Planet Opera: Nordic Opera Houses

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Somewhere in the gauzy mythology of that iconic film, “Field of Dreams,” there is a nugget of truth: “If you build it, they will come.” In my case, I would journey to the ends of the earth to see a new opera house, a place where mythology is writ large and dreams (mine, at least) are requited. And if the new operatic Valhalla is in Scandinavia (Norway, Sweden, Denmark) or its spikily independent Nordic cousin, Finland, I would have even more motivation to go. People who know my work associate me primarily with Italy, which is true, but I have always had a great passion for the far north and I go there as often as possible.

With the opening of the Norwegian National Opera on April 12, 2008, a new chapter was written in the fascinating story of the relationship among music, design and the unique Nordic sense of resolute egalitarianism. How do you create a theater that fulfills the practical needs of an opera company as well as a ballet company and a symphony orchestra while, at the same time, making a statement about modernity, style and national identity?

To find some answers, I have traveled to Oslo, Copenhagen, Stockholm and Helsinki often. To get a sense of the evolution of opera and theaters in the north, I went to visit one theater from the 18th century, three from the 19th, one from the 20th and two from the 21st. Not only did I see Oslo’s new opera house, but also Drottningholm, the oldest theater anywhere that still uses stage technology operated entirely by hand.

The three Scandinavian countries have a long tradition of royal arts patronage. In Sweden, Queen Louisa Ulrika created the court theater at Drottningholm (1766). Her son, King Gustav III, pioneered opera in Swedish, founded the Royal Swedish Opera in Stockholm, and his 1792 assassination at a masked ball was depicted in Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera. Denmark has Europe’s oldest monarchy, and the Royal Danish Theatre (for ballet, opera and prose) was born in 1774. With Margarethe II, who took the throne in 1972, Denmark is in a golden of age of royal patronage; the Queen loves the arts, has designed scenery for ballets and likes to drop by the theater to watch rehearsals or move sets around the stage.

Norway, which was under the Danish crown from 1380 to 1814 and then under Sweden until 1905, has had only three modern kings. In the 19th century, Norway produced Scandinavia’s greatest painter (Munch), playwright (Ibsen) and one of its finest composers, Edvard Grieg, who did not write any operas. Norway’s opera tradition is the weakest in Scandinavia, in part, because there was little royal patronage. But Oslo has made amazing strides in the past 3 years.

Finland never had a monarchy, and was contested for centuries by Sweden and Russia. Though under foreign control, its people never yielded their traditions or their language, in which they sang as a way of preserving it. Nineteenth-century Helsinki had a Swedish theater and a Russian theater (the Alexander Theatre, built in 1878) that served as the home of the Finnish National Opera until 1993. It is small (456 seats), not suited to elaborate productions, and relatively austere in design, especially in comparison to the 19th century theaters in Stockholm and Copenhagen.

The Nordic Singing Tradition

Many of the great singers in opera have come from the Nordic countries. They have appeared all over the world, in part because there were not many opportunities at home. Sweden is probably the number one exporter of singers. Legendary artists such as Jenny Lind, Birgit Nilsson, Elisabeth Söderström, Jussi Björling (pictured), Set Svanholm, Nicolai Gedda, Gösta Windbergh, and Ingvar Wixell have modern contemporaries in Anne-Sofie von Otter, Katarina Dalayman, Nina Stemme, Iréne Theorin, Peter Mattei, Hakan Hagegard, all of whom reign on the world’s most important stages. With Kirsten Flagstad and Lauritz Melchior, Norway and Denmark combined to give Wagner lovers the best soprano/tenor pairing ever.

Although Finland is a young country (independence came in 1917) it has a deeply-rooted opera tradition. Opera has been performed there since the mid-19th century and the Finnish National Opera celebrates its centennial this year. Finland turns out an astonishing amount of world-class opera singers, conductors and composers. Soprano Karita Mattila drives audiences wild with her thrilling singing and Oscar-caliber acting. Bass Martti Talvela (1935-1989) was one of my all-time favorites and had a characteristically mystical approach to his art that one finds among the Finns. He once told The New York Times, “Singing is, for me, a combination of notes and visions. I must see pictures when I sing, and when I do not have those pictures in my mind, I am uncomfortable. Singing must be a passion, like the praying of the holy man, who is always thinking about how he can improve his prayers to make the message clearer. I am not a holy man - not at all - but I know how it is. In singing, everything must happen in the spirit, in the soul.”

Drottningholm: A Rococo Jewel

With the evolution of theater design in the Nordic countries, the very nature of opera performances changed significantly. The enchanting Drottningholm theater on the grounds of the Swedish monarchy’s summer palace was state-of-the-art in 1766. The back of the building was designed to house 150 people who lived there permanently when the royal family was near by. These singers, dancers, actors, instrumentalists and stage crew were expected to create a new production every two weeks to please King Gustav III. Because there was such demand for new works, the only way this could be achieved was by having approximately thirty different settings (such as Heaven, Hell, clouds, gardens, drawing rooms, a grotto, an abbey, a temple, a battlefield, a storm at sea) to deploy as needed in every new work. Candles were used for light and a candle determined the duration of a show. Colored glass was put in front of stage candles to create different moods.

At Drottningholm the stage and the auditorium are the same size (20 meters/66 feet) and create incredible intimacy. In the past, 250 audience members could be accommodated because of the size of women’s dresses. Now 450 people fit in cozily. And while electrical lighting is now employed, fifteen of the original settings are still used for all performances, each one raised and lowered by manual cranking by the stage crew. All the ropes and rigging backstage bring to mind a schooner. In fact, the original stagehands were Dutch sailors and the superstition in opera about whistling onstage was born here because the sailors interpreted whistles as orders to move something. Their modern descendants at Drottningholm follow the same rules.

King Gustav built an opera house in Stockholm toward the end of the 18th Century. It was replaced by the current Royal Swedish Opera House in 1898. The lobbies are ornate, and the auditorium has a dark opulence that is more suited to Paris than Scandinavia. At 1150 seats, it was the biggest at its time in the region, but sightlines and acoustics are variable. To me, the greatest attraction of this building are the two chic cafes and two of Stockholm’s best restaurants. No opera house in the world matches the dining experience here, and only Madrid and Munich come close.

The Royal Theater in Copenhagen, which presented opera, ballet and plays from the 1870s until 2005, is an intimate space that was periodically modernized. The backstage areas were too small to create large, compelling opera productions but the theater was, and is, perfect for ballet, in which Denmark has always rivaled Russia and France for preeminence. Copenhagen long needed a new opera house, but it only came in the past decade.

In the 20th century, as these nations became constitutional monarchies, funding for the arts came from the state. The top Nordic singers performed elsewhere because there were no great stages for opera in Scandinavia and the auditoriums were too small -- more seats would mean more ticket revenue, and the possibility to have bigger stars. First came the Finnish National Opera (1993), whose new building has a huge backstage area where scenery and costumes are made. The scenery is made of fiber or wood, painted and then attached to rolling metal frames. The resulting sets are inexpensive and lightweight, but what the audience sees is quite realistic. Materials and scenery are recycled from one opera to the next with typical Nordic frugality. The entire building is attractive, airy and functional.

Scandinavian Design Meets the Opera Stage

The new 1,400-seat opera house in Copenhagen, opened in 2005, is unusual in this part of the world in that it was funded entirely from a private gift from the Møller Foundation rather than being a government initiative. While the Finns made practicality a priority, the Danes aimed for -- and reached -- a consciously design-oriented building that is a showplace for national brands. Georg Jensen silverware, Royal Copenhagen porcelain, Erik Bagger glassware, Sorenson furniture were all part of the vision of architect Henning Larson’s plan. The building itself is sleek and elegant, more gratifying than challenging to the eye. The materials include German limestone, Chinese granite, maple wood, glass and a gold-leaf ceiling. The auditorium is as dark as the lobby is bright, so that one feels removed from daily life and in the special realm of opera. The stage is modern, spacious and functional and, unlike Helsinki and Oslo, all the scenic shops are in a separate building that serves the three major theaters of Copenhagen.

With the new opera house has come an increase in productions and quality. Danish singers such as Tina Kiberg and Bo Skovhus are among many who create local pride. Copenhagen recently created a rather provocative production of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, including a nude male swimming with the Rhinemaidens and a startling moment when Wotan yanks the wings off the back of his daughter Brünnhilde as she is converted from a god to a mortal.

The new opera house in Oslo is something else again. It is placed in the harbor and its sensational white roof looks like a ski jump. This is as much a landscape as it is a building: Norwegians are invited, indeed expected, to climb on the roof. By being on top of the building, it is reasoned, the average Norwegian will feel ownership of this new landmark.

A product of the collaboration among an architect, interior architects, landscape architects and visual artists, the building is as much a collective expression as the Copenhagen Opera is an individual vision. Some lobby benches are covered with gray sheepskin. External walls of the auditorium are made of carved oak so that it looks like a tree is growing amid glass and marble. The 1364 auditorium seats are made of velour and were manufactured by Poltrona Frau. One lobby wall is made of aluminum. Poles for hanging coats double as torchiere lamps. Some hallways are Ferrari red. The wood auditorium -- surrounded by a glass cube -- seems to crash through the roof of the building so that it is visible to anyone up there for a climb.

The opera house has hit its stride as a functioning theater, and achieves for Oslo what Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum and the Sydney Opera House (designed by Jørn Utzon, a Dane) did: become a landmark which, unto itself, merits a journey to be seen. Under the leadership of British director Paul Curran and Norwegian contralto Anne Gjevang, the Norwegian Opera has, in a very short period of time, become a valid presenter of serious productions of varied repertory and has attracted increasing numbers of fine international singers. And I would travel a long way just to sit on its terrace restaurant to have the herring platter or the exquisite smoked salmon.

As I hiked on the roof of the opera house in Oslo last summer in the warm evening light, a question dawned on me: Stockholm, which led the way in bringing opera to Scandinavia, is now the only Nordic capital without a world-class place to attend opera. Will the Swedes draw examples from the best of Helsinki, Copenhagen and Oslo? Or will they create their own unique operatic Valhalla? If they build it, I will come.

Watch the peerless Martti Talvela singing (in Finnish) the death scene of Boris Godunov:

What do you think is important when designing a new opera house? What theaters do you consider great as places to attend opera?