The Estates Theatre - Prague's oldest stage, and Mozart's favourite

The Estates Theatre, photo:

It is a key anecdote in Czech musical history: that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart felt better in Prague than anywhere else. That feeling was based - among other things, no doubt - on his outstanding success at the city’s Estates Theatre, which was the scene of that and other important moments in Czech cultural history. And it’s the focus of today’s Spotlight by Christian Falvey.

The Estates Theatre,  photo:
It is the oldest theatre in Prague, and certainly a structure of great beauty, with a lavish auditorium of grey, green and gold within the prominent facade that tops the “Fruit Market Square” (Ovocný trh) in the city’s Old Town. Stavovské divadlo, or the Estates Theatre, boasts an unbroken history of almost 230 years as a centre for music, dance and drama in the former Austrian Empire and today in the Czech Republic; all the way back to one Wolfgang Amadé Mozart, whose name is inseparably connected to the place.

Speaking of names, the Estates Theatre has had a hard time settling on one over the centuries. It began life as the “National Theatre”, when built in the spring of 1783, but it was called the Nostic Theatre, first informally then formally, after the Czech nobleman and nationalist who built it as a theatre for the people. Inevitably however it was a theatre for the more moneyed of the people. After a walkout of the Czech actors in 1862 it became the ‘German State Theatre” until an independent Czechoslovakia saw it renamed the “Estates”, that is, the theatre of the gentry. The communists would have nothing of gentry though, and for their 40-year era the theatre was rechristened “Tylovo divadlo”, which it remained until the revolution in 1989.

What does this have to do with Mozart, you may ask. Well for one thing, he too went by a variety of names, such as Wolfgango Amadeo, Wolfgang Gottlieb, or even Trazom – “Mozart” backwards. But more importantly he enjoyed a glorious moment here, one that led to others, and he loved Prague for it, as he wrote to a friend in 1787:

“I drove with Count Canal to the so-called Bretfeld Ball, where the cream of Prague’s beauties gather. I did not dance and did not flirt. The former because I was too tired, the latter because I am a natural idiot. But I looked on with great pleasure while all these people leaped around in sheer delight at the music of my Figaro, arranged as contradances and waltzes. For people here talk about nothing but Figaro; they play nothing, sing nothing, whistle nothing but Figaro; they go to no opera but Figaro and forever Figaro. This is truly a great honour for me.”

Pavel Vondruška,  photo:
Another version of this story is told by Pavel Vondruška. The 85-year-old actor and conductor is well known in the Czech Republic from countless films and the Theatre of Jára Cimrman, but in his spare time he enjoys putting his nine languages to use, showing tourists around the Estates Theatre.

“When he was going through the streets of Prague, he heard something interesting – it was the music from one of his operas...”

Street musicians playing his music?

“It wasn’t musicians. It was a simple baker’s apprentice who was whistling an air from his opera. And I can play you the part of the piece... [The Marriage of Figaro, “Se vuol ballare, signor Contino”] And that was one of the very happiest moments for Mozart, when he heard his music in the streets of a foreign town.”

The Marriage of Figaro
Figaro was a success in Vienna, but it seems to have taken Prague by storm. A Prague newspaper of December 12, 1786, wrote: “No work has ever created such a sensation here as the Italian opera The Marriage of Figaro.” The ambitious, 31-year-old Mozart was quite obviously thrilled, famously declaring to the delight of Czechs past and present “Meine Prager verstehen mich" (my Praguers understand me). He had come to debut one of his most original masterpieces at the Estate Theatre, Symphony No. 38, which would come to be known as the Prague Symphony, and he left with not only a tremendous boost to his spirits, but a lucrative commission from the theatre’s director.

The painting depicts the „Champagnerlied“ scene of Don Giovanni
“The director, an Italian called Bondini, was very happy that Mozart was also happy here. And so he made him a commission to compose a new opera for the next season. Mozart promised to compose it; he went to Vienna to prepare the libretto with his librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte. Together they chose the theme of Don Giovanni, and that is how Don Giovanni originated: especially for this theatre, for Prague, for the musicians of Prague.”

Don Giovanni premiered at the Estates Theatre on October 29, 1787, under the baton of Mozart himself. His last visit to the theatre would be in 1791, when he premiered The Clemency of Titus for the coronation of Leopold II as King of Bohemia. It was in Prague that he fell ill and died three months later.

But Mozart merely stands near the beginning of the Estates Theatre. Of all the historical facts connected to the theatre, my personal favourite is imagining a young Antonín Dvořák working here as a struggling part-time viola player when the theatre needed large orchestras for Wagner performances. But it wouldn’t be the most important event of the theatre’s later history. If we were to name that, it came in 1835 with a fairly run-of-the-mill comedy about a shoemakers’ festival.

“One Czech composer, who worked here as a composer and the conductor of the orchestra, was František Škroup, and he wrote a play for the theatre called “The Shoemakers’ Fair” [ed. note: the more common English name is the direct translation “Fidlovačka, or No Anger and No Brawl”]. It included many songs, very happy, pretty songs, and people enjoyed singing them. So after the end of the First World War, a national anthem was needed, and they chose one of the songs from this play, “Kde domov můj”, “Where is My Home”, and we still sing it today.”

Throughout the 19th century the Estates Theatre remained one of the premiere locations for many of the greatest musicians of Europe, and that tradition continues today. An excellent, eight-year renovation brought new life to the theatre in the 1990s, adding sumptuous new decor and a rotating stage, maintaining the defining atmosphere of a “theatre of the gentry” but truly a theatre of the people.