Opera houses are more than just big buildings that hold musical performances. It may not seem like it, but these vast venues hold keys to a city’s past and, by taking a deeper look at the opera houses, they reveal a lot about the city’s culture.
Sure it sounds superficial, but the more I tour opera houses around the world the more I realize how important they are to the city’s cultural heart. When I landed in Munich, the focus of my trip was attending Oktoberfest and drinking as much beer as I could muster. I thought Oktoberfest was the best way to understand Bavarian culture. Going to the opera — and touring the Munich opera house — was just the Bavarian cream on the top of the cake. But touring the National Theater revealed more of an insight to Munich’s past than even Oktoberfest.
Here are five incredible facts about the National Theater in Munich (Munich’s Opera House):
1. The National Theater was built — and burned down — three times.
Construction on the National Theater began in October 1811 but stalled because of finance issues in 1813. A few years later, the unfinished building caught fire in 1817. The theater finally opened in October 1818, but was destroyed by another fire in January 1823. A new theater was built in 1825 by a different architect who added the Corinthian columns to the front. But as history would have it, the theater was destroyed yet again by an air raid in October 1943 during World War II, when much of Munich was flattened.
The National Theater as we know it today was built in 1963 based on the original architect’s design, which was taken from a painting of the original building found in the basement. The only difference is that the new theater is slightly larger, seating 2,100 people, with a larger stage. The 3,000 square yard stage is the third largest in the world (after Opera Bastille in Paris and Grand Theater in Warsaw).
2. Residents tried to save the burning theater with beer.
Fire was no stranger to buildings back in the day, so the architects of The National Theater purposely built the theater above a water supply to easily extinguish a fire, should the need arise. But when the stage actually did catch fire during a performance of Die beyden Fusche on January 14, 1823 (the second fire mentioned above), the underground water supply was frozen.
Nearby residents, in a panic to save the theater, rushed to the nearby Hofbrauhaus beer hall and returned with huge barrels of beer to pour on the fire. The beer helped the fire from completely destroying the theater. (I hope they drank to that!)
3. The National Theater is the 5th most important opera house in Europe.
Now for some stats: the National Theater is the fifth most important opera theater in Europe based on quality of sound (thanks to the use of wood throughout the building) and number of performances, which number around 100 different productions per year (second only to Vienna’s Staatsoper). The ranking of opera theaters, according to the tour guide in Munich, are La Scala in Milan, Opera Bastille in Paris, Weiner Staatsoper in Vienna, Covent Garden in London and the National Theater in Munich. (I’m two shy of seeing all the houses on this list — eee!)
4. There are no box seats at the National Theater.
The theater’s architect, Karl von Fischer, wanted to make an opera house for the people — not just the rich elder people — hence the name National Theater. So he didn’t include any boxes, save for the royal box and a few boxes used to seat the donors and directors. Today the box to the right of the stage is reserved for donors and directors, while the box to the left of the stage is reserved for the general director and the family of the last Bavarian king.
5. King Ludwig II had a secret passageway from his bedroom to the royal box.
Speaking of the Bavarian king, King Ludwig II had a secret passageway that connected his bedroom to the royal box at the original National Theater so he could sneak in without being noticed. Ludwig II was a huge opera fan, most notably of Wagner operas, which he personally funded for years.
In fact, when Wagner was banned from Bavarian society, it was Ludwig who provided the composer with a home in Switzerland (on Lake Lucerne). Many of Wagner’s operas premiered at the National Theater with the Bavarian State Opera, including Tristan und Isolde, Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg, Das Rheingold and Die Walkure. Ludwig even helped fund Wagner’s personal opera house known as Bayreuth.
Ludwig was so obsessed with Wagner and his operas that one of Ludwig’s most famous castles, Neuschwanstein, was inspired by many of the German composer’s operas.
How to experience the National Theater in Munich:
Guided tours of the National Theater are held in English and German for 10 euros/person several times a week. Tickets can be purchased online here or at the box office. The informational tour takes groups throughout the theater, on the stage, in the orchestra pit and backstage.
Tours are fun, but performances are better. The Bavarian State Opera, Bavarian State Orchestra and Bavarian State Ballet all perform at the National Theater in Munich. The Bavarian State Opera (“Bayerische Staatsoper”) is phenomenal, but make sure to check if the performance has English subtitles — I saw La Traviata and it only had German subtitles (but I’ve seen it enough times not to need a translation and absolutely loved the performance without them).
For more interesting opera house tours, see what to know about the opera in Prague, 5 Incredible Facts about the Paris Opera House, a tour of the Barcelona Opera House, 5 Incredible Facts About Vienna Opera House and 7 tips for seeing the opera.