Why cities fell in love with opera

There are more opera houses being built now than at any time since the late 19th century. Adrian Mourby explains why

Last October, Singapore unveiled the world's newest new opera house, on its Esplanade waterfront. Yuxi in China follows suit this year, as will Valencia in Spain, Apeldoorn in the Netherlands, and Paducah in Kentucky. Never has there been such a period for opera-house building. At the moment, Copenhagen, Oslo, Seattle and Toronto all have new houses under construction; St Petersburg and Dublin are both currently drawing up plans; while Dallas has recently announced its intention to have a new opera house by Norman Foster in 2008. Even Cardiff, which in 1995 famously rejected Zaha Hadid's "crystal necklace" opera house in favour of a new rugby stadium, has begun building a new lyric theatre.

The last time that Europe saw such an expansion was in the latter half of the 19th century, when, according to the historian Eric Hobsbawm, "the great collective status symbols of theatre and opera arose in the centres of capital cities – the focus of town-planning as in Paris (1860) and Vienna (1869), visible as cathedrals in Dresden (1869), invariably gigantic and monumentally elaborate as in Barcelona (from 1862) or Palermo (from 1875)".

A century before, opera houses in the time of Mozart, Gluck and Haydn had been very different, either places of low entertainment or an extension of the court. It wasn't until the great ethnic upheavals of the 19th century that the opera house emerged as national status symbol. In 1871, Budapest's Magyar Allami Operahaz was constructed exclusively by Hungarian craftsmen, while in 1876, work on Prague's Narodni Divadlo was funded entirely by members of the public who shared a desire to see Smetana performed within a wholly Czech context. Their intentions were obvious. Neither people had yet gained independence but both were advertising their credentials for nationhood.

In the 20th century, much opera- house building went into reconstruction, with Cologne, Dresden, Berlin, Vienna and Milan all having to repair the ravages of war, but newly conceived houses did begin to emerge in the second half, most notably Sydney, which stunned the world in 1973 with Jorn Utzon's five revolutionary arches. What has happened since, however, has been even more extraordinary, as city after city has lined up to create new homes for an artform once thought passé. Within five years, Paris opened its Bastille (1989), Athens unveiled its Megaron (1991), Glyndebourne was rebuilt (1992), and Helsinki finally moved opera out of the old Russian garrison theatre and into a distinctly Finnish home (1993). This growth is unprecedented. Moreover, it's now a worldwide phenomenon, reaching the Middle East, the Far East and Africa.

With the increasing popularity of opera as both art form and international consumer product, opera houses have become prestige projects that lend status to the places in which they are built. Whereas once, the opera house represented nationhood, now, its role seems to be to dignify the city that builds it. This has meant that it has acquired a very political profile. Decisions about the location of such an important building frequently result in battles between producers who wish to be where the audience is, and politicians who believe that it should spearhead urban renewal. In Oslo, in the 1990s, the battle raged long and hard before it was conceded that Norwegian Opera's new home would become the focal point of dockland regeneration. The same thing has happened in Cardiff and Goteborg.

Inevitably, this important role as civic statement has influenced its design. Gone is the 19th-century concept of palatial houses, as is the 20th-century's brutalism. Opera houses these days tend to blend in with their locale, as psychological accessibility becomes as important as disabled access. Craig Dykers, who designed Oslo's new house, believes that an element of circumspection has also arisen, as a result of opera's self-protective desire to accommodate the non-opera-going public. "Administrators today place strong emphasis on shops and restaurants to lure the public. People may well visit the site of the opera with no intention of attending the opera."

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