The State Opera in Prague

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.

Cars speeding past the opera house

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 State Opera dwarfed by newer buildings

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.

  1. Inside the State Opera

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.

Seating in the State Opera

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.)

Bows after Verdi’s Aida

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.

See more posts on Prague, Czechia (Czech Republic).
See more posts on the composer Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901).

17 thoughts on “The State Opera in Prague”

  1. One of these days I may have to break down and see a real opera (unless you count the dress rehearsal performance I saw at the Kennedy Center, thanks to Free Resident’s day full dress but not full voice admissions!)

    1. Great that you at least saw a dress rehearsal in Washington. Which opera was it?
      The San Diego Opera had a financial (and leadership) crisis several years ago, but now they seem to be holding on despite the pandemic. I was excited to see that Michelle Bradley debuted in 2019 in San Diego in the title role of Verdi’s Aida. Michelle also had an important debut in Frankfurt that year, and while she was here she came as a featured guest to my course Frankfurt OperaTalk.

      1. Sorry, I don’t even recall which opera it was! I was so overwhelmed to finally get to go inside the K. center, and I couldn’t see the stage very well, so since they were not in full voice, I basically looked around the whole time and sat being grateful to be there, but not seeing much of the opera! LOL!

      2. Do I remember Marian Anderson talking about how people said that she could play the role of Aida, since she had such a wide range, despite being a Contralto rather than a soprano?

        1. I don’t remember that, but I have read that Marian Anderson was offered the role of Aida by the New York Metropolitan Opera, but she turned it down because she did not want her Met debut to be in a racially stereotyped role.

  2. I’ve not been to Prague – I’m hoping to get there maybe next year.
    Can you get from the parking garage to the opera house? That would make up a little for the crowding of the building

    1. Yes, there is a huge parking garage next door to the State Opera, on the same side of the street, so I’m sure it would be no problem to get there. (I’ve walked from the train station past the parking garage to the opera a few times.)

  3. That’s the theatre we went to! I remembered it once I saw your photos. We had seats in the stalls and could not believe how cheap they were. I seem to recall we saw a production of the Magic Flute, but I could be wrong about that. It was over 20 years ago. I really would like to revisit Prague because I was ill on that occasion.

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