Venice’s Teatro San Cassiano was the world’s first public opera house; it opened in 1637 and remained active until the end of the Serenissima. Venice is a city with many historic firsts, but this one is significant because it brought along many other innovations. The revolutionary idea of making musical performance, previously reserved for the aristocracy, accessible to the paying bourgeois public, implied the creation in Venice of a new form of enterprise, the entertainment industry, a precursor to Hollywood. Thus, the central figure of the public theater, the impresario, or as we say today, the “producer”, was also born in Venice (the first incarnation of the Teatro Tron di San Cassiano opened for commedie from c.1565). The impresario organized and financed the theatrical or musical season, at his own risk but with the potential for high profits (and losses): he paid the rent to the patricians who owned the theater, sold tickets and subscriptions, chose and paid the librettist, musicians, artisans and singers. Also born in Venice was the idea of show business stars, the hugely popular tenors and divas who attracted the paying public and thus were essential for the success of the opera house.
The Teatro San Cassiano and the entertainment business model it created were so successful that Baroque opera conquered Italy and Europe, which makes Venice the opera capital of the world and the birthplace of modern opera.
A place of such global significance deserves an exceptional fourth centenary. With 2037 approaching, Venice cannot afford to let the 400th anniversary of the inauguration of the San Cassiano theater pass without doing something extraordinary.
It is in this spirit that Paul Atkin, an English musicologist and businessman living in Venice, has embarked on an ambitious project to reconstruct the Teatro San Cassiano exactly and rigorously as it was in 1637, in “forma ovata” (egg-shaped), with 153 boxes on 5 tiers, complete with stage machinery, moving scenery and special effects of the time. The original theater was in Santa Croce, where today there is a garden at the corner of Rio de San Cassan and Rio de la Madoneta, near the Carampane; unfortunately, this site is not available, and so the plan is to rebuild Teatro San Cassiano behind Palazzo Donà Balbi, on the Riva de Biasio on the Grand Canal.
The goal is to create the only active 17th century opera house in the world, with a program of historically informed performances (HIP), but also to establish there a world center for the research and study of Baroque opera. This project will depend on the patronage of private investors, without using public funding or grants. This is an opportunity for Venice to create jobs for Venetian scholars, artists and artisans, stimulate quality cultural tourism, and create synergies with other Venetian cultural institutions such as the conservatory and the universities.
On December 21, Paul Atkin kindly agreed to this Zoom interview about his project for Teatro San Cassiano. Here is our exchange.
Paul Atkin, you have embarked on an ambitious mission to resuscitate the world’s first public opera house, the Teatro San Cassiano, inaugurated in Venice in 1637 and a great center for Baroque opera for almost 200 years. Can you tell us more about this theater?
Teatro San Cassiano was the world’s first opera house; it was also one of the first public theatres: we think it was built around 1565 and then rebuilt a number of times: we think we would be rebuilding the sixth San Cassiano, just as Shakespeare’s Globe in London is in its third rebuild as is La Fenice. San Cassiano versions one and two were for Commedia, and only after the plague of 1631, when they started to rebuild the theatre for the third time (some argue for the fourth), did they apply for permission to insert an orchestra for the first time in history, thus turning it into the world’s first opera house, in 1637. We think there were some modifications in 1690, then there was a complete rebuild in 1763 with an extended stage, and thanks to that rebuild, when the architect took the trouble to record the measurements of the old San Cassiano, we have the data that allows us to reconstruct the theater as it was in 1637. The reason for the extension in 1763 was to lengthen the stage to allow it to compete with its contemporaries. We suspect that when they first inserted the orchestra into the original stage, it then suffered from being too small. Then in 1792, a new beauty was inaugurated, La Fenice, three times larger, technologically far more advanced, with a huge stage. San Cassiano effectively died at that point; its last opera was in 1798. I have always believed that a theatre lives and dies, and by 1812, when Napoleon issued the decree to demolish Teatro San Cassiano and Sant’Angelo, both theatres were already dead.
Is it fair to say that in early Baroque opera the text, the libretto was more important than the music, and slowly things changed so that in Mozart’s time, the music is primary and the libretto just goes along?
Well, it’s “dramma per musica” and so the libretto, and the librettist, in these early operas is king. However, if you go back to Monteverdi and listen to L’Orfeo (1607), will find it is a different musical force at work than possibly L’Incoronazione di Poppea in 1643. I think Monteverdi treats the two equally; there is a kind of duel going on, but it is his depiction and setting of the drama that becomes spellbinding. But, it is not just the text and the music that are competing. From the outset, Cavalli is fighting from as early as 1639 in San Cassiano with the special effects as well. Think of Hollywood: people want to see something explode on stage more than they necessarily want to hear an aria.
Nevertheless, we accept that by the mid-18th century the opera had somehow degenerated, with an emphasis on soloists showing off at the expense of the drama and the music, deviating too much from the model established by Monteverdi.
We all know about Gluck’s reform of opera, and of course, he was right. I mean, you are talking about a genre that had been around for 160 years, and by then one paid too much attention to the singers and not enough to the music and drama, so Gluck and then Mozart restored the balance as well as taking us in new directions.
When your new Teatro San Cassiano opens, it will be the only active 17th-century opera theatre in the world. Its uniqueness lies in not only the historical perspective and stage machinery, but also in the music, the theater acoustics and its size, which will make possible the kind of intimate performance that you could not get in a large modern theater. Can you give us an idea of how the experience of a performance at the Teatro San Cassiano will be different from one at La Fenice or La Scala?
There are three semi-active 18th century theatres with baroque stage machinery in Europe. All three are court theatres: the medieval castle of Český Krumlov, and in Stockholm the Drottningholms Slottsteater and the Ulriksdals Slottsteater Confidencen. Český Krumlov for example is only able to stage up to three evenings a year. San Cassiano will be unique in that it will be the only 17th century theatre of its kind and certainly the only active theatre in Italy with stage machinery and special effects.
Teatro La Fenice is a wonderful theatre, brilliantly run by Fortunato Ortombina; I have no hesitancy in saying that. However, if you think of the theatre as an instrument, La Fenice is a pianoforte, and it’s large, whereas San Cassiano is a harpsichord, and small. Just look at the dates 1792 and 1637: they come from, and serve, different worlds. The problem with baroque opera in a large theater is that the singers need to shout to be heard, you lose the ability to play quiet and loud completely, and you lose the intimacy, the immediacy that you will get from a smaller venue like San Cassiano. Above all, you lose the detail of the counterpoint, as the music itself tends to blend.
Quite rightly, La Fenice tends not stage baroque opera in its theatre anymore for this very reason, and neither does the Royal Opera House in London, or The Met in New York. That doesn’t mean that La Fenice does not stage wonderful Baroque opera. It hosts a fantastic program at the Teatro Malibran (even if this theater is big enough to contain the entire San Cassiano). I’m a huge fan, but of course, it has a duty to cover the whole opera spectrum, and to ensure La Fenice itself competes with great opera houses of today, which it does admirably. Our project differs because it is entirely about reconstructing the type of 17th century theater that has long since ceased to exist anywhere in the world.
What makes San Cassiano unique is that it will have a specialized orchestra that will dedicate its entire attention to baroque opera, with a specialized artistic director, Andrea Marcon. It is not enough to perform baroque in a small theater, you need a specialized one with stage machinery, special effects, and deus ex machina, one that will have costumes, gestures, and performance practice on stage that can match the performance practice that we have learned in the orchestra as well. The orchestra pit does not exist, it is an orkhḗstrā in our time, and if you add to the fact that you are sitting in the orchestra stalls just six rows deep, then you see and hear every detail of the performance.
Our architect, Jon Greenfield, who built the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse and who finished Shakespeare’s Globe, has shown me with his computer modelling every view from every box: there is no bad view in the whole theatre because it is so small and we are in a classic Greco-Roman semi-circle designed so that we get the best view. Any stadium, any theatre that follows the original Greco-Roman designs always gives the best views. They nailed that at the very beginning.
Our theater will create an intimacy and an immediacy that does not exist anywhere else: think of a Vivaldi aria sung by a singer who is only ten meters away from you.
This makes me think about what it must have been like in the 60s, to see a band like the Rolling Stones in a small club, which of course is unthinkable today. Can we expect that kind of thrill at the San Cassiano?
That is a brilliant example. The one thing I love most in popular music is the dark clubs. I spent my adolescence in smoke filled black-walled clubs where you were five yards away from the band and you could even speak to them afterwards.
Let me show you a plan where you can see that you could fit the entire Teatro San Cassiano inside La Fenice. The big difference is our stage: it’s nothing by comparison to La Fenice. Then, you have this small auditorium, which in our case is six rows of seating. You can see how much smaller our theatre is. It is interesting how it is the same egg form, the famous “forma ovata”, but with a difference in that it originates from the Roman semicircular theatre, with your proscenium stage, and then you fill in the gaps with the side boxes.
Before La Fenice there were at least ten other theaters that had been active in Venice, including the Malibran, the San Moisè, the Novissimo, the San Samuele and others. One can see traces of their presence still today.
One of my favorite pastimes is to walk the theater circuit. There were 10 public theatres in the 17th century Venice. The boom is around 1720-1730, when San Cassiano is at its peak. The Novissimo is hard to get to since Covid, because you cannot walk through the hospital to get to it anymore, but I do love to walk to where these theatres once thrived.
San Cassiano will be a HIP place. “Historically Informed Performance” is the current way or referring to what we used to call authentic performances, with period instruments.
The original word was authentic or authenticity, and of course then we realized that you cannot say that a piece of music is authentic because we cannot ever go back and know how it was performed. Even if we could travel in time and experience a baroque opera, you still could not hear it the way people did then, because our ears are attuned to the 21st century. Our contemporary interpretations can never be authentic because we have heard the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. That would be a dream. If you could go back to Peri’s Euridice in Florence in 1600, and hear that opera like the people then, who had not yet heard Monteverdi, perhaps you would realize what a great work that is. The problem is that once Monteverdi writes L’Orfeo in 1607, then Peri’s impact is superseded, and that’s unfair on him.
Which period will Teatro San Cassiano cover? Will it just be that period around Monteverdi’s time or will it go into the later French opera like Lully, or even further into the Neapolitan School?
First, we need to create the theatre of 1637, because that’s the historic theatre that we are trying to celebrate, and in and of itself it is worth a visit as a museum piece, to see what a 17th century theatre looked like, and how it operated. If I may, I’d like to flag the great work of our Director of Research, Stefano Patuzzi throughout the entire process. Our first arguments at the beginning of the project were which San Cassiano do we recreate? The one from Vivaldi’s time or the one from Monteverdi’s time? We also talked about models that could even change the theatre to show the different time, and whether this was feasible. When we got into the research, our great and brilliant surprise was that because of Venice’s foundations, consisting of timber piles driven into the muddy soil of the Lagoon. Once you have chosen a design you are stuck with it because you cannot easily change those foundations, and so they determine where you can put the structural elements of your building. Any extension would require changing the shape of the theater completely. In fact, what we found out was that San Cassiano’s footprint fundamentally stays the same from 1565 through to about 1763.
That means that we have a historically informed theatre, with 5 tiers and 153 boxes, which covers the period from the beginning of opera from Monteverdi through Cavalli, Albinoni, Gasparini, Vivaldi, all the way to Mozart. With the death of Mozart in 1791 and the birth of La Fenice in 1792, our period ends. Of course, we will also stage the early operas, those predating San Cassiano, like L’Orfeo, first performed in 1607 in Mantua, or Peri’s Euridice, from the 1600 festivities for the wedding of Maria de’ Medici and King Henry IV of France in Florence, or Monteverdi’s Il Combattimento di Trancredi e Clorinda from 1624. San Cassiano will cover the entire 200-year period and each season will balance out between 18th and 17th century.
I cannot help but think of the excitement back then, when composers like Monteverdi were physically present at the San Cassiano. Is there any plan to stage contemporary opera by living composers?
Why not? Obviously, we must remain focused on the Baroque. Ours is really a small “da camera” venue. What’s to stop us hosting an actor one night, a jazz concert another night? I do not think we could do electronic music because of the acoustics and the technical requirements, but I would not rule anything out.
Who will be the artistic director of the Teatro San Cassiano?
Our artistic director is Andrea Marcon, of the Venice Baroque Orchestra. We plan to perform a wide repertoire; however, we have two other issues to deal with.
For one, many great works just sit in libraries and are never performed. I have spent much of my academic life as a musicologist working on Antonio Gianettini, who was an organist at the Basilica di San Marco in Venice before becoming maestro di cappella in Modena, where he wrote the opera that was the subject of my PhD. Hundreds of other operas from that period are lost or forgotten. To go back to your Rolling Stones analogy, if you look at the 60s, we remember the big names, the Beatles and the Stones, but we miss all those other bands that did great stuff but shone briefly, like Herman’s Hermits, the Mamas and Papas. It is the same thing with Baroque opera: most people in Venice could perhaps only mention Monteverdi and Vivaldi, yet when we played Gianettini in Venice at the launch of our project, we got a standing ovation at the end and we had do an encore of the duet: it was fantastic. That is what interests me as a musicologist: to use the profits from the big name operas to fund restoring these lost works to life.
The second issue: what do we do with the all the operas where we have lost the music? The first opera performed at the inauguration of San Cassiano in 1637 was Manelli’s L’Andromeda, but the music has been lost. In cases like this, we have three choices. 1) We can recreate it in a historically informed way; we have people who are clever enough to do this now and write the music in the style of that time. 2) We can give it a modern twist, by going to a modern day composer, giving him the libretto, and asking him how he would approach it today. 3) We can perform the libretto as a drama, without music, because as you know well, a libretto back then was called a “dramma per musica”. If you look at all the early libretti, there is not even any mention of the music composer. We have three ways of bringing these works back to life. Perhaps at the same time, one evening you can hear one, and the next evening the other. We have so many options artistically.
The San Cassiano was not only the first theater dedicated to opera, but also the first to sell tickets to the public. Until relatively recent times, opera houses have relied heavily on the subscriber model; so for example, rich patrons in New York would buy tickets for the entire season. However, things have changed in the last two decades, people do not go to the opera as often and they are less likely to buy subscriptions. Will San Cassiano innovate again to bring Baroque opera to a larger public? For example, will there be internet streaming of San Cassiano performances, just like the Met or the Paris Opera or the Bolshoi do?
Everything we do on the stage is going to be historically informed, HIP as we say, but the operation of the theatre has to be cutting-edge, modern. San Cassiano will stream every single performance, so that wherever you are in the world you can see us. It is something I have been involved with from the beginning of this project in 1997. I wanted to stream, I was looking to streaming opera then, but we couldn’t do that then because the cameras were so big. Now we have cameras small enough to fit on the singer’s head. Future young students that want to play a role will be able, through virtual reality, to log in at home into that character, step onto the stage as if they were there, and sing their role in response to the other actor. Similarly, the public will be able to come and virtually sit where they want, feel the public around them, and see the performance. Of course, the whole point is to encourage them to come to the theater.
Finding a location was not easy, but it looks like it will likely be in Palazzo Donà Balbi. This would be an excellent location, right on the Grand Canal, between the Station and Rialto, with the Riva de Biasio vaporetto stop right in front. Is Palazzo Donà Balbi a done deal? Are all the political obstacles out of the way? Is it just a matter of funding now?
It is not yet a done deal, but after several months of negotiation, the city has told us that they would welcome our theatre if we can deliver the funding. The opportunity is ours, now in this moment; it is already available to go up for auction. The Venice municipality, the “Comune”, is just waiting for us to deliver what we promised, and that is fantastic, because I think we can.
The inauguration will be in 2028. Can I book my tickets for the opening?
You can try: we only have 405 seats, so I do not know if you can get in on the opening night, in fact, I don’t even know if I will be able to get in.
Maybe I can stand outside listening through the doors.
Well, that would actually be very historically informed, very HIP. There are many accounts that this is what people used to do if they could not get in.
Thank you Paul for this interview. I wish you a lot of success in this fabulous Teatro San Cassiano venture, and I cannot wait to see it reborn.
Thank you. I genuinely believe Venice deserves to celebrate what I consider its greatest gift to the world.
A polyglot Anglo-Venetian raised in Canaregio, after a couple of decades in Canada I settled on the Provençal coast with my wife, a visual artist and photographer. An electronics engineer by profession specializing in energy conversion, co-founder of Slow Food in France, I am passionate about everything: travel, art, music, boats, food, wine, and Venice. I irregularly write food and wine articles, and do research on Venice and the Venetian language. It does not take much to get me to return to Venice: lately, to design boats with low environmental impact.
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