An opera disaster unfolding in Prague

An opera disaster unfolding in Prague


norman lebrecht

July 04, 2011

The Czech government is forcibly merging the State Opera with the National Theatre, demolishing 150 year-old separate traditions. The National was founded by Smetana and sang in Czech; what is now the State Opera was originally the German Theatre and had Mahler and Zemlinsky as chief conductors.

But tradition counts for nothing in politics and the demolition of an opera house in ‘a faraway country… (of which) we know nothing’ has attracted no outside attention, none of the outcry that justly attends the destruction of Dutch infrastructures. If you love Prague, now is the time to shout. Here’s an update on the local protests.

And here’s an insider account sent to me, in Czech-English:

On June 6, 2011 the minister of culture Ji?í Besser (former profession dentist, former party Communist) announced the fusion of the National Theatre in Prague (NT) with the Prague State Opera (PSO), starting January 1, 2012. The PSO Ballet will be disestablished and there will be only one National Ballet (Ballet of the NT with its present chief Petr Zuska). In spite that minister Besser declares that there will be NT orchestra and choir and PSO orchestra and choir, it is clear that in fact it tends to the liquidation of the PSO. The management is already only one: the present director of the NT Ond?ej ?erný is director in charge of the PSO and since July 1, 2011 there will be one head of the opera, young Slovenian stage manager Rok Rappl.

Minister Besser announced this fusion without submitting any analyses of the functioning of the ensembles and buildings to which the fusion was to pertain. A good manager would have first ordered audits of the affected organizations (which are administered by and partly funded by the Ministry of Culture). He would have had variant solutions prepared, publicly compared them, and only then have made a decision by approving the chosen conception. However, Mr. Besser preferred the style of Zden?k Nejedlý (Stalinist Minister of Culture). He himself knows best what is good for opera, even without analyses, without audits, without variants, and without a conception. He has already announced it to the nation: ‘The Czech capital has room for only one opera and ballet company.’ Whatever it costs.

Prague State Opera has about 45% economical self-sufficiency. The ballet performance (mostly classical ones) has 85%-99% attendance. The visitors are not only Czech, but also many foreign visitors, who are the economical benefit to the City of Prague. Within the two last years the National Theatre has under the direction of Ond?ej ?erný the well balanced economy only owing to liquidation of the reserve fond (almost 100 milions of crowns). The Minister Besser repeadly refused to publish the results of the economical control from June 2010. So the bad manager ?erný who led the National Theatre nearly to the collapse, is now managing both theatres…

Finally, here is a letter I’ve been sent on the need for saving the State Opera by the conductor Jan-Latham Koenig (above):

I have been considering the question of the two Prague opera companies, since I conducted the Tristan and Isolde premiere last May, and would like to offer a few comments. In the first place, there is not only room but a necessity to maintain both  leading opera houses in a city, such as Prague, which is one of the most cultured cities in Europe with  a rich musical tradition, rivalled by only Vienna in Central Europe. The repertoires of the two houses should be and must be complementary, with only occasional overlaps. What do I mean by this? Emerging from its German roots, the PSO should be most motivated, after the success of Tristan to explore much further this part of its heritage. In the first place, what an orchestra such as that of the PSO needs, is repertoire that challenges it, stretches it, and in working hard of this repertoire , such as more Wagner operas, Weber, even the twentieth century masterpieces, such as Wozzeck. The orchestra, as proved by last May’s Tristan is fully capable of performing to the very highest artistic level, given the right motivation. I would like to stress that what makes orchestras lose their standards is not lack of talent but lack of self discipline and being constantly challenged by new repertoire and most exigent conductors… I believe very firmly that with a great team, the orchestra, chorus, soloists and  production department will work together to produce an overall artistic level which could be compared to the finest houses in Western Europe and North America.



  • It is interesting that Prague with only 1.3 million people, and an economy still weakened by its communist history, has two opera houses. Compare that to Los Angeles with has the world’s third largest Gross Metropoilitan Product –831 billion dollars, behind only Tokyo and New York City—but ranks 158th in the world in opera performances per capita.

    Prague was known as the Second Captial of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Is this a case of Czech nationalism trying to erase Prague’s Germanic cultural heritage? Or are cuts in Prague’s arts funding the result of neo-liberal economic pressure being exerted on Europe by the USA?

    • Galen Johnson says:

      I am indeed chilled, Mr. Osborne, that you attribute Czech opera cuts to the Americans. Do the tentacles of our universal mendacity have no end to their reach?

      • It is indeed chilling. In the 1980s, under pressure from the international finance industry (where America is the central power,) many elements of neo-liberalism were embedded into the EU’s binding economic agreements. When average European citizens later voted to join the Union and to ratify its constitution, they didn’t really understand what they were buying into. These neo-liberal regulations might slowly erode Europe’s system of public arts funding unless arts supporters firmly resist. We are watching that culture war unfold. I hope the Europeans win.

        • AVI says:

          I thought it was often held that the European model of state-subsidised arts led to a lower funding for arts groups than the American, more philanthropy-based model.
          Assuming this to be true, why would you want to promote a system of arts funding which funds arts less than another system?
          Further, in times when State budgets are coming under increasing pressures to cover more easily-regarded essential needs (healthcare, pensions, etc.), is not a model of heavy state-subsidy one which is likely to wind up in a reduction in arts funding?

          As a funding thought, what happens when a new opera company or orchestra comes along, asking for subsidy – should the State magically find new money for it, or take it from the old and established orchestras / opera companies? Not to do so would arguably stifle creativity and new thinking; but to do the former is largely implausible, and to do the latter is “demolishing traditions”.

          As a last thought – given the choice, would you prefer two underfunded opera companies, or one well-funded one?

          • AVI, I don’t have time to respond to all of your very interesting questions, but one is very important. The European public funding system provides far more money for the arts than the American private system. The best measure is to look at hard statistics like the number of *fulltime, year-round* orchestras and opera houses per capita. Or the number of performances per capita. The numbers illustrate how much better the European system is.

            There are two websites rich with such information. The first is Operabase which gives the number of opera performances per capita by country and city. We see that for opera performances the USA ranks only in the 29th position per capita, and that it is outranked by almost all European countries. See


            The second site is hosted by the Deutches Muiskinformationszentrum. It provides a goldmine of stats about European arts funding. Unfortunately, it is only in German. It shows, for example that Germany has 133 fulltime, year-round orchestras while the USA with four times the population only has 18. And we see that Germany has 83 year-round opera houses while the USA has 0. We have about six real houses and the longest season is 7 months (the Met.) See:

            European reactions to the financial crisis have been mixed, but has a whole the system is more consistent and stabile than America’s private system. In 2009, the CultureWatchEurope platform of the Council of Europe conducted a survey among 21 member states about arts funding in reaction to the global financial crisis.

            + “13 of 21 countries envisage an overall reduction of budgets for culture and heritage as a possible *short or medium term* consequence of the financial crisis. None indicated permanent reductions of state funding.
            + One country envisaged temporary partial reductions.
            + Eight countries envisaged additional finance for culture to stimulate employment.

            Neo-liberals in the US, by contrast, are using the concepts of disaster capitalism to attack Europe’s system of publically funding the arts. (I need to elaborate, but I have no time.)

            In answer to your question about the choice between one well-funded house or two under-funded, I am not sure which is better. At 22 million the NYCO was massively underfunded, but it still provided an important service. Its budget is now only 11 million. I wish every state in America had at least something like the NYCO. One percent of our current 750 billion military budget could fund 340 opera houses at 22 million a piece. That would be over six houses per state!

  • GW says:

    William, Prague was the second city of the Kingdom of Austria, but not of the Dual Monarchy. That was Budapest.

    As for the second opera house in Prague, it was absolutely due to emergence of Czech nationalism in the 19th century, an institution to play works and in a language not used in the principal opera house (somewhat akin to the Royal Opera and the ENO.) In Prague, the second major house, even with relatively cheap local production and personel costs, has long been a luxury without an urgent or compelling reason.

    • That’s an interesting thought. Yes, Budapest was obviously the Second Capital politically. Prague, however, was never happy with its loss of status and due to its cultural prominence would still claim to be the real second capital. (City’s jostle that way, sort of like how Munich used to claim to be the Secret Capital of the old West Germany, or the way the Berlin Phil stood as a symbol of eventual German unification even though West Berlin was not the capital of West Germany.) Of course, the result of all those Germanic and Slavic nationalisms was the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. European countries still strongly use cultural identity to assert nationalism and autonomy, so that is why I wonder about the dissolution of the German-oriented State Opera, and about Europe’s struggle against neo-liberal economics.

      Are there specific reasons why you say the State Opera is not an urgent or compelling need? (Aside from opera in general not being one.) On my few vests to Prague, I’ve always sensed a fairly strong anti-German sensibility. Is this closing strictly neo-liberalism, or is Prague also slowly dissolving its Germanic past?

  • MikeS says:

    Budapest also had 2 opera houses till recently, one a Stalinist monstrosity. This is now, allegedly, being renovated though some are unsure if it will ever reopen. There was never really an audience to sustain both nor really the artistic (leaving aside the financial) resources. From my more limited experience of Prague this also applies there. London can manage to have the ENO and the ROH but it is 3-4 times the size of Budapest and 5-6 times the size of Prague, and in a far richer country. It does not follow that every European capital can and should have 2 or more opera houses. Most need one good one.