There was a close connection with music from the very beginnings of the National Theatre’s work as a drama theatre. Instrumental and vocal music were integral parts of many productions and it was customary to perform some music between the acts or between two or three short plays that were performed as an all-evening programme. Overtures and parts from popular operas and operettas were frequently performed on these occasions. The so-called Music Department of the National Theatre in Belgrade was formed soon after the establishment and on 21st October 1882, it enabled staging of The Sorceress, a magic operetta in three acts by Davorin Jenko. The orchestra was formed partly by theatre members and partly by members of Army Band, while the roles were mostly sung by musically talented actors and by several guests from Zagreb, Budapest and other European art centres in the vicinity. It was in this period, before the Opera was formed, that the first national opera Na uranku/At Dawn by Stevan Binički was written and performed on 20th December 1903; Branislav Nušić wrote the libretto. Occasional productions of smaller operas and operettas continue (operettas were criticized to be “of low nature” and unworthy of the National Theatre) until 24th April 1913, when the all-evening opera was performed, it was The Troubadour by Verdi. There is an opinion that this date is the date when the Opera was officially formed. However, this significant milestone in the National Theatre’s history was delayed by I World War. Nonetheless, the Opera’s founding was enabled only when artists from USSR immigrated to the country (after the October Revolution), some of them were professional opera singers; therefore, we believe the Opera of the National Theatre started functioning independently in 1919. The first production of the newly formed Opera Company was Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, on 11th February 1920; it was directed by Stanislav Binički, the first Director of the Opera. Period between the two wars was characterized by what we call today a classical, mostly Italian, repertoire; the operas were performed on the Opera’s stage shortly after their international premiers. There were operas by Giuseppe Verdi, who has always been the favourite with our public; then also Rossini, Puccini, Bizet, Le Massenet, Saint-Saens, Russian composers (Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky, Borodin) and other Slavic authors (Dvorak, Smetana). There were efforts to produce German repertoire, but somehow it never got so much of a delighted reception with audience and those productions never lasted long (Offenbach, Gounod, Wagner, Mozart, Beethoven); with the exception of Strauss’ The Bat that has always been gladly watched and listened to. In years between the two world wars, there were many international artists, conductors and soloists, who performed in operas in the National Theatre, such as Pietro Mascagni, Nikolai Cherepnin, Feodor Chaliapin, etc. It could be said that artists of La Scala in Milan were regular guests in Belgrade (those were mostly individual performances, but sometimes the whole cast came to perform with our Choir and Orchestra). There were successful efforts to create national operatic repertoire, the most successful composers were Petar Konjović (Ženidba Miloševa or Vilin veo, Knez od Zete, Koštana), Stevan Hristić (Suton), Petar Krstić (Zulumćar), as well as Croats Jakov Gotovac (Morana, Ero s onoga svijeta) and Ivan Pl. Zajc (Nikola Šubić Zrinjski). Conductors that were active in this period were Lovro Matačić, Ivan Brezovšek, Alfred Pordes, Predrag Milošević, Stevan Hristić. Teofan Pavlovski, Branko Gavela MD, Jurii L. Rakitin, Josip Kolundžić, Rudolf Fejfar, Margarita Froman, Erich Hecel MD, as well as singers-cum-directors Vojislav Vojin Turinski, Rudolph Ertle, Evgeni Marijashec, Zdenko Knitl who directed productions... At the beginning the company consisted mainly of Russian singers (Ksenia Rogovska, Sophia Drausel, Evgenia Valjani, Lav Zinovjev, Pavle Holotov, Boris Popov...), but in time the leadership was taken over by national singers who were educated in Prague, Vienna, Paris and other music centres, such as Anita Mezetova, Bahrija Nuri-Hadžić, Zdenka Zikova, Melanija Bugarinović, Jelena Lovšinska, Nadežda Stajić, Kornelija Ninković Grozdano, Zlata Đunđenac, Josip Rijavec, Vladeta Popović, Aleksandar Marinković, Slobodan Malbaški, Dušan Đorđević, Krsta Ivić, Milan Pihler, Stanoje Janković, Nikola Cvejić, Žarko Cvejić, Vasilije Šumski, Branko Pivnički, etc. Some of them made significant international careers. Members of the pre-war Music Department and Russian immigrant artists, as well as singers and players of Belgrade bands became members of Choir and Orchestra. The National Theatre’s Orchestra performed for a while as Belgrade Philharmonic Orchestra until the two orchestras became two independent companies. Immediately after World War II, Oskar Danon (a conductor with a PhD in Musicology, obtained at famous Charles University in Prague) becomes the Director of Opera. He initiates a repertoire policy based on Italian repertoire, best liked by the audience, and on Russian and other Slavic classics, as well as on national accomplishments – that he believed to have a potential for international affirmation of our ensemble and he was right. Period that started with successful guest performance of opera Boris Godunov by Modest Mussorgsky in Switzerland, during the concert tour of Clubhaus and recording of seven major operas by Russian composers for recording company DECCA 1954, is called “the golden period” of Belgrade Opera. In the course of next fifteen years, there have been many guest performances resulting in ovations in international opera houses and festivals, accompanied by positive reviews of our conductors, directors, soloists, Choir, Orchestra, etc. We can state that Belgrade audience still prefers “the iron” repertoire, but there are persistent and mostly very accomplished attempts of different managements to stage international and national modern operas (Pokondirena tikva by Mihovil Logar, Simonida by Stanojlo Rajičić, Gorski vijenac by Nikola Hercigonja, etc.). These operas receive approval from reviewers and from a small number of opera professionals and from somewhat more numerous circle of “opera fans” but these operas seldom have many performances. After the II World War, Belgrade audience had an opportunity to see and listen to many exceptional artists, such as conductors Hans Swarowsky, Nino Verki, Cornel Trailescu, Samo Hubad; soloists Anna Moffo, Michiko Sunahara, Jelena Obrazcova, Jussi Biorling, Mario del Monaco, Giuseppe di Stefano, Franco Corelli, Placido Domingo, Umberto Borsa, Tito Gobbi, Nikolai Djaurov, Luciano Pavarotti and others. Many of our soloists and conductors have been and still are welcome guests on many international stages.
Written and organized by Jelica Stevanović
Texts written by Milica Jovanović, Aleksandar Radovanović, Mirjana Odavić were used