When it comes to architectural treasures, an opera house is often a city’s most prized gem. The best opera houses weren’t just built to showcase leading tenors, baritones and sopranos but to demonstrate the world that the city had achieved a high level of culture, power and wealth. In addition to providing a highly memorable theatrical experience, opera houses offer an exciting opportunity for travelers to view structures designed by some of history’s most respected architects. Whether attending a performance of a favorite opera or touring the theater, the world’s best opera houses remain popular travel attractions.
Rebuilt and renovated multiple times over its long history, the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow began life as an unimpressive brick and stone structure built in the 1790s. The current building was designed by architect Andrei Mikhailov and completed in 1824. The Neoclassical theater is richly appointed with Oriental carpets, silk-damask-covered walls and velvet-upholstered chairs. Smaller than many major opera houses, the four balconies and gallery that encircle the orchestra seating make for an intimate experience. A 2011 renovation, rumored to have cost up to one billion dollars, greatly improved the theater’s acoustics.
Designed by Mikós Ybl and completed in 1884, the Hungarian State Opera House in Budapest is considered the Hungarian architect’s finest accomplishment. The Neo-Renaissance structure is decorated with paintings and sculptures created by the country’s most-acclaimed artists and features a massive chandelier crafted in bronze. Statues of Franz List and Ference Erkel flank the theater’s entrance. Known for its great acoustics, the theater has attracted world-renowned composers, including Gustav Mahler and Otto Klemperer.
Known simply as the “Met” by opera lovers all over the globe, the Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center in New York City is as famous for its elaborate and innovative productions as it is for commanding performances by the world’s most accomplished opera singers. For its excellent acoustics and great sight lines, the Met has been acknowledged as a premier opera house since it opened in 1966. Designed by architect Wallace K. Harrison, the theater’s modern design features a white travertine façade with a series of grand arches.
Opened in 1908 with a performance of Verdi’s “Aïda,” the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires was designed by a succession of architects, which may explain the structure’s eclectic style. With nearly 2,500 seats and standing room for 1,000 people, the Teatro Colón stood as the world’s largest opera house until the completion of the Sydney Opera House in 1973. Famed tenor Luciano Pavarotti praised the theater for its perfect acoustics, noting that this attribute doesn’t always bode well for the singer. “If one sings something bad,” he said, “one notices immediately.”
The Real Teatro di San Carlo in Naples holds the title as the oldest continuously active opera house in Europe. Built by King Charles of Bourbon, the red-and-gold theater is connected to the Royal Palace. Completed in 1737, the opera house established a standard that subsequent architects would strive to follow. Six tiers of box seating surround the horseshoe-shaped orchestra seats, with an extravagantly decorated royal box jutting out in the rear of the house. A multi-million dollar renovation of the theater was completed in 2010.
The Vienna State Opera House, more commonly known as the Staatsoper, opened in 1869 with a performance of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni.” Designed by architects Eduard van der Nüll and August Sicard von Sicardsburg in the Neo-Renaissance style, the theater in Vienna was partly destroyed by bombs during World War II and was not completely restored until 1955. The state opera’s musicians are just as prized as the singers; the world-renowned Vienna Philharmonic recruits its members from the company’s orchestra. The theater is known both for its many children’s productions and for its affordable standing-room-only tickets that theater-goers snatch up minutes before a performance.
Teatro Amazonas or Amazon Theatre is an opera house located in Manaus, in the heart of the Amazon Rainforest. It was built during the heyday of rubber trade using materials from all over the world, with furniture from Paris, marble from Italy, and steel from England. On the outside of the building, the dome was covered with 36,000 decorated ceramic tiles painted in the colors of the Brazilian national flag. The first performance was given in 1897, with the Italian opera La Gioconda. The opera house was closed down soon after however as the rubber trade declined and Manaus lost its main source of income. There wasn’t a single performance in Teatro Amazonas for 90 years until 1990 when the Teatro Amazonas reopened its doors.
Milan’s Teatro alla Scala, or La Scala as its known the world over, has enjoyed a reputation as a premier opera house since its first performance of “L’Europa Riconosciuta,” by Antonio Salieri, in 1778. Designed in the Neoclassical style by architect Giuseppe Piermarini, the red-and-gold theater is famous for its superb acoustics, which reveal the true abilities of a singer so accurately that a performance at La Scale is viewed as a trial by fire. Even artists of the highest stature have experienced heckling whistles from critics seated in the loggione, the gallery above the theater’s boxed seats.
The Palais Garnier on the Avenue de l’Opéra in Paris is likely among the best known opera house in the world, partly because the theater was used as the setting for the novel and subsequent musical, “The Phantom of the Opera.” Designed by architect Charles Garnier and completed in 1875, the Beaux-Arts style opera house features a massive seven-ton crystal chandelier in the center of the theatre, highly ornate marble friezes and statues depicting figures from Greek mythology. In 1962, Marc Chagall added frescoes to the ceiling. While prized for its beauty, the theater is notorious for its poor sight lines, and the Paris Opera now uses the newer Place de la Bastille for most of their performances.
One of Australia’s famous landmarks, the Sydney Opera House is one of the world’s most prestigious performing arts centers. Regarded as a 20th century architectural masterpiece, the Sydney Opera House was designed and built by architect, Jørn Utzon, to reflect the image of a huge sailing ship. Though the name suggests it is used only as an opera house, the project comprises multiple performance venues. Of the many venues housed within the structure, some of the most significant are the Joan Sutherland Theatre, Drama Theatre, the multi-purpose Utzon Room and the Concert Hall, which houses the largest mechanical tracker-action organ in the world. Also part of the Sydney Opera House is the Forecourt, an open-air venue presenting many outdoor performances.