History and Architecture
Besides being a lively opera house, the Teatro Massimo is Palermo’s most visited landmark. It is a huge breathtaking building, and the third-largest opera house in Europe, next to the Opéra in Paris and the Vienna State Opera.
In 1864, the mayor of Palermo, Antonio Starabba (who was the prime minister of Italy in 1891 and 1898), issued a competition notice for the construction of a new theater meant to challenge the grandeur of Neapolitan opera houses.
The contest for the project of the Teatro Massimo (later dedicated to King Vittorio Emanuele) was won by local architect Giovan Battista Filippo Basile. Basile was a neoclassical architect who believed that modern buildings could (and should) merge the elegance and grandeur of Roman and Greek art. In fact, the Teatro Massimo replicates both elements from ancient Greece (for instance, the massive columns with Corinthian capitals) and from the Roman Empire (like the cupola). Its interior has a horseshoe shape. It seats 1,350 persons in five tiers of boxes, a gallery, and the stalls. The stalls are ventilated by a complex system of roof openings that make air-conditioning unnecessary.
In order to make room for the huge theater, Palermo had to destroy two churches and a convent. Legend has it that the mother superior of the convent still haunts the Teatro Massimo; one of the steps to the theater is called “the nun’s step,” and those who do not believe in the haunting supposedly trip over it.
The construction of the theater started 10 years after the project was awarded to Giovan Battista Basile but was suspended from 1882 to 1890. Giovan Battista Basile did not live to see the inauguration of his creation. He died in 1891. His son Ernesto took over. Ernesto had slightly different architectural views from his father. He was a disciple of art nouveau. Art nouveau was a style inspired by natural shapes rather than by the glorious classical eras. The artists who followed art nouveau believed that art should seek harmony with nature and that it should be present in every moment of a human being’s day rather than in mere objects and buildings.
While the project of the theater was awarded to the Basile family architects, the actual works were delegated to the Rutelli–Machi firm. Like Giovan Battista Basile, Giovanni Rutelli came from a family of architects who believed in the reintroduction of Greek/Roman-style elements in modern architecture. For the purpose of finishing the project faster, he designed and built a powerful steam crane that allowed his workers to easily move incredibly heavy columns and stone blocks across the theater.
Despite the above-mentioned efforts, the theater was inaugurated only on May 16, 1897, more than 20 years after the first stone had been laid. The inaugural opera was Verdi’s Falstaff, which had premiered at La Scala four years before. That same year, the people of Palermo enjoyed operas like Amilcare Ponchielli’s La Gioconda, Giacomo Puccini’s La Bohème, and Verdi’s Aida at the Teatro Massimo.
Numerous important operas delighted the theatergoers of Palermo at the Teatro Massimo in the following years until modern times. In 1974, however, the city of Palermo was deprived of its wonderful opera house for more than two decades. Renovation works—made necessary by new security regulations—started but soon seemed to take more time than foreseen and to go on indefinitely. The suspension and the long delay were linked to inefficient administration, cost overruns, and political fights. It was only in 1997 that the Teatro Massimo was given back to the people of Palermo. On that occasion, conductor Claudio Abbado, whose mother was a Sicilian, directed the Berliner Philharmoniker Orchestra, which played the First and the Third symphonies by Brahms with great success and commotion.
Today, the Teatro Massimo is fully functional as a cultural hub. Wonderful operas and ballets are performed throughout the year, striving to keep up the motto engraved above six columns that welcome theater guests: “L’arte rinnova i popoli e ne rivela la vita. Vano delle scene il diletto ove non miri a preparar l’avvenire.” (“Art renovates people and reveals their life. The pleasure of the stage is vain if it does not seek to prepare the future.”)
How to reach the Teatro Massimo in Palermo
The Teatro Massimo is located in Piazza Verdi, in the city center of Palermo. From the central train station, it is a 15-minute walk. By bus, you can take lines 101, 102, 104, and 107. They all stop in Piazza Verdi, where you can also find a taxi stand. Should you prefer to get to the theater by car, toll parking can be found in Piazzale Ungheria and Piazza Spinuzza.