The Erkel Theatre first opened its doors as the People’s Opera on 7 December 1911. The building, since refurbished a number of times, functioned as the Hungarian State Opera’s second venue between 1951 and 2007, and between 2013 and 2022.
It was intended to be Little Bayreuth: the theatre with the largest number of seats in Hungary, and even in Central Europe, was built in less than nine months on a plot donated by Budapest in 1911. The architects Dezső Jakab, Marcell Komor, and Géza Márkus submitted their joint plans for the tender announced for the building in March 1911. The public did not have to wait long for the grand opening: the structure of the theatre building was ready by mid-August, and the curtain went up at the beginning of December.
The first season saw a combination of classical operas (Rigoletto, La traviata and Il trovatore), contemporary works (Quo vadis?) and operettas (Les cloches de Corneville), as well as guest appearances from Diaghilev’s Ballets Russe and the Theater an der Wien company with Ferenc Lehár. The curtain fell on the season with an impressive and almost complete cycle of Wagner works featuring many recognised singers from the Opera House. Wagner is also associated with the most important and genuinely world-class production of the early years, probably the first performance outside Bayreuth of Parsifal on the very date it emerged from its 30-year ban on 1 January 1914. The conductor was the 25-year-old Frigyes “Fritz” Reiner, who first became a practised opera conductor here before continuing his work in Dresden in the same year and launching his astonishingly successful global career.
Over the course of the decades that have passed since, there have been many directors, and they have done their best to stage genres that draw the people in. In addition to the operetta productions mentioned above, the venue has been used for ballets, folk plays, dramas, classical and pop music concerts, and even boxing matches and “Chinese jack-of-all-trade” performances. The name of the institution has changed almost as often as the purposes it was used for. It was first called the People’s Opera, was then known as the City Theatre, renamed the House of Hungarian Culture, and even the Labriola Varieté (1932-1933).
The theatre operated as a space for hire until the end of the 1930s. Yet thanks to the size of the huge auditorium, the city’s star guests regularly appeared before the Budapest audience here. What is more, they performed across the entire spectrum of genres, with Luigi Pirandello’s company, as well as the Tokyo Theatre on its European tour. Concerts given by leading symphony orchestras (among them the Vienna Philharmonic) were conducted by such leading lights as Arturo Toscanini, and Wilhelm Furtwängler. The building came under the ownership of the city government and operated as the Hungarian House of Culture from 1940, officially responsible for furthering the cultural awareness of the masses. In practice, it continued to welcome events of all kinds, with performances of the National Theatre and Opera House lining up alongside folk song evenings and sporting occasions. From November 1944 and for around a month, the company of the Kolozsvár National Theatre performed under enforced exile from Cluj-Napoca, Romania.
Following the end of the war, the City Theatre opened its doors as a cinema with screenings later accompanied by high-quality variety shows. From 1948, theatre, opera and classical music performances returned once again. In 1949, the theatre was reconstructed based on the plans of architect Oszkár Kaufmann, with the number of seats reduced to 1819, and serious efforts made to improve the acoustics were finally completed ten years later by adjustments associated with the name of Iván Kotsis. The result was not only a more comfortable venue, but also one of the world’s best sounding theatre halls.
The venue on what was now Köztársaság tér (Republic Square), came under the control of the Hungarian State Opera in 1951, taking on the name of Erkel Theatre in 1953. The most popular works from the Opera House’s repertoire were transferred here, including operas, ballets and operetta classics. For a time in the early 1980s, the Erkel Theatre was Budapest’s sole venue for opera performance, since during the reconstruction of the Opera House starting in the 1980-1981 season and lasting until 1984, all of the company’s activities, which were set up for a company with two theatres to operate in, were conducted at the Erkel.
The repurposing and/or closure of the building has been a topic ever since the fall of socialist rule. The doors were finally locked on 30 June 2007 and, even though it passed the static inspection, it was used only for rehearsals and as a warehouse. There was even talk of demolishing the building, but it ended up undergoing a short renovation, which included renovating the area behind the scenes and all areas frequented by the audience, the theatre building was reopened on 7 November 2013, the Hungarian Opera Day and Ferenc Erkel’s birthday to operate as an affordable theatre for Hungarian opera and ballet lovers.
With the reopening of the historic Opera House in March 2022, it is time for the Erkel Theatre to undergo thorough renovation works, but it will continue to serve as a rehearsal space and will house guest performances, while the main focus will once again fall on the Opera House designed by Miklós Ybl as well as the Eiffel Art Studios, the home of contemporary and innovative productions.