thing I see.

Paris Opéra
Built in 1875, the Palais Garnier lies in the heart of Paris on—where else?—Avenue de l'Opéra. A vivid example of the architectural excesses of Belle Époque baroque, it is today considered the archetypal opera house. But the Paris Opéra did not always charm. When it was new, the composer Claude Debussy opined that "outside it looks like a railway station; inside, like a Turkish bath."

Once a year there is a grand défilé of the entire company and school of the Paris Opéra Ballet, whose origins date to the time of Louis XIV. The back wall of the stage is opened to reveal the foyer de la danse, a seemingly infinite cave illuminated by gilded Corinthian columns, where the dancers parade in hierarchic progression. It is a direct glimpse into the balletic world of Edgar Degas, and a view straight into the history of ballet.

Ticket buyers beware: Despite a recent renovation, many of the Palais Garnier's sightlines are dreadful. Sometimes not even the most expensive seat in the house offers a full view of the stage. It's possible to pay full price to see nothing but the hairdo of the woman in front of you.

Metropolitan Opera
"I am old, I am fat, and I am ugly," the redoubtable coloratura goddess Luisa Tetrazzini was fond of saying, "but I am still Tetrazzini." Sixties-suburban-shopping-mall moderne or not, the Met is still the Met. Its history (which predates Lincoln Center's) transcends architecture, as do its current orchestra and chorus, superb acoustics, and audience-friendly sight lines. For more than 100 years, from Nellie Melba to Jessye Norman, from Caruso to Domingo, New York's Met has been the top, the Mona Lisa, the Louvre Museum—the gold standard.

Sydney Opera House
For some travelers, Australia is beer-drinking, surfing, and "Waltzing Matilda." For operaphiles, it's the homeland of Nellie Melba and Joan Sutherland, two of the most compelling divas in the history of opera. Fittingly enough, it has one of the most dramatic opera houses in the world. Overlooking Sydney Harbour at Bennelong Point, like an armada under full sail, the Sydney Opera House holds an array of concerts, plays, operas, and ballets in its various halls.
61-2/9319-1088, fax 61-2/9310-4917.

War Memorial Opera House
This San Francisco house honors tradition (Sutherland, Renata Tebaldi), but celebrates the unfamiliar with specially commissioned works, including Dead Man Walking, to be produced during the company's 2000-01 season.

Baby boomers may also recall that this is where Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn danced that fateful night in 1968 when they were busted at a pot party in Haight-Ashbury. (The police reportedly discovered Fonteyn lying facedown on a rooftop in her white ermine coat. She vehemently denied it: "Ridiculous. I wouldn't be caught dead lying down in my white ermine coat.") A few days later, the Dynamic Duo—as the papers dubbed them—returned to perform Sleeping Beauty, and thousands of hippies from the Haight wound around the opera house in a snake dance to honor Fonteyn and Nureyev's initiation into the Age of Aquarius.

Bass Performance Hall
The newest star in the opera-house firmament is Fort Worth's Nancy Lee and Perry R. Bass Performance Hall, which opened last spring. Two giant, hand-carved trumpet-playing angels on the façade announce its welcome presence in the middle of downtown.

Although not actually called an opera house, it most assuredly is one, designed in the grand old manner: a horseshoe auditorium surmounted by a dome that appears to float over trompe l'oeil clouds. A mixture of Beaux-Arts and Vienna Secessionist styles, it houses the Fort Worth Dallas Ballet, the Fort Worth Opera, and the quadrennial Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.

Teatro alla Scala
Milan's La Scala is the most famous opera house in the world, the temple of bel canto, the altar of high passions aroused by beautiful singing. Its acoustics are said to be perfect; few, if any, disagree. Statues of Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, and Verdi preside over the Neoclassical foyer.

The auditorium holds some 2,000 people in four tiers of boxes and two balconies. The Scala Museum, one of the best of its kind, abounds in mementos of the theater's past: costumes, capes, masks, and photographs belonging to Tebaldi, Callas, Zeffirelli, Toscanini.

The Bolshoi
Bolshoi means "big" in Russian. It is also the name of Moscow's grand Greek Revival opera house, home to both a ballet and an opera company.

The auditorium, with perhaps half the capacity of the Metropolitan Opera, is at once intimate and awesome. Walls covered in ruby silk damask woven on custom-built looms surround plush velvet armchairs of the same color. The boxes and tiers are painted white, their bas-reliefs of acanthus leaves, lyres, and cherubs burnished with gold leaf.

Upstairs, a chandelier the size of Brazil presides over a gigantic parquet-floored room. A peripheral walkway of Oriental carpets guides visitors as they promenade at intermission, sipping Russian champagne and sampling Russian ice cream.
212/758-1162 0r 7-095/292-9986.

The Mariinsky Theater
With its pale, pale blue (some call it aquamarine; others, turquoise), silver, and gold interior, the theater, formerly known as the Kirov, is one of the jewels of St. Petersburg, a city of architectural jewels. Here danced Anna Pavlova, Vaslav Nijinsky, George Balanchine, Rudolf Nureyev, Mikhail Baryshnikov. A house museum celebrates their careers and a hundred others, including that of Tchaikovsky, whose Nutcracker and Sleeping Beauty were first presented here.
7-812/144-1211, fax 7-812/314-1744.

Vienna State Opera
The wine-red and gold Vienna State Opera house is one of the most lavishly appointed, decorated with sculptures, paintings, tapestries, and frescoes. The institution dates to the 17th century, but this particular auditorium, on Vienna's Opernring, opened in 1869 with a performance of Mozart's Don Giovanni—still the opera to see here.

This year the company began its celebration of the 150th anniversary of Johann Strauss's death with a New Year's Eve performance of Die Fledermaus (one of the hardest opera tickets to come by anywhere). Every February, a parquet dance floor is installed in the auditorium for the annual Opera Ball—and the orchestral accompaniment is by the Vienna Philharmonic.

Teatro Massimo
The Teatro Massimo of Palermo will be familiar to Francis Ford Coppola fans and opera lovers alike. It was on its very steps that the director staged the shooting of Sofia Coppola, who played the last Corleone don's daughter in The Godfather, Part III.

A splendid specimen of Beaux-Arts style, the theater opened in 1897, 23 years after its construction had begun. Closed since the seventies for renovations, the theater was fully refurbished in time for the 1997 season.

The Teatro Massimo also has a summer locale, the Teatro di Verdura, an outdoor theater that seats 2,000. The setting is the garden of the 18th-century Villa Castelnuovo, filled with fountains and perfumed with jasmine vines. At sunset, a huge espalier of moonflowers intensely scents the air.

David Daniel has written for Vogue, The New Yorker, and the Wall Street Journal, and is currently at work on a book about Van Cliburn.

Season Highlights
Paris Opéra New production of Rameau's Platée (Apr. 28-May 10). Metropolitan Opera Company premiere of Susannah, by 20th-century American composer Carlisle Floyd (Mar. 31, Apr. 3, 6 ,9, 13, 16, 22). Sydney Opera House New productions of Puccini's La Bohème (July 20-29) and Verdi's Don Carlo (Aug. 9-29). War Memorial Opera House Wagner's Ring cycle, staged by theater director Andrei Serban: Rheingold (June 9, 15, 20, 25); Die Walküre (June 10, 19, 23, 27); Siegfried (June 13, 22, 26, 30); Götterdämmerung (June 14, 16, 19, July 3). Bass Performance Hall Tosca (Mar. 12-14). La Scala Verdi's La Forza del Destino (Mar. 2-June 5), conducted by music director Riccardo Muti. The Bolshoi Rachmaninoff's Francesca da Rimini (in repertory). The Mariinsky White Nights Festival of opera and ballet (June). Vienna State Opera Don Giovanni by Austria's musical wunderkind, Mozart (Mar. 31, Apr. 4, 7). Teatro Massimo Verdi's Ernani (May 26-June 5). Tickets can be booked by calling or faxing the numbers at the end of each entry.
—Mario R. Mercado

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