Where marble columns meet gilded ceilings, and chandeliers shimmer above plush velvet seats, the contenders for the biggest opera house in the world are historic structures that serve as pivotal anchors in the landscape of global culture. Much like the dynamic cities they inhabit, the world’s largest opera venues are dramatic hubs of creativity, innovation, and expression. They are melting pots where local traditions meet global influences, and where the timeless beauty of opera intertwines with contemporary interpretations.
While there were small, private opera houses in existence, it’s believed the world’s first public opera house for paying customers was the Teatro San Cassiano which opened in Venice in 1637. The first performance was of L’Andromeda by Baroque composer Francesco Manelli and librettist Benedetto Ferrari. The theatre was demolished in 1812, making way for houses.
Today, the world’s biggest opera houses are some of the planet’s most uniquely grandiose, extravagant and ostentatious buildings. Measured by the seating capacity of the main auditorium, here’s a list of the largest opera houses in the world in all their glory.
Sydney Opera House
Location: New South Wales, Australia | Opened: 1973 | Capacity: 1,507
One of the world’s most iconic buildings was designed by Danish architect Jørn Oberg Utzon, and opened by HM Queen Elizabeth II in 1973. The Sydney Opera House, one of the world’s biggest opera houses, is Australia’s most popular tourist site with over eight million visitors every year.
Famously, the first performer was from American vocalist Paul Robeson who sang Ol’ Man River for the construction workers. The Joan Sutherland Theatre, where operas are staged, holds 1,507 people. However the largest auditorium, the Concert Hall, has a capacity of 2,679.
Vienna State Opera
Location: Vienna, Austria | Opened: 1869 | Capacity: Approx. 1,709
Known as the ‘Staatsoper’, the stunningly ostentatious Renaissance Revival opera house is one of the largest opera houses in Europe, and opened in 1869 with a performance of Mozart’s Don Giovanni.
In the unlikely event there are spare tickets, and to ensure a full house, eighty minutes before the curtain rises, the Staatsoper sells standing room tickets or even gives them away free in the minutes leading up to the start of the performance. The standing tickets add several hundred to the capacity but this article is based on the number of seats in each auditorium.
The Bolshoi Theatre
Location: Moscow, Russia | Opened: 1825 | Capacity: Approx. 1,800
One of Russia’s most important cultural venues, the neoclassical Bolshoi Theatre is home to the Bolshoi Opera as well as the famous Bolshoi Ballet, the biggest ballet company in the world.
The theatre is decorated with silk-covered walls, velvet-upholstered chairs and Oriental carpets. A six-year renovation between 2005 and 2011 to improve the acoustics and to recreate the original Imperial decorations was said to have cost almost $700 million.
Location: Paris, France | Opened: 1875 | Capacity: 1,979
In a city full of truly magnificent buildings, Palais Garnier at the Place de l’Opera is possibly the most ornate, opulent and ostentatious of them all, and is one of the world’s biggest opera houses.
The ceiling of the main auditorium was painted by Marc Chagall and depicts operatic scenes by Mozart, Beethoven, Verdi and Ravel. Its centrepiece is a seven-ton crystal and brass chandelier. The setting for Gaston Leroux’s novel The Phantom of the Opera, few buildings can hold a candle to the sheer magnificence of the Beaux-Arts Palais Garnier.
Teatro alla Scala
Location: Milan, Italy | Opened: 1778 | Capacity: 2,030
Renowned the world over for its flawless acoustics (considered a trial by fire for even the world’s finest opera singers), La Scala isn’t the biggest opera house in the world, but it is one of the most famous.
Designed in the Neoclassical style by architect Giuseppe Piermarini, the first opera performed at La Scala was L’Europa riconoscuita by Antonio Salieri. A grey facade gives way to one of the world’s most elegant interiors and the regulars in the loggione, the cheaper seats above the gallery, have even been known to boo performers off stage if they’re not performing as might be expected!
Royal Opera House
Location: London, UK | Opened: 1732 | Capacity: 2,256
One of the world’s largest opera venues, the ROH, as it’s affectionately known, has played host to some of the world’s greatest performers including Maria Callas, Placido Domingo, Luciano Pavarotti, Kiri Te Kanawa and Joan Sutherland.
The Theatre Royal was the first playhouse on the site, while the current Grade I-listed building is the third iteration after major fires destroyed the first theatre in 1808 and the second in 1856.
Metropolitan Opera House
Location: New York, USA | Opened: 1966 | Capacity: 3,850
The Met is the largest opera house in the world by seating capacity. It opened in 1966 at a cost of $45.7 million and is part of the Lincoln Center, home to the Metropolitan Opera as well as the New York Philharmonic and the New York City Ballet.
One of the newest opera houses on the list, the orchestra pit can hold 110 musicians and the main curtain is believed to be the biggest in the world. Former principal conductors include Gustav Mahler and Arturo Toscanini, and the first public performance was of La Fanciulla del West by Giacomo Puccini.