Most of the world’s greatest cities boast opera houses. And what could be better in winter than dressing up and retreating to the luxury of a magnificent, historic cocoon of culture, garnished in velvet and gilding?
Top 10 opera destinations for 2018
Going to the opera is one of the most civilised pleasures in life, and never more satisfying than when the building soars as much as the music. Since the Real Teatro di San Carlo, the world’s first opera house, opened in 1737 in Naples, a classical exterior complete with portico and pillars and, inside, abundant use of gilding, chandeliers and red velvet, has been the traditional look of opera houses worldwide, from Paris to Prague; “Red and gold disease”, theatre designer Jean Cocteau described it. But newer opera houses, such as the glass, concrete and stone edifices that opened in Copenhagen (in 2005), Oslo (in 2008), Muscat (in 2011) and Dubai (last year), have a modernist look; the Zaha Hadid-designed Guangzhou Opera House in China, opened in 2010, is gloriously futuristic.
So these days you can listen to opera in grand settings all over the world. When you book, just remember to check the seating plan for any mention of “restricted view”. Even some expensive seats – notably, at the Palais Garnier in Paris - don’t give you a clear view of the stage. Discover that too late and you too may be hitting a high C.
1. Palais Garnier, Paris, France
(See main picture) When Emperor Napoleon III and Baron Haussmann planned Paris’s grand boulevards that we know today, a home for the Paris Opera was one of the key landmarks. The Palais Garnier opened in 1875, a Beaux-Arts masterpiece. Founded, like the exquisite little opera house at Versailles, by the Sun King, Louis XIV, in 1669, the Paris Opera company now has two performance spaces – the Garnier and the Opera Bastille – which opened in 1989 and which performers prefer for its modern backstage facilities. For opera audiences, however, there are few more spectacular settings – and for seeing and being seen – than the Garnier, with its exterior marble friezes and statues of great composers such as Beethoven, Mozart and Rossini, a Grand Foyer that defines the word opulent, and a seven-ton crystal chandelier dominating the auditorium. It’s not perfect, though. Renovation brought some ridiculous sightlines. Even some of the most expensive seats have restricted views of the stage. Tickets cost from Dh21 to Dh855.
Stay in 1920s splendour at the George V, the most expensive but best of all Four Seasons hotels; doubles from Dh4,000
2. Vienna State Opera, Vienna, Austria
Along with the Salzburg Opera Festival in July and August, a trip to Vienna’s Staatsoper is on the wishlist of most opera lovers. It has the largest repertoire of any opera house, with performances of about 60 productions each September-to-June season, and attracts the cream of singers and conductors. Located on the Ringstrasse encircling the stateliest part of Austria’s capital, the neo-Renaissance building was opened in 1869, in the dying days of the Habsburg Empire. Bomb damage in the Second World War meant it didn’t reopen until 1955, but the main lobby, central staircase, tea salon and veranda, with its famous Magic Flute frescoes, all remain as they looked in the 19th century. You could start the year with Strauss’s Die Fledermaus on January 1 and end it with Verdi’s Falstaff in June. Tickets cost from Dh13 to Dh1,180 (wiener-staatsoper.at). And for those who love all things ultra-luxe, there is an extra treat in the form of the Opera Ball, grandest of all the annual balls, celebrating the city’s different occupations. It’s on February 8, with tables from Dh865 to Dh88,620 for a 12-person Stage Box. A special parquet floor is laid down and guests dance to the sound of the Vienna Philharmonic.
Stay in grand operatic style at the nearby opulent Hotel Imperial, built in 1873; doubles from Dh1,385
3. La Scala, Milan, Italy
Despite stiff competition from the Real Teatro di San Carlo in Naples (the oldest continuously active opera house in the world, which gleams from the multi-million-dirham renovation from which it emerged in 2010), La Scala, which opened in 1778, is the most famous opera house in Italy, and probably the world. The 2,000-seat auditorium thrills the heart with its four circles of boxes, a confection of red velvet and gilding. The sightlines are excellent and the acoustics so perfect (thanks to a concave channel under the wooden floor of the orchestra) that even top singers have been booed by the hyper-critical opera fanatics who populate the loggione, the two galleries above the tiers of boxes. Not even Parisian audiences rival La Scala’s for look-at-me dressed-up fabulousness. Tickets cost from Dh56 to Dh995 (teatroallascala.org). If you have time, it’s worth going to the Scala museum beforehand: packed with costumes and programmes from the past, it’s open almost daily from 9am to 5.30pm, with Dh38 tours led by music-trained guides.
Stay at the Bulgari in tranquil Brera, with its inspiring, arty website; doubles from Dh2,760
4. Glyndebourne, Sussex, England
London’s Royal Opera House is more famous, and does everything a good opera house should do, as well as hosting the world’s top singers in a setting of acoustic excellence and thrilling beauty: it runs backstage tours to tempt in non-opera goers and offers cheap last-minute tickets. But you can have a similar experience in Vienna or Milan, Moscow or New York. Glyndebourne, on the other hand, is unique. Founded in 1934 in a country house surrounded by idyllic gardens looking out onto rolling hills, it’s a glorious setting for promising young singers, as well as top names. Performances start mid-afternoon (to fit in with trains back to London) and one of the joys here is that although it is a tradition for men to wear black tie and women a formal dress, it is also part of the Glyndebourne experience that guests bring a picnic to eat on one of the lawns. A lot even set up a table with linen cloth, gleaming silverware and candles. The 2018 season runs from May 19 to August 26, with tickets from Dh97 to Dh1,300, starting with Puccini’s Madame Butterfly and ending with Samuel Barber’s Vanessa (glyndebourne.com).
Stay an hour away at the lovely old Gravetye Manor, built in 1598; doubles from Dh2,035 and special chauffeured Glyndebourne packages
5. Metropolitan Opera House, New York
The Met, as it’s known, is the best opera house in the US and, arguably, the world. This isn’t so much for its beauty, since despite the splendid exterior of its home since 1966, the Lincoln Centre for the Performing Arts, where five multi-storey arched windows fill the foyer with light, the interior of the auditorium is routinely derided as suburban, a bitter insult in the hyperbolic world of opera. But the acoustics are superb, sightlines as good as they get, and productions so thrillingly inventive and varied that for singers, musicians and conductors alike, performing here represents the pinnacle of a career. Technologically it excels, too. The Met was the first to broadcast opera on the radio, regularly hosts live broadcasts of its operas in cinemas around the world, giving everyone better close-ups than any seat in the house provides, and has brilliantly discreet seat-back surtitles. Tickets range from Dh92 to Dh1,690 in one of the eight-seat Centre Parterre boxes. The world’s most popular opera, La Bohème, runs until March 10, and the current season ends in October with Mozart’s last production, Die Zauberflotte, set in Egypt and designed by Julie Taylor of Lion King fame. The Dh110 backstage tours at 10.30am and 1.30pm on a Sunday are great fun (metopera.org).
Stay a few minutes’ stroll away at the Mandarin Oriental, high above Columbus Circle; doubles from Dh3,900
6. Margravial Opera House, Bayreuth, Germany
Germany has more opera houses than any other country in the world: 59, compared to 53 in Italy, 52 in the US, 30 in China and 27 in France. This is its most sumptuous. Built in festive Italian baroque style in red, blue and gold, and finished in 1748, it is the world’s only opera house with an auditorium that retains its original canvas and wood fittings, so unchanged that 21st-century audiences experience almost exactly what their 18th-century forebears did. Even the three-storey foyer pales in comparison with the fantasy world on show in the auditorium, with its painted ceiling showing the mythical Greek god Apollo and his attendants, garlanded pillars and gilded boxes. It’s an added attraction in the little town of Bayreuth, famous for the annual festival of Wagner operas, held since an inaugural performance in 1876 attended by the philosopher Nietzche and composers Liszt, Greig and Tchaikovsky. With just 58,000 tickets available for the season (July 25 to August 29) and usually about 500,000 applicants, getting one is a matter of luck, but they go online at the start of the year, ranging from Dh51 to Dh1,729. Currently closed for refurbishment, the Margravial reopens next year.
Stay at the 60-room, 18th-century Goldener Anker hotel, next to the opera house and a mile from the festival theatre; doubles from Dh727
7. Sydney Opera House, Australia
Sydney’s influence on the design of Dubai’s dhow-shaped opera house, which opened last year, is clear. Danish architect Jorn Utzon’s masterpiece was also designed to resemble a boat, and despite costing (via an Opera House Lottery) more than 12 times its original budget, and taking 15 years to build rather than four, it has acted as Australia’s key landmark since it opened on the harbourside in 1973. Its design broke with all opera tradition: no red, no gold, but instead a mix of indigenous woods was used in the construction, meaning opera-lovers with a discerning ear get a markedly different acoustic experience compared to traditional opera houses. There are five theatres under the famous roofs, as well as an open-air forecourt cafe where locals and visitors throng, whether or not they’re attending a performance. The big date is New Year’s Eve, with a choice of Lehar’s The Merry Widow or an evening of pieces from Verdi, Puccini and Rossini, followed by a close-up view of the famous firework displays on Sydney Harbour Bridge. Tickets to either cost from Dh860 to Dh1,375, while The Merry Widow runs until Feb 3.
Stay at the Park Hyatt, Sydney’s top hotel, with floor-to-ceiling views of the Opera House and Harbour; doubles from Dh3,488
8. Guangzhou Opera House, Guangzhou, China
This is the most extravagantly modern of the world’s newest opera houses, and one of the last projects designed by Zaha Hadid. A 20-minute drive from the city centre, the granite and glass structure enlivens the dull business district of Tianhe on the edge of the city, close to the Pearl River. With no resident company it hosts visiting companies, sometimes top-quality – as during the recent German Week, which included the Berlin Philharmonic and Germany’s top tenor, Jonas Kaufmann – and sometimes not. But the star of the show is the extraordinary building, described by Hadid as a twin pebble – from the outside, it resembles a group of stones on a riverbed eroded by the water currents. Inside, it is all swooping curves, with the interior of the auditorium resembling the inside of an oyster. Tickets cost from Dh490 to Dh2,160
Stay next to the opera house at the 351-room Ritz-Carlton, with doubles from Dh1,110
9. Prague Estates Theatre, Prague, Czech republic
Anyone who likes a bargain as much as a night at the opera will revel in East European opera houses – this, Budapest’s and Riga’s in particular. Like the latter two, Prague’s is a jewel box of a theatre. Founded in 1783 to give access to great music to as broad a section of the public as possible, its great claim to worldwide fame is that in 1787, Mozart himself conducted the world premiere of his Don Giovanni here. It remains old-school, gilded and red-velveted – and extremely good value. A seat in a box close to the stage can cost as little as Dh337, even when top-level singers are performing; drinks and snacks at the interval don’t cost the arm and a leg they do at La Scala; and at the interval, one can enjoy excellent views of the river and hilltop castle, theatrically lit at night. The only criticism is that the English subtitles, provided throughout a performance, are placed so high above the stage that you get neck ache from constantly glancing up. Productions include Czech operas such as Dvorak’s Rusalka, as well as works by Verdi, Puccini and Mozart . Tickets cost from Dh48 to Dh840.
Stay at the 51-room, music-oriented old Aria Hotel; doubles from Dh870
10. Teatro Colon, Buenos Aires, Argentina
This magnificent opera house isn’t just the pride and joy of cultural life in Argentina. Modelled on the horseshoe-shaped design of Milan’s La Scala, acoustically it ranks as one of the five best city opera venues in the world, with voices and orchestra transmitted to even the furthest seats with the same clarity as at La Scala, London’s Royal Opera House, and the operas in Vienna and Paris. Opened in 1908 with a performance of Verdi’s Aida, it has had its own company since the 1930s, which means it doesn’t have to rely on touring productions. During its history, it has hosted all the great luminaries in opera, from Enrico Caruso and Maria Callas to Luciano Pavarotti and Placido Domingo. Its season runs from March to December, and the four-year refurbishment unveiled in 2010 has restored it to its original glamour. Now all 700 light bulbs in the central chandelier blaze and the famous Salon Dorado, sweeping staircases and mirrored foyers provide as glamorous a backdrop against which to see and be seen as the Palais Garnier. Ticket prices range from Dh550 to Dh11,575.
Stay nearby at the ultra-glamorous old Palacio Duhau; doubles from Dh1,971