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All the world’s a stage — but some theaters deserve their own moment in the spotlight. From majestic opera houses that have withstood the test of time to modern amphitheaters designed for the best acoustics, here are 20 theaters around the globe that deserve a standing ovation.
Palais Garnier (Paris, France)
Unlike most European cities that have one central opera house, Paris has two. But it’s the Palais Garnier that earns proximity to the Paris Métro stop simply called “Opéra.” Designed by architect Charles Garnier in 1875, the neo-Baroque-style theater with an Italian-inspired auditorium is a Parisian icon in its own right, offering both guided and self-guided tours during the day, while the evening offers ballets, operas, concerts, and recitals by the world’s best performers.
Garnier beat out 171 other proposals with his design to build the theater that Napoleon III commissioned, but the construction was filled with hurdles. It took seven months to drain an underground lake under the site and the impact of the Franco-Prussian War drove up the cost of labor and resources. But those obstacles did not steal from the grandeur of the Grand Escalier, a double staircase made of white marble, and the Rotunde du Glacier, a Belle Époque gallery with a ceiling painted by Georges Jules Victor Clairin. Perhaps one of its biggest upgrades came in 1964, when artist Marc Chagall painted the ceiling of the auditorium.
Elgin and Winter Garden Theatre (Toronto, Canada)
The tale of Toronto’s “double-decker” pair of theaters on top of each other — the Winter Garden Theatre sitting on top of the Elgin Theatre — is just as storied as some of the productions that have graced its stage. Designed by Thomas Lamb and built as Canada's flagship for American businessman Marcus Loew’s theater chain in 1913, the dual theaters welcomed some of the greatest acts of the vaudeville era like George Burns, Gracie Allen, and Milton Berle. The stages were contrasting spectacles: the Winter Garden was hand-painted like a garden with actual beech branches on the ceiling, while the Elgin elegantly showcased gold leaf among its ornate fabrics. But by 1928, the doors were shut on the Winter Garden and the Elgin shifted to films.
In 1984, a $29 million restoration project began, adding 65,000 square feet of space, including a lobby and expanded backstage facilities. The original decor was brought back painstakingly, with restoration specialists even using bread dough to gently clean the Winter Garden’s watercolor murals. Since 1989, the theaters have sprung back to life, hosting holiday productions, film screenings, and Broadway musicals, including a two-year run of Cats.
Red Rocks Park and Amphitheatre (Morrison, Colorado, U.S.)
The history of this outdoor venue dates as far back as 250,000,000 BCE, when diplodocus and tyrannosaurus rex roamed the area, leaving footprints that can still be seen to this day. Today, the 738-acre park is home to a 9,525-seat venue that sits in a geographical transition zone between the Rocky Mountains and the Great Plains.
Completed in 1941, the amphitheater was designed by Burnham Hoyt in an open space among Colorado’s red sandstone monoliths. The Civilian Conservation Corps — which paid unemployed young men a dollar a day to work on projects preserving endangered lands during the Great Depression — removed 50,000 feet of cubic rock and dirt to level the space and eventually built the theater with 800 tons of quarried stone and 30,000 pounds of steel. The dramatic stage has hosted a wide-ranging roster of musicians including The Beatles, The Beach Boys, Sting, U2, Yo-Yo Ma, Igor Stravinsky, Leonard Bernstein, and Liberace.
Odeon of Herodes Atticus (Athens, Greece)
The Odeon of Herodes, also known as “Herodeon,” is an ancient treasure situated on the southern side of the Acropolis in Athens. The amphitheater’s construction was commissioned by philosopher Herodes Atticus in honor of his belated wife Regilla in 161 CE. The original construction included a wooden roof made of Lebanese cedar to shelter patrons during performances in the rain. For over a hundred years, the theater stood intact until the East Germanic Heruli invaded Athens in 267 CE.
The ruins were uncovered during excavations in the mid-19th century and restored with pentelic marble in the 1950s. Today, the ruins stand as a testament to the architectural mastery of ancient Greece. The theater has hosted numerous symphony orchestra performances — even once welcoming Frank Sinatra to the stage — and has hosted the annual Athens Festival since 1955.
Sydney Opera House (Sydney, Australia)
In the late 1940s, the director of the Sydney Conservatorium of Music lobbied for a venue to accommodate large-scale theatrical productions on Bennelong Point, a former island in Sydney Harbour. The continued efforts of Eugene Goosens paid off with an international design competition that would select its winning submission by Danish architect Jørn Utzon out of 200 entries. The result was the Sydney Opera House, one of the most photographed buildings in the world and a famous icon of Australia.
Known for its distinctive roof arches shaped like sails above the waters of Port Jackson, the venue has three separate theaters that host ballet performances, symphony orchestras, and choir concerts, though the first person to perform there was technically Paul Robeson, who sang “Ol' Man River” from the scaffolding to construction workers as they ate lunch in 1960. Today, more than 10.9 million people visit the UNESCO World Heritage Site each year.
Royal Opera House (London, United Kingdom)
The Royal Opera House that currently stands in Covent Garden was actually the third building to appear on the site. After a successful run of The Beggar’s Opera commissioned by director John Rich, the theater troupe built a playhouse called Theatre Royal in 1732. The venue continued to house plays and pantomimes until a fire destroyed it in 1808.
Rebuilding started right away, with King George IV (then the Prince of Wales) laying the foundation stone. In 1809, it reopened with Macbeth and a musical called The Quaker. The lineup became eclectic, ranging from acrobatics to ballets, until fire struck again in 1856. When the third theater opened in 1858, it became the Royal Opera House in 1892 to focus on hosting mostly operas and ballets, in addition to films, cabarets, dance performances, and lectures during the off-season. Though it had some pauses (including becoming a furniture repository during World War I and a dance hall during World War II), the building traces its latest reconstruction to the 1990s with a main auditorium seating 2,256 in a horseshoe configuration.
Bolshoi Theater (Moscow, Russia)
The Bolshoi Theatre’s roots are royal. Back in 1776, Empress Catherine II gave Prince Pyotr (Peter) Urusov what was considered a “privilege” of maintaining entertainment performances of every kind, which became the start of the Bolshoi. Fires and debts traced its early years until the current building was opened on Tsar Alexander II’s coronation day in 1856, with a performance of Vincenzo Bellini's opera I Puritani.
The weak foundation of the theater unfortunately started to decay, and the October Revolution threatened the building’s future. The Bolshoi was ultimately bombed in 1941 during World War II, but the severe damage initiated restoration that started the following year. The magnificent theater reopened in 1943 with Mikhail Glinka's opera A Life for the Tsar. The last decades have brought new stages, cementing the theater as part of Russian history, but now equipped for modern performances.
Teatro La Fenice (Venice, Italy)
During the 18th century, Venice was teeming with arts, proven by its seven active theaters — including the Teatro San Benedetto, the jewel of the city. It was rebuilt after a fire, but a judicial ruling forced the forfeiture of the building to a wealthy Venetian family. In the face of their loss, the theater company set out to build a new facility, even more spectacular than the last. In the spirit of their resilience, they named it La Fenice (“The Phoenix”) to symbolize rising from the ashes of hardship.
The striking new venue immediately gained acclaim, but in a stroke of tragic irony, the theater burned once again to the ground in 1836. True to its name, La Fenice was reconstructed yet again. The theater continued as a cultural treasure, though it endured a closure during World War I and a second fire that razed the building in 1996. It was rebuilt once again to be formally reopened in 2003.
Palacio de Bellas Artes (Mexico City, Mexico)
Construction on this magnificent theater started in 1905 under the direction of Italian architect Adamo Boari, who was inspired by both Neoclassical and Art Nouveau design. The construction of the elegant theater was paused during the Mexican Revolution, but was restarted in the 1930s, with architect Federico Mariscal incorporating an Art Deco-style interior. But what the Palacio de Bellas Artes is most known for is its spectacular murals, including Diego Rivera’s famous “El Hombre en el Cruce de Caminos” (Man at the Crossroads), which is overseen by the Museo del Palacio de Bella Artes.
The theater itself is noted for its stained glass curtain made of nearly 1 million pieces from Tiffany & Co., designed by painter Gerardo Murillo depicting the Valle de Mexico (Valley of Mexico). While performances of all kinds hit the stage, the theater is best known as the home of Ballet Folklórico de Mexico, a dance company that incorporates traditional Mexican dress, folk music, and regional dance into its performances.
Palau de la Música Catalana (Barcelona, Spain)
Even in a city known for its whimsical architecture, the Palau de la Música Catalana stands out. Built by modernist architect Lluís Domènech i Montaner between 1905 and 1908, the theater is the only UNESCO World Heritage Site representing the Catalan Art Nouveau style. With a metallic core structure covered with glass, the theater also includes tiled mosaics, stained glass windows, and elaborate ironwork.
Located in the neighborhood of Sant Pere, the auditorium features a prominent skylight decorated with suns, letting natural light illuminate the stage. While busts of Johann Sebastian Bach, Ludwig van Beethoven, and Richard Wagner adorn the theater, 20th and 21st-century greats like Ella Fitzgerald Norah Jones have also graced the stage along with Spain’s finest musicians.
National Noh Theatre (Tokyo, Japan)
The 400-year-old stage made of cypress wood at the National Noh Theatre in Tokyo is simply the foundation for another stunning cultural artifact: an ancient form of a music drama that uses masks and gestures to tell stories known as noh. Paired with kyogen, a comedic theatrical artform with literary wordplay, the two styles form nogaku, protected by UNESCO as an intangible cultural property. While the tradition has spanned generations, the 591-seat theater, which opened in 1983, is chock full of technical amenities, including the ability to view English subtitles from your seat.
Teatro Amazonas (Manaus, Brazil)
When Italian opera star Erinco Caruso stood on the stage of Teatro Amazonas on January 7, 1897, he may not have realized everything around him was built to lure him to this remote corner of the Amazon in Manaus so that the rubber magnates could see him perform — or so goes one story of the opera house. After all, it was the unlikeliest of places for a theater so ornate to be built with the best materials: English steel, Italian marble, Parisian furniture, Alsatian roofing. Designed by Italian architect Celestial Sacardim, the building — with a 36,000-tile dome in the colors of the Brazilian flag — was unlike anything the rainforest had ever seen.
But as fake rubber took the place of natural rubber, the industry died — and with it the entire city, leaving the ornate theater abandoned for 90 years. In 2001, revival efforts kicked in and today the theater draws musicians to its unlikely location once again. Teatro Amazonas is now home to the Amazon Symphony Orchestra as well as an annual film festival.
National Theatre of Nigeria (Lagos, Nigeria)
The National Theater of Nigeria describes itself as the “national home of entertainment,” but this cultural hub in Lagos represents so much more. After all, it has vowed to host some sort of entertainment every single day. Construction for the building began in 1973 and the theater was modeled after the Palace of Culture and Sports in Varna, Bulgaria. Opened in 1975, the 101-foot-tall building with an area of about 248,000 square feet hosts concerts, film screenings, exhibitions, workshops, theatrical performances, and sporting events.
Operahuset (Oslo, Norway)
Nothing about the Oslo Opera House, or Operahuset, goes by the rules. It’s somehow both simplistic and intricate, boasting a warm wooden interior showcasing the oak’s natural grain and a cutting-edge, contemporary exterior designed to resemble the white, angular lines of an iceberg. The most surprising element of the opera house, however, is that the roof is designed for visitors to walk on.
Opened in 2008, the theater boasts an innovative marble rooftop that’s photogenic at every angle. In fact, the more you traverse its white surfaces, the more perspective you get of just how impressive the three performance halls under your feet must be. The Main Stage, Second Stage, and Studio are each suited for musicians, dancers, orchestras, choruses, and other forms of art as innovative as the opera house’s design.
Radio City Music Hall (New York, New York, U.S.)
The outlook was bleak when John D. Rockefeller decided to build a complex of buildings in midtown Manhattan at the beginning of the Great Depression. But he had a 24-year lease on a $91 million property, so he took a chance and partnered with the Radio Corporation of America (RCA), a relatively new company that had a successful series of NBC radio programs, and theatrical guru S.L. “Roxy” Rothafel, building Radio City Music Hall that promised top-tier entertainment at an affordable price.
Industrial designer Donald Deskey built the modern interior, creating the largest indoor theater in the world at the time. The stage measures an impressive 60 feet tall and 100 feet wide, while the auditorium itself is 160 feet wide and 84 feet tall, with three mezzanines hanging over the orchestra section without columns obstructing the view.
The hall has welcomed all kinds of performances, from stand-up comedians and boy bands to orchestral concerts and special annual events like MTV’s Video Music Awards. It’s also been the site of movie premieres from To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) to Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004), but of course no show is more iconic than its own Radio City Christmas Spectacular, starring the high-kicking Rockettes.
Vienna Opera House (Vienna, Austria)
In a city that was home to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Johann Strauss II, gorgeous performance venues are plentiful. But none shines more than the Vienna State Opera House, also known as Wiener Staatsoper, hosting 350 performances per year including more than 60 opera and ballet productions. From its Renaissance-style arches on the exterior to its 2,284-seat auditorium with an iron curtain, the theater is also unique for its own orchestra members, who are also part of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.
Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts (Kansas City, Missouri, U.S.)
“I am a believer that the site of a project always holds the secret for its design concept,” Israeli-Canadian-American architect Moshe Safdie said of envisioning the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, which opened in 2011. After all, the location is a striking plateau that extends downward, revealing a prairie landscape.
Safdie designed two theaters — Helzberg Hall and Muriel Kauffman Theatre — connected in the middle by the Brandmeyer Great Hall, the lobby with glass ceilings and walls that allow natural light to filter in. Every bit of the design is meant to evoke visions of music, from steel rods reminiscent of stringed instruments to arches that resemble a bell.
Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre (London, United Kingdom)
When American actor Sam Wanamaker visited London in 1949, he was surprised to see that all that was left of William Shakespeare’s famous theater was a tiny plaque. So he made it his mission to reconstruct the original theater that was built by Lord Chamberlain's men in 1599. Though Wanamaker died in 1993, Queen Elizabeth II ended up opening the theater in 1997.
This current version is the third of Shakespeare’s Globes. The first one — which hosted original productions of the playwright’s best-known works including Julius Caesar, As You Like It, King Lear, and Macbeth had a thatched roof which burned down during a 1613 production of Henry VIII. A year later, it was rebuilt with a tile roof, but was shut down in 1642, waiting more than 300 years before opening again.
Seebühne Bregenz (Bregenz, Austria)
Grazing the surface of Lake Constance, the floating stage known as Seebühne Bregenz comes to life every summer during the Bregenzer Festspiele festival. With a seating capacity of 7,000, the outdoor venue is the largest of its kind. But what really stands out is the stage’s design, as pieces have been added to various productions over the years, like a large tower for Richard Wagner's Fliegendem Holländer and an oversized eye for Giacomo Puccini's Tosca, an offbeat contrast to the serenity of the mountain range in the background.
Minack Theatre (Porthcurno, United Kingdom)
Rowena Cade bought a piece of land for £100 (about $139 USD) near Cornwall and built her home there in the 1920s. In 1929, she was part of a production of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream that did so well, the troupe decided to stage The Tempest the next year. Cade offered up the cliff garden on her property as a theater. Without a proper stage or seating, Cade and a team built the venue by hand and continued to add to it throughout her lifetime, until she died in 1983.
Overlooking the Porthcurno Bay, the theater is built into a rocky cliffside facing the mouth of the English Channel. The venue continues to host musicals, comedy shows, storytelling, and concerts. Visitors can even catch a production of Moving Heaven and Earth, a reenactment of Cade's gardener, Billy Rawlings, telling the story of the theater itself.