‘The fat lady sings’: Prague’s State Opera marks restoration to former glory with gala concert

Photo: ČTK/Vít Šimánek

The Prague State Opera reopened on Sunday evening in grand style following a major reconstruction that took nearly three years and cost over a billion crowns. The gala performance took place exactly 132 years after the venue opened. To better celebrate the opera house’s history, Sunday’s all-star programme also included a multimedia installation staged by a prominent filmmaker and narrated by a famous writer.

Photo: ČTK/Vít Šimánek

The State Opera gala performance began, fittingly, with the overture of the very same work that opened the neo-Renaissance building with its neo-Rococo interior back in 1888, back when it was the New German Theatre: composer Richard Wagner’s “The Master-singers of Nuremberg”.

Rather than restaging Wagner’s four-and-a-half hour opera in full, though, Sunday’s programme featured selections of works linked to the history of its four resident opera companies, interspersed with artful videos by filmmaker and theatre director Alice Nellis, under the rubric “The State Opera: Transformations in Time (1888–2018)”.

Kateřina Kněžíková,  Adam Plachetka,  photo: ČTK/Vít Šimánek
Under the baton of Karl-Heinz Steffens, the Music Director of the State Opera, the concert itself featured distinguished soloists of the National Theatre, State Opera Orchestra and Chorus. Among the soloists was soprano Kateřina Kněžíková, whose husband and fellow opera star, the bass-baritone Adam Plachetka, spoke to Czech Radio ahead of the opening about the excitement in the air.

“The State Opera was among the first houses in which I sang professionally, so of course I am thrilled to return. The reconstruction looks magnificent. I believe the building is an even better performance space than before.”

Indeed, the performance space has been restored to its original glory, including a faithful copy of the original velvet curtain that went missing after the war, and the original ornate tiling. The rehearsal spaces and equipment, meanwhile, are now decidedly state-of-the art.

Among the other Czech cultural elite and venue veterans on hand for Sunday’s gala was Vlastimil Harapes, a ballet choreographer and former artistic director at the International Conservatory of Prague.

Photo: ČTK/Vít Šimánek
“I have to say that of all the venues, here is where I feel most at home. We did so many great performances here, such as ‘Spartacus’, or ‘Romeo and Juliet’. I look forward to many continued successful performances here.”

Apart from works by Wagner and other international giants such as Mozart, Beethoven, Puccini and Tchaikovsky, classics by Czech composers Janáček, Smetana and Martinů were also performed.

All of Sunday’s selected arias, ensembles and overtures symbolised seminal moments of the venue’s history – including its world and Czech premieres, and visits by guest performers from renowned foreign opera houses.

The intermittent video clips directed by Nellis provided the context and featured aspects of Czech history in general. These clips were narrated by playwright Pavel Kohout, a Charter 77 cofounder compelled to immigrate to Austria.

In one clip, Kohout celebrates the multi-ethnic character of the capital itself back when the opera house first opened in 1888, saying, “My god, what a city was Prague at the end of the 19th century.” Now, the city again boasts an equally awe-inspiring opera house.

Photo: ČTK/Michal Kamaryt