The oldest opera house in Ukraine has an incredible history: starting from its construction in the 19th century and immediate fire, to hosting legendary composers like Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff, famous singers like Enrico Caruso and talented dancers like Isadora Duncan. Odessa Opera and Ballet Theater has an intriguing story to tell — let’s check it out!
Construction and Fire
Its history starts with the First City Theater — that’s how Odessa Opera House was called in the project during its construction. The idea belonged to Duke of Richelieu, whose monument nowadays is one of the popular meeting places in Odessa. Jean-François Thomas de Thomon, a famous French architect who designed many buildings in Eastern Europe, including the building of Bolshoi Theater in Saint Peterburg, led the theater’s project. He used the qualities of the seaside city to the fullest potential, placing the First City Theater on a hill where it could be observed from any angle, including the sea. The building was tremendous and reminded of an antique temple with its white stone and grandeur style. On February 10, after a fruitful construction, Odessa witnessed the grand opening of the First City Theater.
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Merely a year later, the theater already had first regular repertoire, which consisted of comedies, tragedies and vaudevilles. Quickly gaining popularity among famous opera singers, who wished to perform on its stage, it also wasn’t overlooked by Aleksandr Pushkin. During the poet’s visit to Odessa in 1823-34, he was so impressed by the Theater that he included a verse dedicated to the First City Theater in his famous novel Eugene Onegin. A famous composer Franz Liszt finished his career as a pianist in Odessa, by giving 6 solo concerts to the roaring public in 1847.
The theater's first era might have been even more rich, if not for the fire of 1873. On January 2, a malfunctioning gas lamp caused a spark that brought the First City Theater to ruins in just one night. The haunting ruins stood till the late 70s, until the city council announced a contest for rebuilding theatre anew.
The new theater rises
The contest for a new building of the cultural value lasted for couple of years — every single of more than 40 projects from local and foreign architects was truly astonishing. The new page in history of Odessa Opera House history in Ukraine was turned in the beginning of 1880s: two young Austrian architects, Ferdinand Fellner and Hermann Helmer, were chosen to revive the theater. Bureau Fellner & Helmer specialized on designing theaters, which may have given them props in comparison with other participants. Odessa Theater became the 13th project and in spite of superstitions was incredibly thought through: firstly, fire safety was designed on the highest possible level at the time, to avoid the same mistake that cost the previous building its life. Four sculptors and two painters worked hard to give the Odessa Opera House the look that astonished local elite and foreign guests. Moreover, the theater was one of the only buildings in the whole city that used electricity and was lit up at night.
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October 1 marked the first gala performance and the era of the legendary personas that graced the theater’s stage: singers Enrico Caruso, Feodor Chaliapin and one of the brightest Ukrainian opera stars Solomiya Krushelnytska, composer Sergei Rachmaninoff, actors Sarah Bernhardt and Ernesto Rossi, dancer Isadora Duncan, and, of course, conductor and composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.
Revolution and the WWII Soviet Era
After the 1917 Revolution, theater’s history and repertoire developed even quicker: first it gained an Academic status in 1922, then it was given a new name — Anatoly Lunacharsky Odessa City Theater. 1920s and 30s became a true revival of Ukrainian theater: Taras Bulba and Natalka-Poltavka, monumental works by a famous composer Mykola Lysenko, were added to the repertoire of Odessa Opera Theater. Another Ukrainian piece, Zaporozhets za Dunayem — opera by Semen Hulak-Artemovsky — was incredibly popular at the time. Another fire at the theater happened in that period – this time, thanks to the safety precautions of Fellner and Helmer, the building wasn’t turned into an unrecoverable mess. The stage burned down, but was rather quickly recovered with even more reliable and modern at the time technologies. The theater continued its life, now staging mostly Soviet plays and pieces created by Soviet composers.
The World War II that quickly reached Ukrainian lands was an obvious threat to the theater — most actors and theater workers were evacuated to different cities in the Soviet Union. Troupes, however, didn’t abandon their job and gave more than a hundred concerts for the soldiers at the front. During the bombing of Odessa, the theater’s director didn’t leave the premises for a minute. Once he even threw out a wayward shell that landed through the window and thus saved the theater from its ruining.
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In 1941, despite the ongoing military invasion in Ukraine, Odessa Opera Theater started operating again. The repertoire included the well-known classics: Eugene Onegin, which became the first play after the re-opening, operas by Giuseppe Verdi like Aida and Rigoletto, ballets Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty. The theater had a huge success with locals, who wanted to take a breather during the complicated wartime, as well as German and Romanian citizens, who enjoyed the city’s cultural life. The period of occupation ended in 1944 with a plan of blowing up the theater’s premises. Luckily, it didn’t happen, and on April 10 Soviet troops marched through the city, celebrating its liberation.
Post-war and nowadays
In 1950s, Odessa Opera Theater became the first stage for many young dancers and singers, who graduated from the USSR’s strongest choreographic schools and performed more than 25 operas and 20 ballets. Mid 1960s marked the beginning of long reconstruction works that were aimed not only at restoring the previous classic look of the theater, but preserving the building itself. During that time, construction workers fixed everything starting from the paint to golden details and fundament of the theater that was greatly strengthened to exclude the possibility of subsidence. However, the building was then dilapidated for a long time up to the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Odessa Opera House has met the independence of Ukraine in an emergency condition, and 10 years after the government’s decision about the great reconstruction finally saw a new majestic era in its history. On September 22 in 2007, which marked the 120 years since the building’s rising, Odessa National Academic Theatre of Opera and Ballet has opened its doors again.
Declared one of the most unusual sightseeing spots in Eastern Europe by Forbes magazine, the theater continues to work and stage more and more plays for the visitors’ enjoyment. Up to date, the repertoire has the timeless classics like Carmen, Il Trovatore, Giselle, The Nutcracker, as well as contemporary performances — hits of the world cinematography soundtracks performed live.
The theater is located at 1, Tchaikovsky Street in the historical district of Odessa.
Photo sources: archodessa.com, shutterstock.com. All images belong to their rightful authors.