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The State Opera - history

The State Opera, which due to its refurbishment and reopening to the public on 5 January has been paid great attention to by the majority of the Czech media outlets, has an intriguing history. In the late 1880s, the German community in Prague built a new theatre in response to the recent construction of the Czech National Theatre, as well as owing to the necessity for a larger venue, as the then German Estates Theatre, at the time a century old, did no longer meet the ever-increasing staging requirements. The Neo-Renaissance building with a Neo-Rococo interior décor, designed by the Vienna-based architects Ferdinand Fellner and Hermann Helmer, did not outshine the National Theatre in terms of the artistic expression, yet it had a larger stage and a higher seating capacity than any other theatre venue in Prague, which still holds true today. 


The Neues deutsches Theater (New German Theatre) was inaugurated on 5 January 1888 with a performance of Richard Wagner’s opera Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. A decisive role in the direction the company would pursue was played by its first director, Angelo Neumann, a former baritone of the Wiener Staatsoper and a friend of Wagner’s. He helmed the theatre for almost a quarter of a century, until his death in 1910, with his era being the longest in its history. An authoritative leading figure of the German theatre in Prague, a man of an unswerving will, great diligence and congenial dramatic instinct, Neumann succeeded in elevating the Prague German Theatre to a standard comparable with that of the major European companies. He invited to Prague numerous stellar singers, including the celebrated tenor Enrico Caruso. Moreover, Neumann came up with and effected the idea of organising the regular May Festival, which may be deemed a precursor of the post-war Prague Spring. His work in Prague was connected with the career of Gustav Mahler, who during Neumann’s tenure as the director held the post of Kapellmeister at the Estates Theatre in the 1885/86 season and who in 1888 conducted at the New German Theatre several performances of his arrangement of Carl Maria von Weber’s opera Die drei Pintos and, later on, led philharmonic concerts featuring his own pieces. 
The most noteworthy post-Neumann figures were Alexander Zemlinsky (director of the opera company from 1911 to 1927) and his successor, the conductor Georg Széll (1929-37). Zemlinsky was the first to have extended the theatre’s repertoire, previously primarily made up of Wagner and Strauss works, to include Czech operas. In the 1930s, amidst the growing threat of Nazism, the New German Theatre in Prague was a bastion of democracy, one that afforded refuge to artists from Germany, whose progressive attitudes or ethnicity had rendered it impossible for them to continue to work in their native country. Besides opera and operetta, the New German Theatre also cultivated drama, which would, occasionally, also return to its stage after the end of World War II. The development of the political situation shortly prior to the signing of the Munich Treaty, as well as declining numbers of visitors and the resulting financial difficulties, ultimately compelled the German Theatre Society to terminate the theatre’s operation in September 1938.


During the time of the Nazi occupation, the theatre, designated as the Deutsches Opernhaus (German Opera House), initially served merely as a platform for NSDAP political gatherings or hosted occasional performances given by companies from the Reich, whose true aim was to spread the propaganda of Greater Germany (the Imperial Eagle appeared on the building’s façade). Continuous operation was only renewed upon the establishment of a permanent operetta ensemble in the 1942/43 season. In the subsequent season, the theatre was also the residence of the opera company from Duisburg, which owing to the war events forfeited its domicile in Germany. According to a decree of the Nazi administration, in the 1944/45 season all theatres in the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia were shut down.


A radical change ensued following the legalised taking over of the vacated building in May 1945 by a group of Czech artists, headed by Alois Hába, Václav Kašlík and Antonín Kurš. They founded a new institution, named the May the Fifth Theatre, in tribute to the recent Prague Uprising. Born from enthusiasm, as the contemporaries recall, it was made up of drama and opera companies, which, however, after the first season, decided to pursue separate paths. In August 1946, the independent opera company (which encompassed a ballet ensemble) acquired the title the May the Fifth Grand Opera. In line with its artistic programme, it aimed to create an avant-garde platform that in dramaturgic, staging, visual and performance terms would be a counterpart to the more conservative National Theatre. Within a short time, the May the Fifth Grand Opera turned out to be an undesired competitor to the National Theatre, therefore the promising outset of the former’s young collective was stopped in its tracks by the authorities’ directive, pursuant to which the two institutions would merge. What is more, under the pretext of reducing operating expenses, the May the Fifth Grand Opera building was affiliated to the National Theatre, thus becoming its third venue. In addition to the aforementioned artists, led by Kašlík, the director of the opera company, stage director, composer and conductor, a major role in the history of the opera house was played by the stage directors Alfréd Radok, Karel Jernek and Jiří Fiedler, the conductor Karel Ančerl and the designer Josef Svoboda, who commenced his career there and would go on to gain global renown. (Later on, the director of the State Opera Prague, Daniel Dvořák, a pupil of Svoboda’s, initiated the making of a replica of Svoboda’s 1947 scenery for a production of Tosca, while, on the eve of the then legendary architect’s 80th birthday, the corridor in the operations building used for moving props to the stage  was named “Josef Svoboda street” in his honour.)


Following its merger with the National Theatre, for a short time the institution was again the May the Fifth Theatre, before, in November 1949, being given the name the Smetana Theatre. Due to the dimensions of its stage, the venue continued to perform grand operas, while great scope was afforded to ballet as well. Between 1967 and 1973, the building underwent its very first overall refurbishment. After the transitional period of the 1950s, the opera started to abandon the dramaturgic and staging stereotypes, with its transformation including more frequent performances given by distinguished foreign guests, whose number was comparable with that in the pre-war era. The Smetana Theatre hosted numerous companies from abroad, who – almost every year – appeared at the Prague Spring festival. The guesting artists and companies hailed from the Eastern bloc and the West alike. A watershed event in this respect was the visit paid in 1979 by the Wiener Staatsoper with a production of Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos, whereby the authorities’ approval of the appearance of the Slovak singer Edita Gruberová, who had emigrated from Czechoslovakia, indicated the gradual easing of the strained relations between the East and the West. The social upheaval in the late 1980s, taking place in the Central European communist countries, duly projected in culture too. In the wake of the Velvet Revolution and restoration of democracy in November 1989, the time was ripe for rectification of the past errors, including the situation regarding the erstwhile  May the Fifth Grand Opera. Although it would take some time to proceed from general proclamations to resolving the procedural questions, the endeavour for recovery of its independence would ultimately come to pass.


On 1 April 1992, the playbill for the evening performance of Verdi’s Otello was the first to feature a new heading, the State Opera Prague. Consequently, the city would again have two rival opera venues. After many decades, from then on it would again be up to the directors of the independent artistic institution to determine its character and orientation. Thanks to the first director, Karel Drgáč, the State Opera Prague embraced the global trend of performing operas in their original languages and was the first theatre in the Czech Republic to use surtitles. In response to the audience’s demand, Drgáč instigated and launched Verdi festivals, which were held before the end of the theatre holidays. Besides hosting numerous singers from abroad, the State Opera Prague regularly invited entire international staging teams. Upon the initiative of the third director of the State Opera Prague, Daniel Dvořák, and in collaboration with the artistic director of the Opera company, Jiří Nekvasil, the theatre performed new creations in world premiere and other remarkable operas in Czech premiere. Dvořák announced the “New Opera for Prague” international competition, whose prize-winning work – the Czech composer Emil Viklický’s opera Phaedra – received its world premiere within the Prague – European Capital of Culture 2000 festival. Both Drgáč and Dvořák emphasised the theatre’s being a place of social events, restoring the tradition of holding balls at the opera, while the venue also hosted other special evenings, including charity projects. During Dvořák’s tenure in particular, the State Opera Prague radically modified its presentation to the public, bringing to bear a far wider spectrum of media so as to attract potential visitors. Following Daniel Dvořák’s departure to the National Theatre, under his successor in the post of director, Jaroslav Vocelka, the State Opera Prague accomplished several exceptional artistic projects. Yet notwithstanding a number of commercially successful tours of Japan, towards the end of the second decade of its existence the State Opera Prague ever more palpably felt the consequences of its long-term underfunding, which had plagued it since the very beginning. At the same time, despite continuous maintenance carried out on the façade and in the interior, specialists ascertained that the historical building was in a decrepit condition, while also arriving at the conclusion that the operations building had to be repaired forthwith. With the aim to make more efficient use of the artistic and economic potential of the two Prague opera venues and with a view to decreasing the costs for their separate operation, by virtue of a government decree the State Opera Prague was reintegrated with the National Theatre, while a decision was taken that both of its buildings would be completely renovated.


On 1 January 2012, the theatre was named the State Opera. The plans for the house’s refurbishment were being prepared and detailed. After the performance of Puccini’s Turandot on 2 July 2016, the venue was closed to the public, and builders and restorers got down to work. The State Opera company continued to give performances at the historical National and Estates Theatres, as well as, on contractually agreed dates, at the Karlín Music Theatre and Forum Karlín (concerts and concert versions of operas). Following 42 months of renovation, at the beginning of 2020 the State Opera reopened to audiences. There are a host of novelties awaiting them – but we will focus on these elsewhere in this magazine.