During my wanderings through Budapest, I have become increasingly curious as to what exactly is going on behind the corrugated iron sheeting surrounding the Opera House on Andrássy Avenue since 2017.
Inaugurated on September 27, 1884, the Opera has since attracted opera and ballet lovers. Even closed, the neo-Renaissance palace designed by Miklós Ybl has attracted a constant stream of tourists wanting to take a selfie in front of one of Budapest’s most important historical monuments.
Ybl has designed a structure whose architecture and decorations express the power of music, illustrated by stories from mythology. From the start, he made a major contribution to the opera itself. Bartók’s “Bluebeard’s Castle” and “Wood Prince” as well as all the stage works of Zoltán Kodály were performed there for the first time. The Hungarian State Opera Orchestra has given world premieres to more than 100 works, including the 1889 premiere of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 when he was musical director.
The building was last renovated between 1980 and 1984. Which begs the question, how was the opera viewed under socialism? From what I’ve been able to find out through extensive Google searches, opera, if it didn’t thrive, at least survived. The great Plácido Domingo, who will perform when the Gala reopens on March 12, first appeared at the Hungarian State Opera as Cavaradossi in Puccini’s ‘Tosca’ in 1973.
In 2017, it became clear that the stage engineering, the acoustics of the auditorium and the historical decorations of the Opera House needed major work. The function of some parts also had to be redesigned. As is probably the case with all these things, the government finally decided that a full restoration was in order.
Rather than being closed for one to two years, the Opera House was closed for restoration for almost five years after the government decided on a complete renovation.
Replacing the stage engineering system installed in 1984 was the priority. It now meets today’s demands for faster handling, lower noise levels, variability and precise adjustment. The lighting and flight system (the ropes, blocks, counterweights and other devices that allow a stage crew to move items such as curtains, lights, scenery, stage effects and people around ) have also been updated.
The acoustics were improved by restoring the orchestra pit to its original size and reviving its use as a reverberation chamber. It has also been made mobile. The amount of drapery was reduced and a sound-projecting soundboard was installed behind the stage.
Judging by the photos the Opera kindly sent me, the restored interiors are, in the words of the estate agents, stunning.
The floors in the common areas have also been renovated, bringing the original beauty of the woodwork back to life. The marble door surrounds of the main staircase have been restored to their glory. The ceiling fresco and chandelier are sure to catch the wandering eye.
During such an ambitious renovation, the arrival of COVID-19 did not help. When it struck, efforts and finances were concentrated on building and opening the Studios d’Art Eiffel. This is the new rehearsal, manufacturing and warehouse area of the Hungarian State Opera built on the ruins of the former maintenance and engineering workshop of the Northern Railways, a system vast covered spaces unique in Europe.
From September 2020, the Opera offered more than 100 free live performances, chamber concerts and opera crossovers from the Sándor Hevesi stage at Eiffel Art Studios.
Many of the rooms that served as backstage at the Hungarian State Opera were moved to the Eiffel Art Studios, making way for a rehearsal room and a stage for dress rehearsals.
The rehearsals themselves have never stopped, meaning Opera audiences will be able to enjoy new productions as soon as it opens with this gala featuring Maestro Domingo.
“Friend and Ally”
Described by the Opera as an “invaluable friend and ally of the Hungarian State Opera for half a century”, Domingo will perform at the Reopening Gala to conduct three pieces rooted in Hungarian music by Berlioz, Strauss and Brahms . In April, he will return to sing a complete opera in the role of Simon Boccanegra.
From the gala, the Opera will present a program intended to give it back what the organizers describe as its “legitimate place” as one of the jewels of the international opera scene.
On March 13, a new production of Ferenc Erkel’s “László Hunyadi” will be directed by general director Szilveszter Ókovács, making his directorial debut. Based on the original version of the play, the show will also showcase the artistic and technical virtuosity of the Opera’s modernized stage machinery.
The Hungarian National Ballet returns to the historic building with a new production of Kenneth MacMillan’s lavish “Mayerling” on March 14. Geza M. Toth.
Repertoire productions include “Die Frau ohne Schatten”, “Mefistofele”, “Simon Boccanegra”, “Porgy and Bess”, “Don Carlo”, “Le nozze di Figaro”, “Andrea Chénier”, “La fanciulla del West” , “Un ballo in Maschera” and “Die Zauberflöte”. There will also be performances of the ballet pieces “Romeo and Juliet” and “Onegin”.
There’s a lot to look forward to then, although the reopening of the gala is a private matter. In 1884, the cost to attend the opening ceremony was the equivalent of two horses. Crowds of people who could not afford it demonstrated in the streets outside. They wanted to see not only the exterior but also the lavish interior funded by taxpayers’ forints. I doubt we’ll see the same this time.
The full 2022/23 season will be announced today, Friday 11 March. For more information, visit opera.hu.
This article first appeared in the print issue of the Budapest Business Journal on March 11, 2022.