This article is meant to teach you all about the third-largest opera theater in all of Europe, the Teatro Massimo. This site is not one to be missed on your visit to Palermo.
Buongiorno to all! Don Tano here again, the old timer at your disposal to teach you all about the greatest Italian city: Palermo.
Today is a lesson about one of the symbols of Sicily, the Teatro Massimo. This beautiful structure is unlike any opera house that you are likely to see, as it is the largest in Italy and one of the largest in all of Europe. (The only 2 larger are Opera National de Paris and the K. K. Hof-Opernhaus in Austria).
This theater has hosted some of the most prolific singers and performers that the world has ever seen, including Luciano Pavarotti, who is one of the most recognizable tenors to ever grace an opera stage. I remember seeing him in the ‘60s Butterfly singing in this theater, also an unforgettable performance of “Rigoletto” led by the iconic maestro Tullio Serafin.
If by some chance you do not know who Pavarotti is, you should turn your head towards the Heavens and ask God for forgiveness, because this is nearly an unpardonable sin. You can redeem yourself, however, by reading this entire piece about the Massimo theater and also checking it out in person for yourself.
But that is all the time we will take on that subject. Now, you need to know a few things about the Teatro Massimo before your visit.
A Quick History Lesson
Learning a little of the history is important here, so don’t whine because it might be a little long winded. There is just a good bit that you should know beforehand to get the most from your experience.
This structure was built back in the late 19th century and it was designed by Giovan Battista Basile, but he was not able to complete it in his lifetime. The construction was completed by his son, Ernesto Basile, who stands as one of the Art Nouveau pioneers of Italian heritage.
Its unique style made it renowned across the world, as it was inspired by Greek temples and classic art. The massive structure always sought to be one of the biggest in all of Europe, but its expertly decorated interior and detailed exterior make it one of the greatest Italian music temples.
Ernesto Basile could not complete the project alone, however. He enlisted the help of famous painters such as Ducrot (wainscoting) and Ettore De Maria Bergler (painting). The building itself is a great expression of Neo-classicism in the 19th century, which was a contrast of absolutist Baroque styles.
The stylings of the 19th century can easily be seen throughout the exterior of the building as well, as its decoration directly shows a focus to antique monuments through a variety of Pompeian motifs named by Classical Greek ornaments.
Palermo, at this time in history, was guided and structured around the fortunes of the Florio family. Palermo was the official capital of the Florio kingdom and it is believed that this opera house was constructed as a means of entertainment for the family and the locals, but also a place for the Florio family to discuss business and politics.
Teatro Massimo was inaugurated in 1897 with Falstaff opera by Giuseppe Verdi, and at this time established itself as perhaps the most important Italian theater in terms of quality and quantity of operas that would grace its stage.
For those enthused about (the film version of) the mafia, this auditorium of Teatro Massimo was used for some scenes in The Godfather – Part III which starred Al Pacino, Andy Garcia and Sofia Coppola and was directed by Francis Ford Coppola.
Visiting The Theater
You might not want to hear this, but the only way you can even see inside the Teatro Massimo, unless you are there to see a play or production, is by a guided tour. You cannot simply pay an entrance fee and roam freely throughout the building.
You will find that these guided visits are available in both Italian and English, and for some reason the Italian tours are more frequent. About every 50 minutes or so, a new English speaking tour begins, and there are about seven throughout the day starting at 9:30 in the morning and ending at 6 pm Tuesdays through Sundays.
These guides are going to detail basically the same information that I am giving you in this article, so if you do not have the means to sync your schedule with an English speaking tour, you can print out this article and walk along with an Italian tour and get a similar experience.
Once you get to the gates, you turn left and head to the ticket office. Tickets for a guided tour are only 8€, and each one lasts roughly 30 minutes. While I think that they could be a bit more generous with the time, I do not make the rules so we have to deal with whoever does.
This visit to the theater begins in the foyer of the building, which is a rectangular structure which stands at 11.75 meters by 31.7 meters in size. In whole, the building is roughty 7,730 square meters, and boasts nearly 1400 seats.
Within this part of the building, you will see a beautifully created scale model of Teatro Massimo and also sculptures by Salvatore Valenti. You will also see two bronze candelabra decorated with graceful putti and also a bronze bust of Filippo Basile by the famed sculptor Antonio Ugo. This room is draped in a calm red, also called “ottobrino”, which is roughly translated to October due to its likeness to autumn leaves. There is a wardrobe inside with two side doors which lead to the Coffee Room of the structure.
Once you have taken all the pictures you care to in this area, the guide will take you into the Auditorium and the Royal Box.
Auditorium and Royal Box
Fortunate tourists can witness artists rehearsing their craft on stage, but if not, you can at least soak in the grandeur of the auditorium. Years ago, this room was designed to hold up to 3,000 spectators but these days, regulations have limited this to just under 1,400 (1,381 to be exact).
This auditorium is most known for its incredible acoustics, as it has a distinct horseshoe shape at a 4% slope which contrasts the slope of the stage which is 6.5%. There are five floors worth of boxes and galleries. The room is overtaken by the “Symbolic Wheel” that forms the ceiling of the room. It is designed to resemble a flower with eleven petals, each of which is a portion of the cooling system originally installed with the construction of the theater, as each can be separately opened to allow hot air to vent out.
Among the center of the second tier of boxes is the Royal box. It has a total of 27 seats and private foyer all its own known as the Royal sitting room. While we no longer have valiant kings to fill these seats, they are now reserved for members of the Regional Parliament and the Mayor of Palermo.
“Normal” people can also sit in these seats, which cost the same as a seat in parquet circle, but you have to book very far in advance as these are the most wanted seats of the entire theater.
Getting a ticket to a show here will range from 20€ to 100€ depending on where you would like to sit.
As for the Royal Sitting Room, this area is covered almost exclusively in gorgeous mahogany wood and is furnished with comfortable sofas and chairs adorned with red brocade. In the middle of the room is a Murano chandelier and a total of 9 mirrors are positioned on the walls around the room. The entrance doors is the Casa Savoia coat of arms (House of Savoy [Casa Sovoia] is a royal Italian family), which is a white cross on a red field. The design of this room is solely credited to Ernesto Basile.
Your tour then takes you to Pompeian Hall.
This unique room is a circular shape and it was originally believed to be a smoking room and an area exclusively reserved for nobility. This is also informally known as the Echo Room due to its incredible acoustics, allowing sound to increase more and more as you near the center of the room.
The room was intended for men to discuss business, and the echoes in the room were perfect for this setting because other sound would muddy together, causing you to only hear the conversation you are involved in. This provided a privacy, yet the design of the room allowed you to speak to everyone at once if you stood in the center.
The tour guide will encourage you to play with the acoustics of the room from the center, so have some fun and don’t be too shy to try it out for yourself.
This is the final stop on the tour throughout the building. This has the appearance of a salon from 19th century parties, painted in fresco walls and massive windows facing out to the city centre of Palermo.
As discouraging as it might seem, no one is allowed in the choir room but the dancers who rehearse and perform there. The floor cannot be damaged. Instead, one by one, you are allowed in the threshold to take pictures and see the magnificence. Unfortunately, this could be closed if dancers are rehearsing, and there is little to be done about that.
While I have tried to give you all of the pertinent information that you will need about Teatro Massimo, you might still have questions or concerns before your visit. If you do, take a minute and drop a comment below so that I can help you out.
Don Tano Bongiorno