The State Opera in Prague (Státní Opera Praha) has the most dreadful location of any opera house I can think of. The front entrance is cut off from the city by a high-speed four-lane motorway called Wilsonova with no pedestrian crossing, just a dark narrow tunnel that looks like the perfect place for a mugging. At the back is another four-lane motorway called Legerova without even a tunnel for pedestrians.
On the left is a multi-story parking garage which is almost as high as the opera house itself. On the right is a massive modern museum building which is higher than the opera house and is only a few meters away.
The building itself, though, is quite attractive and immediately looks familiar, since it is a typical late nineteenth-century opera house by those diligent Viennese architects Ferdinand Fellner (1847-1916) and Hermann Helmer (1849-1919), who also designed theaters and opera houses in Budapest, Augsburg, Hamburg, Wiesbaden, Gablonz an der Neiße (now Jablonec nad Nisou), Zürich, Vienna, Gießen and dozens of other cities large and small throughout central and eastern Europe.
Originally this building was called the New German Theater. It was built in the 1880s and inaugurated in January 1888 as the German response to the Czech community’s National Theater, which had opened a few years before. Evidently the German population of Prague couldn’t bear the thought that the Czechs had a newer and better theater than they did.
When I went to the State Opera in the spring of 2011 there was an exhibit in the hallways and foyers about the first director of the New German Theater, Angelo Neumann, who ran the theater from 1888 until his death in 1910.
From 1911 to 1927 the director of the New German Theater (which at times seems to have been called the New German Opera) was the composer and conductor Alexander Zemlinsky (1871-1942). I have mentioned Zemlinsky in one of my Kaiserslautern posts because I saw his last opera Der König Kandaules there. He was one of the lost generation of opera composers whose works were banned by the Nazis as soon as they came to power in Germany in 1933. Zemlinsky died in poverty in New York in 1942, leaving Der König Kandaules not quite finished. It was not performed until 1996. I have seen it twice, in Cologne (with Nina Warren as the queen) and in Kaiserslautern. Also I saw two of Zemlinsky’s shorter operas when they were performed several years ago in Frankfurt am Main.
When the curtain went up on Verdi’s Aida, the entire cast and chorus were standing motionless on the stage of the State Opera. One of the singers had a microphone and made a long speech in Czech, of which I understood nothing, though I could well imagine what it was about. At the end she just said one sentence in English, welcoming us to the State Opera and saying we could find English and German translations of her speech in the lobbies at intermission if we were interested.
The translations confirmed what I had assumed, namely that they were protesting the plan of the Czech government to merge the two opera companies of the State Opera and the National Theater as a money-saving measure. Since the director of the State Opera had recently been fired, it was obvious that this merger would in effect be a takeover of the State Opera by the National Theater.
The performance of Verdi’s Aida was competent but rather routine, which was no wonder since it was the 238th performance of a very old production. (When older opera productions are revived year after year with numerous cast changes, the stage director’s original intentions tend to get a bit blurred, understandably.)
From left to right: mezzo-soprano Galla Ibragimova as Amneris, tenor Nikolaj Višňakov as Radames, soprano Anna Todorova as Aida, baritone Miguelangelo Cavalcanti as Amonasro.
My photos in this post are from 2011. I revised the text in 2021.