The Opera Houses of Bulgaria

In addition to the great house at Sofia, there are seven principal opera companies in Bulgaria. Each has a rich history reflecting concentration on specific groups of operas.

Blagoevgrad Opera
Burgas Opera
Pleven Opera
Plovdiv Opera
Ruse Opera
Stara Zagora Opera
Varna Opera

map with houses noted

Sofia National Opera

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Situated on the main route from Istanbul to central Europe, it is Bulgaria's capital and cultural center. Liberation from the Turks in 1878 brought about dynamic changes and in 1891 the Dramatichesko-operna Trupa (Dramatic Opera Company), which consisted of Bulgarian and Czech singers, began to stage excerpts from operas. However, early problems of organization within the company and conflicts over repertory resulted in the formation later that year of Salza i Smyah (Tears and Laughter), an independent drama group, and Stolichna Operna Trupa (Sofia Opera Company). Encouraged by better material, conditions and with assistance provided by the School of Music and the Bulgarian Music Union, together with the help of actors from Russia, Konstantin Michailov-Stojan, Ivan Vulpe and others founded the Bulgarska Operna Druzhba (Bulgarian Opera Society).

The company first played in 1908 at the Naroden Teater (National Theater), later performing at Slavyanska Beseda. World War 1 restricted its activities but some excellent Bulgarian singers joined. In 1922 Operna Druzhba became the Sofiyska Narodna Opera (Sofia National Opera). The National Theater burned down on 10 February 1923 and the company performed in the Svoboden Theater (Free Theater) and Renesans Teater (Renaissance Theater) before returning to the new National in 1929. More Bulgarian operas were added to the standard European repertory and the National Opera achieved a high artistic standard. Besides Michailov-Stojan its soloists included Peter Raichev and Todor Mazarov.

The theater was destroyed in 1944 and after the war opera was given first in the Balkan Theater and then in the rebuilt National Theater. Many Bulgarian operas were performed, including Pipkov's Momchil (24 April 1948). The Darzhaven Musikalen Teater "Stefan Makedonski," opened in 1947, specializes in operetta and musical comedy.

In 1953-54 the company moved to a new building (seating 1400) on Zabunov Street. After 1944, its new music directors organized training courses and a fresh generation of singers (e.g. Nicolai Ghiaurov and Dimiter Uzunov) went on to establish international careers. During the 1950's and 60's a nucleus of strong lead singers was built up and the conductors Assen Naidenov and Atanas Margaritov developed the sense of ensemble performance for which the theater is renowned; notable productions have included Mikhail Hadjimishev's Die Zauberflöte, Dragan Kardjiev's I quatro rusteghi and Boris Pokrovskiy's War and Peace. In addition to the standard repertory, the company has staged many Russian operas and taken productions of Boris Godunov and Khovanschchina on international tours. The Sofia Opera continues to be the source of soloists (e.g. Stefka Evstatieva and Nikola Ghiuselev) for stages throughout the world; its conductors have included Ruslan Raichev, Mikhail Angelov, Boris Hinchev and Dimitar Manolov.

Until 1943 the Sofia Opera had staged 111 operas and ballets in 144 productions and had given a total of 3945 performances. From 1945 until 1980 there have been 126 opera and ballet productions and over 12,000 performances. In the last three decades the Sofia National Opera has been on guest performances in 20 European, African and Asian countries where it has shown 56 operas, ballets and concert programs in a total of 454 performances.

In November 1994, Plamen Kartaloff was appointed as General Director of the Sofia National Opera. In the summer of 1997 he produced with great success the first outdoor production of Aida staged in the Alexander Batenberg Square. This was followed in 1998 with Tsar Kaloyan by Vladigerov and Prince Igor by Borodin in 1999. In 1996 he was instrumental with the Sofia National Opera in beginning a series of new productions of the operas of the Brazilian composer Antonio Carlos Gomes. Sponsored by the Brazilian bank Sudameris, Il Guarany, Fosca and Maria Tudor have been produced to date. The Sofia National Opera possesses full-length recordings of the operas Boris Godunov, Khovantchina, War and Peace, Aida, Carmen, Adriana Lecouvreur and others recorded by Balkanton Records.

The Darzhaven Musikalen Teater "Stefan Makedonski" opened in 1947, specializes in operetta and musical comedy.

Recent productions of the Sofia National Opera are illustrated here.

Blagoevgrad Opera

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The center of a region rich in folklore, in recent decades it has become a cultural focal point in the south-western part of the country. Opera performances have been given since 1972 under the successive company names Mladezhka Opera (Youth Opera), Kamerna Mladezhka Opera (Chamber Youth Opera) and Mladezhka Opera za Vsichki (Youth Opera for All), with the local premiere of Haydn's Lo speziale in 1977 on the stage of the Blagoevgrad Dramatichen Teatar (Drama Theater) marking the first maturity of opera in the town.

Initially the soloists were amateurs and graduates of the state conservatory of Sofia; later they were more experienced singers. The repertory consists almost exclusively of operas performed for the first time in Bulgaria, from works by Gluck, Haydn, Monteverdi, Purcell, Donizetti and Galuppi to some by Stravinsky, Alexander Holminov and Menotti.

Burgas Opera

Burgas is the second largest city on the Black Sea coast in Bulgaria. The first evidence of opera performances in the city dates from 1901. In 1954 a permanent opera company, Burgaska Samodeyna Opera (Burgas Amateur Opera), was formed, consisting predominantly of instrumentalists from the State Symphony Orchestra and singers from the Naroden Khor (Folk Choir) and the Rodna Pesen (Homeland Song) choir.

Its first production, La traviata, in 1955 was followed mainly by Italian operas and operas by Mozart and by Bulgarian composers.

The Burgas Amateur Opera became the State (National) Opera on March 2, 1972 when it opened with Krasimir Kyurkchiiski's Yula. Its notable conductors have included Nevin Mikhalev, Ivan Voupe, Stojan Kralev and Romeo Raichev, and it has engaged Dragan Kardjiev and Nikolaji Nikolov (as guest directors) and the baritone Stoyan Popov.

The opera's repertory is influenced by the summer resort character of the city and by the opportunities offered by the open-air stage at the Sunny Beach resort. Until the early 1980's the opera performed in the 670-seat hall of Culture Club of a petrochemical plant; since 1983 a new building, the Burgas Opera House (800 seats), intended for drama, opera and ballet, has been used for two or three opera performances a week.

Pleven Opera

Pleven is a town in northern Bulgaria. Traces of Thracian, Roman and early Christian culture survive there. Operatic activity began with the Plevenska Samodeina Opera, which opened on October 8, 1970 with Parashkev Hadjiev's Lud gidiya (The Madcap). The singer and teacher Christo Brambarov helped the new company with vocal training, and in 1975 the opera became a semi-professional company bearing his name. Among its successful productions have been Il Trovatore, Lucia di Lammermoor and Marin Goleminov's Nestinarka (The Fire Dancer).

The group cooperated with Hadjiev and its conductors have included Dimitar Karagyozov, Dimitar Manolov and Georgi Notev, and its directors, Emil Boshnakov and Stefan Trifonov.

An important aspect of the company's activity was its participation in the Katya Popova International Music Festival. Until 1980 performances were given in the 19th century Pleven drama theater, reconstructed in 1962 with 560 seats.

Plovdiv Opera

Plovdiv became an important cultural center soon after the country's liberation from Ottoman domination in 1878. Interest in visiting Italian troupes let to the foundation of a local singers' society in 1896. The earliest attempts to create an opera theater date from 1910. Ten years later a privately owned Hudozhestvena Opera (Artistic Opera) was organized, and in 1922 the Plovdivska Gradska Opera (Plovdiv City Opera) was formed by Russian immigrants; by 1944 the Plovdivska Oblastna Opera (Plovdiv District Opera) had been established.

On 15 November 1953 the Plovdivska Narodna Opera (Plovdiv National Opera) had its official opening in the Naroden Theater (National Theater) with The Bartered Bride. From the very beginning the company's profile was determined by its ensemble, which included the paired soloists Penka Koeva and Aleksei Milkovski, Valentina Alexandrova and Georgi Velchev, and by its varied repertory, from Die Zauberflöte, Les contes d'Hoffmann, L'heure espagnole and Adriana Lecouvreur to Kat'a Kabanova and Pipkov's Antigona 43.

A second century Roman Amphitheater was discovered after a landslide in 1972. This has since been restored and is now a venue for artistic events including an annual Verdi festival during the month of June.

The conductors Ruslan Raichev, Krasto Marev and Dimitar Manolov have also contributed to the company's success. Opera performances alternate with drama, and are given chiefly on the stage of the Trade Union Culture House.

Ruse Opera

A town in northern Bulgaria, on the Danube. In 1914 the Rusenska Operna Druzhba (Ruse Opera Society) was founded, as well as the first symphony orchestra. The opera society formed the basis of the Narodna Operna Ruse (Ruse Opera), which opened on Nov. 27, 1949, with a performance of La traviata; the existing Darzhaven Simfonichen Orkestar (State Symphony Orchestra, 1949) and an opera choir became part of the company, and Konstantin Iliev was musical director, 1949-52.

The Ruse company presented opera and ballet, and over the years became one of the best in the country, with remarkable soloists and excellent conductors and directors. Besides Iliev, the conductors included Dobrin Petkov, Romeo Raichev, Dimitar Manolov and Georgi Dimitrov; the directors included Dragan Karjiev, Mihail Hadjimishev, Stefan Trifonov and Evgeni Nemirov, as well as Tsvetana Andreeva and Vesselina Manolova, who, having studied in Czechoslovakia, contributed a different style. Fine Bulgarian singers of the caliber of Stefka Evstatieva enabled a rich repertory of Italian, German, Russian and Bulgarian operas to be established.

As well as the regular season between September and July, the Martenski Muzikalni Dni (March Musical Days) festival is an additional stimulus to the high standard of performance and wide repertory.

The Ruse Opera used the National Theater until 1956, when it moved to a reconstructed building with 670 seats, where three or four performances are given each week.

Stara Zagora Opera

Situated on the crossroads from Western Europe, the East and Russia, the city was at first visited by foreign companies. In 1897 the Kaval music society was founded, which staged its first full-scale performance, Georgi Atanasov's Gergana, in 1925. The Southern Bulgarian Regional Opera was formed in 1931. In 1933-34 the opera house came under the administration of the city; it became state run in 1946, opening as the Narodna Opera Stara Zagora (Stara Zagora National Opera) on June 19 with Il barbiere di Siviglia.

Leading figures have included the music director Romeo Raichev, Zlatan Stanchev and the conductors Dobri Christov, Yosif Yossifov and Dimiter Dimitrov. Since the early 1970's Stara Zagora has hosted the only festival especially for opera and ballet in Bulgaria. The first purpose-built opera house in Bulgaria (seating 700) opened with Lyubomir Pipkov's Momchil in 1972. During the 1980's the repertory was oriented towards large-scale operas as Boris Godunov, Der fliegende Hollander, Norma and Marin Goleminov's Trakiyski idoli (Thracian Idols). Until the theater burned down in 1991, there were each year 150 performances including five premieres, one of which was an operetta or musical; opera and drama were performed on alternate days. In 1998 the Stara Zagora Opera moved to the newly renovated City Dramatic Theatre where plays and opera performances have become the regular fare.

Varna Opera

Varna is the largest Bulgarian port and resort city on the Black Sea Coast. Once the ancient Greek colony of Odessos, it is the center of operatic activity in north-eastern Bulgaria. The first performance of opera scenes date from the founding of a choir at St. Michael's Church in 1893 and of the Gusla Music Society in 1899. In 1920, 1928, and 1930 attempts were made to organize a permanent theater; between 1926 and 1937 the first Bulgarian musical festivals began to be organized.

After the socialist revolution in 1944, Varna became the home of the Varnensko Lyato (Varna Summer), an international music festival. A symphony orchestra was founded in 1946, and the Varnenska Narodno Opera (Varna National Opera) in 1947, housed in the National Theater.

The first opera performance was Smetana's The Bartered Bride. The repertory is predominantly Italian and German, with special emphasis on Mozart and modern European and Bulgarian music (especially that of Parashkev Hadjiev). Operas staged for the first time in Bulgaria include Cosi fan tutte, Britten's Albert Herring and his version of The Beggar's Opera, Il turco in Italia and Prokofiev's Betrothal in a Monastery.

The regular season starts in September and ends in August, with between four and eight new productions a year. The theater, built by N. Laxarov in 1932 is a mainly classical style, holds about 600; it was renovated during the 1980's and reopened with Die Zauberflote (1989).