PRAGUE — For most of the eight million tourists who visited Prague annually before the pandemic, opera wasn’t on their agenda. For opera fans, however, it was a different matter, as the city boasts three theaters that compete not only in terms of their historical and architectural significance but also their distinctive musical offerings.
Cracking the code to differentiate between the institution known as the National Theatre, or Národní Divadlo in Czech (the latter will be used in this article), and the three historical buildings in which it performs — Estates Theatre, State Opera, and National Theatre — is a bit tricky, as their names are so similar. If you delve into their history, it is equally challenging: The Estates Theatre and State Opera have gone by other names, some prompted by political and cultural shifts in the Czech lands, while others were imposed upon them by occupying forces. Only the name and the purpose of the National Theatre, dedicated to Czech music and drama, have remained the same for over 160 years.
A trip to Prague in early December 2021 afforded me the opportunity to attend performances of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte at the Estates Theatre and Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s Die sieben Todsünden at the newly renovated State Opera. I was also able to arrange private tours of the National Theatre’s three buildings conducted by Jiří Matějíček. For over four hours on three separate occasions, I had the opportunity to learn about the three theaters with a man who had been a part of their history for more than 65 years.
Now 75, Matějíček spoke of attending a performance at the Estates Theatre in 1956 as a boy. At the National Theatre, he pointed to the black-and-white photographs of Czech’s great playwrights, stage directors, and actors that hang on the staircase walls and said that he knew many of them. Although Matějíček’s heart lies in the theater, his knowledge of Czech composers and their music, as well as those who performed it, is equally encyclopedic.
German or Czech?
The lands that comprise the Czech Republic were historically known as the Kingdom of Bohemia. Established in the 12th century, the kingdom was an Imperial Estate in the Holy Roman Empire until the latter’s dissolution in 1806, when it became a part of the Hapsburg Austrian Empire and then the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The country of Czechoslovakia, formed in 1918 after World War I, remained a sovereign entity until the Czechs and Slovaks parted ways in 1993.
For centuries, there was a tug of war between the Czech and German languages in the Kingdom of Bohemia. In the 17th century, the Czech language almost disappeared, and the Czech people were forced to speak German. Intellectuals resisted the mandate at first, but eventually complied. German also became the language of the Czech theater.
By the mid-19th century, however, nationalistic impulses led to the desire to have a theater where opera and drama could be performed in Czech. Above the proscenium of the National Theatre in Prague, whose cornerstone was laid on May 16, 1868, are the words Národ sobě (A nation unto itself). The theater was to become a milestone in the creation of the Czech national cultural identity.
But as the 20th century opened, government officials and business leaders had adopted German and many spoke no Czech. Members of the Jewish elite were no different, with the industrialist Otto Petschek, one of the richest men in Prague and a benefactor of the New German Theatre (now the State Opera), speaking no Czech whatsoever, thus unable to communicate with the workers who toiled in his coal mines and chemical factories.
The Estates Theatre
What is now known as the Estates Theatre is famous above all for being the theater where Mozart’s Don Giovanni premiered in 1787. It is also one of the few surviving Neo-classical theaters in Europe, which in spite of significant alterations is still largely in its original state.
The theater, which was built by Antonin Count Nostitz Rieneck to culturally enhance the city of his birth, as well as to bring theater to the masses, was a product of the Enlightenment. These sentiments are reflected in the words inscribed above its entrance, Patriae et Musis (To the Native Land and the Muses). A century later, the National Theatre would be the fulfillment of his aspirations.
In 1783, the Estates Theatre opened with a performance of the tragedy Emilia Galotti by the German playwright Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, a writer, philosopher, dramatist and art critic who was the embodiment of the Enlightenment. Based on the Roman myth of Verginia, Emilia Galotti is a love story that Lessing cast as a political commentary on the virtues of the bourgeoisie as compared to those of an aristocracy intent on maintaining its ancient privileges. Small wonder that Le nozze di Figaro was such a hit when it was first performed in the same theater four years later, conducted by Mozart himself.
The original theater had an exceptionally deep stage that extended into an open space behind the building, upon which a large hall was later constructed. This grand space was utilized for a ball in 1791 to celebrate the coronation of Leopold II as Holy Roman Emperor. Mozart’s opera La clemenza di Tito, which was commissioned for the occasion, was given its premiere in the Estates Theatre. In the following century, this unique construction permitted spectacles such as live knights on horseback making dramatic entrances onto the stage.
In 1798, Nostitz’s theater was purchased by the Land Estates, in essence the Czech nobility, and acquired the name by which it is now known. A condition of the sales contract was that one balcony in the theater would remain in the ownership of the Nostitz family in perpetuity, which is the case to the present day. That, however, was not the last of the theater’s name changes.
After 1862, when the theater’s Czech performers joined the Provisional Theatre, which had been established in 1859 as the temporary home for Czech drama and opera, the Estates Theatre became the Deutches Landestheater, presenting only works in German. In 1920, the theater became a branch of the Národní Divadlo with the name Stavovské Divadlo. During the Nazi occupation from 1939 to 1945, performances were presented in German in what was then known as the Ständetheater.
After the war, it once again became the Stavovské Divadlo until 1949, when it was renamed the Tylovo Divadlo in honor of Josef Kajetán Tyl, a Czech dramatist, writer, and actor, who is best known as the author of the Czech Republic’s national anthem, “Kde domov můj” (Where My Home Is). After the renovations of 1989, its name reverted to the Estates Theatre.
Over the past two centuries, the extensive renovations to the theater have been sensitive to Anton Haffenecker’s original Neo-classical design. In 1859, the main facade was divided into two stories and a second gallery was added to increase seating capacity. Catastrophic fires in other major European theaters led to further renovations in 1882 to create emergency exits. Metal staircases on the outside of the theater, which are still there today, were the solution.
After the opening of the New German Theatre in 1888, the Estates Theatre fell into disrepair. It fared little better when it was taken over by the Národní Divadlo in 1920, and there were calls for its demolition. In 1925, however, the interior of the theater underwent an extensive renovation. The last major work on the theater took place from 1983 to 1991.
At that time, it was discovered that the building rested on pilings only a meter or so deep. A new foundation was dug with underground space for a lounge and coatcheck. The interior was also returned to its original state with the light-blue decor replacing the red that had been introduced in the 19th century. With the theater not in use during the renovations, Miloš Forman was granted permission to film Amadeus there. The movie’s plot may have been fabricated, but the theater scenes are as authentic as they can get.
With seating for 659 people, the Estates Theatre is now used for presenting the operas of Mozart and other works from the 18th and early 19th centuries, as well as ballet and plays.
The Deutscher Theaterverein was founded in 1883 to raise funds for a new theater as a direct response to the construction of the National Theatre, and it took little time to realize the association’s aims. Prague’s German-speaking community was not only motivated by nationalist one-upsmanship, but also practical considerations. The Estates Theatre was outdated and too small to meet the ever-increasing state requirements of late 19th-century operas, not to mention the works of Wagner. Upon its completion, the New German Theatre had the largest stage and greatest seating capacity (1,041) of all of the Prague theaters, which is still the case today.
With its choice of designers, the Viennese architects Ferdinand Fellner and Hermann Helmer, the Deutscher Theaterverein ensured that the new opera house adhered to the then prevailing taste in theater design. By 1883, Fellner and Helmer had designed opera houses in Vienna, Budapest, Brno, and other cities in Central and Eastern Europe. The firm would go on to design 48 theaters in total, out of which 30 were in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Their Prague theater is a Neo-Renaissance building, although Fellner and Helmer also worked in the Neo-Baroque and Art Nouveau styles. The final design was entrusted to Prague architect Alfons Wertmüller and construction was completed in 20 months.
The first opera performed in the new theater was Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg on Jan. 5, 1888. The artistic success of the theater in its early years was due to its first director, Angelo Neumann, who had performed as a baritone prior to changing careers. He was intent on hiring Anton Seidl as the theater’s first music director but feared the high-profile maestro would soon be lured to the United States, which indeed was the case.
Newmann, however, had hedged his bets with Gustav Mahler, who spent the 1885-1886 season at the Estates Theatre but left before construction began on the New German Theater. Mahler would return in 1888 to conduct his completed version of Carl Maria von Weber’s unfinished opera Die drei Pintos on a gala occasion marking the birthday of Emperor Franz Joseph I.
During the Second World War, the Nazis renamed the theater the Deutsches Opernhaus and used it for political rallies. From 1949 to 1989, it was called the Smetana Theatre, after which it was rechristened the State Opera.
The State Theater underwent a three-year renovation from 2016 to 2019. The auditorium and foyers were restored to their Neo-Rococo splendor according to the original designs. State-of-the-art technology was installed throughout the building, incluing more than 1,000 touchscreens that contain program details and subtitles in multiple languages. Installation of a new air conditioning system necessitated that an extra story be added to the building. Originally budgeted at $40 million, the final cost rose to over $58 million in 2016 dollars.
On Jan. 5, 2020, music director Karl-Heinz Steffens conducted a gala concert to celebrate the reopening of the State Opera on the 200th anniversary of the first performance in the theater. It is now primarily used for performances of grand operas from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Dedication ceremonies for the National Theatre lasted three days and were attended by more than 150,000 people. The main event was the placement of the theater’s foundation stone on May 16, 1868. On the same day, Smetana’s opera Dalibor, with the composer conducting, was premiered at the New Town Theatre, which was on the site of the current State Opera.
The foundation stone was formed from a large granite block from a quarry in Louňovice, near Mukařov in Central Bohemia. Originally, only two stones from historically important places in the Czech lands were to be embedded in the foundation stone: one from Radhošť in Moravia, which is associated with the god Radegast of Slavic mythology, and the other from Říp in Central Bohemia, where according to legend the first Czechs settled. Eventually, over 40 other towns and cities from across Moravia and Bohemia sent stones to be set in the foundation of the building.
Joseph Zítek created a storage space in the foundation stone that contains two metal boxes. In one is the theater’s foundation document and in the other coins; stones from the prison where Jan Hus, the leader of the Bohemian Reformation in the 15th century, was held; and other artifacts.
The theater was designed by Zítek and took more than 13 years to complete. The opening celebrations on June 11, 1881, were hastily rescheduled to coincide with a visit of Rudolf, Crown Prince of Austria and heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and his new bride, Princess Stéphanie of Belgium. In the end, the prince made only a brief appearance without his wife, and neither attended the premiere of Smetana’s opera Libuše, based on the mythical tale of the founding of Prague. Three months later, the theater was destroyed by fire.
The National Theatre’s construction had been partly funded by money raised from public appeals. After the fire, the Czechs again responded with overwhelming generosity, and the theater was rebuilt in two years. The reconstruction was entrusted to Josef Schulz, who was a pupil of Zítek. (They would later collaborate on the Rudolfinum, which is the home of the Czech Philharmonic.) It was a time when new technologies were being developed at a rapid pace; the rebuilt theater would have better ventilation and be lit by electricity instead of gas.
The Neo-Renaissance National Theatre is situated on the bank of the Vltava River (Moldau) on a trapezoidal plot of land affording panoramic views of Prague Castle from its terraces. Architectural sleights of hand are readily visible in the building’s ceilings and elsewhere that disguise the irregularity of the site. It stands on ground where the Provisional Theatre stood, and that building was incorporated into the fabric of the existing theater. It is a pantheon to Czech singers, conductors, and other people important to the theater’s history: Their busts are everywhere throughout the theater.
The interiors of the Estates Theater and State Opera are lavishly decorated with gold, as is the National Theatre. But only in the National Theatre is it real gold, although only in places out of the public’s reach. Elsewhere, as in the other two theaters, Dutch gold, an alloy of copper and zinc in the form of thin sheets, was used. Introduced in Germany in the late 19th century, Dutch gold was frequently substituted for real gold leaf. It is not suitable for use outdoors, so the gilded roof which crowns the National Theatre is covered in real gold.