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Typology: Opera Houses

Since its birth in the Renaissance, opera has been claimed as a reincarnation of community-forming Greek drama, while being used to represent the power of the state − whether feudal, dictatorial or democratic

Contrary to all expectations, the fat lady has not yet sung for opera. Despite relatively small audiences (only two per cent of Americans went to the opera in 2008, and even Italian audiences are dwindling), the first decade of the millennium saw the completion of at least 20 opera houses all over the world. There are examples by César Pelli in Miami, Daniel Libeskind in Dublin, Norman Foster in Dallas (and another in Astana), Paul Andreu in Beijing and Shanghai, Zaha Hadid in Guangzhou, and Valencia has a Santiago Calatrava-designed building that looks like the severed head of a Power Ranger.

It’s remarkable that long after the medium’s 19th-century heyday, and despite its minimal relevance to the populace at large, opera houses are once more considered the ultimate prestige projects. Although few people ever set foot in an opera house, they are central presences in our cities, and − in Europe, at least − they make heavy demands on our public resources. They are often built by the biggest names, cost far more than other buildings (and require perpetual subsidies once completed), and can take a decade to construct −so where did this herd of white elephants come from?

The first operas were staged in Florentine palaces at the end of the 16th century to celebrate occasions of state: along with the expense of producing them, this aristocratic pedigree sets the medium apart from others with more popular origins. But these palace theatres were often used for a variety of entertainments, so they can hardly be considered opera houses proper.

The first public opera house, Teatro San Cassiano, opened its doors to a paying audience in Venice in 1637, with an auditorium based on a theatre by Palladio that had previously stood on the site. In those years the watery city overbrimmed with theatres and opera houses, both private and public. Few of them survive today − fire is their mortal enemy, since their wooden interiors were kept ablaze with artificial light during performances.

The most famous opera house in Venice is named La Fenice, ‘the phoenix’, because it has risen from the ashes so many times (its most recent reincarnation was designed by Aldo Rossi, after an arson attack in 1996).


Aldo Rossi’s ‘The Phoenix’

Since the early days of the medium, opera builders have faced a specific set of sometimes contradictory architectural problems: of seating a large number of people in a room with good acoustics and unobstructed views (although these concerns were often trounced by the rival need for display); getting the audience to and from their seats quickly and safely; finding space for an orchestra, sometimes of considerable size; providing a stage large enough for elaborate productions, and backstage areas for the actors, props, scenery and machinery; and making facades and front-of-house areas such as foyers and stairs of appropriate size and splendour. There is also, from a planning perspective, the eternal question of how to fit a (usually) semicircular auditorium into a square site along with all the other elements.

These requirements − which assume greater or lesser importance over time with the changing priorities of the people who build operas − are not greatly distinct from those of theatres, but the opera house, because of its peculiar prestige and scale, does tend to elicit a more extravagant treatment.


In Naples, Teatro di San Carlo combined religious and regal architectural motifs

At first squeezed into palaces or behind regular street facades, operas were soon given grander fronts, such as the oldest continually operating opera, the Teatro di San Carlo in Naples (1737). Something like a temple riding piggyback on a palace, it has a pediment on top, supported by a columned loggia along the piano nobile below, and then a deeply channelled arcade at ground level.

It’s a combination of aristocratic and religious language that speaks volumes about this peculiar art form: since its birth in the Renaissance, opera has been proposed as a reincarnation of all-singing, all-dancing Attic drama, which supposedly had a cultic, community-generating function. Reborn in this patchwork peninsula of squabbling states and stripped of its universality, opera became a symbol of ducal status.

The rise of the box

After its invention, opera spread through the courts of Europe like the pox. Early examples were places where the feudal state was represented in microcosmic form, with the monarch at its centre in his plush-lined gilded box.

The Margravial Opera House in Bayreuth, Germany by Joseph Saint-Pierre is an unusually well-preserved example of the type: completed in 1748, it’s a kind of Baroque jewel case with the margrave’s box − lousy with putti and topped with a huge gold crown − as its centrepiece. Surrounding this are smaller boxes for the aristocracy, declining in size and prestige as they moved away from the ruler. Because this other pole to the stage was actually the most important feature of early operas, being able to see the performance was not a priority; from some boxes in these horseshoe-shaped auditoriums, the action on stage was hardly visible at all (and the acoustics were terrible). But in the noisy, crowded and brightly lit interior, the real business of the opera thrived: mutual exhibitionism and jostling for social position. In some Italian cities, boxes were passed on from one generation of nobles to the next, perpetuating the opera-defined status of families; many had suites of rooms attached, furnished according to their owner’s tastes and with spaces for servants to prepare refreshments.


Frederick the Great’s temple-aping Berlin opera was the first free-standing example of the type

This practice may have died out, but − as the continued importance attributed to the type suggests − the opera house still retains its function as a marker of prestige, transferred from the body of the monarch to the city and the nation. This process accompanied the rise of the nation state in the 18th century. When Frederick the Great reconfigured his capital Berlin as the ‘Athens of the North’, the first building he erected on Unter den Linden was an opera house (by Georg Wenzeslaus von Knobelsdorff, 1741). Its splendid isolation − it was the first free-standing opera − and its temple front conform to ideas about the cultic provenance of the medium, and to Albertian ideas about dignified siting.

Voltaire greatly admired Frederick’s opera. He thought it a huge improvement on squalid French theatres, which lurked down dirty little streets in medieval towns and encouraged the vices of the ancien régime. This moralising discourse was picked up by French architects like Claude-Nicolas Ledoux, whose Neoclassical theatre at Besançon, completed just before the Revolution, was originally planned to dispose of boxes altogether.

Ledoux disapproved of the aristocratic monkey business that went on behind velvet swags, preferring a kind of theatrical panopticism, as his famous drawing of an eye reflecting the auditorium suggests. The enlightening ray sweeps the interior like a searchlight: there will be no naughtiness here. As Ledoux put it, ‘one sees well everywhere, one is well seen, which contributes to the pleasure of the spectacle and maintains decency’.1 In a democratising gesture, he proposed seating the entire audience in one single sweep, like the raked benches of an ancient amphitheatre (up to now the plebs had stood in front of the stage, making an awful racket and a terrible smell, Ledoux sniffily remarked). Neither of these reforms came off, and he eventually installed royal boxes for the king and queen flanking the stage. But the Revolution put paid to this kind of arrangement in France, where opera was now viewed as suspiciously feudal.

Ledoux disapproved of the aristocratic monkey business that went on behind velvet swags, preferring a kind of theatrical panopticism: there will be no naughtiness here

Elsewhere in Europe (and in its American and Asian spheres of influence), opera houses continued to be erected throughout the 19th century. They had to fulfil somewhat contradictory functions, accommodating both the anciens régimes and the rising bourgeoisie − but for as long as the bankers measured themselves by aristocratic standards, all was well in the world of opera.

Nowhere was this truer than in the still-feudal statelets of pre-unification Germany, for example the Kingdom of Saxony. Completed by Gottfried Semper in 1841, the Dresden opera house demonstrated a new approach to the problem of planning: instead of cramming the various elements of the opera into one cuboid palazzo block, Semper adopted the sweep of the Colosseum to house the semi-circular auditorium, then stuck a triumphal arch on its flank as a grand entrance. Typical of Semper’s prioritisation of the plan, it’s a cunning solution to the problem of creating a Classical-looking form for a non-Classical building type (and was read by Hilberseimer, among others, as a kind of proto-Modernist expression of function). By combining a ceremonial entrance derived from imperial Rome with the superimposed arches of the Colosseum, associated with populist entertainments, Semper found an expression for the dual forces of Saxon society.



Semper’s colosseum-like first opera at Dresden opened in 1841 and burnt down in 1869. He designed a replacement in a more Baroque style, which was bombed by the British and eventually rebuilt by the East Germans in 1985

This problem received a different solution in Charles Garnier’s Paris Opera, which opened in 1875. Its nickname, Palais Garnier, is a dead giveaway, combining feudalism with the authorial mark of a high-status bourgeois professional (like the ‘Semperoper’ in Dresden). It marks a transformation of politics as well as of architecture: this elephantine mass squatting at the confluence of Haussmann’s boulevards, wallowing in the gilded slurry of the Classical tradition, was a place where the bourgeoisie could mingle with the vestigial aristocracy.

Visiting Brits were appalled by the improprieties engendered by the plan: unlike London theatres, which had separate entrances for the rich and relatively poor, Garnier brought ticket holders flooding together on the opulent staircase (Eugène Viollet-le-Duc remarked that ‘the hall seems built for the stair, and not vice versa’ − possibly a case of sour grapes, since he didn’t win the commission). The auditorium did have a private entrance and a box for Napoleon III, but he was booted out of power before the building was inaugurated; this absent emperor is the true phantom of the opera, the chandelier crashing down on the audience (this really did happen, in 1896) his revenge on his revolting subjects.


Section of a model of Palais Garnier. The front-of-house areas (to the right) take up a great deal of space

The contradictions embodied in these designs could not be held in stasis for long. The episode of Wagner’s opera house marked a watershed in democratisation − ironically, one funded by a relic of absolutist monarchy, Ludwig II of Bavaria. But although Wagner had been exiled for his part in the Dresden uprising of 1849 (during which the old court opera was burnt to the ground), he was no republican, and after his impoverished return to Germany he was glad to be summoned by the teenage king.

Ludwig was a big fan of Wagner’s operas, and he now proposed that the composer should build a theatre in Munich dedicated solely to his works. For the design, Wagner nominated his old comrade Semper − who had turned his talents to making barricades in revolutionary Dresden, and was exiled along with Wagner as a result. But Semper’s plan was so grandiose, and so expensive, that it united the people and government of Bavaria against the king’s new favourite, and Wagner was forced to skip town. He eventually settled on a site for his theatre in Bayreuth in the north of Bavaria, where he had Semper’s plans built on the cheap by a pair of jobbing architects. This wasn’t just expediency: Wagner had sometimes said that he wanted to build a temporary wooden opera, and would burn the place to the ground when the festival was over. His operas − or music dramas, as he called them − were meant to reject opera’s role as a distraction for the rich. Instead, he would help to forge a new nation, overcoming the money-motivation of the age by reviving the communal spirit of Greek tragedy.

The theatre was to be a suitably ascetic backdrop for this sacrament. Standing above the worldly affairs of Bayreuth on a little hill, the isolated building made opera-goers into pilgrims (and inspired the more modest festival operas of the 20th century, such as Glyndebourne and Aldeburgh).

Bayreuth, he reminisced, ‘with an ideal in my mind, and was doomed to disappointment’. It turned out to be no ecstatic communion, no forging of a new community between audience and actors, but a prosaic bourgeois affair, and a sad reflection of the new nation: complacent, philistine and anti-Semitic

The final design, completed in time for the premier of The Ring in 1876, has a folksy facade of wooden beams and brick; the interior is strikingly plain and has − as Ledoux planned for Besançon − a single terraced sweep of seats giving everyone a clear view, and an orchestra pit sunk below the stage. A double proscenium arch creates what Wagner called a ‘mystic abyss’ between performers and audience: in one of those paradoxes that the composer loved, this was meant to create both a sense of holy distance, and suck people in to the animated picture that floated above them. In the unlit auditorium (another of Wagner’s innovations) there was no jostling for social position, as Mark Twain reported: ‘Here the Wagner audience dress as they please, and sit in the dark and worship in silence. At the Metropolitan in New York they sit in a glare, and wear their showiest harness; they hum airs, they squeak fans, they titter, and they gabble all the time. In some of the boxes the conversation and laughter are so loud as to divide the attention of the house with the stage.’2


Wagner’s pioneering opera had a more democratic, amphitheatrical auditorium with no boxes, and a humble beam and brick exterior. But the patrons turned out to be prosaically bourgeois

But although the festival enraptured its audience, some were unimpressed: Wagner, for one, was plunged into a deep depression by the whole affair (not least because of the disastrous financial loss it entailed), and his erstwhile friend Nietzsche had to be driven away from the performance a nervous wreck. He had gone to Bayreuth, he reminisced, ‘with an ideal in my mind, and was doomed to disappointment’. It turned out to be no ecstatic communion, no forging of a new community between audience and actors, but a prosaic bourgeois affair, and a sad reflection of the new nation: complacent, philistine and anti-Semitic.

The spectacular medium

Nietzsche’s reaction was characteristically prescient: after the rise of Nazism, and in light of Hitler’s support of the Bayreuth Festival, many saw Wagner’s music as a poisonous, dangerously seductive concoction.

One of his most trenchant critics was the German philosopher Theodor Adorno. He identified Wagnerian opera as a precursor of Hollywood, which he thought had much in common with the spectacles that had manufactured consent to the Nazi regime.

Wagner’s insistence on darkening the theatre, so that all attention would be focused on the immersive illusion onstage; his megalomaniacal directorial personality; his submersion of the orchestra, so that no one could be distracted by the musicians at work; and his attempt to force all the arts together in a Gesamtkunstwerk, a sensory assault that prevented the observer from maintaining a critical distance: Adorno found all these techniques echoed and amplified in the movies, which surpassed opera as the spectacular medium par excellence in the service of capitalist ideology.

Despite the best efforts of Groucho et al, opera survived the onslaught of mass culture. It’s one of those apparently indestructible relics of feudalism, like polo or judicial wigs

Although Adorno, with his haut-bourgeois German background, was highly resistant to the charms of popular culture, he did have a surprising weakness for the films of the Marx Brothers (his book on capitalist reason, The Dialectic of Enlightenment, cites only one Marx: Groucho). He especially enjoyed the orgiastic destruction of the set of Verdi’s Il Trovatore at the climax of the Marx Brothers’ 1935 film, A Night at the Opera.

From an Adornian standpoint this gradual dismemberment of the medium seems an act of embodied criticism of the false wholeness of opera. But Adorno does identify a positive element in Wagner: the fragments can never be brought together. The pieces do not fit. And there is a possibility that an awareness of this failure of the Gesamtkunstwerk can bring our attention to the failure of capitalist society itself. ‘The isintegration into fragments sheds light on the fragmentariness of the whole’3 − or as Leonard Cohen sang: ‘there is a crack in everything: that’s how the light gets in’.


Ledoux’s engraving of a panoptic theatre represents a different disciplinary visual regime: no longer regulated by the monarch’s gaze but by the internal light of reason

Despite the best efforts of Groucho et al, opera survived the onslaught of mass culture. It’s one of those apparently indestructible relics of feudalism, like polo or judicial wigs, which cling on as markers of status in a more democratic age.

Even so, few opera houses were built during the first half of the 20th century: Europe had a full complement of venues and, with audiences shrinking, there was little demand for new ones. Modernist architects and their patrons were rarely tempted by the type, which lacked the urgency of social problems such as mass housing.

The first German opera to be rebuilt was in Münster. In a powerful rhetorical flourish, the auditorium is lit by a thousand domestic-scaled paper-shaded lamps, rather than a grandiose crystal chandelier; the opera house is no longer a palace but a gemütlich living room for culture

This changed after the Second World War, during which 60 of Germany’s opera houses were destroyed. Those in the West were generally reconstructed in a politely Modernist idiom. As with the minimalist postwar productions at Bayreuth, West German opera was keen to distance itself from the monumental fascist past (and from the Soviet present: this was the era when the CIA was funding new music to demonstrate the freedoms of the West), so it learned from the criticism of Adorno and others to deconstruct itself.

The first German opera to be rebuilt was in Münster, where the stepped-back perimeter of the new building enfolds ruined remnants of an old palace. In a powerful rhetorical flourish, the auditorium is lit by a thousand domestic-scaled paper-shaded lamps, rather than a grandiose crystal chandelier; the opera house is no longer a palace but a gemütlich living room for culture.

The new Hamburg opera (1955) opted for a less deconstructed plan, opening itself up instead with its glazed facade, which substitutes the transparency of department stores for the marmoreal cliff of 19th-century opera houses. Rather than feeling like an exclusive club, its engagement with the life of the street is meant to encourage a sense of public ownership − ironically (or appropriately, depending on your view of West German democracy), by borrowing the language of commercial architecture.


The first postwar German opera (in Münster) went for a deconstructed plan enclosing war ruins

The Lincoln Center in New York (1962-68), home of the Metropolitan Opera, is decidedly retrograde in comparison. With its Neoclassical travertine colonnades and Michelangelesque plaza (which is isolated from the street by steps), it’s a precursor of Philip Johnson’s Postmodern turn (he was involved in the design committee), and more than a little reminiscent of Mussolini’s Esposizione Universale.

The enormous 3,500 seat auditorium is similarly conservative, with its gilt and plush and expensive boxes, reflecting the fact that while German operas are state-run, American opera depends almost entirely on private donations, and so must appeal to its patrons’ vanity and tastes (Met productions scrupulously avoid frightening the horses). The Lincoln Center is doubly in thrall to filthy lucre: dumped on a black and Puerto Rican neighbourhood by demigod planner Robert Moses and funded by John D Rockerfeller III, the project was used to ethnically cleanse the Upper West Side in order to raise real estate prices.


New York’s Lincoln Center is conservative and historicist

By contrast, the long march to build Utzon’s opera house in Sydney − his design won the competition in 1957, but wasn’t completed until 1973 − produced a publicly funded building of startling originality, its shark’s fins concealing the fly tower that Garnier and Semper had put behind a temple facade. But it was a hard act to follow: its geometries would be impossible to reproduce without looking merely derivative, so most subsequent icon-builders have taken inspiration from the extravagant spirit rather than the letter of the design (although Utzon’s division of the auditoriums into twin pavilions has influenced César Pelli and Zaha Hadid).

For all its engineering ingenuity, like the Teatro Amazonas built by rubber barons in 1896 in the Brazilian rainforest in imitation of Palais Garnier, Sydney Opera House is the fruit of cultural cringe: an attempt to put a city with an inferiority complex on the map. Its chief engineer at Arup was frank about this, calling the building ‘a civic symbol for a city which seeks to destroy once and for all the suggestion that it is a cultural backwater’.4



The twin auditoriums of Sydney Opera House introduced an influential pavilion typology - which may have been inspired by Scharoun’s (then-underalised) plan for the Berlin Philarmonie

Paris is not known for its sense of inferiority, but in 1989 it too got another, pugnaciously graceless opera thanks to the pharaoh-complex of socialist president François Mitterrand. Symbolically sited on the Place de la Bastille, this vast building designed by then unknown Carlos Ott − which covers 22,000 square metres at street level − was meant to be a people’s opera, a riposte to Palais Garnier shorn of aristocratic pretensions.

From the outside it is distinctly un-iconic: with its metal, glass and stone cladding, it looks more like a provincial Chinese shopping mall than a palace of culture (appropriately, Ott has gone on to build five opera houses in China). By contrast, the auditorium is coolly impressive. There are no boxes, and none of the 2,700 seats has a restricted view of the stage. The hangar-like backstage areas allow complete three-dimensional sets for several productions to be stored on site and brought forward on rails for performances, so permitting more than one opera to be performed each day; continuing the theme of flexibility, the floor of the pit is an elevator which can be raised and lowered according to the size of the orchestra.

The Bastille Opera was one of the last to be built in the 20th century, and − despite its size − one of the least ostentatious.

The operas produced by the millennial boom are hungrier for attention. Built by second-tier cities like Denver, Dallas, Astana and Cardiff, or rising Chinese metropolises, they follow Sydney’s iconic strategy to bolster their egos. Santiago Calatrava’s opera in Valencia is one of the more obvious throwbacks to Sydney in the current crop, its cantilevered curves deafeningly shrieking ‘look at me’. It is also symbolic of the cost of the millennial operas: Valencia gorged on credit in order to build vanity projects, but since the Palau de les Arts in the City of Arts and Sciences was completed in 2005 (10 years after work began), the grey light of dawn has broken.

The complex was supposed to cost €300 million but eventually came to €1.1 billion, and the region is now over €21 billion in debt (the opera has also been plagued by operational problems: the main stage collapsed soon after opening, and the building has since suffered catastrophic floods). Elsewhere in crisis-stricken Europe, Daniel Libeskind’s Grand Canal Theatre opened in Dublin in 2010, and was renamed Bord Gaís Energy Theatre two years later in order to get a much-needed injection of cash from corporate sponsors. Even so, the building has since been seized by Irish ‘bad bank’ NAMA from its developer Harry Crosbie, who allegedly owes the government €500 million.


Carlo Ott’s Paris opera had to fit on the awkward site of an old train station on the Place de la Bastille. Like Semper, Ott expresses the auditorium with a curved facade, but instead of adding a triumphal arch as an entrance, he made a huge granite portal turned to the street. Though this entrance was intended to be more democratic, it has never been open to the public

With the decline of public funding for the arts, operas are once more the playthings of financiers and autocrats. Shipping magnate AP Møller paid for Copenhagen’s opera house (opened in 2005) in exchange for complete control of the design process, and architect Henning Larsen called the finished building ‘a failed compromise’. (Some members of the Danish parliament were also unhappy with the building: its tax-deductible status meant the nation was effectively forced to buy the £300 million ‘gift’.)

Kazakhstan’s dictator Nursultan Nazarbayev commissioned a bizarre pyramidal ‘Palace of Peace and Reconciliation’ from Norman Foster (2006), the base of which is filled by an opera house. And the Chinese have turned to operatic colonialism: they’re currently building an opera house on former agricultural land in Algiers, a generous gift for a nation desperately in need of high-class entertainments.

If these millennial operas tell us anything, it’s about the refeudalisation of the arts in the 21st century. Opera builders may try to counter the exclusive image of the medium by including fig-leaves of ‘public realm’, but these are mere sops to public engagement − like the piazzas outside Libeskind’s Dublin theatre and Foster’s opera house in allas, or the traversable roof of Snøhetta’s Oslo opera, which slopes down into the fjord like a marble glacier (one of the architects tellingly said ‘if you can step on something, you feel you own it’).5



Norman Foster’s Palace of Peace and reconciliation -built for the totalitarian dictator of Kazakhstan - is, like Andreu’s Beijing sphere, a realisation of Boullée’s geometric fantasias. The basement houses an opera

China − whose government doesn’t worry too much about public accountability, or about the price tag of white elephants − has built many opera houses in the last 10 years (incredibly, Deutsche Welle thinks the number exceeds 50), and more are planned. But the wave of ‘grand theatres’ opened across that nation in the wake of Shanghai’s pioneering venture (completed by Jean-Marie Charpentier in 1998) is the fruit of municipal rivalry, not a response to demand.

Although China has a growing appetite for Western music, its opera houses are generally underfunded, leading to high ticket prices and consequently thin audiences. Indeed, the Chinese coda to this story could be the end of the opera house as we know it. Because the grand theatres are multi-purpose venues, designed to be used for rock concerts, musical theatre and Chinese pera, they are not exactly opera houses (their acoustics are not specifically suited to the medium). Neither are they especially architecturally distinguished, as Paul Andreu’s buildings in Beijing and Shanghai, and Carlos Ott’s string of grand theatres attest.

Like many of the millennial operas, the auditorium-stage configuration remains pretty much unchanged at the heart of these buildings, while parametric blobs or high-tech planes whizz expensively around them (we’ve come a long way from Semper’s expression of the plan).

The one truly remarkable Chinese opera is Zaha Hadid’s £130 million building in Guangzhou. It’s a triumphant yah-boo-sucks to Cardiff, which first accepted then turned down Hadid’s proposed opera for that city in favour of the timid Millennium Centre. Her design for Guangzhou is quite different from her Cardiff plan (which seemingly owed something to the postwar German operas). From the outside, it’s not especially thrilling: a pair of amorphous lumps that have little to do with what’s going on inside them, and without the dramatic site of Sydney. The auditorium, however, is strikingly organic and − very unusual, this − asymmetrical. Owing something to Mendelsohn’s Einstein Tower, it’s like being inside a skull (the acoustics are also good − quite an achievement considering its asymmetry).

As the ongoing Chinese opera boom attests, while opera houses remain the ultimate status symbols, and while there’s still a rising but insecure power to pay for them, there’ll be life in the old dog yet − whether there’s an audience or not. It remains to be seen, however, whether the grand theatres will continue to produce opera in the Western tradition when China no longer feels it has anything to prove to the rest of the world.



The millennial opera boom has spawned some extreme buildings, yet for all the formal fireworks, auditorium design still remains relatively conventional


1. Santiago Calatrava, Valencia


2. Foster + Partners, Dallas


3. Snøhetta, Oslo


4. Zaha Hadid, Guangzhou


5. Henning Larsen, Copenhagen


6. César Pelli, Miami


7. Paul Andreu, Beijing


8. Daniel Libeskind, Dublin

El Palau de les Arts


Valencia, Spain, 2005
Calatrava takes a pile-‘em-high approach to planning with his towering Valencia opera. The globular form develops the theme of his earlier auditorium in Tenerife, itself an homage to Sydney’s iconic opera. The building’s roof is an enormous metal ‘plume’ cantilevered over the structure. Below this is a concrete shell, cut away to reveal the stacked volumes of the internal spaces. The slick ribbed interior of the main auditorium, which seats 1,700, is accessed via a foyer cantilevered over the building’s entrance. There are also three subsidiary performance spaces, including a 1,500 seat amphitheatre perched above the main hall and a smaller space for chamber orchestras. A restaurant occupies the rest of the top floor, and the building - part of the City of Arts and Sciences complex - is surrounded by a reflecting pool.



Margot and Bill Winspear Opera House

Dallas, USA, 2009
More modernistic than the obfuscating blobs of the icon-builders, Norman Foster’s opera house for Dallas follows Semper’s example by expressing its plan as an ovoid tower following the curve of the 2,200-seat auditorium. This space - which contrives to feel intimate despite its size - is decorated conventionally, with gold balconies and a huge chandelier. The red glass drum which houses the auditorium projects up through an expansive planar roof, and is enclosed at ground level by a glass cube. The interstices between the drum of the auditorium and the glass curtain walls contain circulatory areas, foyers and suspended staircases. At the front of the building the roof projects over a large plaza, where it becomes a louvred sun screen.



Norwegian National Opera & Ballet

Oslo, Norway, 2007
One of the more attractive of the millennial opera houses, Snøhetta’s ground-hugging Norwegian National Opera rises from the fjord like an iceberg. Its sloping, carefully detailed marble roof forms a traversable piazza, the stark geometry of which is softened by strolling visitors (cunningly placed ha-has deter lemming-like behaviour). Glazed vertical planes open the foyer to sea views, and give the building the appearance of a stealth bomber. The oak-lined main auditorium has a traditional arrangement of stalls and three balconies, and seats 1,400 (several artists were involved in furnishing the interiors; their contributions including a striking stage curtain resembling crumpled tinfoil). The structure also comprises spacious scenery workshops, two restaurants and a smaller concert hall that seats 400 people.



Guangzhou Opera House

Guangzhou, China, 2010
Zaha Hadid’s opera house for Guangzhou, situated between a new business district and the Pearl River, takes a lead from Sydney in splitting its auditoriums between two buildings. These irregularly shaped structures reveal complex geometric skeletons beneath their skins of glass and steel. The larger pavilion houses the asymmetric main auditorium (which seats 1,800), with curvaceous balconies moulded from glass fibre-reinforced gypsum. A dramatic lobby fills the space between this volume and the building’s outer skin, and the building’s rear is occupied by the more conventionally shaped stage and extensive backstage spaces. The smaller pavilion houses a 400-seat concert hall, and is similarly planned as a conventional rectilinear volume loosely housed within an irregular skin, the gap between the two making room for circulation. Subterranean service spaces lie beneath the piazza between the two buildings.



Copenhagen Opera House

Copenhagen, Denmark, 2004
Henning Larsen’s gigantic building looms over Copenhagen’s inner dock (visitors can arrive by water). Similar to Foster + Partners’ Dallas opera, it is essentially a cylinder wearing a flat cap: a huge projecting roof that shields the piazza before the entrance. The hemispherical glass facade of the foyer is shaded by metal louvres, source of the main controversy between the patron and the architect. Within, another, wood-clad bulge pierced by walkways encloses the auditorium, which has a gold-leaf covered ceiling and 1,500 seats (most European operas are smaller than their American counterparts because they do not rely so much on ticket sales for income, and can afford to optimise the scale of the auditorium for acoustics). The light sculptures in the building’s foyer were created by artist Olafur Eliasson.


Adrienne Arsht Center

Miami, USA, 2006
Like Sydney and Guangzhou, the Arsht Center for the Performing Arts is split into two pavilions housing different sized venues. These huge buildings of stepped granite are separated by a road and a plaza planned around an old Art Deco tower - a protected remnant of a department store that formerly occupied the site, and which may have inspired the neo-Deco ziggurats of Pelli’s buildings. The main venue is the Ziff Ballet Opera House, with an auditorium that seats 2,480 in conventional tiered balconies and boxes, and another smaller 200-seat studio theatre. The other building houses a 2,200-seat concert hall. The marble facades of both structures are opened up in places with glass curtain walls, revealing the activity in the foyers and on the circulatory balconies within.


National Centre for the Performing Arts

Beijing, China, 2007
Paul Andreu’s performing arts centre rises above the disappearing hutongs and 1950s government offices around Tiananmen Square like a mushroom cloud. The building is surrounded by a reflecting pool under which visitors must pass in order to enter: like those other blobs-on-water in Valencia, Guangzhou and Copenhagen, this is perhaps a hopeful allusion to the waterside site of the iconic ur-opera of the 20th century, Sydney. The dome’s skin is constructed from titanium and has a glass cutaway; inside, the three stages are arrayed with Beaux-Arts symmetry reminiscent of Palais Garnier in Paris (the largest auditorium seats 2,400; the others, 2,017 and 1,040). A vastly expensive construction process was made even more costly when building was halted due to the fatal collapse of Andreu’s similarly shaped terminal at Charles de Gaulle airport; nevertheless, the building was completed in time to add a veneer of culture to the celebrations of the 2008 Olympics.


Grand Canal Theatre

Dublin, Ireland, 2010
Like Zaha Hadid, Daniel Libeskind clothes a relatively traditional foyer-auditorium-stage arrangement within a trademark kooky envelope: here, the building’s metal skin is rotated from the axis of the auditorium, and gets a formulaic Libeskind treatment of slots and slashes. The glass facade is crumpled, and the building’s behind hangs in the air as if the structure had crashed face-down into the piazza that links the theatre to the canal (the two other sides of the piazza are filled by commercial offices, designed to bask in the reflected splendour - and accompanying price tag - of a big-name architect). Unlike Guangzhou Opera House, however, the red plush interior of the 2,000-
seat auditorium is quite traditional.


1. Anthony Vilder, Claude-Nicolas Ledoux: Architecture and Social Reform at the End of Ancient Régime, MIT Press (Cambridge, MA), 1990, p232.

2. Juliet Koss, Modernism After Wagner, University of Minnesota Press (Minneapolis), 2010, p57.

3. Theodor Adorno, In Search of Wagner, Verso (London) 2005, p106.

4. Marvin Carlson, Places of Performance: The Semiotics of Theatre Architecture, Cornell University Press (New York), 1989, pp83-84.

5. Victoria Newhouse, Site and Sound: The Architecture and Acoustics of New Opera Houses and Concert Halls, Monacelli Press (New York), 2012, p102.

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