Europe's grand theatres are places of majesty and great history, grace and elegance.
Spinning through the air with an ease and artistry which is truly beguiling, the group of ballet dancers are not disturbed by our presence. As their intense practice session reminds me of my absence of physical grace, the ballerinas of London’s Royal Opera House are preparing for their next performance.
This was my third such tour of a European opera house after visiting the famous venues of Milan and Budapest — three of the world’s most influential artistic institutions where, for generations, the world’s leading operas, plays and ballets have been staged.
I was left gobsmacked by the majesty and history of Italy’s most-revered opera house house, the Teatro alla Scala in Milan. The Hungarian State Opera House is one of the busiest in Europe, as I witnessed during an extensive tour of this stunning neo-Renaissance structure.
At London’s Royal Opera House my backstage tour allowed me to watch its ballerinas up close, explore its cavernous lighting warehouse, meet artistic directors, inspect beautiful sets and witness the stage being prepared for a performance.
Many of Europe’s leading opera houses offer tours. Even for cultural plebs such as myself, who have no great interest in opera or theatre, there is joy in the extraordinary architecture of the buildings and fascination in learning the effort that goes into the productions.
This robust preparation was obvious as our tour group went through the backstage hallways of the Royal Opera House.
We passed a meeting room where a group of smartly dressed men and women were discussing lighting techniques. Then we found ourselves in the building’s lighting warehouse home to more than $1 million worth of lighting equipment.
Soon after, a rumbling sound drew our attention — the stage was being moved on its hydraulic supports,
which allows swift set changes. These more technical aspects of the opera house were intriguing but my tour group was most impressed by the visit to the building’s plush private boxes
We were allowed only to look from afar at the box reserved for the royal family. This did not take the shine off the experience.
As beautiful as this opera house was, it could not compete aesthetically with the Teatro alla Scala. With its deep red velvet seats contrasting against golden balconies, this 241- year- old opera house in the heart of Milan is the epitome of what I adore about Italy.
Its interior nimbly treads the boundaries between grand and grandiose, ornate and gaudy.
My well-informed guide laced me with facts and figures about the opera house during the 45-minute tour. I absorbed few of them because I was too distracted by my surroundings. If the Royal Opera House was an enlightening experience, this tour was an inspiring one.
My expectations were lower when I arrived at Budapest’s Hungarian State Opera House. Constructed in 1884 in the magnificent neo-Renaissance architectural style, it shocked me by being almost as splendid as its brother in Milan.
It, too, had a 1200-seat auditorium splashed with red and gold, and embellished by an enormous chandelier. It is sold out regularly across the opera house’s massive schedule of performances. Guests enjoy the third-best acoustics of any opera house in Europe (behind only Teatro alla Scala and the Paris Opera House).
Several members of my group decided to loosen up their vocal cords. The acoustics were fantastic but not good enough to improve the off-key warbling of this journalist, so I kept my mouth closed.
Europe’s opera houses are too spectacular to be sullied by a rank amateur.
Top picture: The auditorium of the Hungarian State Opera House. Picture: Ronan O'Connell
- The London Royal Opera House runs up to three backstage tours daily. But the
tours book out quickly, particularly during peak season, so book ahead at Royal Opera House.
- The Hungarian State Opera House has four tours a day in English at 2pm, 3pm, 4pm
and 5pm. Go to Hungarian State Opera House.
- Tailor-made guided tours of Milan’s Teatro alla Scala must be booked well in advance at Teatro alla Scala.
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