My first visit to Prague was on the 10,959th day of my life, or so I used to think. Actually it was only the 10,958th day, as I have since determined by a simple calculation in Excel, but at that time Excel had not yet been invented, so I tried to figure it out by counting days in old calendars, taking leap years into account, etc.
In any case, I later described this day in a story that was published in a small magazine called The Remington Review. You can find this story here in a separate post in case you would like to have a look.
15,126 days later I returned to Prague and everything was different. The sun was shining, the Soviet Union had ceased to exist, digital photography had been invented, Czechoslovakia had broken up peacefully into two countries and I did not have the runs. I took some pictures of the State Opera on the way from the station to my hotel.
Besides the State Opera, where I saw Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida the next night, there are two other opera houses in Prague: the National Theater and the Estates Theater.
The National Theater (Národní divadlo)
The National Theater has a great location right on the Vltava (Moldau) River in the center of Prague at the end of the Legií most (Legion Bridge), just one bridge upstream from the Charles Bridge.
This theater was called the National Theater even before there was a nation to go with it. It was built in the 19th century, when this part of the world belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and was intended from the start to be “the embodiment of the will of the Czech nation for its national identity and independence,” as the theater’s website still proclaims. Above all, this National (Czech) Theater was intended to be grander and more resplendent and more modern than the older German theater (now the Estates Theater), which had been built a century earlier.
The reason it looks so much lighter in the photo is that the older not-yet-cleaned parts are hidden. (Also the evening sunlight brightens it up a bit.)
Eleven days after its inauguration in 1881, the National Theater caught fire and was badly damaged, so it was completely re-built (and enlarged) over the next two years and was re-inaugurated in 1883.
When the enlarged National Theater was re-opened in 1883, it had the most advanced technical equipment of the time, including electric illumination and a steel-frame stage. It was used without any extensive modifications for nearly a century. The next and so far only major overhaul finally took place from 1977 to 1983.
The frieze above the proscenium arch displays the slogan Narod sobe, meaning “Nation unto itself”, which I assume expressed the desire of the Czechs to have an independent state, instead of being part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
The opera I saw at the National Theater in Prague was none other than Nápoj lásky by Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848), sung in the original Italian with Czech and English surtitles. This is a comic opera, better known in Italian as L’elisir d’amore and in English as The elixir of love, which I have seen numerous times over the past few years in Frankfurt am Main, Vienna, Darmstadt, Gießen, Halle, Heidelberg and Paris — and now in Prague. The word Láska means love in Czech, as I knew because it is painted in large red letters on Prague’s John Lennon Wall. (Láska means “love” and lásky means “of love”.)
Nemorino in this opera is a guy who does everything wrong but gets the girl anyway, which is more or less the story of my life up to now, so I decided that his name would be an appropriate member-name for me while I was active on the now-defunct website VirtualTourist.
An original twist in the Prague production was that the stage director Simone Sandroni introduced a male dancer as the assistant and sidekick of the quack doctor Dulcamara. In the first act there is a fast and funny monologue in which Dulcamara gives a sales pitch to the gullible villagers, praising his wonderful elixir and listing all the ailments he says it will cure — and his sidekick illustrates this by dancing all the ailments that Dulcamara mentions, such as apoplexy, asthma, asphyxia, hysteria, diabetes, earache, scrofula, rickets and liver disease.
From left to right: dancer Zdenek Horváth, tenor Aleš Briscein as Nemorino, conductor David Švec, soprano Kateřina Kněžíková as Adina, bass Roman Astakhov as Dulcamara, baritone Svatopluk Sem as Belcore and soprano Alžběta Poláčková as Giannetta.
Here is the opera’s poster advertising Nápoj lásky, with Kateřina Kněžíková on the motor scooter and Aleš Briscein behind her.
Aleš Briscein has recently sung several times at the Frankfurt Opera in a Czech-language production of The Makropulos Case by Leoš Janáček (1854-1928).
State Opera (Státní Opera Praha)
The State Opera in Prague 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 von Zemlinsky (1871-1942). I have mentioned Zemlinsky in my Kaiserslautern post 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.
The Estates Theater
This is an historic theater that was inaugurated in 1783 with a performance of the play Emilia Galotti (in German) by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729–1781).
But the truly historic thing happened here just five years later in 1787 when the world’s greatest composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) conducted the world premiere of his opera Don Giovanni. Thousands of books have been written about this event, including a recent novel by the German author Hanns-Josef Ortheil, who makes it sound really turbulent. In Ortheil’s version, the premiere threatened to be a flop because Mozart’s librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte, insisted on portraying Don Giovanni (Don Juan) as a violent rapist rather than a suave seducer. Enter the good guy, Giacomo Casanova, Europe’s best-known suave seducer of the eighteenth century, who re-wrote the libretto and helped Mozart’s opera to be a great success, which it has remained to this day.
Most of this is just Ortheil’s imagination, but there is some basis in fact. Casanova really was in Prague at the time, and some of the corrections in the original opera score are in his handwriting. But not all scholars agree that his changes improved the libretto, particularly. Lorenzo da Ponte also wrote the texts for two other Mozart operas, The Marriage of Figaro and Così fan tutte, both of which were (and still are) hugely successful without any help from Casanova.
When I was in Prague in 2011 there were unfortunately no operas playing at the Estates Theater, so I didn’t get to see the inside. They were advertising a new production of Mozart’s Abduction from the Serail, but the premiere was scheduled for Května, which turns out to mean May, and I was there in Duben (April), so I had no chance.
The Abduction from the Serail (Únos ze Serailu in Czech, Die Entführung aus dem Serail in the original German) is Mozart’s fourteenth opera, composed in 1782 when he was 26 years old. We had a great production of it in Frankfurt recently, staged by Christoph Loy.
Vinohrady Theatre (Divadlo na Vinohradech)
If only I understood a bit of Czech, I would have gone to a play at this lovely old theater which was just a couple blocks from my hotel in the Prague district of Vinohradech. I would love to have seen their staging of Friedrich Schiller’s play Marie Stuartovna (Mary Stuart), which was the inspiration for Donizetti’s fabulous Italian opera Maria Stuarda. The play and the opera both tell the story of Mary Queen of Scots and what might have happened if she had ever met her cousin, Queen Elisabeth the First of England, which in real life she never did.
When I was in Prague in the spring of 2011 the theaters were prominently displaying this poster urging people to “dress appropriately for the theatre”. I thought this was a funny poster because the young man seems to be wearing his confirmation suit that is a size too big for him, whereas the young lady is proudly wearing a funky retro dress that she seems to have found in a second hand shop. Later I was told that these are the latest fashions from one of the expensive up-market clothing shops on the Paris Street (Pařížská) in the center of Prague. (Perhaps somebody from Prague can tell me if this is true?)
In any case, I can’t recall seeing anybody dressed like this at either of the opera performances I attended in Prague. Most people were neatly but casually dressed — neither excessively formal nor blatantly sloppy. And they were certainly not all wearing the latest fashions from Paris Street.
The moral of this for tourists is that you can still go to the opera even if you don’t have any fancy clothes with you. You don’t have to dress up like a penguin to go to the opera, not even in Prague.
My photos in this post are from 2011. I revised the text in 2017.