City guide

The Hungarian Opera House in three acts: the building

Photo : Balkányi László
Terror Háza Múzeum

The Opera House is always an experience: coming off the beautiful Andrássy Avenue on the small cobbled streets near the main entrance. The stunning interior and grand staircases. The highest-quality classical music and performance, then the inevitable champagne during the break. In short, the Hungarian Opera House, is a magical place that provides millions of tiny impressions that take us back hundreds of year’s in time.

Photo: Balkányi László - WLB

Among other things, Budapest can thank Ybl Miklós, who was born two hundred years ago, for buildings like the Várkert Bazaar currently undergoing renovation, parts of St. Stephen’s Basilica,the Rácz Thermal Bath and – not surprisingly – the Ybl Mansion at Budakeszi Road.

But one of Ybl Miklós’ most famous contributions might just be the Hungarian Opera House.  Podmaniczky Frigyes (himself eternalized through what some call ‘Europe’s most complex statue’), called for tenders in 1873 for the building of the Opera House. This was won by one of the greatest architects of European historicism (a type of art that draws inspiration from recreating historic styles) – Ybl. The neo-renaissance building is one of the largest and most beautiful not only in Europe but also throughout the world.

Photo: Balkányi László - WLB
The massive construction project to create the Opera House involved mostly Hungarian craftsmen and artists, including Lotz Károly, Székely Bertalan, Than Mór and Stróbl Alajos. We can thank Lotz Károly, for example, for the two sphinxes, made from Carrara marble next to the main entrance, which recently got an important role in the Opera’s new promotional film’s opening scenes as well.
Photo: Balkányi László - WLB
The main façade is meant to represent the link between European and Hungarian music, so in the two niches next to entrance there are statues of Liszt Ferenc and Erkel Ferenc, and elsewhere there are statues of European composers. Because the original sculptures adorning the façade became mouldy just a few decades after the Opera’s opening in 1887, new ones were made in the 60s. However, the original sculptures were not replaced instead composers from countries where the socialist ideologies matched that of the Hungary in the 60s were over-represented.

Photo: Balkányi László - WLB
Photo: Balkányi László - WLB

The driveway in front of the Opera House is still paved with small wooden cubes. But only a few know that originally the entire Andrássy Avenue was paved in the same way. Just imagine how atmospheric it must have been to travel by horse and carriage along that boulevard…

Photo: Balkányi László - WLB
Photo: Balkányi László - WLB

Inside near the artists’ entrance, the walls of the former smoking room are decorated by portraits of artists working  backstage and in the opera pit. These were painted from the late 1800s onwards. The portrait gallery has steadily been expanded and there are currently about 600 portraits there. Rumour has it that payment for the portraits was solved through a simple exchange: the painters usually created a portrait or a caricature for a pint of beer.

Photo: Balkányi László - WLB
Photo: Balkányi László - WLB

Every nook and cranny provides a unique space experience. Every little detail and room was carefully planned: the auditorium, the lodges, the main staircase, the buffet, and the Red Salon were all decorated by the most talented Hungarian artists and craftsmen of the time. Even though thirty years have passed since the last renovation and so the interior shows a little wear, time hasn’t stopped this historic building staying beautiful.

Photo: Balkányi László - WLB
Photo: Balkányi László - WLB

From anywhere in the auditorium, the stage seems huge. But as we peeked behind the curtains, we were still stunned by its size… several houses could fit in its space!  It’s nearly as tall as a 10-storey block of flats!  Building a set on such a huge stage must be quite a challenge!

Photo: Balkányi László - WLB
Photo: Balkányi László - WLB

A big auditorium needs big lighting and its main chandelier weighs nearly three tonnes and was made by the German craftsmen of Mainz. Repairs are no easy task – the chandelier is lowered once a year using manual winches. By the way, Ybl’s building stood out among his contemporaries with its progressive technical solutions. The stage could be moved with water (eg a hydraulic device) and later the Opera House got a rain machine and from 1895, electric light added to its aesthetics.
Photo: Balkányi László - WLB
From the top of the building visitors can admire a unique panorama. From its highest point (about 50 meters high) you can easily see Andrássy Avenue’s luxury restaurant, L’Occhio di Stile. Yet even though the Opera House is rather tall, it’s still small compared to the much higher Parliament building and the Basilica.
Photo: Balkányi László - WLB
So the details that went into this building are definitely why everyone in Budapest should visit Andrássy Avenue 22 at least once. In the following, second act of our article we will show you the hard work, creativity and dedication that’s necessary to put together the highest quality productions for audiences to enjoy each evening.