My entire trip to Prague was inspired by my desire to see the Czech opera Rusalka in its home country. If that sounds crazy, you’ll really question my sanity to know I started planning my Christmas trip to Prague in July. (Mainly because the Vienna Opera around New Years had already sold out by then, but that’s another story.)
Opera probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Prague, but don’t forget Prague was one of the few cities to survive World War II without extensive damage, so the theaters are old and intact. Seeing these architectural masterpieces is worth an opera by itself, especially considering how inexpensive they are.
So here’s what to know about seeing the opera in Prague.
1. There are three main theaters in Prague (plus a fourth new one).
Prague has not one, not two, but four main theaters and each one is worth visiting for different reasons. Each theater is outlined below with what makes it unique, what performances are produced there and details about going.
2. The oldest is The Estates Theatre.
Continuously running since 1783, The Estates Theatre (or Stavovské divadlo in Czech) is one of the few theaters in Europe that’s preserved (almost) in its original state. Some of the wear and tear is visible on the walls and ceilings, but the authenticity is amazing. It is also the only surviving theater where Mozart performed and where the world premiere of his opera Don Giovanni took place in October 1787.
The Estates Theatre was originally built to house German dramas and Italian operas but eventually Czech productions played there. Today it houses dramas, ballets and operas (mostly Mozart pieces).
I saw The Marriage of Figaro at the Estates Theatre. The theater is surprisingly small with an orchestra pit that only holds around 30 musicians. (See the virtual tour here.) But the sound carries well and I couldn’t imagine any seat in the house being bad, with the exception of the really high levels. The set was incredibly minimalist (and not in the artistic way) but it was enjoyable to see a Mozart opera in the historic theater.
Details: The Estates Theatre is located right in Old Town Prague. Opera tickets range from 100 Koruna (about $4) to 1,290Kč for boxes ($53). Prices vary for ballet and dramas; here’s the price list. Theater tours are available in several languages by emailing them, but they told me only groups were allowed. Operas have subtitles in Czech and English.
3. The most beautiful is The State Opera.
The State Opera (or Státní opera) opened in 1888 as the New German Theater and was later known as the Smetana Theater until 1989 when it became the Prague State Opera. It has an interesting history that mirrors Prague’s political past.
It was originally built as The New German Theater for German-language operas and in the 1930s doubled as a refuge for artists fleeing Germany. Once Czechoslovakia was occupied by the Nazis, political assemblies were held at the theater. After the war, the repertoire focused on Czech operas (and renamed “Smetana Theater”), eventually moving to large-scale worldwide operas and ballets under the Czech communist government. After the Velvet Revolution (meaning the fall of communism), it was renamed the Prague State Opera and focused on performing worldwide operas and ballets.
The State Opera is where I saw Rusalka on my second night in Prague. The mostly-Czech cast did a beautiful job, although the subtitles (shown only in English) were a little strange compared to when I saw it in New York City. But seeing it in its home country was nothing short of surreal.
Details: The State Opera is not far from Old Town Square but a taxi is probably the best way to get there. Opera tickets range from 180Kč to 1290Kč (roughly $8-$53). Note that the upper circle and dress circle have reduced visibility. Like the Estates Theatre, tours are available in several languages by emailing the theater. Individuals are welcome, although they did not hold tours during my stay. More info is here.
4. The most popular is The National Theater.
The National Theater (Národní divadlo) is much larger than the previous two. It was built in 1881 with the help of donations from Czechs around the world as a place to preserve the artistic talents of the Czech culture and to oppose the Hapsburg rule. It even has a stone in the basement shipped from Czechs in Chicago.
It sits next to the Vltava River, facing the Prague Castle (where the Hapsburg rulers lived). Above the stage it says “The Nation to itself” (Narod sobe) and paintings in one of the foyers shows the beginning of art in Prague (pre-Communist), the dark age of art in Prague (during Communist rule) and flourishing of art (now).
Operas, ballets and dramas are all performed here but ballet seems to be the most frequent. I saw an incredible rendition of The Nutcracker mixed with A Christmas Carol—essentially the story of A Christmas Carol set to Tchaikovsky’s famous music. The storyline was much more exciting than the traditional one and went better with the music. The costumes and set were creative and colorful and the dancers were excellent.
Details: The National Theater tickets vary for dramas/operas/ballets. Ballet tickets range from 100-1,100Kč (about $4-$45). Tours are available on weekends for individuals at 8:30 and 11 am in English for 250Kč (150Kč for students); scheduling is not required just arrive 15 minutes early. Email the theater for group tours or other languages.
5. The newest is The New Stage.
The New Stage is next to the National Theater and was completed in 1983. It exclusively produced Laterna magika productions from 1992-2010, a nonverbal type of theater that combines dance, film and black light theater. Today, drama and ballets are also performed along with festivals, guest performances and independent projects.
6. What to Know Before You Go.
Most operas have English supertitles projected above the stage. The languages are listed on the information page of the individual opera. Programs are 60Kč and are in Czech and English. Tickets are available online; December performances went on sale September 1. Performances sell out so plan ahead. All tickets for the above theaters can be purchased together (and ballet/drama/opera/etc can all be combined).
The attire was on the dressy side, but not a lot of formal wear (like tuxes). Men were in suits and blazers while women were in dresses and dress pants. Not as casual as Paris; about the same as what I’ve seen in New York City.
Each theater has several bars offering Bohemian Sekt (sparkling wine), wines, beers and liquor, plus sandwiches and other nibbles. Coat check is available or if you have box seats, available in your box. As with every opera house, I recommend arriving early to admire the beauty of the opera house (and people-watch).