Mr. Brown's History Lesson #2

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.

The round shape of the building makes the acoustics really great.

The round shape of the building makes the acoustics really great.

Other than a few exit signs and a few modern lighting instruments, the areas visible to the audience are very historically accurate, including the thatched open roof.

Other than a few exit signs and a few modern lighting instruments, the areas visible to the audience are very historically accurate, including the thatched open roof.

The columns and backdrop are all painted to look like marble, true to what would have been done originally. The stage ceiling is painted with clouds to represent the heavens, and there is a trapdoor in both the ceiling and floor.

The columns and backdrop are all painted to look like marble, true to what would have been done originally. The stage ceiling is painted with clouds to represent the heavens, and there is a trapdoor in both the ceiling and floor.

During our tour, the stage crew was re-setting for that evening's performance of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM.

During our tour, the stage crew was re-setting for that evening's performance of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM.


The theater can accommodate approximately 1400 spectators, although in Shakespeare's time they supposedly crammed in 3000 (no fire/safety regulations to stop them).

The theater can accommodate approximately 1400 spectators, although in Shakespeare's time they supposedly crammed in 3000 (no fire/safety regulations to stop them).

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.”

Palais Garnier, home of the Paris Opera/Ballet and the setting for the novel/film/musical THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA.

Palais Garnier, home of the Paris Opera/Ballet and the setting for the novel/film/musical THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA.

The Grand Staircase, where the wealthy operagoers can show off their own fancy finery to everyone else in attendance.

The Grand Staircase, where the wealthy operagoers can show off their own fancy finery to everyone else in attendance.

Just a doorway. Might as well make it fancy.

Just a doorway. Might as well make it fancy.

The Grand Hall, a casual gathering area for mingling before the opera and at intermission.

The Grand Hall, a casual gathering area for mingling before the opera and at intermission.

Inside the theater itself. The chandelier weighs 7 tons. The ceiling area which surrounds the chandelier was originally painted by Jules Eugène Lenepveu. In 1964 a new ceiling painted by Marc Chagall was installed on a removable frame over the original. It depicts scenes from operas by 14 composers.

Inside the theater itself. The chandelier weighs 7 tons. The ceiling area which surrounds the chandelier was originally painted by Jules Eugène Lenepveu. In 1964 a new ceiling painted by Marc Chagall was installed on a removable frame over the original. It depicts scenes from operas by 14 composers.

The stage itself is the largest one in all of Europe.

The stage itself is the largest one in all of Europe.

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.

Palladio and his Olympic Academy had already designed temporary theater structures at various locations in the city, but in 1579 the Academy obtained the rights to build a permanent theater in an old fortress, the  Castello del Territorio,  which had been turned into a prison and powder magazine before falling into disuse.

Palladio and his Olympic Academy had already designed temporary theater structures at various locations in the city, but in 1579 the Academy obtained the rights to build a permanent theater in an old fortress, the Castello del Territorio, which had been turned into a prison and powder magazine before falling into disuse.

The lobby area sets the tone of the whole space with these incredible  trompe l’oeil  (fooling the eye) paintings that definitely look like three-dimensional architectural elements.

The lobby area sets the tone of the whole space with these incredible trompe l’oeil (fooling the eye) paintings that definitely look like three-dimensional architectural elements.

Because of the strange shape of the fortress building, Palladio had to design the seating area as a somewhat “squished ellipse” version of the classic Roman style. Though this interior space may look like marble, almost everything is actually wood, stucco, and plaster, fantastically crafted to look like marble.

Because of the strange shape of the fortress building, Palladio had to design the seating area as a somewhat “squished ellipse” version of the classic Roman style. Though this interior space may look like marble, almost everything is actually wood, stucco, and plaster, fantastically crafted to look like marble.

Architect and designer Vincenzo Scamozzi oversaw completion of the theater after Palladio died, and Scamozzi also designed the amazing perspective street views that served as the scenery for the inaugural production of  Oedipus Rex . The scenery consists of seven hallways decorated to create the illusion of looking down the streets of ancient Thebes. Seven extraordinarily realistic  trompe-l'œil  false perspectives provide the illusion of long street views, while actually the sets recede only a few meters.

Architect and designer Vincenzo Scamozzi oversaw completion of the theater after Palladio died, and Scamozzi also designed the amazing perspective street views that served as the scenery for the inaugural production of Oedipus Rex. The scenery consists of seven hallways decorated to create the illusion of looking down the streets of ancient Thebes. Seven extraordinarily realistic trompe-l'œil false perspectives provide the illusion of long street views, while actually the sets recede only a few meters.

Scamozzi’s forced perspective scenery was so spectacular that it was determined to be left in place permanently.

Scamozzi’s forced perspective scenery was so spectacular that it was determined to be left in place permanently.

The scenery was briefly removed during WWII in order to protect it when there was fear of bombing in the area, but it was restored to its place shortly thereafter and is the oldest known scenery in the world.

The scenery was briefly removed during WWII in order to protect it when there was fear of bombing in the area, but it was restored to its place shortly thereafter and is the oldest known scenery in the world.

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.