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Opera Houses

Bayreuth Festspielhaus, Teatro Olimpico, arena theater, Palais Garnier, Festspielhaus

With the advent of opera came the need for theaters built to accommodate and highlight its best qualities. Certain opera houses became associated with particular features, usually within the genre of opera that helped to create the house. The original Paris Opera, completed in 1875 and housed in the Palais Garnier, was noted for spectacular display in its productions as well as for its ornate design. Its staircase and foyer seem to have been designed to vie with the ballets and exotic processionals that appear on its stage. The Bayreuth Festspielhaus in Germany, completed in 1876 to accommodate Wagner’s vast music dramas, focuses its bank of seats on a deep stage, in imitation of Greek amphitheaters. The orchestra sits under the stage, within a pit, diffusing the sound and allowing the singers to be heard. The original Metropolitan Opera House in New York City, built in 1883, was conceived as a showcase for the world’s best singers and for many of its fashionable box-holders. Its auditorium was so deep that the boxes commanded as good a view of each other as of the relatively shallow stage.

Opera-house design developed in a way that mirrored the social history of opera itself. The art form began as an attempt to recreate the drama of classical Greece. The first operas were therefore suitable for performance in the Teatro Olimpico (completed 1583) in Vicenza, Italy, a building by architect Andrea Palladio based upon classical design. The horseshoe configuration that developed in later opera houses reflected social class distinctions with its tiers of boxes that fanned out from a royal box. This form is preserved at La Scala (1778) in Milan, La Fenice in Venice (1792), the Teatro San Carlo of Naples (1737), and London’s Covent Garden (1858). It persists—with fewer boxes and deeper tiers, thanks to steel construction—in such American opera houses as New York’s Brooklyn Academy of Music (1908), San Francisco’s War Memorial Auditorium (1932), and the Lyric Opera of Chicago (1929). More modern settings are provided by the present Metropolitan Opera House (1966) at New York City’s Lincoln Center and the Sydney Opera House (1973) in Sydney, Australia.

A more democratic seating arrangement arose when Wagner, restricting boxes and demanding absolute concentration from his audiences, ranked seats in identical, unbroken rows at the Festspielhaus in Bayreuth, Bavaria (an arrangement since known as continental seating). Wagner’s aim seems to have been carried a step further by the arena theater, in which the audience is seated on all sides of the stage. Ancient Roman arenas have been used for opera in this way in Arles, France, and Verona, Italy. Touring opera singers sometimes perform in sports stadiums and similar venues.

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