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.

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