History and Development of Venetian Opera

History and Development of Venetian Opera. In the 17th and 18th centuries, Venice played a pivotal role in the development of opera, transitioning from its early roots in church and chamber forms to the vibrant and influential art form of the “Commedia dell’arte” tradition; that wove together theatrical elements, music, and improvisation.  Its development intertwined art, commerce, and cultural shifts.

Early operas were extravagant productions held in Italian and French royal palaces and were spectacles aimed to impress visiting dignitaries and present a positive image of rulers and their courts.

However, the inauguration of the first public opera house, the Teatro di San Cassiano, in 1637 now owned by the Grimaldi family; marked a significant turning point in Venice. This event democratised access to opera by the paying public and was open to all social classes of its urban population. 

During the course of the 17th century, the historic city centre had at least nine commercial theatres performing opera, that played a significant role in Venice’s cultural life; contributing to the city’s artistic legacy. Although the majority have long vanished, their impact remains woven into the fabric of Venetian history.

The city now enjoys a revival of interest in both theatre and opera, due to demand from tourism and the popularity of events such as the International Theatre, Dance and Music Festivals of the La Biennale di Venezia.

History and Development of Venetian Opera

Historic theatres still open today: Teatro Malibran – Teatro La Fenice. – Teatro Goldoni. 

Musica a Palazzo – A “chamber opera concept” in a wonderful historic palazzo setting.

Historic theatres now demolished, destroyed by fire or closed: Teatro San Cassiano (formerly Teatro Tron) –  The Teatro Santi Giovanni e Paolo – Teatro San Benedetto – Teatro Novissimo – Teatro San Moisè – Teatro San Samuele – Teatro San Angelo.  

Minor theatres in the historic centre open today: – Teatro Fondamenta Nuove.  

Minor theatres in mainland Mestre:  Teatro del Parco – Teatro Toniolo – Teatro Groggia – Teatro Momo – Centro Culturale Candiani.

Other minor theatres from the past demolished, destroyed by fire, or closed.

Links (internal-external).

“Opera is a mixed theatrical genre, a combination of drama, music and scenic spectacle”


History and Development of Venetian Opera

In the 17th and 18th centuries, Venice played a pivotal role in the development of opera, transitioning from its early roots in church and chamber forms, that merged with the Commedia dell’arte tradition; so becoming a vibrant and influential art form, that has lasted 400 years.

Its development intertwined art, commerce and cultural shifts, emerging through the opening of public opera houses, talented composers, librettists and a distinctive style that blended drama, music and spectacle; the balance of  constituent elements became a source of its vitality. In essence, Venetian opera acted as a catalyst, shaping the trajectory of European opera, fostering innovation and leaving an enduring legacy.

How and why did early opera develop, so rapidly in Venice, rather than other Italian or European centres during that period?

“Commedia dell’arte”

Literally translated as “comedy of professional artists”, it was an Italian theatrical form; that flourished across Europe from the 16th to the 18th century. Originally it was performed in open air, usually in piazzas, on a small assembled stage; by a cast of itinerant troupes of players, often with strong region dialects and with masked and unmasked characters. It first found favour in royal courts and aristocratic circles, before entering the world of theatre.

Its popularity in Venice took off, with the advent of the first theatres; open to the paying public and all social classes.

Performances were based on a set “schema”, or “scenario” – a basic plot, often a familiar story; upon which the actors improvised their dialogue. Actors usually played the same “stock” character, allowing them spontaneity and the liberty to tailor a performance to their audience; allowing for sly commentary on current politics and bawdy humour, that would otherwise have been censored.

    Jan Miel  (1599–1663). “Actors from the Commedia dell’Arte on a Wagon in a Town Square“.

The Plots. Commonly, it centred on the struggles of young lovers, or innamorati, whose union is hindered by one or several elders (vecchi); possibly a jealous guardian or even an aged spouse. The innamorati, seek assistance from servant characters called zanni (from which the word zany derives); who, with cunning intervention, would bring the play to a happy conclusion. Other popular scenarios involved adultery, marital jealousy, and the outwitting of a foolish character by his servant. Occasionally, stock characters acted out stories from mythology and ancient Greek and Roman comedies as well.

Beyond the basic plot elements, the only scripted components of the performance were lazzi”: rehearsed interludes of comic stage business, music, acrobatics, or fighting; often unrelated to the development of the scenario.

The lazzi allowed actors, usually those playing the zanni, to show off a particular skill and some actors became so famous for these routines; that audiences expected the “trademark” lazzi of a particular actor or troupe, at each performance.

The earliest known company formed in Padua in 1545 and by the turn of the 17th century, troupes such as the Gelosi, Confidenti and Fedeli enjoyed international celebrity. Some troupes were favoured at foreign courts, especially in France, where images from the commedia became a favourite theme of artists, such as Jean-Baptiste Joseph Pater (1695–1736) and Antoine Watteau (1684–1721).

Brief guide to the main characters

There are four main commedia dell’arte character types, that are essential to the history and development of theatre. From the iconic Zanni to the romantic Innamorati, these characters captured the imagination of audiences for centuries and continue to be relevant in modern theatre and media. It’s important to note that each character type has subtypes and variations and that they are often adapted to suit the specific needs of a production. Additionally, the masks worn by some of the characters, are an integral part of their personas and are often seen as an extension of the character.  From wealthy figures to servants they include:

The Vecchi, are wealthy old men who are often portrayed as being miserly and stingy. They are typically portrayed as being greedy and possessive of their money, property and women. The most famous Vecchi characters include:

  • Magnifico: the most powerful character, that wears an eagle mask and so looks down on everything. A fore-runner to the two other vecchi below.
  • Pantalone: is a wealthy and lustful old man, a miserly merchant, a master of cunning and often the target of the other characters’ scheming. His attire includes red trousers, a black cloak, and a mask with a long hooked nose.
  • Il Dottore: the “Doctor is a  pompous, verbose and pretentious character who is known for his long-winded speeches. He flaunts his academic credentials, even though his knowledge is often questionable. His costume features a black robe and a large, scholarly hat.

The Innamorati, are young, upper-class lovers who are typically portrayed as being romantic, passionate, idealistic and often naive, but not masked. They are often the focus of the plot and are used as a foil for the other characters. The most famous Innamorati characters include:

  • Flavio. A young and handsome lover, who is typically paired with Isabella.
  • Isabella. A beautiful and intelligent lover, who is often pursued by other characters.

Il Capitano: is a self-styled captain who is typically portrayed as arrogant and boastful. Typically, Spanish or a mercenary, he often boasts of his military prowess and is frequently challenged to prove it. The most famous Il Capitano character is “Scaramuccia”, or Scaramouche. His female counterpart is known as “La Signora.”

The Zanni: are the most iconic and recognisable of the commedia dell’arte characters. They are servants or clowns who are typically portrayed as lazy, mischievous and always hungry. They speak in dialects and their costumes usually feature patches and ragged clothes. The most famous Zanni characters include:

  • Arlecchino (or Harlequin): known for his diamond-patterned costume, he is mischievous, uses “slapstick” humour, acrobatic, amoral and in love with Colombina,
  • Colombina: a cunning and playful character, who wears a simple dress and a half-mask. She is clever, flirtatious, and often caught up in romantic entanglements.
  • Brighella: a cunning, quick-witted and resourceful character, who often serves as a henchman to other characters. He wears a green mask and a colorful costume. His role often involves scheming, trickery, and clever wordplay.
  • Scapino: a quick-witted and cunning servant who is always looking for a way to make a quick buck. His earlier costume was predominantly white, complete with a cloak and a sword hanging from his belt. He often wore a hat, that was  torn and adorned with feathers. Not typically masked, his facial features were often exaggerated, emphasizing a hooked nose and a pointed beard.
  • Pulcinella: a hunchbacked character, who is clumsy and loves to eat. He wore a white loose-fitting costume, black leather mask and had iconic long curved nose. Long associated with Neapolitan culture, he devolved into various charactertypes elsewhere; most famously as the puppet character “Punch” (of the eponymous Punch and Judy shows) in England.


The roots of Commedia dell’arte, can be broadly traced. Pre-classical and classical traditions of mime and farce, likely contributed to its emergence in 16th-century Italy.

During the Middle Ages in Italy, rustic regional dialect farces existed  Professional troupes formed, recruiting strolling players, acrobats, street entertainers, and even educated adventurers. These troupes experimented with forms suited to popular taste: vernacular dialects, abundant comic action and recognisable characters; derived from regional or stock fictional types, masked or not.

Carnival festivities. In Venice, people had a long history of enjoying such festivities and certainly influenced the wearing of masked characters in Commedi dell’arte. Masks not only allowed anonymity for the upper classes, (especially for those involved in dubious pleasures and pastimes); but also different social classes to intermingle. Furthermore In 1607, the Papal interdict against Venice had been lifted; leading to an extraordinary period of free speech for Venetians; compared to limitations imposed elsewhere.

Moving from street to theatre. Commedia dell’arte plays became scripted, each actor’s role was clearly defined.

Venetians love for the “physicality of sounds” of the these actor’s performance; had trained Italian audiences in habits of listening. The gender, class, geographic origins, motivations and predilections of each character were audible in their voice. This ability to relate and interact with the performance, other than by the literal meaning of the spoken word; persisted even when the art form was set to music and became opera. Audiences attuned to nuances in sound, shaped the way composers approached vocal expression and musical storytelling. Furthermore, to Venetians, it was as much about being a social event; than being an aesthetic encounter.

The first recorded opera performances, came from Rome as early as 1551; influenced by the lively spirit of Commedia. Opera characters, directly borrowed from Commedia types were for example: “Il Magnifico”, created by author and actor Andrea Calmo during Carnival in Venice and served as the precursor to the vecchio (old man) “Pantalone”.  While Calmo’s characters were not initially masked, the connection to Carnival suggests that masking became a convention. The Spanish “Capitano” and “Il Dottore” characters, also had roots in Commedia tradition.

With the slow economic decline in Venice, due to the loss of trading colonies in the eastern Mediterranean and the rise of other maritime powers developing alternative trading routes; aristocrats, such as the Grimaldi, Vendramin and Venier families; looked for new investment opportunities in the historic centre. Fortunately, this decline in political power, coincided with a cultural renaissance.

In summary, Venice’s first operas skillfully blended the structured world of opera, with the spontaneity, improvisation and gesturing of the character archetypes of Commedia dell’arte; bridging the gap between the spoken word and musical expression. Ties between the worlds of commedia and opera were productive – shared audiences, venues, actors, and singers contributed to this symbiosis.

Commedia dell’arte, provided a fertile ground for experimenting with sound, language, and performance; which significantly impacted the evolution of opera during the 17th century. It has left an indelible mark on both classical and modern comedy and performance – from Shakespeare to Moliere; Arlecchino (Harlequin) with his patch-jacket and use of “slapstick”; Pulcinella (Punch and Judy) and finally TV sitcoms (Basil and Manuel in Faulty Towers).

The inauguration of the first public opera house

The Teatro di San Cassiano in San Croce district was in 1637, owned by the Grimaldi family (image below).  The first mention of a theatre on the site was in 1581, then owned by the aristocratic Tron family. It marked a significant turning point in the development of Venetian opera. Until then, public theatres (for example, those operating on a commercial basis) had staged only recited theatrical performances (commedie).

The major feature of the new opera house, was the design and construction of the “U-shape, auditorium; that we are used to seeing today. The design featured five tiers of private boxes, giving the all the audience more involvement with the production, better acoustics and a good view of the stage, which also was gently sloped forward. Though open to all classes of society, those of higher social standing and also students of the production company; were seated closer to the stage and on lower tiers.

Later, some theatres where rebuilding was not possible, were remodelled with a larger stage to cope with greater production values.

The age of commercial theatres

Previously, opera had been exclusive to royal courts and nobility; but this event democratised access to opera by the paying public and open all social classes. By the end of the 17th century, Venice boasted at least nine commercial theatres built, catering to a population of around 160,000 inhabitants; with some more dedicated towards opera productions, than plays. The grandeur, magnificence and decoration of these theatre and their production values, reinforced Venice’s reputation; as a centre of cultural excellence.

Their success, led to the proliferation of opera houses across many of Europe’s great cities, with new operas were commissioned each season. As a result of Venice’s status as a cultural hub, it attracted composers, librettists and performers from various European regions. The exchange of ideas and artistic collaboration, led to a cross-pollination of styles.

Venetian opera librettos began to feature sensational plots, combining elements of comedy, tragedy, and intrigue; themes that resonated with their audiences. European composers adopted and adapted these dramatic structures, infusing their own cultural nuances. At first, the liberetto’s were usually published, several months after the performance; mostly to bring esteem to the elite owners. Later however, they were published in advance, which benefitted both ticket sales and the audience’s participation at the event.

Competition and Rivalry

Immense competition and some rivalry developed between the elite theatre-owning families, striving to ensure financial success; not only for attracting customers, but for investment in new theatres. Managements were very careful, to contain the high cost of each aspect of the productions.

In 1674, the new manager, Francesco Santurini of the Teatro San Moise, one of the smaller theatres of Venice, but also one of the most influential; attempted to revive its fortune by halving the price of tickets to 2 lire. Despite outrage from critics and other theatre owners, it substantially increased its popularity, The view of one outspoken critic named Ivanovich, was that reduced ticket prices, besides limiting the funds available for operatic productions and therefore diminishing their grandeur; lowered the social level of the audience to include ignorant and disruptive crowds (“volgo tumultuario“).

Undeterred, the price reduction was so profitable, that support was gained for the construction of a new theatre. The Teatro S. Angelo opened for business in 1677; being the first new opera house in nearly three decades.  The new theatre was still relatively small, but its modern facilities and central location, combined with the reduced price of admission attracted a large audience; forcing the other competing rival theatres – S. Salvatore  and SS. Giovanni e Paolo, to follow suit.

Perhaps the most significant result of Santurini’s actions, was the opening of the Teatro S. Giovanni Grisostomo in 1678; by the most important theatrical entrepreneurs of the period, the Grimani brothers; proprietors of Teatro SS. Giovanni e Paolo and Teatro San Samuele (prose only until the beginning of the 18th century). They eventually bowed to competition, by reducing the price of admission to their older opera house, however, they retained the traditional higher price for their new one; thus asserting its social distinction. Clearly aimed to maintain a certain decorum, the Teatro S. Giovanni Grisostomo, was larger, better equipped and more magnificent than any other theatre of the 17th century. It eventually became a symbol of the restoration of decorum, to Venetian opera as a whole.


The recitative-aria format became a standard development.

Star singers took centre stage and composers tailored music, to showcase virtuosic vocal performances. Improvisation was common, allowing singers to embellish passages. The dynamic relationship between the audience and the singers led to the emergence of the leading lady. Another Venetian feature, was the prominence of “castrati” (men castrated before puberty to preserve their high, but strong voices).

Composers like Cavalli and Cesti, composed elaborate arias to showcase singers’ abilities. Composers, including Vivaldi, Handel and Gluck, continued this tradition; creating dazzling arias for their operas.

Venetian opera favoured lyrical melodies in arias, often set in strophic form and these expressive tunes resonated with their audiences. The use of repetitive bass patterns (ostinatos), also influenced European composers. For instance, Purcell incorporated ground basses in his works.

Opera in Venice, encompassed both serious “opera seria” (serious) and “opera buffa” (comic) genres and this duality inspired European composers to explore contrasting themes. Mozart, for instance, excelled in both forms, composing masterpieces like “Don Giovanni” (opera seria) and “The Marriage of Figaro” (opera buffa).

During the late 17th century, a Neoclassical movement emerged in Venetian opera – libretti were purged of comic scenes and simpler plots based on French tragedies (such as those by Corneille and Racine) gained prominence. This movement emphasised elevated language and adhered to the Classical ideal of unity of time, place and action.

In the late 18th century, the magnificent Teatro La Fenice, became Venice’s main opera house; replacing the Teatro San Benedetto.

Later in 1826, theatrical lighting was later greatly improved with introduction of gas lighting. What is now known as the Teatro Carlo Goldoni, was the first theatre in Italy to have a complete new lighting system installed. This innovative technology brought brighter illumination compared to oil lamps and allowed for greater control over stage lighting. (Note. later in 1839, a contract was approved with the French company, to illuminate San Marco and its surroundings using gas.)

Today, only three of these historic theatres are still open today:  Teatro La Fenice (the main opera house), the Teatro Goldoni and the Teatro Malibran.

Composers and their impact.

Claudio Monteverdi’s opera “Orfeo”, recognised as the first true opera; was first performed in Mantua, in 1607.  It told its story through song and music. (Although “Orfeo” remains the earliest opera still performed today, it wasn’t heard outside Italy until the 20th century).

Monteverdi’s secular and religious compositions enriched Venice’s musical landscape. The Basilica of St. Mark, played a central role in Venetian Renaissance and early Baroque music. With it’s two organs and a tradition of using two choirs placed above and to each side of the central nave; this contributed greatly to the “spatiality” of the sound-field in the Basilica.

A pivotal figure, he bridged the gap between commedia and opera incorporating elements like recitative, aria and ensemble passages, drawing from both traditions.  Monteverdi’s works, such as “L’Arianna”, “Il Ritorno d’Ulisse”, and “L’incoronazione di Poppea”; showcased this fusion.

Other composers experimented with vocal expression, character types and dramatic pacing. Monteverdi’s pupil, the Venetian composer Francesco Cavalli, became the most popular opera composer during this era; composing over two dozen operas for the Venetian theatres between 1639 and 1669.  One of his most popular “Giasone” (1649), blended drama with farcical episodes and his works infused librettos with dramatic force. Another notable was Pietro Antonio Cesti, also a Venetian composer, who left a legacy of around a dozen operas.

Later in the 17th century. Antonio Sartorio, Giovanni Legrenzi and in the early 18th century Antonio Vivaldi; also contributed to the vibrant Venetian opera scene. He was followed by another significant Venetian composer, Baldassare Galuppi; whose work today remains relatively unknown. Vivaldi composed 49 operas for Venice and other cities, but with his death in 1741; Venice lost her last great composer. Many of his operas were considered lost, but a large number have been recently rediscovered.

Another purely Venetian phenomenon that contributed to the excellence of Venetian music tradition, was to be found in the four orphanages for foundling girls: the Ospedaletto, the Incurabili, the Mendicanti and the most famous of them all, La Pietà. In these institutions music occupied the most important place in the curriculum and by the beginning of the century, the standards were so high that the nobility regularly sought places for their daughters as paying students. On the south side of La Pietà there still exists a long inscription, threatening with “fulminazione” (being struck by lightning”); on anyone who tries to pass off his legitimate daughter as an illegitimate one, in order to gain her admission.

Economic and political factors that contributed to decline

In the 17th and 18th centuries, Venice was a vibrant hub for opera, but its prominence gradually waned.

The decline of operatic standards could not be ascribed exclusively to price reductions, that lowered the social level of the audience; but to issues with the works themselves and to the system that nourished them. Commercial considerations and the rule of the marketplace, had so eroded the ethics of librettists, that they regularly stooped to plagiarism of all kinds (plots, lines of recitative and the “borrowing” of individual scenes, was commonplace). Another serious problem, was the transfer often by the star singers, of whole arias from one work to another; that were acknowledged only occasionally, in print editions.

Economic factors, eventually caused aristocratic patronage to decline and the fact that most operas lasted only one season; being replaced by newly commissioned works. Expensive publication of opera scores ceased.

In 1797, Napoleon Bonaparte brought the Venetian Republic to an end and for the next 70 years the city was under both French and Austrian periods of domination; until in 1866, it finally became part of a united Italy.

Strangely enough, however, when Venice lost her independence, she also lost her creative genius. There were no more Canalettos or Tiepolos, Monteverdis, or Vivaldis.  New operas continued to be produced at La Fenice and other theatres, but they were not by Venetian composers; Rossini and Verdi were regular visitors.  Richard Wagner, who in 1858 completed the second Act of Tristan in one of the Guistinian palaces and 25 years later lived and died in the Palazzo Vendramin-Calergi.

The last truly great composer to be associated with Venice was Igor Stravinsky. The first night of his Rake’s Progress, at La Fenice theatre in 1951; marked a high-point of musical life in 20th-century Venice. Although Stravinsky did not die in the city, he was buried next to his friend Diaghilev; on the cemetery island of San Michele.

Despite the decline in political influence, Venice’s cultural legacy persisted, leaving behind a rich operatic heritage. In essence, Venetian opera acted as a catalyst, shaping the trajectory of European opera, fostering innovation and leaving an enduring legacy.


Historic theatres still open today – History and Development of Venetian Opera

Teatro Goldoni.

Teatro Carlo Goldoni, built by the Vendramin family in 1622, is the oldest in Venice still in existence today; offering an international repertoire and facilities to the community.

In its long history, the theatre has undergone both changes in name and several significant renovations; due to fire or structural failures. Today, it hosts the theatre company Teatro Stabile di Veneto “Carlo Goldoni”.

The modern theatre is located just behind the Rialto Vaporetto stations A and B; just west of the Rialto Bridge.

Please see my comprehensive post, tracing the history and development of this establishment: “Teatro Carlo Goldoni”

Teatro Carlo Goldoni – History and development.


Early History

Further restoration and modernisation of the theatre and change of name

Fire at “La Fenice”

The Apollo becomes the Carlo Goldoni Theatre

The agreement for the restoration and reopening of the Goldoni Theatre

Getting there

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Teatro Malibran.

Built by the Grimani brothers in 1677, it was first known as the theatre of S. Giovanni Grisostomo.

Constructed on the site of Marco Polo’s old house in eastern Cannaregio; it was soon regarded as being “the biggest, most beautiful and richest of the city“.

The theatre changed ownership and was renovated several times; until the radical renovation of 1919, which gave us the theatre, as we know it today.

During its golden age, composers such as Alessandro Scarlatti, premiered in 1707, his opera seria “Mitridate Eupatore” and Georg Friedrich Händel‘s “Agrippina”, in 1709.

Please see my comprehensive post tracing the history and development of this establishment: “The Malibran Theatre”

History and Development
The Renaming of the Theatre
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Teatro La Fenice.

Built in 1792 and originally owned by the Venier family, it underwent reconstruction in 2003. La Fenice remains a renowned landmark in the history of Italian and opera and theatre.

Despite losing three theatres to fire, its name reflects the ability of an opera company to “rise from the ashes”; like a Phoenix – the mythical bird.

La Fenice, especially in the 19th century, held performances of many famous operatic premieres; most notably those of the four major bel-canto era composers – Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, and Verdi. Today, it is still Venice’s premier opera house.

Teatro La Fenice in Venice, 1829. Artist unknown

Please see my comprehensive post, tracing the history and development of this establishment: “Teatro la Fenice”


Surviving Elements

The Sale Apollinee (Apollo’s Rooms)

General Information and Links (internal-external)


Worth mentioning and more suited to tourists. – A “chamber opera concept” in a wonderful historic palazzo setting.

“Musica a Palazzo”

Run by “Dimensione Lirica”, a cultural association founded in 2009, that since 2020, has assumed the “Musica a Palazzo” format; uses the Palazzo Barbarigo Minotto, a Venetian Gothic palace facing the Grand Canal. The piano nobile of the palace, with its backdrop of frescoes by Tiepolo and sculptures by Carpoforo Tencalla; is its main performing space. A place where to meet, experiment and gather, in order to spread and broaden the knowledge of Opera culture.

The Musica a Palazzo ensemble conception, is that of a ‘Chamber Opera’ – the traditional setting of Opera in the theatre, is replaced by a perfect setting. Every act of the opera, takes place in a different hall of the palace; the magnificent baroque furnishings naturally complementing the set design. The originality of the direction is represented by the interaction between the singers, the instrumentalists and the audience, breaking down any kind of barrier between them and giving the viewer, the thrill of experiencing the Opera from within.

The program alternates famous operas, such as Verdi’s La traviata and Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, with Duetti d’amore; a selection of love duets from La bohème, Tosca, Don Giovanni, Rigoletto and other popular operas.

The musicians –  a string trio and a piano, have performed in concert halls around the world, winning awards for their productions.

Musica A Palazzo
Palazzo Barbarigo Minotto
Fondamenta Duodo o Barbarigo
S. Marco 2504, 30124 Venezia, Italy

+39 340 97 17 272   info@musicapalazzo.com     Website-Musica A Palazzo

The Palazzo Barbarigo Minotto, is alongside the “Santa Maria del Giglio” vaporetto (waterbus) stop. The access is from the San Marco mainland, is from Fondamenta Duodo o Barbarigo, on the main walking route connecting Piazza San Marco (15mins) and the Accademia Bridge (10mins).


Historic Theatres, now demolished, destroyed by fire or closed  History and Development of Venetian Opera 

Teatro San Cassiano (formerly Teatro Tron)

The original opera house owned by the Tron family, later to become the “Teatro San Cassiano” owned by the Grimani family; was located in the parish of San Cassiano in the district of.Santa Croce. It was located next to the Palazzo Albrizzi; just to the north of the large Campo San Polo. It holds a significant place in history, as the world’s first public opera house, in the sense that it was the first to open to a paying audience.

First inaugurated in 1637, with a performance of Francesco Mannelli’s “Andromeda”; the first mention of its construction actually dates back to 1581. Until then, public theatres (those operating on a commercial basis), had staged only recited “commedie”  theatrical performances; while opera had remained a private spectacle, reserved for the aristocracy and the royal courts. The Teatro San Cassiano was therefore, the first public theatre to stage opera and in so doing opened opera for wider public consumption by all social classes; marking a pivotal moment in the accessibility of this art form.

The original theatre was demolished in 1812  However, since 1999, there is underway, an exciting ongoing project to reconstruct the Teatro San Cassiano of 1637; directed and financed by Paul Atkin, founder and CEO of the Teatro San Cassiano Group Ltd.

During a flourish of opera house development in the 1650s to 60s, all the main Venetian theatres were owned by important patrician families, combining business with pleasure, in a city of crowded and competitive theatrical culture. When most opera in Europe was still being put on by courts –  “economic prospects and a desire for exhibitionistic display”, as well a decline in their traditional overseas trading; attracted the best Venetian families to invest in the theatre during the 17th century.

The Teatro Santi Giovanni e Paolo.

Initially, it was a wooden structure located on the Fondamenta Nuove, around 1635. The theatre was reconstructed on a grander scale by the Grimani family in 1638, using both stone and wood; when it moved to the nearby Calle della Testa, on the western side of the Rio dei Medicanti and opposite what is the now the main hospital. Although primarily intended for spoken drama, operas were performed there from the very beginning. The new theatre was inaugurated on January 20, 1639, with the premiere performance of Francesco Manelli’s opera “La Delia o sia La sera sposa del sole”.

The librettist Giulio Strozzi was based at the nearby Teatro Novissimo but returned to SS. Giovanni e Paolo for the 1642–1643 season. He brought with him singers Barbara Strozzi and Anna Renzi; as well as pioneering set designer Giacomo Torelli. It was possibly at Santi Giovanni e Paolo, that Torelli developed his machinery for changing several sets simultaneously.

In 1654, the theatre underwent a significant transformation into an opera house by architect Carlo Fontana. It became the first fully developed horseshoe-shaped opera house in Italy and retained this design for over two centuries.
The magnificent interior could seat approximately 900 people, featuring five tiers of boxes and additional seating on the U-shaped floor in front of the stage.

Teatro San Benedetto.

The theatre constructed by Michele Grimani, was inaugurated on December 26, 1755; with a performance of Gioacchino Cocchi’s opera “Zoe”.

In 1766, ownership passed to a consortium of Venetian patrician families, who had been box holders at the theatre. Following a fire in 1774, it was rebuilt in the traditional horseshoe design. Distinguished ballet masters such as Vincenzo Galeotti and Gasparo Angiolini, staged their productions here.

In 1782, the Teatro San Benedetto hosted a grand ball in honour of Count and Countess De Nord, including Russian Prince Pavel Petrovich and his spouse.

By 1786, the consortium had ceded the theatre to the Venier family and the theatre became known as the “Teatro Venier” (or Teatro Venier in San Benedetto).

Later, under impresario Giovanni Gallo, it was also called the “Teatro Gallo” and then the “Teatro Rossini”; in honour of the composer Gioachino Rossini. In 1937, the building underwent a complete transformation into a movie theatre, the “Cinema Rossini”, with a new facade designed by architect Carlo Scarpa. Finally, the cinema was closed in 2007, but thanks to funding from the City of Venice; underwent restoration in 2010.

Teatro Novissimo

Public commercial opera had begun in Venice in 1637. By the time the Teatro Novissimo (The Newest Theatre) was completed in 1640, there were already three theatres staging operas in the city; Teatro San Cassiano, Teatro Santi Giovanni e Paolo, and Teatro San Moisè. It was purpose-built for staging opera and unlike the other three; was built and owned by a consortium, rather than a single noble family.

The Teatro Novissimo, was located in the Campo Santi Giovanni e Paolo with its entrance on the Calle de Mendicanti and was the first theatre built in Venice, specifically for the performance of opera. The land was made available under contract, from the Dominican friars of Santi Giovanni e Paolo.

Because it was purpose-built, it had a wider stage than its existing competitors; which allowed for the elaborate productions which became the Novissimo’s hallmark. The stage, almost 11 metres wide, was able to accommodate stage manager and architect Giacomo Torelli’s, complex stage sets and machinery which would characterise the theatre’s productions.

The theatre opened in the Carnival season of 1641, with the premiere of Sacrati’s opera “La finta pazza”. After its last production in 1645, the theatre had accrued mounting debts and the friars re-possessed the theatre and had it demolished in October 1647. In 1648, an equestrian school and stables were constructed on the site. Only, six seasons and six operas were staged.

Teatro San Moisè

The Teatro San Moisè, was a theatre and opera house in Venice, active from 1620 to 1818. One of the smaller theatres of Venice, but also one of the most influential; it was in a prominent location near the Palazzo Giustinian and the church of San Moisè, close to the southern entrance to the Grand Canal.

Built by the Giustiniani family around 1620, it was originally a prose theatre. By 1640, now owned by the Zane family, it staged its first opera production; Claudio Monteverdi’s now lost opera L’Arianna. In 1668, it was enlarged to 800 seats, with no significant increase on the stage size; which limited the theatre’s ability to stage large-scale productions throughout its existence.

In 1674, the theatre was revived by halving the price of tickets to 2 lire, leading to an increase in popularity of opera and a further proliferation of active theatres in the city.

During the early 18th century, Gasparini, Vivaldi and Albinoni were all active in San Moisè. During the 1740s, Neapolitan “opera buffa” reached Venice and San Moisè was one of the first theatres to concentrate on this genre; with works by Baldassare Galuppi, in partnership with Carlo Goldoni. This trend continued through most of the century.

In the 1770s and 1780s, the theatre was under the control of the prolific librettist Giovanni Bertati, the “Poeta Cesareo” (Imperial Poet) of the Italian Opera in Vienna, who concentrated on “drammi giocosi”

(Note. “Opera buffa” and “dramma giocoso,” share common ground but differ in their emphasis on humour, sentiment and the balance between comedy and tragedy. Mozart’s Don Giovanni exemplifies this delightful fusion, making it a timeless masterpiece.)

The San Moisè finally closed in 1818, after producing a series of Rossini’s farces. It later re-opened as the “Teatro Minerva” a puppet theatre.

In July 1896, the Minerva saw Venice’s first cinema projection when the Lumière brothers brought their equipment to the theatre and was still being used as a cinema in 1906. The building was later demolished and by the end of the 20th century, the site was occupied by a shop and a block of flats.

Teatro San Samuele

One of the most important Venetian theatres of the 17th and 18th centuries, Teatro San Samuele was a theatre and opera house, located on the Rio del Duca; midway between Campo San Samuele and Campo Santo Stefano. It was just behind the Palazzo Malipiero, found on one side of the Campo San Samuele and its vaporetto stop on the Grand Canal.

One of several important theatres built by the Grimani family, the theatre opened in 1656. Initially the theatre was used primarily for plays but in the 18th century the house became more closely associated with opera and ballet. The famous playwright and librettist Carlo Goldoni notably served as the theatre’s director from 1737 to 1741 and many of his works were premiered at the theatre during his career.

It operated continuously until a fire in 1747, destroyed the theatre. Reconstructed and reopened in 1748, the theatre was forced to close and be sold off in 1770; due to the economic crisis that hit the Venetian aristocracy.

The theatre remained active until 1807, when it was shut down by Napoleonic decree; but later reopened again in 1815, under Austrian rule. In 1819, it was acquired by impresario Giuseppe Camploy and later In 1853, the theatre was renamed the “Teatro Camploy”. Upon Camploy’s death in 1889, the theatre was bequeathed to the City of Verona. The Venice City Council in turn, bought the theatre and demolished it in 1894, building the “A. Scarsellini” elementary school on its former site.

Teatro San Angelo

The Teatro San Angelo, also known as Teatro Sant’ Angelo, was a historic theatre in Venice that operated from 1677 until 1803. It was the last of the major Venetian theaters built during the opera craze of the 1650s and 1660s. A popular venue for the operas of Antonio Vivaldi and Baldassare Galuppi and the plays of Carlo Goldoni, three of the Venetian Republic’s other favourite sons.

The Teatro San Angelo was situated in the Campo San(t’) Angelo, and facing the Grand Canal and views down to the Rialto Bridge (served today by the Vaporetto stop of the same name). It occupied the sites of two demolished palazzi belonging to the Marcellos and Capellos. The theatre was completed in 1676 by Francesco Santorini and opened in 1677 under the patronage of the Benedetto Marcello and Capello families.

Initially, the Teatro San Angelo hosted operas by composers such as Domenico Freschi, Gasparini, Albinoni, and Bononcini. However, from around 1715, it became best known as the venue for many of the operas composed by the renowned Antonio Vivaldi. Under Vivaldi’s direction, the theatre became increasingly populist and commercial.

In the 1790s, the Abate Pietro Chiari wrote for the Teatro San Angelo and in 1797, Casanova wrote an attack on Chiari, incurring the enmity of Antonio Condulmer, co-owner of the theatre and a member of the Council of Ten. At this point the theatre was in terminal decline. In the 1790s, it closed its doors; only to be converted into a warehouse.

The original Teatro San Angelo was demolished and in its place, the Barocci Palazzo was constructed. Today, this historic site houses the four-star Hotel NH Collection Palazzo Barocci.

(Note. Casanova, aged 55, became the theatre manager here in 1780, during his return to Venice, booking cheap French actors to support a main star. Whilst he may have been ahead of his time by introducing double bills and advance promotion of performances; it was a short-lived role that didn’t pay him handsomely.)


Minor theatres open today in the Historic Centre 

For completeness and in the interest of today’s theatre-goers, I have included both in the historic centre and on mainland Mestre; other smaller theatres, that offer music, dance and theatre, as well as services to the community.

Teatro Fondamenta Nuove

This venue is a captivating venue for international and experimental contemporary music, dance, and theatre; as well as conferences and seminars. Opened in 1998, the theatre has been run by the Vortice Association, since 2009. It is located in the Cannaregio district, along the western end of the Fondamente Nuove; with the entrance overlooking the northern lagoon in front of Murano and the cemetery island of San Michele.

 Location: Fondamenta Nuove, Cannaregio 5013, Venice, Italy.•

Seating Capacity: Approximately 150 seats in a wooden brick structure with an 8-metre stage.

Phone: +39.041.5224498  Email: info@teatrofondamentanuove.it

Website: Teatro Fondamenta Nuove


Minor theatres open today on the mainland in Mestre

“Cultura Venezia” is the City of Venice’s (Città di Venezia) website, which offers a full programme of cultural events: Theatre – Music – Cinema –  Exhibitions – Other – Events.

“Cultura Venezia”: City of Venice’s (Città di Venezia) website

You can choose which area you are interested in, see all the events and get contact and booking details etc. Unfortunately, it does not appear to have an English version, but you can easily copy text into Google Translation.

Five venues put on theatrical productions:

Teatro del Parco

Teatro Toniolo

Teatro Groggia

 Teatro Momo

Centro Culturale Candiani


Other minor theatres from the past: demolished, destroyed by fire or closed

Teatro SS. Apostoli 1648.

Teatro Sant ‘Apollinare 1651–1661.

Teatro Ai Saloni of San Gregorio – active circa 1650, for the members of the Academy for spoken drama.

Teatro a Cannaregio near the Chiesa di San Giobbe. Built by the patrician Marco Morosini, for the performance of his opera Ermelinda (1679).

Teatro alle Zattere a private theatre on the promenade in Ognissanti. 1679.

Teatro Calle dell’Oca , small theater 1707.

Altieri Theater – private theater in the garden of the Altieri princes. 1690.


Links (internalexternal)

“Teatro La Fenice”

“The Malibran Theatre”

“Teatro Carlo Goldoni”

“Carlo Goldoni”

“Carlo Gozzi”

“Introduction – “The Venetian School of Music”   

“The “Ospedali Grandi” of Venice”

“Claudio Monteverdi” 

“Antonio Vivaldi – Life and Legacy”     

The World of Commedia dell’Arte (youtube.com)

This great little film is an introduction to the world of Commedia dell’Arte. Learn about all of the stock characters in Commedia, the masked and the unmasked, their status, their physical shapes and their characters. This film was made from a two day workshop with young actors held at the National Theatre with Didi Hopkins from Commediaworks. The film was made by Deborah May.


History and Development of Venetian Opera      History and Development of Venetian Opera      History and Development of Venetian Opera

History and Development of Venetian Opera      History and Development of Venetian Opera      History and Development of Venetian Opera

History and Development of Venetian Opera      History and Development of Venetian Opera      History and Development of Venetian Opera

History and Development of Venetian Opera      History and Development of Venetian Opera      History and Development of Venetian Opera

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