Something completely magical

It was a moment I will never forget. “This is the Callas spot,” said Riccardo Muti, at that time music director of La Scala, Milan’s opera house. He was indicating a precise point near the front of the stage, a few feet right of centre, where Maria Callas invariably took up position during performances there. The legendary diva reckoned it was the optimal place for projecting her voice during an aria. Woe betide anyone who got in the way.

Muti and I were on stage alone. La Scala’s U-shaped auditorium, with its rows of gilt-edged boxes and acres of red velvet, was lit up but empty. I was being given a private tour shortly after the theatre was renovated 10 years ago: the chance to stand on stage, surrounded by ghosts of the past, was the climax. The entire backstage area had been demolished. The old music director’s room, a heartbeat from the orchestra pit, had gone. The time-honoured water hydraulic system, which lifted the stage scenery into place, had been dumped. So, too, had the remaining stone columns of the medieval church of Santa Maria della Scala, on whose foundations the theatre was built in the late 18th century, and from which it took its name. Everything had been replaced by state-of-the-art facilities – everything, that is, beyond public view.

The only remnants of the old building were the auditorium, foyer and theatre frontage. Everything in these public spaces was the epitome of tradition – the giant chandelier above the stalls, the rows of identical boxes, the decorative 18th-century veneer. In the context of the cavernous new backstage area, with its concrete walls, computer-controlled lighting and sophisticated machinery, the view from the stage was undeniably beautiful – but also anachronistic.

Like most historic opera houses, La Scala resembles a violin or cello: it looks much the same as it did in the past and performs the same aesthetic function, but it has undergone all sorts of internal changes to make it conform to the technological advances and social conveniences of modern life.

“The interiors of old opera houses are a modern gloss on a traditional shape,” says Roger Parker, opera historian and professor of music at King’s College, London. “They are a bit like a fake antique – they’re meant to look old, but not in the way they would be if they had been left as originally built.”


Opera – the marriage of singing and theatre – began in early-17th-century Italy as a popular as well as courtly entertainment, but the theatres built to house it quickly evolved into upper-class meeting places, with an architecture embodying social hierarchy. The stalls and slips were for the lowest-ranking; the central boxes were for the highest. The important thing was not so much seeing what happened on stage as being seen. That explains the U-shaped auditoria of most surviving 18th-century theatres.

Boxes, paid for by their owners or by subscription, were positioned in a way that gave a better view of social peers than they did of the stage. There was no dimming of lights – the stage-event was just one part of a social occasion. People would receive visitors in their box, play cards and eat, or mingle in the corridors outside. Boxes had curtains: there was scope for all sorts of shenanigans while the performance was under way. Travellers to Italy in the 18th century invariably commented on what a noisy place the opera house was.

By that time the opera bug had spread north of the Alps. You can tell from the small court theatres in Bayreuth, Munich, Prague and Schwetzingen – all still worth a visit – that opera in the 18th century was very much an aristocratic preserve. Design and decoration were on a grand scale but capacity was often 500 or fewer.

In the 19th century, the rising urban bourgeoisie, educated and upwardly mobile, started footing the bill – a change reflected in the design and location of opera houses. They became a civic totem, occupying a central position in town planning – at the head of an avenue, as in Paris, or overlooking a prominent square, as in Geneva. Theatres had to be bigger, not just to satisfy increasing demand but to be financially viable. Space-taking boxes gave way to tiers of seats on open balconies. London’s Royal Opera House and Munich’s National Theater are good examples: the only boxes are at the side of the stage. The U-shape morphed into a wide horseshoe – a way of maximising capacity and improving sightlines – and the stalls became the most important place to sit.

The pressure to provide more seats coincided with an increase in the size and sound of orchestras, leading to the creation of a pit in front of the stage. This signified a subtle change in the art form. Previously considered a theatrical event in which librettists and singers were the main focus, opera was now as much a musical event, with the composer (and later the conductor) rising in importance. Instead of addressing audiences from a thrust stage, singers were pushed behind the proscenium arch and forced to compete with more powerful 19th-century instruments. New vocal techniques were required to help them project over larger distances.

The only theatre architect to address this problem was Wagner. By placing the orchestra out of sight underneath the stage of his festival theatre at Bayreuth, completed in 1876, he enabled every word to be heard: the acoustic remains a wonder of the theatre world. But Wagner’s theatre creates a time-lag between the sound coming from the hidden pit and the sound created on stage, which conductors must learn to co-ordinate. It’s hardly surprising no one has replicated the design.

By the early 20th century, opera house architecture was undergoing another phase of development. In the US, where the arts have always been privately funded, high-capacity theatres became a necessity. Holding between 3,000 and 4,000 people, they make financial sense, but they also encourage over-singing and leave little room for the experimental. They lack intimacy.

The Margrave’s court opera house at Bayreuth, which inspired Wagner to build his own festival theatre there

Some, such as San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House, replicate the elegant facades and foyers that 19th-century architects employed to make a social statement. That statement is reinforced by the spectacle of the auditorium – grand not only in size but also in richness of decoration. The wealthy feel at home in this environment; the poor feel out of place.

This is not just an American phenomenon. Many European theatres oblige people in the cheap amphitheatre seats to enter and leave by a side door, a safe distance from those in expensive stalls and balcony seats, who come through the main entrance. When the Royal Opera House was renovated 11 years ago with a mission to be more socially inclusive, the internal layout was reconfigured: everyone now comes in by the same entrance. The Floral Hall, the theatre’s main socialising area, is connected to the upper circle by escalator. It is a visible tool of integration – and yet the overall style of the building remains the same. The main auditorium retains its grand 19th-century decoration. Behind it you may find nothing but old wood, but the veneer chimes with the fancy gowns, elaborate wigs and male make-up on stage.


Not all opera houses are fake antiques. In 1945 most German theatres lay in ruins, necessitating a rebuild. The new theatres were plainer than before, better equipped and more user-friendly: there are plenty of toilets, a convenience in painfully short supply in 18th- and 19th-century theatres. Berlin’s Deutsche Oper has no boxes, and all seats directly face the stage. The new buildings are relatively intimate spaces, with capacity well within the optimal 2,000 limit.

The problem on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as in Asia, where opera has proliferated over the past 20 years, is that opera house design remains glued to a 19th-century model. Look at the new theatres in Guangzhou, Oslo and Valencia. From the outside they are iconic buildings. Inside they are conventional, “and that must be one of the things dragging opera back to its past,” says Nicholas Payne, director of Opera Europa and a former head of the Royal Opera and English National Opera. “These theatres are great for La traviata and The Ring, but they don’t really work for Handel, and they’re increasingly inappropriate for the operas of today.”

The 19th-century theatre model arouses expectations of a certain type of spectacle and grandiosity, and this has limited opera’s development as an art form. Composers feel they have to respond by writing huge and expensive works. The most innovative operas of the past 50 years – such as Thomas Adès’s Powder Her Face, Britten’s chamber operas and Stockhausen’s Licht – were devised for alternative spaces, where the orchestra did not form a barrier between stage and audience.

Some companies have successfully explored ways of circumventing 19th-century theatre design. In its 2010 production of Henze’s Elegy for Young Lovers at the Young Vic, English National Opera demonstrated that opera can thrive “in the round”, given suitable resources and the right imagination.

Better-funded companies have gone for the “black box” solution – a chamber theatre, inside or adjacent to the main building, where stage machinery is minimal and the lighting rig flexible, encouraging the production team to reconfigure the way their audience views the performance. But at London’s Royal Opera House and the new Copenhagen opera house, the “black box” remains a sideshow, a sop to contemporary awareness. Both companies make their money by putting on Tosca and La traviata in the main theatre.

The most transformational events in recent years have taken place in converted factories or old exhibition halls – vast spaces that give the director and designer carte blanche to create a new production aesthetic. Many of these industrial-legacy buildings are situated in Germany’s Ruhr region, where local authorities have invested heavily to convert them into culture parks. At the Bochum Jahrhunderthalle in 2006, audiences viewed Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s Die Soldaten from movable seating blocks, running on rails above a performance space that extended like a catwalk from one end of the building to the other. Similar extravaganzas have been mounted in a former turbine hall at Gladbeck, an old exhibition hall in Cologne and a converted gas plant on the outskirts of Amsterdam.

“These relics of the industrial past are being appreciated more and more for their aesthetic value,” says Shirley Apthorp, who has reviewed these productions for the FT. “Drawing people out of the city centre [to see them] is part of preserving them.”

Teatro La Fenice, Venice

But, Apthorp points out, such performances depend on sophisticated acoustic trickery. They tend to be site-specific and cost a lot of money. Opera budgets are tight, and most productions are built to be shared: if sets for the Royal Opera’s latest Don Carlo had not been of a size to fit co-producing theatres in New York and Oslo, the show could not have been funded.

The only city to have entertained the idea of a completely flexible opera theatre is Lucerne in Switzerland, and its project remains unrealised, due to a legal battle over the estate of the late Christof Engelhorn, who donated $137m towards the cost. David Staples, of London-based Theatre Projects Consultants, says the plan involved a large room with multiple sinking/rising floor-panels for audience and orchestra, so that the performance could take place anywhere – in the middle, on either side or at the end.

“But you can’t achieve total flexibility,” says Staples. “As soon as you build one wall, you build a constraint. The alternative concept is to say: why not, in addition to having your creative team of composer, director, designer and videographer, why not have an architect who designs a specially commissioned environment for you every summer, like the Serpentine Pavilion in London? But that was too radical for the Swiss.”

Given that opera works well in traditional theatres, with natural acoustics and a shape evolved over a 400-year period, it’s hardly surprising most opera managements shy away from experiment. Many composers, too, believe the “archaic” configuration of the 19th-century opera house provides a useful discipline. “The opera world occasionally makes lurches into alternative spaces, but very rarely does one feel that space was needed for the opera concerned,” says British composer Julian Anderson, who is writing a new work for ENO. “I’d love my opera to be performed “in the round” – but the architectural space is a red herring as long as the composer can impose an imaginary world on the audience. It’s all about taking the spectator out of themselves.”

Anderson’s argument is borne out by the remarkable success of live relays from New York’s Metropolitan Opera to cinemas around the globe. A whole new public – the biggest that opera has ever had – is eagerly imbibing the imaginary world of opera not from a red-velvet box but, thanks to modern technology, from the comfort and convenience of a small movie theatre.

Andrew Clark is the FT’s chief classical music and opera critic

To comment, please email magazineletters@ft.com


San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House

My favourite opera experiences

Experience suggests that a good performance can mask flaws in theatre design, but the pleasure of visiting an attractive opera house rarely makes up for a feeble show, writes Andrew Clark. When you want to be lifted out of yourself, the age or shape of a theatre shouldn’t matter. I have witnessed a riveting La traviata in a giant modern arena in Birmingham, where the sound had to be amplified. I have also attended generic Puccini nights at Covent Garden where, despite the glamorous veneer, the performance-factory ambience is sometimes unavoidable.

Opera houses are not empty temples with fine architectural features. They are living, breathing organisms that fuse the creative talents of up to 600 people. While the physical surroundings of a performance can influence its effectiveness, the real determining factor is the artistic vision of the impresario and the quality of the local opera tradition. When I lived in central Europe, I became a regular visitor to Frankfurt’s ultra-functional opera house: my attachment to it had nothing to do with its unprepossessing postwar appearance and everything to do with the radical productions staged there by Ruth Berghaus and Michael Gielen.

I have always enjoyed visiting La Scala, Milan, because the wraparound opulence of the auditorium and the sense of tradition add to the performance, especially when the composer is Verdi. The “participation” of the Italian opera public – cheers, boos, shouts – enlivens the experience. But many beautiful Italian theatres – Piacenza is an example – can no longer afford a full opera season: some are as silent as a museum.

I cherish my memories of Avignon, Mulhouse and Strasbourg, all B-list opera houses in France, because my visits there coincided with excellent performances of 19th-century French repertoire, to which an educated local public and the quaint architecture contributed. Despite several visits to the Opéra de Lyon, I have yet to come away with any durable impression, other than the alienating effect of architect Jean Nouvel’s 1993 redesign.

Prague’s three opera houses – the late-19th-century National Theatre and Smetana Theatres, and the 18th-century Estates Theatre where Don Giovanni was premiered – have always been a favourite because they typify “period” intimacy and elegance, and you can smell the history. The Smetana, built as the city’s German opera house and now known as the Prague State Opera, was one of several designed by the Viennese architectural firm of Fellner and Helmer (the Zurich Opera House is another example): they represent a near-ideal marriage of size, acoustic and decorative beauty. Their British equivalents are those designed by Frank Matcham – best of all the Buxton Opera House.

St Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theatre, Munich’s National Theatre and the Bayreuth Festspielhaus are hors concours. Quite apart from their distinctive looks and acoustics, their composer-associations make them the place to hear, respectively, Tchaikovsky, Richard Strauss and Wagner. By the same token, although I have no special fondness for the Vienna State Opera, it is one of the few places I’d choose to see Johann Strauss’s Die Fledermaus.

Of the American opera houses, Santa Fe is the most magical because of its open-air setting. San Francisco and Chicago score more highly than New York: the Metropolitan stalls are afflicted by the blight of air-conditioning, and the State Theater, with which City Opera has long been associated, was never designed for opera. As for the new generation, Wexford in Ireland wins the prize for homeliness and scale, the Finnish National Opera in Helsinki for clarity of design, Grange Park in Hampshire for eccentricity and the Wales Millennium Centre for grandeur.


The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London

The soprano

Angela Gheorghiu on Covent Garden

Angela Gheorghiu tells a story she loves about the Royal Opera House. It was 1990, and she had travelled to London from Romania for her first audition. Shortly before her allotted time, Gheorghiu stopped a stranger in Covent Garden to ask for directions. “It was a tall man, a nice man,” she says, “so I thought, ‘Let’s ask him’.” The man showed her the stage door on Floral Street, and she saw him again almost immediately – he was the Royal Opera House’s casting director, Peter Katona. “It was a fantastic matter of destiny,” she says, grandly. She sang, she got the part. “He gave me La bohème.” In March 1992, she made her international debut at Covent Garden as Zerlina in Don Giovanni; her Mimi in La bohème followed later that year.

The soprano has said before that this is her favourite of all opera houses. In full costume and in full song, she and Covent Garden do seem well-matched in magnificence. Gheorghiu is known as a prima donna of the classic mould: her no-shows are sometimes as famous as her performances. Even if Covent Garden has not been free from Gheorghiu skirmishes, it has a sincere place in her affections. “Everything important in my life happened in this theatre,” she says. “I met my love, my husband [the tenor Roberto Alagna], I made my first TV broadcast [a live BBC transmission of La traviata].” And after her Zerlina came her first Violetta in 1994 and her first Tosca in 1996. Next June, she will reprise La bohème at Covent Garden opposite Alagna.

Backstage, in a small dining room, she is dressed down in jeans and striped jumper, a brown straw hat covering up her long black hair. Now in her forties, she was born in Adjud, a Romanian town of a size inverse to her ambitions. “I never dreamed to sing in the opera house in Bucharest,” she says. “My dream was to sing in Covent Garden – exactly what I did. My teacher, Mia Barbu, she told me that I must sing from the very beginning only in big houses. As a person, me, Angela, I like bigger spaces, I need to have also my space as an opera singer. When I’m on stage I need to see something important in front of me.” What she sees is the velvet, the lights, the boxes – but she claims to sing the same way whether it is a critic, a queen or a normal punter staring back. And she does not change her voice for the building either. “I’m not the kind of singer who has difficulties with the acoustic. I know my instrument very well, I don’t change for the stage.”

All the doomed heroines have not worn down her edge of mischief. When the audiences have disappeared, there is celebrating to be done. “Oh how many parties … my God. I’m really a party girl in the Royal Opera House.” And Gheorghiu goes to opera when she can. “I like to be there, with not so many emotions and stress. Just here [at the ROH last month] I enjoyed Il trittico; three powerful operas in one evening. Gorgeous.”

Angela Gheorghiu will be appearing in cinemas around the world in a relay of The Royal Opera’s ‘Tosca’ from November 4 (www.roh.org.uk/cinemas). She celebrates her 20th anniversary at the Royal Opera House with performances of ‘La bohème’ on June 19 & 23 2012.


Palais Garnier, Paris

The technical director

Stefano Pace on Paris

When Stefano Pace worked at Palais Garnier in Paris, he had the impression of hearing “La Marseillaise” every time he crossed the threshold. The building, which opened in 1875 on the Place de L’Opéra, embodies the “opulence of the French”, as he puts it, but also the arrogance of an emperor. It was commissioned by Napoleon III, who wanted “to create an age” with as much architectural chutzpah as he could muster. “Garnier is the most astonishing monument,” Pace says. “Bronze salamanders in the corners; angels on the ceilings... In the foyer it’s as if you were in Versailles. The quality of the marble, the paintings... The double staircase, the sculptures...”

To take in Garnier’s richness, he liked to walk around the empty opera house by himself. “It is something completely magical. The smell of old canvas, the velvet, the wood… Eyes shut, I can tell you if I’m in a theatre or not.”

Born in Rome, Pace comes from a “theatre family”; his father was a technical director and scenic painter. Pace started painting and building sets in his workshop from the age of 19. “When you have a red curtain, I feel at home,” he says. He also graduated with an architecture degree in 1985, and was involved in the refurbishment of the Teatro di San Carlo in Naples.

After leaving the Opéra National de Paris, where he was technical director at the Bastille from 1994 and also at Garnier from 2001-2005, Pace now has the same important role – managing the technical staff, the lighting, the set machinery – at Covent Garden. In his small office overlooking the piazza, he talks of the technicians who made Garnier’s stage apparatus by hand with counterweights: “It’s remarkably well done”. But as tastes changed to keep up with the pace of Hollywood, computers began to replace the hand-worked machines, a move that makes Pace nervous: “I am still more comfortable when I know there is a man behind the machine”.

At Covent Garden, it will take him “a few years” to get to know the building properly. But wherever he is, the biggest fear stays the same: “What I care about the most is dropping the curtain during the performance because something is not working. My entire professional life, it has happened only two or three times.”


Operaen, Copenhagen

The artistic director

Kasper Holten on Copenhagen

As a boy Kasper Holten persuaded his parents to buy him a miniature theatre. It was not for fairy tales or child’s play – he wanted to stage operas. Moving the sets and the figurines around, he acted out famous works with the CD playing in the background. It culminated in a performance of Wagner’s entire Ring cycle. “I made my parents and their friends watch it. It must have been quite painful,” he says affably.

Holten, who has just taken up the role of director of opera at Covent Garden (“I’m still every morning pinching my arm when I go there”), was seduced into the art, aged nine, by Carmen, which he saw with his father at Copenhagen’s Royal Danish Theatre. It is a building he loves. “It has so much adventure going on – gold, velvet – but it has an intimacy that many other opera houses don’t have. It has this fairy-tale feeling.”

After seeing Carmen, Holten asked his father to take him to the library where he photocopied the libretto. Then came the puppet theatre, and weekly opera visits funded by his banker parents. By 18, he was volunteering to help opera directors and doing stints at the opera house as an extra. “I have been the dead Telramund in Lohengrin,” he says, laughing at the half-glorious memory.

When he was later hired to work there, it was as artistic director. He was 26 years old. “Some of the oldest employees in the box office could remember me when I was 10 and could barely reach the counter with money my mother had given me.” But there was change coming. A few months into Holten’s directorship the shipping magnate Mærsk Mc-Kinney Møller decided to give Denmark a new opera house, with a donation of almost £300m. There were practical problems with the old building, built in 1874 mostly for Singspiel and drama and much too small for the big operas.

Holten had the “unreal” chance to create something new; his puppet theatre in bricks and mortar, although Mr Møller, as Holten calls him, chose the architect, Henning Larsen. With Holten’s collaboration, Larsen’s glass, limestone and maple wood design was constructed on Copenhagen’s Dock Island. “The auditorium has luckily kept a dark atmosphere; a lot of modern opera houses feel like airport lounges, a bit cold, but also a bit too light for me,” he says. “I like Jean Nouvel’s opera house in Lyon; where it’s pitch-black. When the show’s on your focus is on the stage.”

The quality of magic, so well loved at the old house, was hard to contrive or create at the new location, known as Operaen. It took time for scratches to appear on the walls, for the “smell of theatre” to emerge, for it to get messy and “feel right”. “Of course an opera house does get personality as it’s used,” he says. “Going to the opera is also bringing with you what you’ve experienced elsewhere.”

At Covent Garden he brings with him a passionate belief in opera’s value. It is important for society to have an opera house, he says, “to remind ourselves that life isn’t always logic, that being human is so much more complicated, that we do strange things that drive us into dark places or happy places.” And he leaves behind the more mundane issues at the Operaen: somehow the blueprint overlooked the performers’ most basic needs – there are no toilets next to the stage (“Big problem”). And there is still no easy way to get to the island, except by boat. “When it’s raining and the wind is going down the harbour, it’s 11.30pm after a long Wagner opera and you’re queuing with 300 other people, [the boat] is not so much fun.”

Covent Garden is not without its oddities. Holten recently dedicated a few hours to walking around the building, trying to work out its labyrinthine geography. “It’s the strangest building... Level three doesn’t exist. You go from two to four thinking there’s this Harry Potter level that people disappear into. It turns out it’s the music library. I love it.”

There is a sense of fun to Holten’s character, but it is underlined by an engaging seriousness. For him, even the glamour of opera-going should have a profound motive. “I’ve always been a great believer that it would be a big mistake to say opera should be nothing – come straight from work and don’t wear anything special,” he says. “The trick for me has always been to say ‘you should put on your nicest clothes’, not for my sake but for your own sake, to celebrate that opera is something special. You go there to spoil yourself with three hours of world-class artists telling you stories about what it’s like to be human.”


The mezzo-soprano

Dame Janet Baker on Milan

Backstage at an opera house is not champagne and roses. “The hinter regions of opera houses can be sources of great surprise to people who come and visit you there,” Dame Janet Baker says. “They all think you work in the lap of luxury.”

At the English National Opera, the great mezzo-soprano had a windowless dressing room that was “like working in a basement. But you didn’t think about that – all the basics were there”. A shock came, however, when she travelled with a Covent Garden production to Milan. La Scala was palatial by comparison. “The principal dressing rooms were luxuriously furnished, with a little reception room where you could receive visitors, and behind that was the place where you were dressed and made up. You felt a sense of privacy and elegance.”

Wherever she went, Baker took a makeshift tablecloth with her; a long piece of curtain material. “It was like a mascot: as soon as I put it down in any dressing room I felt at home there.”

Baker gave her farewell concert at the old Glyndebourne house (“small and intimate – the experience of singing there was unique”) in 1982, concluding a career that had begun in the 1960s. In those decades she came to know the quirks of all the different houses and the acoustic “sweet spots” of their stages. At La Scala there was Maria Callas’s favoured spot – “We all knew about that.” At the Coliseum in London, “the proscenium arch was so wide, you had always to think about what angle you were turning your head. You had to be in contact with the audience at all times.”

If the Coliseum was wide, Covent Garden was long: “You felt the length of the stage, the length of the pit – the auditorium seemed a long, long way away”. The distance meant that audiences were unable to hear the background noise that crackled in her ears: “A tannoy giving cues or calling people from the dressing room. To get used to that was quite something.”

But even if the opera house interrupts, the singer has to find a way to continue. “Projection is in the mind; if you intend to get to the back of the hall, somehow you do it.”


The bass-baritone

Bryn Terfel on Vienna

Bryn Terfel’s career was already soaring in the early 1990s when he encountered one of the most critical groups of opera-goers anywhere. Following a smash-hit Salomé at the Salzburg Festival in 1992, he arrived in Vienna in 1993 for Les Contes d’Hoffmann at the State Opera. It is one of the most amazing theatres, Terfel says, “not only in how it looks or where it’s situated, but because of the people who buy the tickets. They go to see singers and not productions.”

In this case the Viennese came to see Terfel with Plácido Domingo (“a real gentleman”), and the then fledgling Natalie Dessay. “Sometimes they would buy five tickets for a single run. They’d come backstage and say ‘you did this differently tonight’. They are passionate about their opera.”

At that time Terfel was still worrying whether he was “doing things right”; a phase he had surely shaken off by the time he suggested to the Lyric Opera in Chicago the “dark operetta” of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd. It ran in 2002, with Sondheim himself checking in on the rehearsals. The composer came backstage with a notebook of observations on Terfel’s performance as the “demonic, troubled” Todd, as the Welshman puts it. After delivering his verdict, Sondheim tore out the pages and put them in the bin. Terfel wisely retrieved them: “When he left, I put them in the back of my score”.

Just as he is on stage, Terfel is a good storyteller, talking down a phone line from New York, where he is rehearsing a new Robert Lepage production of Siegfried at the Met. He tells a Wagner anecdote about his first Ring cycle, which began in 2004 at Covent Garden. Towards the end of the first performance as Wotan in Die Walküre in 2005, the temperamental god lights up a mountaintop with a magic flame – here, via a can of gas that Terfel ignited with a button. “On the opening night the flame went beserk. It became this towering inferno. I could see the firemen on each side of the stage panicking. I tried to blow it out with the top ‘s’ but the consonant wasn’t strong enough. I had to blow it out like an incredibly welcome birthday cake.”

The first person he saw when he came offstage was the broadcaster Huw Edwards – on to whose shoulder he cried. “Huw thought it was the burnt hand, but the fact was that this opera was my Everest. Coming down from that mountain seemed to take ages. I can’t wait to go back to it.”

Bryn Terfel returns to Covent Garden to perform in ‘Der Ring des Nibelungen’ in autumn 2012. Booking opens on Tuesday October 25 at 10am (www.roh.org.uk/thering).


The tenor

Vittorio Grigolo on Bologna

Which Italian opera house would you expect an Italian singer to lust after? La Scala, Milan, seems the obvious answer, but Vittorio Grigolo’s affections lie 220km south-east, in Bologna. “Of course,” says Grigolo, “La Scala was a dream, but I always loved Bologna, it was the centre [of opera] after Milan. And when I put my feet inside the opera house it was so beautiful. It is very special to me.”

Grigolo, who at 34 is nicknamed, rather portentously, “il Pavarottino” in Italy, served part of his apprenticeship at the Teatro Comunale di Bologna. “It’s a theatre that is good for a beginner,” he says. “You need to be an expert to sing in Milan – the bigger the theatre, the more the voice is lost.”

Brought up in Rome, he sang in the Sistine Chapel choir and made his debut at 13, as the shepherd boy in Tosca. With his tender voice and lustrous good looks he has since found a niche somewhere between opera and pop stardom. (He has sung for an album version of West Side Story, and recorded a duet with Nicole Scherzinger of the Pussycat Dolls.)

In person he has the slightly ragged air of an over-tired A-lister, unsurprisingly nostalgic about the carefree days of Bologna, where he had “many loves”. “Bologna is like a friend who buys you a drink; Milan – it buys you a drink but you have to pay for dinner afterwards,” he says, by way of explanation. But even the smaller parts at Bologna had their pressures. Grigolo admits, “It’s not like a big role, when if you mess up a note you have time in four hours to pick it up and get on with it.”

The acoustic at the Bologna theatre, which opened in 1763, is “not as huge as Milan but it is even better, it has this easy way of return, where you can really feel the voice coming back”. And he likes the interior’s light-blueish colour – “nice and not common in a classical theatre”.

The personality of an opera house varies, according to Grigolo, “like babies, they have their own character. Some are more sweet, some are more tough”. Covent Garden proved very sweet indeed last year, when he received rapturous praise for his role in Manon. “I had one of the best experiences ever for Manon. It’s an incredible atmosphere, like a musical or rock show.” (Grigolo loves musicals: he has been to Mary Poppins three times during his stay in London.)

Back in Milan, earlier this year he was given a hero’s welcome as Romeo, in a Salzburg Festival production of Roméo et Juliette at La Scala. Next year he will return to Covent Garden in La traviata, and to La Scala for La bohème and Rigoletto.

All very glamorous, of course, but “sweat and dedication” is what Grigolo can really look forward to.

Vittorio Grigolo returns to The Royal Opera to perform in Verdi’s ‘La traviata’ on January 23 & 25 2012 (booking now open) and ‘Rigoletto’ from March 30 2012 (booking opens on January 31).


About the photographs

The American photographer David Leventi has titled his series of opera house interiors “Björling’s Larynx”, after the great 20th-century Swedish operatic tenor Jussi Björling. As Leventi explains, these are the spaces in which his Romanian grandfather, Anton Gutman, never got the chance to perform. “He was a cantor who was interned in a Soviet prisoner-of-war camp from 1942-1948. The Danish operatic tenor Helge Rosvaenge, also a prisoner, heard my grandfather sing an aria from Tosca and gave him lessons. I grew up listening to him sing in our living room.” To date, Leventi has photographed 40 opera houses in Europe and the Americas, each from centre-stage and lit solely by the existing chandeliers and lamps. “I believe that the space itself can be the event,” he says.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.