Photograph by Li Yong, Xinhua News Agency/eyevine/Redux
From the National Geographic book The 10 Best of Everything
La Scala, Milan, Italy
Milan’s Teatro alla Scala is perhaps the most famous opera house in the world, the one most associated with “opera.” Built in 1778 with four tiers with separate loges, it is the home of Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, and Verdi. One of La Scala’s most ingenious features is the concave channel under the wooden floor of the orchestra; this is credited with giving the theater superb acoustics.
Teatro di San Carlo, Naples, Italy
Built by King Charles of Bourbon and inaugurated in 1737, the magnificent red-and-gold theater is the world’s oldest working theater, and until La Scala, it was the most prestigious in Italy. Some of Gioachino Rossini’s most popular operas premiered on its stage.
Teatro Colon, Buenos Aires, Argentina
Not to be outdone by wealthy U.S. industrialists, opera-loving Argentines completed the Teatro Colon in 1908. With so many architects involved, it is not surprising that the building incorporates a great many styles that are associated with European theaters.
This grand opera house’s outstanding record of great performances is matched only by the host of famous artists who have graced its stage. Teatro Colon has its own elaborate costume and scenic construction departments.
The Royal Opera House, London, England
An opera house has stood in the present location of the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden since the early 18th century; the current building is the third.
George Handel’s operas were the first ever to be performed here, and he wrote many of his operas and oratorios for this place in particular. From 1735 until his death in 1759 he gave regular seasonal performances here.
The Bolshoi, Moscow, Russia
One of Russia’s premier theaters, coupled with one of the best symphony orchestras in the world, the Bolshoi in Moscow has survived fire, war, and revolution. Its stunning neoclassic portico, topped by a statue of Apollo in his chariot, is a precursor to the magnificent splendor visitors will find when they venture inside. The Bolshoi closed in 2005 for extensive interior renovations and reopened in the fall of 2011.
Four balconies and a top gallery surround the orchestra, where the seats are Chippendale chairs upholstered in red damask. The great stage is known for its celebrated ballet company. Here, Yuri Grigorovich choreographed memorable productions of Swan Lake, The Golden Age, and Romanda.
Sydney Opera House, Sydney, Australia
Situated on a spit of land that juts out into Sydney’s harbor, the spectacularly contemporary Sydney Opera House has wonderful views of the sailboat-dotted water. Even if attending a performance doesn’t suit your plans, you might want to visit the opera house just to see the building; tours are offered frequently. The structure was designed by Jørn Utzon to suggest a series of overlapping shells and sails. The grand opening took place in 1973; the first public performance was Prokofiev’s War and Peace.
Inside, each theater is paneled in different types of wood to enhance the venue’s acoustic qualities as well as offer pleasing aesthetics. All major performance areas have their own foyers.
Paris Opéra, Paris, France
The main facade of the Opéra is an imposing sight, even in Paris, a city filled with architectural marvels. The highly ornamented building with its crowning dome was built in 1875. The grand theater within is suitable for both ballet and opera. Some of the greatest ceremonial spaces in the world are here at the Paris Opéra, lending their sublimity to lofty occasions.
The rich and striking interiors capture the tastes and attitudes of France’s Second Empire. In 1962, Marc Chagall created new frescoes on the center of the Palais Garnier’s ceiling. The result, nothing short of spectacular, is all the more remarkable for not conflicting with the formal character of the interior decor.
Opéra Royal, Versailles Court Theater, France
The interior of the Opéra Royal in the famously opulent palace of Versailles is a clever creation. The wooden walls were actually painted to resemble marble, which they do quite perfectly. Gold is harmoniously blended with the pinks and greens of the marbling and the sky-blue curtain and upholstery. Breaking with traditional Italian-style theaters, two balconies ring the house, topped by an ample colonnade that seems to extend into infinity thanks to a play of mirrors.
Ange-Jacques Gabriel built the theater in 1769 in preparation for the marriage of the dauphin, the future King Louis XVI, to the Austrian princess Marie-Antoinette. After the French Revolution, the theater was used just occasionally for various events. Today, special gala performances are often held there.
Vienna Staatsoper, Vienna, Austria
Built in 1869, the Staatsoper was inaugurated with a performance of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Its reputation as the center of Viennese musical life has long been established, and the Staatsoper remains one of the world’s top opera houses. Although much of it was destroyed on March 12, 1945, when the Allies bombed the city toward the end of World War II, the grand staircase and some of the other public areas miraculously survived. For an idea of how things looked before the air raid, walk through the main doors into the box office foyer. The theater you see now reopened after the Russian occupation of Austria ended, and the first piece performed there was Ludwig van Beethoven’s Fidelio, a hymn to freedom.
Lincoln Center, New York, New York
Home to the Metropolitan Opera, New York Philharmonic, and New York City Ballet, Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts also houses a library and two theaters. The center advances not only classic performance but also innovation. Operas at the Met are regularly filmed and presented live in theaters around the world. The Lincoln Center Institute for the Arts in Education is a global repertory promoting inspiration and creativity for students and professionals.
Shop National Geographic