The National Theatre (Czech: Národní divadlo) in Prague is known as the alma mater of Czech opera, and as the national monument of Czech history and art.
The National Theatre is the Czech Republic’s representative stage. It is one of the symbols of Czech national identity and a part of the European cultural arena. It is a bearer of national cultural heritage and at the same time an arena for free artistic creativity. The theatre is a living artistic organisation which understands tradition as imposing a task and duty to find constantly new interpretation and an endeavour to achieve the highest artistic quality. Today’s National Theatre comprises four artistic ensembles – Opera, Drama, Ballet and Laterna magika – which alternate in performances in the historic building of the National Theatre, the State Opera, the Estates Theatre and the New Stage. Opera, Ballet and Drama choose their repertoire not only from the wealth of classical references, but in addition to Czech authors also focus on modern international creative work.
The National Theatre belongs to the most important Czech cultural institutions, with a rich artistic tradition, which helped to preserve and develop the most important features of the nation–the Czech language and a sense for a Czech musical and dramatic way of thinking.
Today the National Theatre consists of three artistic ensembles: opera, ballet and drama. They alternate in their performances in the historic building of the National Theatre, in the Theatre of the Estates and in the Kolowrat Theatre. All three artistic ensembles select their repertoire both from classical heritage, and modern authors.
The cornerstone of the National Theatre was laid on 16 May 1868, but the idea of building a theatre dates back to the autumn of 1844 at the gatherings of patriots in Prague. An application was submitted by František Palacký to the Provincial Committee of the Czech Assembly on 29 January 1845, requesting “the privilege of constructing, furnishing, maintaining and managing” of an independent Czech theatre. The application was granted in April 1845, but it was not until six years later – in April 1851 – that the founding Society for the Establishment of a Czech National Theatre in Prague made the first public appeal to start a collection. A year later the proceeds went toward the purchase of land belonging to a former salt works covering an area of not quite 28 acres which determined the magnificent site of the theatre on the banks of the river Vltava facing the panorama of Prague Castle, but at the same time the cramped area.
The National Theatre was opened for the first time on 11 June 1881, to honour the visit of Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria. Bedřich Smetana’s opera Libuše was given its world premiere, conducted by Adolf Čech.
The interior artwork was done by Mikoláš Aleš and František Ženíšek. The building of the National Theatre was inaugurated on 18 November 1883. The building, with perfect technical equipment (electric illumination, a steel-constructed stage), served without any extensive modifications for almost one hundred years. It was only on 1 April 1977, following a performance of the Lantern by Jirásek, that the theatre was closed down for six years.
Architect Zdeněk Vávra was appointed to take charge of the overall reconstruction work. This extensive project was combined with the completion of work on the entire setting of the theatre. The work was completed to meet an important deadline, which was the date of the 100th anniversary of the opening of the National Theatre: 18 November 1983. On that day the theatre was handed over to the public again with a performance of Smetana’s Libuše.
The historic building, noted for its beautiful architecture, also includes an annex of modern design which contains offices and the main box office. Today it functions as the main stage of the three artistic ensembles of the National Theatre: drama, opera and ballet.