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The National Opera and Ballet Theater, situated on Rustaveli Avenue in Tbilisi, was founded in 1851. It is the main opera house in the country and is also considered as one of the oldest establishments of its kind in eastern Europe. However, what you see today on Rustaveli Avenue is not the first opera building in Tbilisi. Thus, here’s the brief history of who constructed it, how it looks, and what happened to the first building.
The establishment of the first opera house in Tbilisi, known as Tiflis Imperial Opera, was closely connected with the intense political situation in Georgia that followed its occupation by the Russian Empire in 1801.
For the first half of the 19th century, Georgia continued to be an active and poorly blended part of the empire. The local aristocracy, unhappy with Russian policies, plotted a plan against the Russian authorities residing in the country. This lead to repressions and multiple arrests in the following years.
The governor of the Caucasus at that time, Mikhail Vorontsov, was eager to settle this dispute and to take into consideration the opinions of the locals. He started to implement several cultural initiatives, and building the opera house was one of them.
The purpose of the institution was to serve the “public well-being,” but the initial goal was to unite Georgian nobility into the Imperial social life and distract them from any other future plans against the Empire.
Vorontsov did everything Saint Petersburg would allow him to do in order to satisfy Georgians and win them over. He even indulged Georgian-language performances, which brought further discussions in the rooms of the governing state. He was the one who chose the place for the opera house in Erivan Square, currently Freedom Square, which was slowly becoming the epicenter of the expanding city.
The Governorate of Tbilisi gave the land for free with the condition that the theater would belong to Tbilisi. Giovanni Scudieri, an Italian architect was invited to oversee the project from Odessa in 1847, and the building was finished in four years.
A Parisian designer decorated the interior of the opera house with expensive silks, colored velvet, and silver and gold details. A huge chandelier that weighed more than 1,000 kilograms was shipped in 12 large boxes from Marseille. Russian painter Grigory Gagarin was commissioned to create an artwork for the Tiflis Imperial Opera. Its beauty did not go unnoticed, and several publications across the empire and its neighboring countries published several articles showcasing the impressive construction.
Tiflis Imperial Opera had its grand opening on April 12, 1851. Due to the fact that the theater stage was not fully complete, the organizers held a masked ball and a fundraiser for the St. Nino Women’s College.
Several months after the opening, the first season officially started with Lucia di Lammermoor by Gaetano Donizetti performed by an Italian troupe that toured the Russian Empire. They had performed twelve different performances over the three months.
Unfortunately, the opera house didn’t last that long. On October 11, 1874, a fire started before the performance, and the entire building burned down. It devastated every inch of the interior, along with the musical instruments, costumes, and props, to name a few.
After this devastating event, the government planned to rebuild it and held competitions for a new architectural design. An architect of German origin, Viktor Schröter, submitted a design and won the competition.
However, the construction didn’t start right away, as the design was not officially approved until 1880 by Grand Duke Michael Nikolaevich. The theater finally opened after 16 years, in 1896.
It was constructed in a neo-Moorish style, which can be seen in its decorations and style; however, its foyers, layout, and the main hall are typically European.
Since its foundation, it also suffered several fire outbreaks and major rehabilitation works under both Soviet rule and independent Georgian administrations. From 1937 onward, the opera house has carried the name of Zakaria Paliashvili, the Georgian composer.
The theater offers guided tours in the English language, where you can learn more about its history, see the personal memorabilia of the performers, and walk in the blue, red, and main halls. The tour is scheduled every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday from 11 a.m to 5 p.m. Admission fee is only 15 GEL (US$6).