It’s no secret: high art and beautiful architecture often go hand in hand, and the opera house is no different. Here, we give our (subjective, completely non-exhaustive) list of stunning opera houses to visit, from the hoary to the ultra-modern.

1Palais Garnier

Named after its architect Charles Garnier (who also designed the Opéra de Monte-Carlo in Monaco), this ornate structure featuring elements of neo-Baroque and Beaux-Arts design was commissioned as part of the regenerative works in Paris spearheaded by Emperor Napoleon III. There were plenty of obstacles to its construction, not least the swampy ground it was built on, the onset of the Franco-Prussian War, the collapse of the Second French Empire and the upheaval of the Paris Commune, but it finally opened in 1875 when it became the principal home of the Paris Opera and Ballet (up until the opening of the Opéra Bastille in 1989).

2Sydney Opera House 

Opened almost a century after the Palais Garnier in 1973, this iconic home of the arts on Sydney’s Bennelong Point had a similarly fraught period of gestation. Its innovative design, featuring three groups of layered shell-like structures, must have been a shot of adrenaline to the jury who awarded Danish architect Jørn Utzon the commission, but the government at the time weren’t so keen. The minister for public works put Utzon under intense pressure to deliver the project on time, to little effect: it was completed 10 years after schedule (and costed 14 times the budget). Such concerns turned out to be short-sighted, however: the Opera House is now a UNESCO World Heritage site and the most recognisable feature of the Sydney skyline.

3Metropolitan Opera House

The designer of this opera house, Wallace Harrison, had to vie for space as well as stylistic considerations with his fellow architects working on the other building in New York’s Lincoln Center complex – Avery Fisher Hall (now David Geffen Hall) and the Vivian Beaumont Theatre. But his serious architectural credentials (he’d previously worked on the Rockefeller Center and UN headquarters) ensured the finished product, with its distinctive arches and glass acade, became a memorable feature of cultural life in the city when in opened in 1966.

4Oslo Opera House

Concepts were high on the list of priorities for architecture company Snøhetta when they took on the project to build a modern opera house on Oslo’s Bjørvika Peninsula. Its designers envisioned a “Wave Wall” meeting the waters of Oslo Fjord, a “Factory” containing the house’s production facilities and, most distinctively of all, a “Carpet” – sloping sides made of marble leading up to the building’s roof, allowing the public to walk freely from the bottom to the top of the building. When it opened in 2008, the sheer invention of the structure must have justified the hefty €500 million bill.

5Palau de les Arts Reina Sofía 

The fifth and final structure to be completed in Valencia’s “City of Arts and Sciences” – a complex that includes an aquarium, an IMAX cinema and a science museum – this futuristic dome structure looks more like somewhere you’d meet an emissary from a distant galaxy rather than see a performance of a 200-year-old opera. Dreamt up by Valencia-born architect Santiago Calatrava, this 70-metre-high structure has played host to all manner of opera and classical music across its four auditoriums since opening in 2005.

6Copenhagen Opera House

2005 seems to have been a good time for innovative opera house design: in that year, the striking Copenhagen Opera House designed by Henning Larsen was also opened to the public. The most distinctive feature is its sleek, wide roof which covers a 158 by 90-metre area, making it one of the largest of its kind on earth.

7Mariinsky Theatre, St Petersburg 

For Russian-Italian architect Albert Cavos (incidentally the son of opera composer Catterino Cavos), work on St Petersburg’s Theatre Square must have seemed like a long term commitment. In 1836 he upgraded the existing Bolshoi Kamenny Theatre there and he was later commissioned to design an equestrian circus doubling as a theatre on the square. When that burned down in 1859, he used the site to build a new opera and ballet house, the Mariinsky, named after Empress Maria Alexandrovna. This grand house, with its Neoclassical and Neo-Byzantine overtones, opened in 1860. 26 years later, it took over from the Bolshoi Kamenny as the official home for opera and ballet performances in the city.

8Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow

Cavos was architect-in-demand in Moscow, too. Since 1824, there had been an opera house on the city’s Theatre Square, created by another Italian-Russian, Joseph Bové, who drew on designs by Andrei Mikhailov. But a fire ravaged the building in 1853, leaving only Bové’s columns and 37-meter-high walls as the carcass. Enter Cavos, who won a competition to build a replacement in what was left of the structure. Three years later, the new Bolshoi Theatre, with its imposing Neoclassical exterior, opened on the coronation day of Tsar Alexander II.  

9Latvian National Opera, Riga

Say what you like about health and safety legislation, but it does seem to have stopped opera houses from burning down with quite such frequency as they did in the 19th century. German architect Ludwig Bohnstedt came up with the designs for Riga’s opera house to be built on the site of the old city defences by the canal. The building enjoyed 19 years of service before a conflagration destroyed much of it in 1882. So, the city’s lead architect Reinholds Šmēlings was drafted in for the reconstruction and his building, staying true to Bohnstedt’s Neoclassical vision, was finished in 1887.


OK, this is getting ridiculous now. Zürich’s Aktientheater went up in smoke in 1890, so respected Viennese architects Ferdinand Fellner and Hermann Helmer were brought in to replace it. With a large portfolio of theatres and opera houses to their names, they’d already helped to shape the aesthetic of public cultural architecture across the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Using sturdy oak pillars for the structure, they kept the Neoclassical feel of the Aktientheater for this striking building near Lake Zürich.