In the entrance hall of the Amsterdam Opera House this statue of a violinist seems to be erupting through the floor from some forgotten world below the surface. My impression of this violinist is that he is dead (look at his hand) and that he is perhaps a Jewish violinist who was murdered by the Nazis. This would be apt because the opera house was built on the site of an old pre-war Jewish neighborhood.
The message of the sculpture might be: You have killed us but you can’t kill our music.
Unlike other European countries such as Italy, France and Germany, the Netherlands do not have a long opera tradition. Even neighboring Belgium, which owes its very existence as a country to the Opera House Revolution of 1830, has more of an opera tradition than the Netherlands.
Now, though, Amsterdam has an impressive new opera house which was built in 1986. Its official name is Het Muziektheater, meaning “The Music Theater”. The name is in the singular because it is the only real opera house in the whole country.
As I’m sure you remember from your high school geometry class, a regular polygon is a closed plane figure in which all sides and angles are equivalent. The more sides there are, the closer it resembles a circle.
The Amsterdam Opera House has the form of a regular polygon with I suppose about twenty sides, which would make it an icosagon. Actually they didn’t build all the sides, just the ones that are visible from the streets and canals. The circular or nearly circular form is continued inside the building. The lobbies are curved, the orchestra pit is curved, even the downstairs toilets are curved.
Although the official name of this opera house is Het Muziektheater, it is known locally as Stopera, which is a combination of the words Stadhuis (City Hall) and Opera. That’s because the City Hall is part of the same complex of buildings that were built all at the same time in 1986.
On the train from Frankfurt to Amsterdam I had a chat with two lovely young women who had just graduated from college in Florida. When I mentioned what I was planning on doing in Amsterdam one of them said: “I suppose you’ll be getting really dressed up for the opera?”
I had to disappoint her. “No, I’m just going to put on a tie, but otherwise I’ll wear what I’m wearing right now.” I was already wearing a clean shirt and a crumpled blue jacket, so with the addition of a tie I said I would be in the upper third of male opera goers. (Which turned out to be true.)
It is a common misconception that operas are terribly formal affairs, with tuxedos for the men and evening gowns for the women. This is no longer true in most places, though there might be exceptions in some parts of the world. One of the young women from Florida said: “My mother sometimes goes to the opera in Mobile, Alabama, and she really gets dressed up for that.”
Later out of curiosity I looked up the website of the Mobile Opera and discovered that they put on exactly four performances per year, of two different operas. They also used to do a “Teen Night Preview” of each opera (which I thought was a great idea), but this seems to have been discontinued. Under the heading “What should I wear?” the website says: “There is no dress code. Wear what you like. Most opera goers like to dress up, in business or evening attire.“ That’s all it says, but with this kind of schedule I could well imagine that each individual performance is a big occasion and that people would dress up accordingly. (If anyone from the Gulf Coast region happens to read this, I hope you’ll support the Mobile Opera and attend their performances — and let me know how it was.)
Be sure to arrive at the Amsterdam opera house well before show time so you can enjoy all the great views from the windows of the various lobbies. You can see canals, boats, bridges and fine old Amsterdam houses.
When I was there in May 2006 the Amsterdam Opera put on nine performances — all of the same opera. For comparison: in that same month the Frankfurt Opera put on eighteen performances of six different operas. The difference is because Amsterdam is on a strict stagione system, which means doing only one opera for several weeks, then scrapping it and doing another one. I’m sure this is cheaper than the modified repertory system in Frankfurt, but it would be highly unsatisfactory for someone like me. (So I’m not going to move to Amsterdam, okay?)
The opera I saw in Amsterdam — the only one they were playing that whole month — was Simon Boccanegra by Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901).
Although most of the Amsterdam opera productions get good reviews, this one didn’t, and after seeing it I’m afraid I have to agree with the reviewers that it was a somewhat lame effort. Which was not the fault of the singers, more of the conductor and the stage director. Too bad about that. I just happened to have picked the wrong month to visit Amsterdam, at least as far as the opera was concerned.
There were no Dutch names listed on the playbill, by the way. The conductor and the entire production team were Germans, and the singers were mainly Italians.
On my ticket it said: Het Muziektheater is een rookvrij theater. Which means: The Music Theater is a non-smoking theater.
During the intermission I took this photo of a young woman checking the text messages on her cellphone. The reason I took a picture of her is that she is sitting approximately at sea level, in fact if the water were to come rushing in she would probably have to move up one or two steps to avoid getting her feet wet.
My photos in this post are from 2006. I revised the text in 2017.
Next: Het Concertgebouw