Venice | the invention of public theatre

The shift from private to public opera

When Vincenzo Gonzaga duke of Mantua died, Claudio Monteverdi left the court to move to Venice. Monteverdi’s career is indeed very interesting in the way it illustrates the shift from private to public opera.

Short after his arrival in Venice in 1613, Monteverdi got the post of Maestro di Cappella at St Mark’s CathedralVenice was a Republic so without a ruling family there was no place for court opera.

Venice, mid-seventeenth century, Joseph Heintz the Younger – Correr museum

The high demand for entertainment

Venice was an important and rich commercial centre, welcoming foreign merchants, businessmen dignitaries and aristocrats on the Grand Tour.

The demand for entertainment was therefore high, particularly during the Carnevale, which took place in February.

The invention of public theatre

After a touring company staged an opera in town, some enterprising impresarios came up with the idea of setting up a public opera house, charging the public for the hire of boxes on a subscription system.

Some believe that Opera was born in Venice in 1637. It was in fact at the San Cassiano theatre that for the first time an opera written for a public theatre was performed in front of a paying public.

San Giovanni Grisostomo or Grimani theatre in 1600

The many venetian theatres

In Venice there were also other theatres such as the popular St. John Chrysostom and St. John and Luke. These theatres were made in the typical Italian wooden structure with a stage, stalls and many tiers of boxes. They were often used for the Commedia dell’Arte performances.

The owners of the these theatres were noble Venetian families, who rented them to impresari, the managers responsible for the production and the engagement of the artists.

A profitable business

Impresari’s initial budget was coming from the boxes subscriptions. The stalls were instead sold on the night of the performance. The business turned out to be profitable and in a few years 16 theatres new theatres were built in Venice.

Opera wasn’t however a show “for the masses”; the opera-goers were still a privileged few. A box subscription for the year had a price adequate to its high social importance. Stall seats were expensive too.

The growing opera repertoire

As a consequence of the increased number of venues, an ever increasing number of new operas was need. During the carnevale only, for instance, each theatre staged at least two new works. So, by the end of 1600 the repertoire counted about 300 operas.

Opera: an example of successful partnership

In the 17th century opera is a genuinely collaborative art, a successful partnership between composer, poet, set-designer –scenografo, performers, theatre owner and impresario.

No longer a one-off-event, opera becomes a regular event played sometimes for an entire season. Because of the commercial nature of the venture, impresari could not afford the lavish sets of the court stagings and in the same way composers had to scale back the orchestration.

The rising of virtuosi

With a smaller instrumental ensemble playing the accompaniment, a bigger emphasis was put on singers so with time composers began to include more and more arias in their scores.

It was indeed in Venice that virtuosi started to emerge. As the success of an opera depended increasingly upon a virtuoso, their parts were written specifically for them, allowing to show off their vocal strengths. The most successful singers acquired the power to dictate not only their own parts but event the other singers’ parts.

Teatro Regio di Torino, 1740, by D. Oliviero

About Sara Filippini

Opera music along with destination management and communication are my fields of expertise. Music and singing are my passion combined with travel and exploring the connection between places and their stories. Coming from Italy I am blessed with wealth of history and adventures to be explored from Sicily to the Alp's. The real dept of any story can be best felt from the place of its origin were the surroundings add to the sense of connection and true appreciation.


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