Opera’s Second Coming

Adrian Mourby welcomes a new wave of opera houses around the world, and compares this with the previous surge in the late 19th century.

This month sees the opening of the £106 million Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff, the latest in a wave of new opera houses being built for the twenty-first century. In 2002 Singapore unveiled ‘The Durian’, its spiky music theatre on the river esplanade. In 2003 Tenerife inaugurated Santiago Calatrava’s white-winged ‘Auditorio’ and in January 2005 Copenhagen will formally open Henning Larsen’s new opera house, to be named after Queen Margarita. Meanwhile building work on further opera houses is steaming ahead in Toronto and in Oslo.

Already on the drawing-board are two iconic buildings for Russia and the USA. Dallas has a new opera house in the pipeline from Sir Norman Foster and St Petersburg a second Marinsky Theatre in the shape of a huge golden sack on the banks of the Neva, by the architect Dominique Perrault.

The last time Europe’s opera establishments built on such a grand scale was during the fifty golden years 1841-91, which saw the completion of most of the great theatres that opera-goers admire today: Dresden, the Liceu, Teatro Real, the twin Staatsopers in Berlin and Vienna, the Garniers in Paris and Monte Carlo, Hungarian State Opera, the Grand in Geneva, the National in Prague, Zurich’s Opernhaus and Wagner’s idiosyncratic Festspielhaus in Bavaria.

For many modern cities, opera houses have become the new cathedrals. Whereas the crowning glory of a city or state in medieval times would have been its religious buildings – and, in later years, its grand railway station or hubristic high-rise office block – the opera house, in the last decades of the twentieth century, became the new status symbol that every ambitious city wanted. Ever since Sydney proved that a modern opera houses could be sexy, city planners have exploited their potential for eye-catching extravagance.

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