The modernisation of the Opera

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As it has been more than thirty years since the Ybl Palace on Andrássy út has been renovated, the building’s reconstruction has become quite timely. The works involve giving new functions to many rooms and they also solve a number of problems faced by our artists during the course of their work.

Conditions before the reconstruction works

The works extend to five main areas: stage engineering, auditorium acoustics, collecting pipes, changing the functions of rooms, and the restoration of historical decorations.

The most important element of the investment project is the replacement of the stage engineering system, which was installed in 1984 and does not meet today’s requirements of faster manoeuvrability, lower noise levels, variability, and exact fitting. Although the steel framework based on the spiral staircase and the lifts will be left untouched, new overhead equipment is being fitted. As regards the stage layout, the present solution of using 6 passageways and 10 side podiums will be retained, but the height of the passageways will be increased. The machines used by the fly system used East German technology, and the lighting is also outdated.

The changes to the orchestra pit and making it mobile also serves to improve acoustics. The orchestra pit was renovated in 1912, when it was moved under the stage. Its front concrete parapet is being removed to allow it to return to its original size and make use of the original intent of using the area as a reverberation chamber. The amount of drapery will also be decreased to reduce their sound deadening effects, and an abat-voix will be installed behind the stage. Federico Cruz-Barney, who participated in designing the acoustics of the Palais des Beaux-Arts concert hall and the Paris Philharmonics, will be providing consultancy for the Opera’s acoustic issues. The seats on the ground level will be centred and the number of seats will be restored to the original amount. Ventilation throughputs are also being increased. As gold paint was replaced with a copper-based material since 1980, metal sheets will be used to decorate the auditorium, the main buffet, the Royal Stairs, the Gallery, and the Main Stairs; seccos are being dry-cleaned and wood carvings are being repaired. The building’s parquet floors and copper railings are in very bad shape and need to be repaired. Water insulation in the basement is being improved, handicapped access is being provided to lifts, and one of the ground-floor rooms previously used as a workshop will be used as a commemorative hall open to the public.

The fact that there is no fire alarm equipment in the building clearly shows the state of things prior to the renovation, which also has to be updated. The threat of fire is real, as old gas lines were used to lead electric wires that were originally designed for lower ampere loads. Plans also include the thermal insulation of windows, cleaning the façade, insulating the rainwater runoff conduits, expanding the decorative lighting network, replacing the statue park, installing an IT system in the entirety of the building, developing the mobile phone signal repeater, audience information, and WiFi networks, updating the broadcast system, and modernising the safety technology system. The ZDA – Zoboki Architecture Firm helped the institution develop the architectural and technical programme.

Where are we headed?

The modernisation includes changing the functions of a number of rooms within the Opera. 

The stage engineering on the lowest level and the gigantic equipment in the electrical room are museum pieces: since a modern smartphone is able to perform their tasks, updating them can save a great deal of space. The basement storeroom is also being freed up, and will be used to house the main engineering and electrical rooms. The carpentry workshop is moving to Eiffel Art Studios; its old room on the ground floor, filled with its special patina, provides a suitable location for the Opera Commemorative Hall. The currently missing international office will be relocated to the former main engineering room, and the modernisation will finally include the renovation of the soloist dressing rooms on the stage level, which is in a bad state and is often used by internationally famous guest stars. The lower stage will put in order, including the removal of props. An Opera Cinema or dress code salon could be created in the current dramaturgical office. Additional rehearsal rooms can be developed in the paint mixing room, storerooms, technical director’s office, and the secretariat. 

In addition to the carpentry workshop mentioned above, the men’s and women’s sewing facilities and the painter’s, sculptor’s, locksmith’s, milliner’s, shoemaker’s, goldsmith’s, and the prop upholsterer’s workshop are all being relocated to Eiffel Art Studios. The painter’s room found on the fourth and fifth floors could be used as a world-class 450 m2 rehearsal hall for Hungary’s only classical corps de ballet, and its gallery could be used to house a home stage where dress rehearsals could be held for ten-fifteen singers. The modeller’s workshop could be turned into a massage, physical therapy, and ballet master room. The ballet dressing rooms to be built on the fourth floor make it possible to make those on the third floor more comfortable. In addition to the architectural renovation of the costume storeroom, the plans include the renovation of the wardrobes, which are protected as historical pieces. The majority of costumes will be moved to Eiffel Art Studios, allowing about 670 m2 to be freed up on the Opera’s fourth and fifth floors. It will be easy to access these areas with the use of the lift to be installed in the stairwell used to access the gallery on the side facing Hajós and Dalszínház Streets, with the small conversion works planned for the continuation of the project allowing access to outside visitors and theatre workers. The imposing area, divided by a row of columns along its length, provides a possibility to develop an Attic Theatre. 

Pre-modernisation

The entire renovation would not be possible if significant steps had not already been taken beforehand. In the years prior to the renovation works, the Opera updated its various rooms in a number of phases.

The first result of the renovations in Dalszínház utca, also visible to visitors, was the Opera Sales Centre which opened in September 2014 at the address Hajós utca 13-15, where the employees of the organisation department can work in an environment befitting a European standard: this is where they comply with the ticket and season pass-related requests of opera and ballet fans. The next great step was opening the Opera Shop and Opera Café to the general public, which had been “temporarily” closed a decade ago with a mobile fence. Opening the Café returned this frequented rendezvous point to the people, this time with an expanded range of services.

On 5 May 2015, the institution announced a tender for developing the buffets, the VIP rooms, and their food offerings, which was won by Belvárosi Gasztronómiai Kft. [Inner City Gastronomy Ltd.], as a result of which the Opera concluded a contract with the Zsidai Gasztronómiai Csoport [Zsidai Gastronomy Group]. They operate the Opera Café, located in the Opera ticket office accessible from Hajós utca. Since September 2015, this has been offering the very best pastries and drinks, with seating available on the Sphinx Terrace from spring to autumn. Ice cream is offered in the summer months. The café was renovated on the basis of Tibor Somlai’s plans, just as the large buffet in the first floor (named the Feszty Bar), the artist buffet, and the third floor buffet, which was called the Confectionary even in Miklós Ybl’s day.

Famous operas around the world entice visitors with well-equipped gift shops so they can take souvenirs home with them in addition to the experiences of the productions they see. A world-class merchandising shop was long overdue at the Budapest Opera. The Opera Shop also opened its doors in September 2015, and it offers an ever-increasing range of merchandise and brand products. It is accessible from a separate entrance from Dalszínház utca or through the main entrance. The Portrait Gallery also opened at the same time, the walls of which display the Opera’s eternal members from the past century. 

A team of special painters is continuously working on renovating the floor coverings in the areas trafficked by the public, naturally under the leadership and supervision of a professional restorer. Miklós Ybl planned a number of areas to be covered by natural oak treated with only a layer of beeswax: the original beauty of the woodwork has been returned everywhere as a result of patient, meticulous work. The surface of the wood is treated every two years, and works include restoring doors, the cloakroom, and the balcony area. The marble doorframes in the main staircase had once been painted white: they have now been returned to their original glory. The columns in the ground floor cloakroom, painted green to resemble marble, had been simply painted over with brown: they too have been restored. 

Although the ceiling seccos in the Foyer and the Main Staircase painted by Károly Lotz were restored between 1980 and 1984, they are in need of touching-up and cleaning. The statues and paintings are also being protected, and textiles and tapestries are also the subject of work. During recent times, a number of areas in the Opera that are not open to the public have also undergone renovations. The 2015 renovation of the orchestra dressing rooms included ensuring all musicians have their own lockers, the number of dressing rooms was increased, and a storage area was developed for double bass instruments. The men’s and women’s restrooms were renovated. The old reception desk on the ground floor was used to house the new caretaker’s office, a restroom with handicapped access was built, an office was built for the orchestra leader, a kitchen was installed for the Director, and the parquet floor in the Bertalan Székely Parlour was renovated. The faculty room on the 8th floor of the Administrative Building and the sheet music storeroom were entirely refurbished in 2014, and the orchestra rehearsal room and the sheet music storeroom on the 5th floor were modernised in 2015. That same year, the children’s choir’s rehearsal rooms on the 7th floor were renovated and two offices were built.

Over the course of the past six years, the Opera’s employees aimed to serve the audience’s needs with new tools like information desks located in the Aula, the monitors they house, the digital roll-up banners in the Lobby, the enormous banner on the Opera’s main façade, and the decorations that can be attached to the columns to convey the creatives of the season campaign. The renewed, bilingual titling system serves to increase the understanding of the pieces and thereby their enjoyment, and the two cameras and the screen on the third floor ensures that people without a good view can also clearly see the action on the stage. The updates include developing the Opera Club rooms and the large directional sign affixed on the Administrative Building wall and showing the way to the Opera Sales Centre. The new events being held on Andrássy út (Season Opening Overtures, Car-Free Days) are similarly easy to spot. The new floodlights used to light the Opera’s façade were updated in 2015 and help make both events and plain old weekdays more memorable.

In October 2017, exploratory works, drilling, and the licensing procedures necessary for large works and for planning were all started. The seats in the audience were removed. Some interesting things came to light during these works: when restoring the ceiling in the mezzanine cloakroom, the Opera’s professionals found that some of the original frescos had been covered up during the course of the 1980-84 renovations. The same is true for the wall section along the stairs leading to the second floor, where a single colour was used to cover the former decorative motifs.