Opera in Edinburgh

Scottish Opera is actually based in Glasgow, but they also perform regularly at the Festival Theatre in Edinburgh and at two other “mainstage venues” in Aberdeen and Inverness. In 2005 my sons and I attended a performance of the opera Fidelio by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1857) in Edinburgh.

Leonore, the heroine of this opera, suspects that her husband Florestan is not dead, as everyone thinks, but has been locked away without charge in the dungeon of a large Spanish prison. Disguising herself as a young man, she gets a job in the prison, and after several months is finally allowed to go down into the dungeon, just in time to save her husband from being murdered by the evil prison governor Don Pizarro.

This is Beethoven’s only opera. It was performed by Scottish Opera in the original German, with English surtitles. I was particularly impressed with the chorus — there are strong choral scenes as the prisoners are released from their cells and come out into the light. Unfortunately the full-time professional chorus of Scottish Opera was later disbanded for financial reasons, so they may well have trouble putting on this sort of opera in future seasons. As far as I know, they now only have an amateur “Community Choir” which meets on Wednesday evenings in Glasgow (but I hope somebody will correct me if I’m wrong about this).

In the lobby of the Festival Theatre

There have been theaters, err, theatres at this location on Nicolson Street in Edinburgh since 1830. During the first sixty years they were called Dunedin Hall, the Royal Amphitheatre, Alhambra Music Hall, the Queen’s Theatre and Newsome’s Circus.

In 1892 the Empire Palace Theatre was opened on this site. “It was built by the great British theatre architect, Frank Matcham, with lavish decoration: elephants with Nubian riders, nymphs and cherubs abounded the plasterwork. The original Empire Palace Theatre sat 3000 theatregoers on four plush levels of green, cream and tobacco gold.” (Quoted from the theatre’s old website.)

This theatre survived a disastrous fire in 1911 and was used until 1928, when it was replaced by an even grander version. From 1928 to 1963 the Empire was a variety, musical and opera house, and was also used for ice shows. From 1963 to 1991 it was a bingo hall, but then it was completely rebuilt again, with a new all-glass front end facing Nicolson Street.

They describe the current auditorium as “a wonderful restoration of the Empire Theatre’s former 1928 glory, a dramatic mix of art nouveau, beaux arts and neo-classicism, encompassing perfect acoustics within a parlour-like intimacy.” It now has a capacity of 1915 seats. It was re-named the Edinburgh Festival Theatre when it re-opened in June 1994.

Like any other self-respecting building in Edinburgh, the Festival Theatre is of course haunted. At least that’s what one of the young ushers up here on the Upper Circle started telling me when I struck up a conversation with her.

Three typical opera-goers

My photos in this post are from 2005. I revised the text in 2017.

See also: Operas in Bern, Switzerland. (Scroll down for Beethoven’s Fidelio.)

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