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Why it is better to build a new opera house than refurbish the old one

We have received the following letter from the music director of the Royal Swedish Opera about its planned refit:

Dear Mr. Lebrecht,

First of all thank you for sharing this news with your readers. I am however slightly puzzled by your interpretation. As Music Director of the Royal Swedish Opera I feel that this is a triumph on many levels.

First of all I think that any government that decides to prioritize the Arts by giving US$ 305 million is to be applauded. They are showing real vision and leadership in a world where orchestras, opera companies, museums and other arts organisations are folding, or are suffering from heavy cuts.

Second, our General Director Birgitta Svenden and I were pushing for this solution. There is a number of reasons why we did not want a ‘sparkling new opera house’ in the first place. One of the reasons is that we already have one of the most beautiful opera houses in the world, located in the best possible location in this wonderful city. Also, there are many countries where politicians build new opera houses which cost an incredible amount of money. After they open there is not enough money and willingness left to provide a proper artistic budget to run those buildings. I applaud the Swedish Minister of Culture Mrs. Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth and her colleagues for not falling into this trap.

The challenge ahead for us is to spend this money wisely. The Royal Opera House Covent Garden and the Opera de Lyon are two examples of opera houses that have showed that investing in expanding and upgrading an existing venue can be very succesful.

I, together with the around 600 other people that make the Royal Swedish Opera the wonderful company it is, look forward to this challenge of bringing an institution with a centuries-old history into the 21st century.

With best regards,
Lawrence Renes




Sorry, maestro, but we take a different view:

Dear Lawrence

I know the opera house in Stockholm and it is, as you say, a modest marvel, albeit one that is showing its age.

However, as both an artistic and economic proposition, it is always better in my experience to spend $300 million on a new build than a revamp.

Take London. We blew roughly that amount on refurbishing Covent Garden, adding an extra small stage of no great purpose, a showpiece Floral Hall (below), improved rehearsal space for the Royal Ballet and better upholstery on the seats. Glyndebourne, around the same time, built a new opera house, 50 percent larger than the existing one, and for a total cost of £35m ($60m). Who got the better deal? QED.

London blew £150m on redoing the South Bank concert halls ten years ago and the administrators now want to blow the same amount again on an upgrade. Bad idea. Knock it down and start again.

Same goes for Stockholm, in my view. It’s a shame the tame Swedish media have no made an issue of this.

all best



floral hall


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  1. It would help, of course, if we could be reasonably confident of ending up with something we actually like the look of. And “we” includes people who aren’t interested in going inside.

    The thought of yet another architect’s ego trip isn’t encouraging.

  2. Peter Freeman says:

    With respect, there is no comparison between Covent Garden and the Southbank Centre. The one is a beautiful historic gem, the other a hideous, clinically cold eyesore both outside and in. Arrival is unwelcoming, like visiting a hospital or airport. National heritages should be preserved as an integral part of the artistic experience. New Yorkers of taste and discernment deplored the destruction of their magnificent and much-loved old Met, a crime against art, perpetrated for very dubious reasons and interests. As America’s last remaining nineteenth-century opera house of any size, it was irreplaceable, and today nothing stands in its place, not even a plaque. New builds lack the warmth, both visually and acoustically, of design and construction methods used when opera, ballet and classical music were the pop art of their time. They should be preserved for future generations to enjoy. Old Glyndebourne, on the other hand, had all the atmosphere of a village hall, with elements of an early aircraft hangar. What is missed is its walled rose garden.

    • We need a “like” button for this comment.

      Except, Peter …

      “As America’s last remaining nineteenth-century opera house of any size, [the old Met] was irreplaceable …”

      Not true, Peter. America’s oldest purpose-built opera house, Philadelphia’s Academy of Music – opened in 1857, seating capacity more than 2,300, gorgeously restored roughly a decade ago and with a beautiful replica of the original crystal chandelier up above – is still hosting opera and ballet (as well as touring Broadway shows).

  3. As a regular visitor to the Royal Opera in Stockholm for the past 40 years, I find your attack on the decision to re-furbish it rather than build a brand new opera house simply bizarre. The Royal Opera itself does not want a new house and there is no serious demand among the Swedish public for a new one: why is it a “shame that the tame Swedish media have made no issue of this”?

    You say that the Royal Opera’s music director describes the house as “a modest marvel” whereas Mr Renes actually – and in my view correctly – said ” we already have one of the most beautiful opera houses in the world, located in the best possible location in this wonderful city”. Did you call for the Palais Garnier – also ” one of the most beautiful opera houses in the world, located in the best possible location in [Paris] ” – to be knocked down when the Opera Bastille was being planned? Destroying the Palais Garnier would have been cultural vandalism of the highest order. I doubt Swedes would countenance the destruction of their lovely and much-loved Stockholm opera house.

    With one of the world’s two best ballet companies, Paris (2.3m inhabitants, 27m annual visitors) can fill two opera houses regularly, sometimes even with ballet in both houses. With 800,000 inhabitants, Stockholm and its 10m annual visitors may not be able to support two opera/ballet houses. Copenhagen’s new opera house was funded by a private gift and in any event another building was wanted as the existing two buildings housed the Danish national ballet, opera and theatre companies; even now there is serious financial pressure on maintaining all three theatres.

    As for Glyndebourne, the old house was a small 800-seater barn (also known as the “shoe-box”) where the lack of air-conditioning made the auditorium unbearable during even moderately hot weather. That Glyndebourne were able to raise private money to replace it with a marvellous new 1300-seater building has been a glorious miracle.

    Your implication that the money spent on the Covent Garden refurbishment should have been spent on knocking it down and replacing it with a new one needed to be accompanied by an estimated cost for a building a new 2200-seater opera house in the centre of London. I doubt if there would have been change from £1billion and there would have been even greater public disapproval than there was just for the refurbishment.

    Those of us who visit Covent Garden regularly feel that the refurbishment – you do not even mention the major improvements to the technical facilities – has been a great success. Much as I loved the crush of the Crush Bar, the expanded public areas are a great improvement and, despite your poo-pooing of the “extra small [400-seater] stage of no great purpose”, all the dance, opera and talk shows I have seen in the Linbury Theatre have been imaginative and excellent and have all been sold out.

    • Bosse Bergkvist says:

      Hear, hear! And thankfully Mr Lebrecht’s immoderate attack will be long forgotten pretty soon.

    • We need a “like” button for this post, too.

    • This is a “like” for the comments above. When the music, curators, architects and engineers, and funding partners who are sensitive and creative thinkers work together for common good, whether or not the the wealth is public funds or private, whether or not a renovation or rebuild, the potential for success comes from the team, the vision and the quality of the execution, just like an orchestra. we heard Mr. Renes conduct Beethoven Aug 31 in Amsterdam. Masterful team and team leadership. Strong contrasts in the themes brought out the melodies and the voices were grand. Mr. Renes is an opera conductor to follow.

  4. David Boxwell says:

    The renovation of Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires was marked by epic tsuris and cost overruns, for a decade or more, and yet the results are gob-smackingly amazing. It would have been an act of vandalism to knock it down and replace it.

  5. Peter Freeman says:

    Michael, have you not heard? Paris is the only city in the world which actually can boast of having five, not two, fully functioning opera houses.

    • Peter,

      I was only aware of two other Paris theatres that give regular opera performances in Paris. The Opéra Comique will perform 4 operas and two opéras comiques in 2013-2014. The Théâtre du Châtelet will perform two operas in 2013-2014. They have a wide and eclectic repertoire, especially the latter, but they are hardly “fully functioning opera houses” and neither claims to be one. A 5th Paris theatre, Théâtre de la Ville, was used for opera in the second half of the 19th century, but in the last few decades it has been a virtually exclusively modern dance house.

      Although the Opéra Comique was originally built for opera/opéra-comique/operetta and can still be called an opera house, its statutes were recently changed to allow non-musical theatre. The Théâtre du Châtelet was originally built for plays and later in the 20th century became renown for ballets and operettas. Presenting operas only started towards the end of the last century, but it’s still not an “opera house”.

      Which are your other three “fully functioning opera houses”?

      • Theodore McGuiver says:

        Are we counting the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, here?

      • Peter may be thinking of the Théâtre du Champs-Elysées, though it seems to me (observing from afar, granted) that between the Champs-Elysées and the Théâtre du Châtelet, only one of them at a time functions as a major opera venue. When the directors of one is opera-oriented, the other always tends to be theatre-oriented.

        Or perhaps Peter is thinking of the opera at Versailles? Seems to me that’s not necessarily to the others, and definitely not to the Garnier/Bastille complex.

        Or – I’m guessing here, based on his opening gambit of “Have you not heard?”, maybe Peter is simply lampooning a common Parisian boast that may be a bit inflated.

    • Peter, for your information, Moscow has even more fully functioning opera houses:) Bolshoi has tw houses, there is also Stanislavsky music theater (both opera and ballet), Novaya Opera (since couple of years ago including ballet) – both quite large theaters. Additionally there is Helikon opera, which is just getting a new opera house; Pokrovsky chamber opera, Sats opera for youth; and even a large operetta theater. Additionally there are some other small companies performing occasionally. The ones mentioned are operating basically whole year arond, each with a very large repertory of its own.

    • Moscow has 5 opera houses.

  6. Crikey, you’re scaring me – you’d actually advocate pulling down a building as lovely and as full of rich memory as the Stockholm opera? You’d prefer yet another bland, non-place, at best resembling a high class health spa, like Gergiev’s recent effort in St. Petersburg….?

    • No. I’m not advocating pulling down the old ppera house, any more than I would scrap the Garnier in Paris. But there needs to be an enlightened public debate on whether it is better to spend a fortune on refitting an old building for opera, or build a new one. They don’t seem to have had that debate in Sweden. The decision has been made without public involvement.

      • Theodore McGuiver says:

        What viable contribution could the man in the street make to a debate concerning urban planning, civil engineering and the rest? Much as I would love my particular employer to up sticks and move somewhere where we could (at least) double our space and have easier access, I’m not sure my rather subjective contribution would be particularly valuable in the grand scheme of how such projects are funded and realised, not to mention the many other conditions (scenery depots and construction sites, costume workshops and the rest) which would have to be considered.

  7. Dear Norman,
    I am the manager of Sterling Records in Stockholm. I am also an ardent visitor in the Stockholm Opera house.
    I am sorry to say that your views are utter nonsense. The Opera House is truly lovely but it needs refurbishment. Regarding public debate. Do you seriously believe the man in the street to have any ideas about how and where to build opera houses? Moreover, regarding “lame” critics: I know several music writers here and apart from being dead wrong in your notion you are also insulting.
    Bo Löfvendahl in Svenska Dagbladet just wrote a straight article citing the Opera House. Do you really expect writers on music to have daggers in their hands all the time when writing about music and opera?
    I am surprised and dismayed that you are spreading nonsense just to be provocative.
    It is important to be critical at times regarding music life but this time you are way off base, Norman Lebrecht,
    Bo Hyttner
    Stockholm, Sweden

  8. The situation in Oslo, Copenhagen and Helsinki is totally different. Copenhagen got its new opera house as a donation by a private foundation. No costs for the Danish government at all. They wouldn’t have had the money to build such a monster on their own. Both Oslo and Helsinki didn’t have a house yet that was specifically meant for their opera companies. Opera was performed there mainly in the two National theatres. Naturally, after so much time they wanted to build an own opera house. Besides, I am absolutely sure that the vast majority of the Swedish people would have voted for refurbishment of their old opera house and not for building a new one (Where would have been the money to finance TWO opera houses?). There is so much history in it and it is indeed one of the finest in the world. They can build another opera house when they’ll have enough money, but refurbishment of the old one, a national landmark of Swedish culture, has presently much more priority.

  9. well, well, it seems that Norman Lebrechts Swedish is good enough, enabling him to follow the debate about the Opera site here …
    It is obvious that he keeps the views of the ordinary Swede regarding the sites of the opera houses in high esteem.
    In one small way, I do give him a small point though, just in the neighbourhood many years ago the commune wanted to have un underground entrance, spot Kungsträdgården, but some very old elm trees had to be cut down. The citizens of Stockholm, and others came to the resque of the trees, they were saved and the entrance was placed elsewhere. I doubt, however, we would ever have the same technical debate on the questions of the opera house. The truth of the matter is that Gustaf Adolfs Torg is dead now, after the Museum of Theater and Dance moved. It is scandal that some crap goverment department was allowed to enter instead. The more reason to create a real opera and art center at this very beautiful place!
    The main point is that when we have (at last) here in Sweden a real good state decision on art, then they receive critism from a rather unexpected source.
    I wander if Norman Lebrecht ever has been here?
    Why not place a trip here? I would buy him lunch at my social club next to the Opera House, (opposite the underground entrance) and then we can carry on dwelling on the future of art, music, opera, Sweden and the rest,
    Bo Hyttner, Stockholm, Sweden
    (He needs a suit and can borrow a tie at the reception desk)

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