The Many Names for ‘Mozart’s Theatre’
Question: Where are the strictest usherettes in Prague, and why?
Answer: In the theatre of the Estates (Stavovské Divadlo) on Prague’s Ovocny Trh (Fruit Market street). The reason is simple: the floors inside Prague’s oldest theatre are made of wood.
“The stage and the auditorium have been reconstructed many times, but the building around them is still made of the original wooden beams and boards, and during a performance you can’t have people walking around the corridors because you literally feel every step,” National Theatre spokeswoman Josefina Panenková tells Opus Osm.
Originally, the small Classicist gem off Prague’s elegant Příkopy Avenue was Prague’s only large theatre, with seating and standing spaces for some 1000 spectators. It was known as the National theatre — and by many other names since then.
No wonder visitors to Prague sometimes end up calling it “the green theatre where Mozart played.”
The Many Names of the Stavovské
Perhaps no other theatre in Prague has changed its name so many times as the poor Stavovské, which was rechristened with every change of owner, regime, or nationalist sentiment.
When it was built by Count František Antonín Nostic Rieneck in 1781, it was known as the National theatre. In 1797 it was bought by the Czech Estates (another name for the country’s higher-caste bourgeoisie). Because the new owners were predominantly German-speaking, performances there were in German. But its most famous director, Josef Kajetán Tyl, endorsed “Czech Sundays” at what was now known as the Nostitz theatre. It was in his opera, Fidlovačka, that the Czech national anthem was heard for the first time.
After the present National theatre on Národní Třída street was built specifically for Czech performances in 1844, the Nostitz theatre changed its names to Deutsches Landestheatre and became the city’s top German language theatre.
In 1920, after the country emerged from the “hated yoke” of the Austrian Empire, the Deutsches Landestheatre came under the wings of the National theatre, more or less by force. The German management was forced out and the new owners were embroiled in litigation for years to come. For this reason Czechoslovakia’s first president, Tomas Garrigue Masaryk, refused to set foot inside the theatre, now known as the Stavovské Divadlo (theatre of the Estates).
It finally got its name, along with a general “upgrade” back in 1989, and today it is once again known as the Stavovské (stahv-ov-skeh).
At a time when opera was all the rage, it was designed in the “modern” style, where the area of the stage was exactly equivalent to that of the auditorium, or house. The arch created by the parterre and the balconies swept the sound from the stage over the loggia, mezzanine and upward to “the gods,” as the highest (and cheapest) seats in the theatre were known.
Little is known today of the original décor, although
something can be deduced from the copies of prints
hanging in the corridors. Nowadays, the color scheme of the auditorium is blue brocade and gold stucco; although in the 18th century red or pink would have been more likely.
Nonetheless, the cherubs and putti playing on the front of row upon row of palm-sized, curlicued boxes (people were smaller in the 18th century) and an equally ornate proscenium (the “arch” separating the audience from the stage) will take your imagination back to Mozart’s times.
The best seats in the house are in the king’s box, located directly across from the stage in the middle of the loggia. The worst seats are in the president’s box, located on the right, directly above the stage and the drum and brass section of the orchestra, which provide a perfect view of the wings, along with the sides of actors’ or singers’ heads.
This may be why former president Vaclav Havel liked to visit the Stavovské incognito and usually bought tickets in the parterre.
During the breaks you can take refreshments in the Nostitz Salon on the second floor or read up on the history of the theatre in the Classicist-style Mozart’s Salon on the first floor. Don’t forget to look up at the magnificent brass chandeliers that grace the ceilings throughout the building.
The entire theatre was fully reconstructed in the 1980’s, but the designers strove to maintain the Classicist style – with the exception of several inexplicable 1980’s style glass sconces on the walls of the otherwise perfect newly built subterranean cloak room.
Mozart and Prague
On January 20, 1787 a visiting composer directed an avant-garde opera in the Stavovské.
It had not been well-received in his home town of Vienna, where the subject was considered too vulgar for the noble medium of opera.
“Until that time, operas had been about the gods and heroes of antiquity, about kings and noblemen. This one was about servants, and, worse, smart servants who help their masters achieve their often silly goals – that didn’t go over well with the conservative Viennese audiences,” Ms Panenková says.
In the more free-wheeling atmosphere of Prague, however, the “revolutionary” Marriage of Figaro, composed and conducted by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, was a huge success. So encouraged was the composer by the response, that in the same year he created a second opera specifically for Prague and directed it for the first time on October 29 in the Nostitz theatre.
It was Don Giovanni, and it was a hit.
He composed a third, more conventional opera, La Clemenza di Tito, in 1791 on the coronation of the Emperor Josef II as Czech King, but, unsurprisingly, that did not meet with the same success.
Today, the Stavovské is still Prague’s leading venue for Mozart’s operas. No matter what name you call it. oo
Photo Credits: facade, Mary Matz; Nostitz roof detail, Miroslav Setnička; theatre, street, Setnička; interior, Kocian+Skupien for Stavovské Divadlo; sculpture, truck, Matz.