If you’re wondering where to see opera in Italy, then you’ve come to the right place. This guide brims with the most prestigious venues for the larynx-vibrating art that exist on the whole of the Italian boot today.
There are some seriously totemic cultural institutions to get through. We’re talking the venerable Theatre of San Carlo in Naples, which reigns as the oldest opera house on planet Earth. We’re talking La Fenice, Venice’s great home of Verdi et al. And – of course – we’re talking La Scala, the mecca of opera in Italy and beyond.
Before you go ahead and pick where to see opera in Italy, it’s worth bearing in mind that some of these places have box office schedules that run during certain seasons. What’s more, it’s usually a good idea to book your tickets well in advance of travel, particularly at peak times between May and September and around Christmas.
La Scala, Milan
There is no more iconic an opera house in the whole of Italy – no the whole of Europe, no the whole of the world – than La Scala. All hail Teatro alla Scala, the totemic home of Italian opera and one of the original venues that elevated the art. You’ll find it tucked into the heart of old Milan, with the Gucci-fringed walks of the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II to the south and the handsome Palazzo Marino standing proud just opposite.
The place certainly looks the part. Fronted by a beautifully exquisite Neoclassical façade, it’s got a peristyle of Grecian columns and frontispieces of white-gleaming stone picked out with carvings and filigrees. Delve in and you’ll find the vast auditorium, with boxes that rise almost vertically from the front seats to a ceiling picked out in glimmering gold leaf. The stage anchors the whole lot with its red-velvet curtains and wide orchestra pit.
La Scala first opened its doors in 1776. It was built to replace a former theatre with money raised by a group of leading Milanese nobles. To begin with, the spot would have doubled as a casino and a gambling den. Later, it became the more prestigious art institute known today. To date, some of the greatest names in opera have plied their trade on the planks here, with productions by the likes of William Tell, Giuseppe Verdi, and Rossini to name just three.
Once you’re done with a show, you can head out to explore the core of Italy’s second city. Welcome to the fashion capital of Europe, where designer ateliers mark the street corners, and the mighty Duomo of Milan rises on high. Before a show, be sure to do as the locals do and grab yourself a Spritz from one of the nearby piazza wine bars.
San Carlo Theatre, Naples
If there’s one other opera house in Italy that could even come close to rivaling the prestige of Milan’s La Scala, it’s surely the San Carlo Theatre of Naples. We say that because this is the single oldest continuously operating opera house on the planet. It’s been going since the 1730s, when it was opened under the patronage of the Bourbon King Charles III – hence the name (King Charles equals Carlo in Italian).
Butting right up to the Royal Palace on sprawling Piazza del Plebiscito, the San Carlo Theatre is unique for its curiously militaristic exterior design elements – the architect charged with designing the frontage, Giovanni Antonio Medrano, was actually of military background. Go in and that ends right away. The spot has one of the first horseshoe auditorium orientations ever made. It’s seriously grand stuff, with blue and gold upholstery and carved Neoclassical murals running throughout.
For decades, the San Carlo Theatre found itself at the very epicenter of the Neapolitan opera boom. That was a golden age that saw the likes of Piccinni, Feo, Gazzaniga, Durante, and others take to the stage. Later, it claimed some great names in residence, like Gioachino Rossini and, even later again, Giacomo Puccini.
These days, San Carlo is a coveted place to watch opera in Italia and one of the cultural highlights of a trip to Naples. You should be sure to book early to secure your tickets, especially in the summer months when they’re in high demand. Oh, and before or after a show, there’s nothing for it but a proper Neapolitan pizza – fantastic Pizzeria Napoli In Bocca is just around the corner!
La Fenice, Venice
La Fenice stands tall as the home of Bel Canto – a school of 19th-century singing that took the opera world by storm. This was its great fortress, where totemic names like Rossini, Verdi, and Donizetti plied their trade with some of the finest singers and actors of their day. It all began with the opening of the venue in 1792 after a fire destroyed the former Teatro San Benedetto on the same site. However, the golden years didn’t really come until a certain Giuseppe Verdi chose the theatre to premier his works.
Another fire destroyed La Fenice in the late 1990s. But a grand reconstruction project that launched in 2001 and took nearly two full years to complete brought the spot back to its original grandeur, with the same blue-domed interior stage space and the same box seating with gold designs running amok. Some said that the new iteration was a gaudy pastiche to the past. Others loved it. We’ll let you make up your own mind.
La Fenice rises right in the middle of the old center of Venice. Anyone who’s ever been to the City of Canals will tell you that that’s not the easiest part of the world to navigate. So: Head west from the Piazza San Marco to the Ponte de Piscina bridge, cross that and make for the looming outline of the Chiesa di San Fantin. The opera house stands right opposite, with a handsome peristyle front and carved figures of artistic muses set in the recesses.
Teatro dell’Opera di Roma, Rome
No list of where to see opera in Italy could possibly skip out on an option in the beating, buzzing, uber-historic capital of the country. Cue the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma. This is the premier choice for opera buffs in the big city of Rome. Now, it might not be as venerable or as prestigious as the other spots on this list, but it is massive – the auditorium seats a whopping 1,600 people at once! On top of that, the space has been noted for its exceptional acoustics and audacious design.
The story of the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma is shorter than the likes of La Fenice and La Scala. This one dates back to the end of the 19th century, no longer than that. Then, it was known as the Teatro Costanzi after its contractor and patron, Domenico Costanzi. That changed in the early part of the 20th century, when the theatre was purchased by the municipal office and renamed to reflect its new official role as Rome’s leading opera house.
In the last 20 years, a modern and eclectic program of productions has taken to the stage. That’s included pieces like Wagner’s Lohengrin, Verdi’s Ernani, and Gluck’s Iphigénie en Aulide. The curators here have also branched out to offer open-air summer productions, which take place in the stunning setting of the Baths of Caracalla within the confines of ancient Rome just down the road.
The Teatro dell’Opera di Roma can be found a few steps off bustling Repubblica square. That’s one of the main interchanges on the Rome metro system and close to the Termini station – AKA, it’s all very accessible.
Teatro Regio Torino, Turin
The Teatro Regio Torino bucks the trend here in that it’s one of the few top opera houses in Italy with a striking modern interior. Yep, this one’s auditorium is a vast, UFO-like bulb with arced ceilings and strange fibreglass lights dangling down from on high. It was all the brainchild of the maverick Italian architect and designer, Carlo Mollino, who raised amazing structures from reinforced concrete throughout the 1970s.
From the outside, however, you could easily be forgiven for thinking that nothing had changed since the days when the Teatro Regio first flung open its doors in the 1740s. The place is still ringed by a now-UNESCO-tagged frontispiece that showcases the opulent and regal designs that are unique to the Piedmont region.
As far as the shows go, there’s an eclectic mix of productions throughout the opera and ballet season in the Teatro Regio Torino. They include mainstream works by greats like Giacomo Puccini but also more off-beat dance troupes with avant-garde performances. On top of that, you can come to see classical musical productions of Beethoven and Mozart and others. There’s a 12-month season and you should certainly book tickets in advance.
Where to see opera in Italy? Our conclusion
If you’re wondering where to see opera in Italy, we hope this guide has gone some way to revealing the most amazing spots. It contains some of the most famous opera houses anywhere on the planet, from legendary La Scala in Milan to the historic La Fenice in Venice. There are also more modern choices on offer in the big city of Rome and the northern industrial hub of Turin.