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( Originally Published Early 1900's )
ARCHITECTURALLY speaking, Covent Garden Theater, the leading English opera house, is not one of the sights of London. Hidden away somewhat ignominiously in a side street, it has little appearance, in spite of its size, and by no means forms so conspicuous a feature in the way of public building as do the majority of the houses in European capitals.
Covent Garden Theater is situated on Bow Street, where the first building was opened in 1732. Several structures on the site were destroyed by fire. The present building was opened in 1858. Many musical productions, including operas, had been given earlier at Covent Garden, but it was not till 1846 that the theater was converted specially into an opera house. Here Mario, Grisi, Alboni, Tamburini, and many other renowned artists have sung. At Covent Garden Adelina Patti made her first appearance be-fore a European audience. English as well as foreign opera has at times flourished at this famous house. Under the management of the Royal Opera Syndicate it still maintains its rank as one of the world's great musical houses—this in spite of the fact that it is "nothing but an ordinary theater," and is not, like the opera, houses of the Continent, practically sacred to the performance of opera. At Covent Garden, besides opera are given musical festivals, promenade concerts, fancy dress balls, etc. Only at certain seasons of the year is the theater exclusively devoted to opera. The Royal Opera Syndicate runs a season of grand opera from the end of April to the end of July, performances being given nightly.
Turning to the opera houses of the European continent, we at once think of the famous La Scala theater at Milan. This house has a seating capacityfor 3600 persons. Apart from its size, there is the musical and artistic interest which this house derives from the production of many works here for the first time. Since its opening date, August 3, 1778, hundreds of operas have been staged, and the triumphs of Rossini, Meyerbeer, Bellini, Donizetti, and Verdi have been witnessed. It is enough to state that such works as Rossini's "La Gazza ladra," Bellini's "Norma," Donizetti's "Lucrezia Borgia," Verdi's "I Lombardi," Boito's "Mefistofele," and Ponchielli's "La Gioconda" first saw the light of day in La Scala to establish for it a claim to notice on the part of operagoers. Some time ago the municipal grant toward the expenses of the establishment was close upon $50,000, but since 1902 the annual subsidy has been reduced.
Even older than La Scala, as it dates originally from 1737, is its Neapolitan rival San Carlo. The new house, built after a fire in 1816, is of great size, and at one time vied with La Scala in the importance of new works produced; but less financial support has been forthcoming from Naples than is the case at Milan, and although an annual grant of some $16,000 is given by the municipality, the San Carlo productions, while of very high rank, are perhaps hardly on a level with those at La Scala. But San Carlo has had its triumphs, and has seen the first production of Rossini's "Mose in Egitto," "Zelmira," and other works, and of Donizetti's "Lucia di Lammermoor," besides numbers of other operas of less fame.
Although Venice looms large in the history of music, and its doings in opera have been very considerable, there appears to be no theater solely de-voted to this class of work, nor is there any regular grant. The Fenice Theater has figured largely in Venetian operatic history. It is interesting to remember that Rossini's "Semiramide" and "Tancredi" were both first performed at that house.
Rome in older days had pride , of place among opera houses, and Hadow speaks of it as being at one time the highest school in which a musician could graduate. Here was produced Rossini's "Il Barbiere" and many another famous work. To-day opera at Rome, if indeed it is on an equal level, hardly seems to be of higher importance than that in other Italian cities. It has no subsidy at the present time, and has to depend on its own resources for its maintenance.
The French opera house is one of the most imposing sights of Paris ; well situated and finely conceived, it is a worthy home for that art product for which it is intended. The history of French opera from the earliest recorded performances of the sixteenth century is, of course, very extensive. As long ago as 1672 the name of Lulli made Parisian opera famous, and although for a time its home was transferred to the Palais Royal, the site has borne testimony to many a fine building, the present one, inscribed Academie Nationale de Musique, dating from 1874 (commenced in 1861). Although its seating capacity of 2156 is much less than that of La Scala, it is the largest house in the world, and covers almost three acres of ground.
Besides Lulli, the names of Rameau, Glick, Cherubini, Spontini, Herold, Auber, Meyerbeer, and Berlioz are all indissolubly connected with the opera of Paris. There is no house in all musical history that can claim so great a measure of variety and incident, nor make such interesting reading, as that of the Academic de Musique. Its fortunes have fluctuated, but it has done wonderful work, and a mere recapitulation of names of fine operas which had their original production here would be far too long for quotation. The glory of Parisian grand opera has always held a spell over the nations, and has been a thing apart from all else in music. We know something of the hold of the Academie upon Wagner, and if there is to-day somewhat less of a glamour cast by it than in the days when Lulli held despotic sway. or Spontini or Meyerbeer dominated all, there is still a charm and delight to be found within its walls, which are difficult to equal in houses where the traditional uses are less sacredly adhered to.
The French are very jealous of its traditions, and although modern times have not allowed the directors to fall behind in their efforts to keep pace with the strides operatic music has made tinder Wagner's influence, it is only quite recently that the works of the composer have been welcomed in Paris. Popular feeling, partly on patriotic grounds, for long kept his operas in the background. Parisians would have none of them. The result has been, perhaps, even more rigidly to preserve those customs of grand opera, such as the inclusion of a ballet, which are among its most distinctive features.
Touching upon the question of finance, we find that the French Government allows the very large subsidy of $160,000 per annum toward the expenses of grand opera; in return, however, opera is supposed to be staged three or four times during the week. The prices of admission are not high, ranging from 17 francs to 2 francs. France loves its opera, and does not hesitate to lay out good round sums for its sup-port ; nor are its people behindhand in their attendance ; a crowded house is the rule rather than the exception, appreciation, while critical, being still keen.
Comparing not unfavorably in dignity of conception and splendor of adornment with the French house is the Imperial Opera of Vienna, an ornament in that encircling ring of fine buildings which is so distinctive a feature of the Austrian capital. Vienna has been the home of so many of the giants of music that it is not surprising that it should have witnessed the first production of many a work now world-famous : Gluck's "Orfeo," Mozart's "Figaro," "Cosi fan tithe." and "Zauberflote," Beethoven's "Fidelio." These alone would suffice to cause Vienna to stand high in musical fame. Not that the present opera house witnessed their production, for the building which to-day stands as an abode of opera dates from a more recent time ; the cost of its erection was more than $2,500,000. Belonging to the state, its affairs are administered by the Lord Chamberlain's department, any deficit being made good from the Emperor's civil list.
The Royal Opera House at Budapest, Hungary, receives from the state a large subsidy, a specific sum for salaries, and a liberal grant from the Emperor.
Reference must also be made to Prague, famous for the production of Mozart's "Don Giovanni" in 1787. More recently Prague has been the home of works of the Bohemian school, as exemplified by Smetana, Dvorak, Fibich, and others. Smetana's "Bartered Bride" was staged at Prague in 1866, and from that date to the time of the appearance of Dvorak's "Armida," in 1904, the National Theater has witnessed a constant succession of works of a characteristically national tone which make an unfailing appeal to the Czechs. The Czech theater has a state grant.
The Berlin Opera House also has claims to notice, for was not Weber's "Der Freischutz" mounted here for the first time? Moreover, Berlin being the capital of Germany, the house is the scene of many fine state performances much patronized by royalty. The building itself, although standing well in the fine "Linden" promenade, will not compare with Paris or Vienna from an architectural point of view. The Opera House and Playhouse of Berlin together receive annually $270,000 toward their working expenses.
Leipzig and Dresden have fine theaters. The Dresden Court Theater, used as an opera house,. is specially famous for its associations with Weber and Wagner. It is a fine building, magnificently situated in an imposing position, and having considerable architectural pretensions. The King of Saxony pays about $155.000 for the opera, theater, and orchestra, and also makes good any deficit that arises. At this theater Richard Strauss has produced his "Salome" and "Elektra."
Munich has of late come to the front in operatic matters; the Court Theater, administered from the civil list, has long devoted much attention to opera, but interest is now centered somewhat on the new Prince Regent Theater, where an attempt is being made to outvie Bayreuth itself in the Wagner productions. Nor have the performances been confined to Wagner. for Mozart's operas have been interspersed with his. It is as yet too early to say what influence, if any, the new Munich house will have on the fortunes of Bayreuth, but it seems probable that a theater even better fitted up than Bayreuth itself for Wagnerian performances, and in a locality so much more central and easily reached, may in the near future materially affect the fortunes of the older house.
Almost every German town of any size has its opera house, and detailed description of all is manifestly impossible, notwithstanding that much interest attaches to some of them. We must therefore conclude our account of the German theaters with a short description of that built by Wagner at Bayreuth according to his own ideas of what such a house should be.
There is little doubt that at the present time the Bayreuth Opera House is the most famous in the world. Worship of Wagner is still widespread, the halo surrounding his name and his home casts a glow upon the little town which he selected as the scene of his final labors, and from all parts of the world, when the Bayreuth theater opens its doors, pilgrim-ages are made and devotees flock with an intense enthusiasm which has no parallel. To the true Wagnerian, Bayreuth is a sacred spot inspiring a reverence quite distinct from that felt for any other.
It was in May, 1872, that the foundation-stone was laid, and the completion of the building, delayed by lack of funds, took place in 1876, when "The Ring" was performed. Since then performances have taken place on a grand scale at intervals of a year or two years in the summer. A feature in the construction was that an equally good view should be obtained from every point of view. This was done by raising every seat a little above the one immediately in front of it, and by putting each spectator where he could see between the heads of the two persons before him. Another feature was the submerged orchestra—i.e., below the level of the floor of the house. Even the conductor, although he has the stage in view, cannot be seen by the audience, and part of the orchestra (the brass) is actually under the stage—an experiment which seemed doubtful at first, but which has on the whole proved successful. The machinery and scenery were as good as could possibly be obtained, and the management still keeps up to date in thisrespect. Although open to competition both from New York and from Munich. Bayreuth seems likely to hold its own for some years to come, whenever it may choose to open its doors.
In Russia, and more especially at St. Petersburg and Moscow, theatrical attendance is looked upon as an educational matter, and therefore it is possible to see opera for a very small sum. Of course this means large imperial help. The two cities have fine houses, with interest for us in that they have witnessed the production of most of the operas of the young Russian school. The ballet is much beloved in Russia, and forms one of the regular objects of representation.
Space forbids us to go into detail as to the opera houses of Sweden ( Royal Theater of Stockholm), Norway (National Theater, Christiania), Spain. Holland, Belgium ( Brussels, Theatre de la Monnaie), Denmark ( Copenhagen, Royal Theater), or Portugal. San Carlos, at Lisbon, is, however, of special interest in being one of the oldest houses of its kind, having been erected in 1793.
Egypt has opera houses at Cairo and Alexandria. That at Cairo saw the production of Verdi's "Aida" in 1871.
In New York, the Metropolitan Opera House witnesses magnificent performances, and commands the best and most expensive talent in the world. It was opened October 22. 1883. its stage is one of the largest in the country and the house has a seating capacity of 3700. That of the Manhattan. now given up to lighter productions, is 3000. (For many particulars relating to the opera houses in New York and other cities of the United States the reader is referred to the section on "Music in America," Chap-ter II.)
A few words should be added here concerning the Boston Opera House, in some respects the finest in America. It was inaugurated under the brightest auspices for art in the musical city which it adorns. It was brilliantly opened on November 8, 1909, with a performance of Ponchielli's "La Gioconda." The house has a seating capacity of 2750, and all its appointments are admirably suited to their purposes. The stage has been said by experts to have no equal in this country. It is 90 feet high. 70 feet deep, and 15o feet wide. It is divided into numerous platforms which can be raised or lowered by ingenious machinery to suit the requirements of any performance.