Last fall I had the good fortune to visit and write about seeing Theatre Dionysus, an amphitheater in Greece that is likely the oldest one in the western world. It was rather surreal to look down the hill at the modern city of Athens while sitting right where Greek tragedy was born, right where Sophocles and Euripides and so many others gave shape to what has evolved into our current forms of drama and comedy. (See blog post about Greece.)
Late this past summer I found myself with the opportunity to experience additional monumental structures of theater and opera history. As someone who spends so much time working in modern American theater spaces that are very similar to one another, it’s really a treat to get to see something different and to absorb the significance that those structures have in the history of this craft.
The first theatrical space that we saw this summer was the reconstructed Shakespeare’s Globe theater in London. Modeled extremely closely after the original Globe that was in use from 1599-1644, the new Globe (which opened in 1997) has used nearly the same construction materials and techniques as the first one and serves to remind theatregoers of the facilities that existed at the time that Shakespeare and his company were cranking out play after play to entertain everyone from the British aristocrats to commoners.
Although we didn’t attend any performance here (or at any of the locations we visited — I get plenty of live theater in my everyday life and don’t need it while on vacation), we really enjoyed the Globe tour and the attached theater museum.
Just a couple of days later, we ended up taking a self-guided tour of the Paris Opera House, more formally known as Palais Garnier. One of the most famous opera and ballet venues in the world (and the setting for the novel The Phantom of the Opera), the opera house seats nearly 2000 spectators.
Our impressions of the opera house (which has been in operation since 1875) basically boiled down to WOW! From the moment we stepped into the lower lobby, our mouths were hanging open. Every square inch (and I do mean EVERY square inch) is bedazzled! Wikipedia explains it better:
“The façade and the interior followed the Napoleon III style principle of leaving no space without decoration. Garnier used polychromy, or a variety of colors, for theatrical effect, achieved through different varieties of marble and stone, porphyry, and gilded bronze. The façade of the Opera used seventeen different kinds of material, arranged in very elaborate multicolored marble friezes, columns, and lavish statuary, many of which portray deities of Greek mythology.”
Such a difference between the Globe of Shakespeare’s time, which brought entertainment to the grubby masses that crammed onto wooden benches and into standing-room crushes, and the opulent grandeur of the opera house 200 years later, which I presume was accessible mostly to the very wealthy.
Four days later we were in Vicenza, Italy, so that I could revisit the U.S. Army base where I had been stationed in the late ‘80s, as well as to see Teatro Olimpico. Before the Renaissance, almost all theater buildings had been open-air. During the Renaissance, the first modern enclosed theaters were constructed in Italy. Their structure was similar to that of ancient theaters, with a cavea and an architectural scenery, representing a city street. The oldest surviving example of this style is the Teatro Olimpico, which was completed in 1585. Well-known architect Andrea Palladio was an expert on the architecture of Roman theaters and designed this masterpiece for his hometown, although he died 6 months into construction.
Phew! Though this wasn’t intended to be a “theater trip” at all, we definitely ended up enjoying several memorable theater spaces… It is just so neat to witness how each facility has contributed to the genre — and what a different feel the building itself can bring to the performance within.
Whatever field you are in, I highly recommend that you learn about the roots of it, and actually travel to experience those origins if you can. Nothing quite compares.