Opera Houses of the World
Updated: Sep 26, 2019
✨ FREDDIE HUTCHINS
Last week was a big deal for me: I heard my first complete Ring Cycle. Wagner’s masterwork, The Ring is a notch on the bedpost for any dedicated opera-goer, weighing in at a hefty 15 hours of music, interspersed with multiple hour-long intervals, and spread out over 4 separate evenings. The production currently playing at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden was initially conceived in 2004-6, and has returned a decade later for the next generation of enthusiasts – including me – to swoon over.
I’ve loved opera ever since I was taken to the Norwich Theatre Royal as a 13 year old to see Glyndebourne’s touring production of La Bohème. It was the perfect combination for a new-starter: Puccini’s romantic, snow-swept masterpiece is the jewel in his collection, and rightly one of his most-loved, whilst Glyndebourne are a company who unfailingly combine excellent musicianship with exciting staging and fabulous acting performances – none of the ‘stand and sing’ behaviour you see exhibited on some of the greatest opera stages of the world. The result was electrifying, and I was hooked.
Since that first experience almost 20 years ago, I’ve continued to seek out opera in my life – particularly when travelling. Sometimes, as in the case of Bregenz, it’s the whole focus of a trip. Other times, such as in Vienna or Budapest, it’s a happy addition to time spent in a foreign city. I’ve listed some of my favourite experiences here – there are plenty more (La Scala, Verona, Washington National Opera) – and hope that you might be tickled into seeking some of them out for yourself.
🎶 1. Royal Opera House - Covent Garden, London
Home to both The Royal Opera and The Royal Ballet companies, ROH is a world-leader in the staging and development of both art forms. Having recently undergone extensive renovation work to open up its communal spaces for wider and more general public use, ROH feels more welcoming than ever. Safe to say I’ve seen more opera here than anywhere else – including my recent two full working days of Wagner – seat A25 in the Amphitheatre and I will forevermore be the most intimate of friends.
🎶 2. Metropolitan Opera - Lincoln Centre, New York City
My first ever trip to NYC included Valentine’s Day spent, by myself, at the MET. The opera was Parsifal (more Wagner…), the swoonsome Jonas Kaufmann was the lead, and I was happy as a clam. The MET sums up New York for more: decadent, yet democratic to its core… no other opera house I know of has communal drinking fountains on every floor, nestled beneath Lobmeyr’s outrageously opulent, explosively pendulous chandeliers.
🎶 3. Glyndebourne - Lewes, East Sussex
An all-time favourite company of mine, Glyndebourne’s touring work enables opera to be experienced far from the glittering jewel boxes it calls home in the world’s capital cities. Nonetheless, Glyndebourne does have a home – and a surprising one. Since 1994, there has stood a world-class – and acoustically world-leading – opera house in the middle of the East Sussex countryside: the culmination of almost 100 years of music making in this idyllic pocket of England’s green and pleasant land. Melly Still’s production of Dvorák’s Rusalksa is a particular favourite among the productions I’ve seen here – typifying the imagination, energy and artistic excellence of this fabulous place.
🎶 4. l’Opéra Bastille - Paris
I love this venue because, unlike its chocolate-boxy Palais Garnier counterpart, the Bastille really looks like it means business. Somewhere between a car park and a stadium to look at, the building’s acoustics have not been altogether praised, whilst its cavernous interior has garnered unfavourable comparisons to the hull of an ocean tanker. The thing is, this house exists as an attempt to modernize, popularize and, to some extent democratize opera and the opera-going experience: built as a response to the restrictions placed on the performance of ‘modern’ opera at the Palais Garnier, every seat in the auditorium of the Bastille affords an unrestricted view of the stage, no matter how ‘cheap’ the seat. That’s certainly worth a slightly ungainly interior, in my opinion. Oli and I saw Madam Butterfly (Puccini again) here a few years back, and enjoyed it hugely.
🎶 5. Vienna State Opera
Old-school glitz and glam are the order of the day here – the Staatsoper building being just one of many jewels in the crown that is Vienna’s Ringstrasse. Chances are you’ll have one of the best evenings of your stay in Vienna seeing something here – since there doesn’t seem to be an awful lot else constituting Viennese night-life – at least that I could find! What’s lovely is that there seems to be a different opera on almost every week – indeed the house’s repertory system and heavy state funding ensure this is one of the busiest opera houses in the world – and a true testament to a traditionally conservative nation’s fervent love of music. My Mum and I saw La Traviata when we were in town – and stonkingly good it was, too.
🎶 6. Minack Theatre - Cornwall
This is my cheeky Joker in the pack, since it’s patently not a ‘house’ of any description, but rather a rough-hewn stone amphitheatre set gogglingly into the cliffs above the Cornish coastline. It’s also seen a heck of a lot more Gilbert and Sullivan performed than opera proper, but on both counts – whether Minack deserves to be included in such a list as this at all and whether G&S ‘deserves’ to be mentioned in the same breath as opera – I intend to remain silent. I’m in a loving, all-inclusive state of mind. And the Minack's location makes up for everything – surely the most spectacular set in the world. (Furthermore, seeing a close friend trip over the hem of her dress whilst making her first entrance as Josephine in HMS Pinafore will stay with me forever.)
🎶 7. Beyreuth
The only one on the list I’ve not been to myself – but boy, is it difficult to get to! And it’s not through lack of trying – entry is by ticket ballot every year, and the waiting list is literally years long. All to get to the hall on the green hill, designed and built by Richard Wagner himself, exclusively for the performance of his own works. A totally mad, yet totally beguiling idea - and one that has ensured Beyreuth as a place of pilgrimage for lovers of Wagnerian opera the world over. I also like the fact that it isn't who you know, but how much you really care, that will eventually lead to gaining entry here - dedicated persistence (hopefully!) paying off in the end.
🎶 8. Bregenz
Perhaps best-known from the opening scenes of Quantum of Solace, in which Bond larks about backstage on the set of its 2007 production of Tosca, Bregenz as a location for opera is totally unique, comprising both an indoor auditorium and, every year, an outdoor amphitheatre given over to its Summer Festival production, at which the most fantastical set constructions are floated out onto the Bodensee lake. The production of Andrea Chénier I saw was played out on a gigantic construction of Marat’s David dead in the lake, as opposed to the bath… (see below). I realize this is all sounding nuts, but it was wonderful – wonderfully amazing – you really have to go see it for yourself.
***Wot no Sydney Opera House? Well, you see, it seems very difficult to see any actual opera there. The two times I’ve been fortunate enough to be in the vicinity, my options were a Christmas concert or a backstage tour. Whilst undoubtedly a feat of engineering and an iconic modern-world wonder, I don’t feel I can include it on a list that of opera houses proper...