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The history of opera in the Czech lands dates back to the 17th century, to 1627, when an Italian pastoral comedy was performed at the Vladislav Hall of Prague Castle to mark the coronation of Ferdinand III of Habsburg as King of Bohemia. During the 17th century, the opera boom spread from Italy across Europe, with Bohemia being no exception. Performances were held for the monarch and his courtiers at Prague Castle. An event of major significance was the staging there of the opera Costanza e fortezza by the court composer Johann Joseph Fux, within the celebrations marking the coronation of Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI as King of Bohemia on 31 August 1723 in Prague.
The rising popularity of opera inspired the Czech aristocracy, who began building theatre halls and started to invite opera companies to give performances at their mansions. One of the first such nobles was Count František Antonín Špork, who since 1701 had a stage in the garden of his Prague residence and who in 1725 opened a theatre in Na Poříčí street, which would be given the name the Prague New Town Count Theatre.
In 1739, the first “bricks-and-mortar” theatre was established in Prague, the Kotce Theatre, which solely staged performances in German. Its productions included Christoph Willibald Gluck’s operas Ezio and Ipermestra.
The year 1783 saw the opening of the Count Nostic (Nostitz) Theatre, which would later on be renamed the Estates Theatre, well known for its having been connected with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. At the time, the auditorium had the capacity of one thousand visitors, which – for the sake of improving the audience’s comfort – was ultimately reduced to the current 654 seats. On 20 January 1787, the theatre hosted a performance of Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro, conducted by the composer himself. Unlike its previous staging in Vienna, which was a flop, the opera met in Prague with immense enthusiasm. In the wake of this triumph, Mozart decided to compose an opera for Prague, Don Giovanni, whose world premiere, on 29 October 1787 at the Nostic Theatre, he again conducted. Another premiere of a Mozart opera, La clemenza di Tito, took place in 1791, to mark the coronation of Emperor Leopold II as King of Bohemia, yet its success was not as resounding as that of the previous two.
In 1799, Count Nostic sold the theatre to the Czech Estates, who duly changed its name to the Estates Theatre. On 2 February 1826, it hosted the premiere of the first Czech opera, Dráteník (The Tinker), composed by František Škroup, who in 1827 was appointed the theatre’s second Kapellmeister. Škroup staged a number of operas that had not been previously performed at Czech theatres and, owing to him, as well as the director Johann August Stöger, the Estates Theatre also presented operas by Richard Wagner, starting in 1854 with Tannhäuser, followed in 1856 by productions of Lohengrin and Der fliegende Holländer.
In the 19th century, world-renowned figures continued to work at the Estates Theatre. From 1813 to 1816, the opera company was helmed by Carl Maria von Weber, who during the 1820s would return to Prague so as to conduct his Der Freischütz. In 1885 and 1886, the young Gustav Mahler gained invaluable conducting experience at the Estates Theatre.
A vital role was played by theatre during the era of the Czech national revival. The urgent need to enhance the Czech language and to motivate the population of Bohemia to a national awakening led in 1850 to the foundation of the Society for the Establishment of the Czech National Theatre in Prague and the ensuing collection of money for its building. The construction of an independent Czech theatre was perceived as one of the leading priorities of Czech society by members of all of its classes, from aristocrats to poor peasants, with everyone contributing cash so as to make the idea come true.The plan was also supported by Emperor Franz Joseph I, who during his numerous visits to Prague donated finance for the construction, as did his son, Crown Prince Rudolph, who would be personally present at the theatre’s first gala opening. Nevertheless, owing to a lack of money and a number of delays, first the Provisional Theatre was build and opened, in 1862 (a purely Czech theatre, it performed Czech works, with the result being the Czech theatre’s complete separation from the German).
In 1881, the National Theatre was finally opened, yet the building was soon destroyed by fire, but was subsequently reconstructed and reopened, in 1883. Ever since, the Neo-Renaissance building on the right bank of the river Vltava has been one of the architectural landmarks of Prague. The history of the Provisional Theatre and the National Theatre was co-created by composers of such renown as Bedřich Smetana, Antonín Dvořák, Zdeněk Fibich and Leoš Janáček, who either worked there, holding various posts, or wrote music for the theatre. A significant position in the history of the National Theatre is occupied by Smetana’s opera Dalibor, which was performed within the festivities pertaining to the laying of its foundation stone, and his festival opera, Libuše, which was staged during all its grand openings (1881, 1883 and 1983). The theatre enjoyed great recognition and blossomed during the tenures of the directors and conductors Karel Kovařovic, Otakar Ostrčil and Václav Talich. The opera company’s fame was spread by its superlative singers, including Ema Destinnová, Karel Burian, Otakar Mařák, Theodor Schütz, Vilém Zítek, Jarmila Novotná, Marta Krásová, Marie Podvalová, Maria Tauberová, Milada Šubrtová, Libuše Domanínská, Beno Blachut, Václav Bednář, Eduard Haken, Ivo Žídek, Václav Zítek and Gabriela Beňačková. The National Theatre gave world premieres of operas of such renown as Antonín Dvořák’s Rusalka (1901) and The Devil and Kate (1899), Bohuslav Martinů’s Juliette (1938), and Leoš Janáček’s The Excursions of Mr. Brouček (1920).
Taking turns on the conductor’s podium at the National Theatre were generations of outstanding artists, many of whom not only made an impact on the development of new orchestras, the Czech Philharmonic in particular, they also influenced the trends in the Czech art of composition. Such towering figures included Adolf Čech (initially working at the Provisional Theatre), Karel Kovařovic, Otakar Ostrčil, Václav Talich, Zdeněk Chalabala, Jaroslav Krombholc, Jaroslav Vogel, Zdeněk Košler and Bohumil Gregor.
In 1920, the National Theatre acquired another stage: today’s Estates Theatre.
In the meantime, the German-speaking inhabitants of Prague pursued their own cultural ambitions and hence, in 1888, a performance of Wagner’s opera Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg opened the New German Theatre (Neues deutsches Theater), in the building which today houses the State Opera. Its operation was affected by the tumultuous historical events of the 20th century. The first director of the New German Theatre was Angelo Neumann, succeeded in the post by Alexander Zemlinsky and Georg Széll. Its productions were conducted by Richard Strauss, Erich Kleiber, Otto Klemperer and other renowned figures, with the most noteworthy among the singers appearing on its stage being Enrico Caruso.
A vital, albeit short-lived, chapter in the history of opera in Prague was played by the May the Fifth Theatre, which was established on 5 May 1945 and assigned the building vacated after the New German Theatre ceased its operation. In 1948, its Grand May the Fifth Opera company was incorporated within the National Theatre, from which it disaffiliated in 1992 as the State Opera Prague, thus becoming a natural competitor to the other Prague opera house.
Creative collaboration with distinguished Czech and international conductors throve. One of the most noteworthy among them was Sir Charles Mackerras, who explored Mozart’s Don Giovanni (1991) and Janáček’s The Excursions of Mr. Brouček (2003) for the National Theatre. Other renowned figures included Jiří Bělohlávek, who conducted productions of Jenufa (1997), Rusalka (1998), Carmen (1999), The Devil’s Wall (2001), Fate (2002), The Greek Passion (2006) and other operas; Jiří Kout, who prepared Der Rosenkavalier (1996), Tristan und Isolde (2000), Verdi’s Requiem (2004) and other works; and Gerd Albrecht, who oversaw an adaptation of Dvořák’s Vanda (2004). John Fiore conducted the first-ever complete National Theatre performance of Wagner’s tetralogy Der Ring des Nibelungen (2005), the first staging at the National of Puccini’s La fanciulla del West (2007) and a production of Wagner’s Parsifal (2011), etc. In the 2009/10 season, the post of chief conductor of the National Theatre Orchestra was assumed by Tomáš Netopil, who in addition to a number of concerts prepared productions of Mozart’s operas La finta giardiniera, Idomeneo (2010) and Die Entführung aus dem Serail (2011), Janáček’s Katya Kabanova (2010) and Dvořák’s The Jacobin (2011).
The stage directors who have left a distinct footprint in the recent history of the Prague opera include David Radok, whose adaptations of Don Giovanni (1991), Die Zauberflöte (1993 and 2001), Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District (2000) and Wozzeck (2001) have received prestigious Czech theatre awards. When it comes to foreign directors, the most noteworthy among them are David Pountney, who staged at the National Theatre the operas Juliette (2000) and The Devil’s Wall (2001); Robert Wilson, who created productions of Janáček’s Fate (2002) and Katya Kabanova (2010); Ursel and Karl-Ernst Herrmann, who adapted Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito (2006) and La finta giardiniera (2008); and the Oscar-winning filmmaker Miloš Forman and his sons Petr and Matěj, who staged the jazz opera A Walk Worthwhile (2007). A certain impact on the shape of the productions was also made by Jiří Nekvasil, who helmed the National Theatre Opera company from 2002 to 2006.
Other remarkable accomplishments over the recent years include the world premiere of Martin Smolka’s contemporary opera Nagano (2004), devoted to the victory of the Czech ice-hockey team at the Olympic Games in 1998 in Nagano; the aforementioned A Walk Worthwhile by Jiří Suchý and Jiří Šlitr (2007); and the production of Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo (2007), staged by Jiří Heřman, by which the National Theatre celebrated the 400th anniversary of the piece, generally recognised as the first work written in the opera genre. Jiří Heřman, who headed the opera company from 2007 to 2011, extended the National Theatre repertoire with his productions of Dvořák’s Rusalka (2009), Martinů’s The Miracles of Mary (2009), Wagner’s Parsifal, Dvořák’s The Jacobin (2011), and other significant works. A landmark achievement was the staging of Handel’s Rinaldo (2009), as performed by Collegium 1704, conducted by Václav Luks, and soloists and guests of the National Theatre Opera. Co-produced with Le Théâtre de Caen, L’Opéra de Rennes and Le Grand Théâtre de Luxembourg, the production was subsequently staged at the L’Opéra royal de Versailles. In 2012, the National Theatre in Prague hosted the world premiere of Marko Ivanović’s fairy-tale opera Enchantia, directed by Petr Forman.
Over the decades, the National Theatre Opera has collaborated with numerous prominent music festivals in the Czech Republic and beyond. These include the Prague Spring, Smetana’s Litomyšl, the international festivals in Edinburgh (1970), Lucerne (1978), Salzburg (2002) and Wiesbaden (2005), to name but a few. The company has given acclaimed performances in Catania, Italy (2005), Valencia, Spain (2007), the Canary Islands (2008), Cyprus (2011), and it has made regular tours of Japan.
Since 2012, the National Theatre has comprised two opera companies: the National Theatre Opera, whose performances have been held at the National Theatre historical building and at the Estates Theatre, and the State Opera, which has performed at the State Opera building in Prague. During a theatre season, the two companies together give more than 40 opera performances a month, with the variegated repertoire ranging from Baroque to pieces by contemporary composers.