Book review: Great opera houses revealed

More than 600 photographs
The Egg, Beijing.

Great, Grand & Famous Opera Houses
by Fritz Gubler
Arbon Publishing
RRP $89.95

We all know The Phantom of the Opera is there, inside your mind, but did he actually live beneath the Paris Opera? The answer is revealed, along with a history of the Paris Opera and more than 70 other major opera houses, in a new book, Great, Grand and Famous Opera Houses.

The foundations of the Palais Garnier (The Paris Opera) went down so far that water was a major problem. A double-walled foundation was built to keep the water out, providing a cistern to collect water which would act as a reservoir in case of fire.

This led to the myth that there was an underground lake and subterranean rivers. This was coupled with the fact that during one performance a theatre chandelier fell and killed a member of the audience.

In the foreward to the book Dame Kiri Te Kanawa writes about being on the stage at the Paris Opera, explaining that the word “grand” does not come anywhere near describing the building. “Being there is like stepping into another world.”

Opera houses are very much like other worlds and the book provides an insight into these remarkable places, ranging from some of the oldest, such as the one in Toulouse, through to more recent ones such as the Operahuset in Oslo (completed in 2008), and the Beijing National Centre for the Performing Arts which opened in time for the 2008 Olympics.

The Egg, as the Chinese theatre is referred to, will be the venue for a performance by the Royal New Zealand Ballet next year.

New York Met the grandest

Some of the opera houses are particularly grand in size. One of the biggest and most ornate is the Teatro di San Carlo in Naples, which seats 3500. But the grandest of all is the Met in New York, holding (including standing room) just on 4000.

The reader is taken on a tour of the world’s most beautiful opera venues, starting with the countries where opera first emerged— Italy, France, Britain, and Germany—and some of the earliest and still most famous theatres, such as La Scala in Milan and London’s Royal Opera House.

The book has more than 600 photographs, each opera house profiled with a guided tour of the building’s architectural features and interior design.

It also goes behind the scenes to reveal colourful stories of the patrons, impresarios and stars, whose larger-than-life personalities, tempestuous relationships and outrageous behaviour at times surpassed the melodrama on stage.

Venice is said to have been home to the first opera house in 1637 and by the end of the century had 16 venues. Opera flourished in the 17th century, particularly in Italy and France, but it had a chequered history. Shows were banned in Rome by papal edict and also in England for a time until the Restoration.

Interesting pedigrees

Opera houses have had interesting architectural pedigrees, often having two architects involved in their original construction, one for the interior and one for the exterior. Then there are major architects who have been used with their subsequent redesigns.

Few of the theatres are in their original condition. The Toulouse Theatre du Capitole has been renovated seven times, including a full rebuild after a fire in 1923. La Fenice in Venice has been rebuilt twice after fires destroyed it, the last in 2002.

While the construction of some have taken years to complete – the Sydney Opera House took 14 years from 1959-73 – others have had remarkable construction times.

The Teatro di San Carlo in Naples was commissioned by the Spanish Bourbon King of Naples, Charles VII, in 1737 intending it to be the largest in Europe. It was finished in just over eight months.

The book has a series of articles on the world of opera, giving an excellent overview on topics such as opera singers and their training, stage machinery, audience responses over the years and the influence of major conductors such as Wagner, who was the first to insist on the novel idea of dimming the lights in the auditorium.

Each of the houses has a distinctive history, although most seem to have the same problems of early cost overruns, ongoing financial issues and battles of control between management impresarios, conductors and singers.

Images reproduced with permission from Great, Grand & Famous Opera Houses by Fritz Gubler, with a foreword by Dame Kiri Te Kanawa. It is published by Arbon Publishing and distributed in New Zealand by New Holland.

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