Inventing the Opera House

inventingtheoperahouseInventing the Opera House: Theatre Architecture in Renaissance and Baroque Italy by Eugene J. Johnson is a scholarly but readable account of the prehistory and early history of the form we know today as an “opera house”.  It’s fair to say that the road to the horseshoe shaped auditorium with ground floor seating and tiers of boxes looking over an orchestra pit to a deep stage was far from straightforward, perhaps even tortuous, and Professor Johnson lays out that journey in some detail.

Johnson begins around 1480 in the ducal courts of Northern Italy.  At this point no purpose built theatre had existed since classical antiquity.  Despite that, princes competed in the magnificence of the “spectacles” they put on for events such as dynastic marriages (partly driven by the fact that many of the houses; Medici for example, were trying to obscure their rather recent origins by leveraging their great wealth into marriages with more distinguished lineages).  It was also, of course, a period of revived interest in all things Greek and Roman, including the theatre, and there was prestige in putting on a Roman, or Roman derived, comedy for example.  But how to stage it?  The theatres of antiquity had been open air structures built on a semi circular plan but 15th century Italian architecture was rectilinear and the preferred time of year for festivities, winter, precluded an open air setting.

At first this was overcome by using some conveniently available hall or portico with a straightforward pattern of benches facing the stage, usually with some sort of platform or dais for the most important guests supplemented by risers at right angles to the stage along the long walls of a rectangular room.  This arrangement had the advantage that seating could be arranged by status and gender but at the price of poor sight-lines for many even where a shallow stage was used.  As stage effects became more elaborate, and required more extensive stage machinery, stages deepened compounding the sight-line issue.

An attempt to move to a more classical model was tried, perhaps unsurprisingly, by Palladini.  He reverted to a semi-circle of risers facing the stage though with the ends of the horseshoe turned out parallel to the stage like the letter omega.  This didn’t catch on and it’s fair to say that all through the 16th century no really satisfactory solution emerged.  Also, it was complicated by a taste for “tourney theatre” where stage action was interleaved with mock combats on an open area in front of the stage.

There was also a problem with musicians (isn’t there always?).  There was no pit and so instrumentalists either had to be in a gallery somewhere or hidden behind scenery.  None of this exactly helped co-ordination between singers and the orchestra.

The solution emerged in Venice in the early 17th century when the theatres were reopened after a lengthy closure for moral reasons (the previous ones must have been quite something to get banned in Venice).  A combination of practical issues drove the design decisions.  The principle one was that theatre, which increasingly meant opera, in Venice was a commercial affair rather than something a prince put on for guests.  Thus a means of maximising the “take” had to be manufactured and that was the “box”; an enclosed space of six or so seats that could be rented by the wealthy.  Competition for the best boxes was fierce sharply driving up prices to the point where boxes cost ten or more times the cost of the same number of seats on the plateau.  To create the maximum number of boxes tiers of them were stacked on top of each other just like, say, La Scala, today.  The pit came about largely as a means of protecting the musicians from the often unruly audience.  It allowed for a moat between the pit and the plateau and coincidentally provided the obvious coordination benefits.

Another interesting thing that Professor Johnson deals with, largely in passing, was that these early theatres were essentially temporary wooden structures with no external pretensions.  They burned down easily or could be demolished and the parts reused.  Even the only theatre of the period that has survived; the Teatro Farnese in Pesaro, was little used (maybe seven or eight times between it’s building and 1900).  Maybe that’s why it didn’t burn down.  The idea of an opera house with a magnificent external appearance comes much later.  There were no Sydney Opera Houses or Palau de les Arts Reina Sofias in this period.  The Four Seasons Centre might not have seemed out of place though.

Professor Johnson tells the story with considerable thoroughness.  Dimensions and seating plans, where known, are given and the changing political context is dealt with well.  Illustrations are high quality and generous (almost 200) though there are, perhaps inevitably, major gaps in the record.  Where accurate data is missing Professor Johnson makes very reasonable speculations.  I’m not sure that 200+ pages of analysis of the couple or three dozen theatres of this period is for every opera lover but it’s hard to imagine anyone doing a more thorough job or managing to be more engaging about often rather dry detail.  So, recommended for the curious.

Inventing the Opera House is published by Cambridge University Press.


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