Professor of Art History E.J. Johnson’s new book Inventing the Opera House: Theater and Architecture in Renaissance and Baroque Italy invites readers into the stories hidden within opera houses. The book features stories of Venetian politics, travelling performers, the spreading of ideas, connections between art forms and, most centrally, an architectural model that has remained largely unchanged and ubiquitously employed since the 17th century.
Johnson’s book encapsulates “the development of the architecture of the modern theater,” he said. Perhaps what makes this field of such interest to Johnson is that this development did not proceed through incremental advances in technology and style, as architectural developments typically do. Instead, the architectural style “didn’t exist before the 17th century.” The slow development began in the “15th century, when Italians first began to perform Roman comedies,” Johnson said.
According to Johnson, Italians did not perform these comedies in the Middle Ages because of restrictions set by the Church.
These first comics had “make-shift theaters built by the seat of the pants, and gradually over time various solutions were proposed,” he said. “Some of them worked and some of them didn’t, until finally, in 1580 in Venice, the theater box was invented. The orchestra pit seems to have been invented in 1621.”
What differentiates this process from standard development is that, architecturally, this is largely the end of the development process.
Johnson explained that the basic outline of a large opera house consists of theater boxes stacked about five-high, a floor area with seats, an orchestra pit and a deep stage. Contemporary designs remain very similar to those of the 17th century. As examples of this typical style, he cites the opera house at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City as well as a new house in Guangzhou, China, designed by a premier contemporary architect as two modern buildings that maintain the original Italian model.
The stories lie in these defining features of stage depth, theater boxes and so on. Johnson explained that the reason the theater boxes became, and remain, so popular tells a story about the sociopolitical culture of Venice at the time of their origination.
“[The boxes] turned out to be very useful for communal fund-raising, because you could sell the boxes to the richest people in town. When you walk into the box, you have the feeling that you’re stepping out onto a stage,” he said.
The boxes seemed to instill a sense of social importance and indulgence, which appealed to the elites of Venice so much that profits due to box purchases could fund an entire theater. To this day, boxes remain a staple of opera houses. “The elite of New York isn’t that different from the elite of Venice in the 1600s,” Johnson said.
Johnson explained that the depth of the stage tells a story as well. The reason these stages were and are so deep is that theater companies “developed these scenes and sets meant to wow people. They had gods flying around on clouds,” he said.
The magnificence and intricateness of the stage enabled theater companies to display detail in the fore- and backgrounds. The music and pieces in the orchestra pit also contributed to the awe-inspiring atmosphere. It is this combination of “drama and music and arts,” an “all-together art form, which required its own building. It needed its own housing,” Johnson said.
That “all-together art form” is the opera, and that housing is the opera house. For Johnson, the ability to utilize architecture that is still in use today to synthesize art in new and impressive ways is one of the most remarkable things about opera houses.
Stories learned through studying and examining buildings and building design shed light on the world around us. Johnson conscientiously tells these stories, enthralled with the fact that each can be told simply by looking at the structures around us. To the average opera-goer, the house is stunning, but to Johnson, the opera house is much more than just its physical appearance: It is a collection of stories from the Europe of the past.