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Opera Theater




"A Must See"

Opera and Ballet Theater

Chaikovskovo 1 (Чайковского переулок)
(Chaikovskovo is the street behind opera theater, street in front of theater is Lanzjeronovskaya (Ланжероновская))

Cashier, telephone: 29-13-29
Tel/Fax: 29-49-04

The very first city theater was built in 1809 and opened with a grand ceremony on February 10th, 1810, only 16 years after the founding of Odessa. The St. Petersburg architect Thomas de Thomon designed it.

This first theater was located almost exactly on the same spot as today's Opera and Ballet Theater. It had a rectangular shape of an antique temple. The main entrance with its colonnade faced the Black sea. There were 800 places in the theater, only forty-four in the stalls, the remainder were standing room. There were three rows of boxes in a semi-circle, and over them the gallery, but no foyer.

In the poem "Eugene Onegin", Alexander Pushkin refers to the first theater:

As dusk falls softly
Haste to the opera
To hear the divine Rossini
And Europe's darling Orpheus…

On the night of January 2, 1873, the building was gutted with fire. It is suspected that the fire was caused by a gas burner illuminating the front clock.

Odessites immediately launched a fund-raising campaign for a new theater. Typical of many Russian contests throughout history to raise public attention to a public project, a contest was held for the best design of the theater, but of the forty designs submitted, none of the projects were approved. The designs were commissioned to the Vienna architects Ferdinand Felner and Herman Gelmer who had already built opera houses in many other European cities (Budapest, Dresden, Milan, Vienna, and eleven others). The foundation stone was laid on September 16th, 1884. The theater was built entirely with Odessa workers and overseen by Odessa architects. Three years later on October 1, 1887, there was the inauguration of the "Odessa City theater" (as it was then called). One of the theater's designers, Ferdinand Felner, attended the opening ceremony, he reportedly burst into tears and said that nothing of the kind existed anywhere in the world. (Felner and Gelmer also designed the Scientist's club)

There is a legend in Odessa that when Odessites learned that the construction had cost 1.3 million gold rubles they gasped, but when they saw the new theater they gasped once more, this time in admiration.

To keep patrons comfortable in Odessa's humid summers, workers lowered wagonloads of ice and straw down a 35-foot shaft, then carried it through a tunnel to a basement beneath the hall, where cool air wafted up from vents beneath the seats.

In March of 1925, during one of the performances, a fire broke out on the stage and badly damaged the adjoining auditorium and corridors. It was quickly repaired.

During World War Two, the Nazi's removed the costumes, the books, and the sets from the theater.

When the Nazis were fleeing Odessa, they placed forty time bombs in the building. Fortunately, the building was saved because of the quick advance of the Soviet troops.

On April 10th, 1944, the Soviet flag was hoisted over the central balcony. Odessa had been liberated.

Part of the theater equipment was found very near the city and was returned. In October 1944, the theater was reopened to the public.

In the 1950's, settling of the foundation caused cracks to appear in the walls, and subterranean waters seeped into the foundation. Odessa is underlain with a system of catacombs, and the opera's foundation was threatened by the possibility of subsiding into the subterranean tunnels. To save the theater, in 1956, 2,300 wells were drilled around three of the sides, between 6 million liters (1,580,000 gallons) of silicate gas were pumped into the holes to stabilize and harden the foundation. This sealed the foundation and prevented further water penetration.

In 1966-1967 the building underwent restoration. The Ukrainian government spent 4 million rubles and 9 kilograms of 24 carat gold to restore the theater. In November 1967, the theater was reopened to the public.

In 1999-2002, the building again underwent restoration.

A visitor to Odessa will inevitably hear Odessites boast that the opera theater is the second best opera theater in the world, next to the former Stadt Opera in Vienna

Theaters throughout Europe always had problems with fire. The theater architects recognized this, and designed the theater with aisles that led directly, from the center to the exits. Stairways led to the exits from each of the tiers. The theater has twenty emergency exits. This is why the facade is horseshoe-shaped with an arched gateway over the hall.

Soviet emblem above Opera theater entrance

The lavishly decorated semicircular front of the building, with the two-tier central "triumphal" arch over its main entrance, faces Odessa's most famous street, Deribasovskaya (Дерибасовская). The theater is in predominately Viennese barquoe style with Frech rococo and Italian Renaissance styles. The walls and foundation are made of salmon-colored brick from Italy.

The main entrance is decorated with sculptures from Greek mythology:

The roof sculpture is Melpomene, the Greek Muse of tragedy. She stands on a chariot drawn by four furious panthers.

The Greek God Zeus, took the form of a shepherd and descended to the hills of Eleuther. There he slept with Mnemosyne for nine nights. Mnemosyne later gave birth to nine daughters, the Muses.

Melpomene was the Muse of Tragedy. Her name comes from the Greek word melpein (to sing). She is usually represented with a tragic mask and wearing buskins (thick-soled laced half boots worn by actors of Greek and Roman tragedies). Sometimes she holds a knife of club in one hand, and the mask in the other.

Lower, on either side of the archway, a top the pillars, are two other sculptures:

On the right stands Terpsichore, the sister of Melpomene and the Muse of dancing and song, dancing with a girl.


On the left stand Orpheus with a cithara (an ancient instrument resembling a lyre) in his hands singing to a centaur.

Orpheus was the king of the Ciconians (who lived on the southwestern coast of Thrace) and an argonaut, a group of heroic sailors. Orpheus could move stones and trees, and also enchant wild beasts with his signing. When the argonauts passed the sirens (three women that played deadly songs, from the thighs down they had the forms of birds) Orpheus chanted a counter melody to protect the sailors. He also descended to the Underworld/Hades in order to find his dead wife. He entranced Persephone by his songs and persuaded her to help him bring back to life his dead wife, on the one condition that he not turn around when leaving the Hades. Orpheus forgot and lost his wife a second time.

The major dates relating to the building are engraved on the front of the building:

1884-1887 is the year of the theater's construction
1925 means the theater was on fire this year, and
1967 is the year of the theater's restoration.

The sculpture next to the main entrance on the right is from Aristophanes' comedy The Birds.

The Bird's is satire showing Aristophane's (455 BC) contempt for the philosophers of Greece. It is a story of two men who leave the community to form a utopian society among the birds. To do so they must build a city in the sky. By building a city, the birds will become rulers of the world. Like all of Aristophanes' comedies, the story has many very graphic portrayals of the various parts of the male anatomy.

The sculpture on the left is from the Euripides' tragedy Hippolytus.

Hippolytus (pronounced hi-pahl-i-tuhs) was the son of Theseus (the great Athenian hero), and Hippolyta (queen of the Amazons). When Hippolyta died, Thesus decided to marry Phaedra. Phaedra fell in love with Hippolytus. Hippolytus rejected Phaedra's advances. Phaedra then wrote a letter to Theseus saying that Hippolytus had raped her, and then she hung herself. Theseus believed the letter and used one of the three curses given to him by Poseidon, the god of the sea. While Hippolytus was driving his chariot, a huge sea monster summoned by Poseidon frightened the horses, dragging Hippolytus to his death. Artemis later told Theseus the tragic truth.

Placed in the upper niches there are the busts of the famous writers
Nikolai Gogol
Alexander Griboyedov
Alexander Pushkin
Mikhail Glinka,
the founder of Russian classical music

The railing is decorated with masked figures and cupids singing, dancing and playing musical instruments.


To the right of the main entrance the plaque states:

On the balcony of the Opera and Ballet Theater,
a banner of liberation of Odessa from
fascist aggressors was raised on April 10, 1944 .

From Corbis.com

Inside, the acoustics in the theater are excellent; the slightest whisper can be heard throughout the theater.

The two main staircases leading to the boxes are especially spectacular. The foyer of the dress circle with its inside balconies, lamps, light arches, bridges looks exquisite.

The cavernous half-oval performance hall has over 1,600 crimson velvet upholstered chairs.

Photo from claus-seyfried.de

The 21-meter (70 foot) high, five-tier auditorium has valuable sculptures and lamps, which create a wonderful artistic effect. .

The ceiling in decorated in golden medallion frames with the scenes from Shakespeare's: Hamlet, Twelfth Night, A Midsummer's Night Dream, and A Winter's Tale, painted by the Viennese artist Lefleur. There are dozens of architectural ornaments.

The theater curtain was outlined by the theatrical painter Golovin, it is red velvet embroidered with gold and silver needlework. The stage is 500 square meters (1800 square feet). The theater is air-conditioned.

Twenty-four caryatids (a supporting column sculpted in the form of a draped female figure) support the boxes on the first tier. All 24 are different. The bronze chandelier has 208 bulbs and weighs and astounding two tons, 200 kg. It is 9 meters (29.5 feet) high and 4 meters (13.1 feet) in diameter. 12 kilograms (26.5 pounds) of gold leaf is used on the interior.

Some of the greats, including Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky and Rubinstein, have performed at the Opera Theater. Anna Pavlova, the first world ballet-dancer, performed at the Opera Theater.

There are 25 operas, such as "Carmen", "Aida", "Il Trovatore", "La Traviata", "Cavaleria Rusticana", "I Pagliacci", "Iolanta", "Madam Butterfly", Rigoletto"

Other performances include: "Jizelle", "Sleeping Beauty", "Nut-Cracker", "Don Quixote", "Chopiniana", "Un Ballo in Maschera", "Hunchback Horse", "Carmen-Suite".

The incredibly sinking Opera Theater
The opera theater is an incredible work of art, with only one problem: it is falling apart.

The first cracks in the foundation appeared almost as soon as the building opened. Its eastern half sagged almost 18 centimeters (7 inches) in its first three years, and the walls began to tip.

In the mid-1920's workers installed a movable concrete firewall between the orchestra pit and the stage. It weighed 38 metric tons (42 tons), and the two walls on either side of the stage began to crack and buckle further.

The 1966-1967 restoration was only cosmetic, and the major structural problems were not addressed.

Every time it rained, the opera house's network of gutters, concealed within the walls for aesthetic purposes, funneled water into the sewers and then into the ground beneath the building. The sagging began to speed up. Before long, the outside walls were a 30 centimeters (1 foot) lower than the innermost ones.

Experts found that the opera house was simply built on top of a ravine that had been filled with dirt and the foundations were simply sitting on the clay layers instead of touching solid rock. Thus water affected the clays and the sagging began in the foundation. Some parts of the theater, such as the 300-ton wall near the stage, were in imminent threat of toppling.

Preventing the collapse required drilling 1,800 15.2 meters (50 feet) holes beneath the foundation into underlying rock, then filling the holes with concrete to create pilings. But to avoid future cracks, the width of the foundation will have to be doubled.

All this work would be pointless unless the roof was replaced, cracks in interior walls repaired, and heavy firewalls replaced with lighter material. The pipes and wiring were worn out. Upper floors had to be encircled with metal bands to put a stop to the outer walls separating from the inner walls.

Experts said that it would cost nearly $18 million. The theater organized a fund-raising committee and sought contributions to save the opera theater. The renovation of the Opera theater is still ongoing as of the summer of 2002.
--Adapted from Odessa journal article, by Michael Wines

Odessa theater from Deribasovskaya street
(from the web)

Soviet era photo behind
the opera theater


Jiri Pribik was the musical director of the Odessa Opera Theater from 1894 to 1937. He lived at Mayakovskava 6 (Маяковского).


Continue your virtul tour by walking to the Building of architectural distinction
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