Let's See Those Astonishing Theaters and Opera Houses

Theaters and opera houses have existed for generations as places for the masses to gather and enjoy music or plays. While it has always been the show that draws people in, the architectural design and interiors of these showhouses can be just as memorable as the performances.

(Image: Evan Qu/Public Domain)

In Toronto, Ontario the last known double-decker theaters in the world also features a cascading garden. The ceiling of the Winter Garden Theatre consists of an amazing collection of flowers and other plants. The floating garden provides viewers with the serenity of sitting in a garden, while enjoying the performance. When guests enter the Amargosa Opera House in Inyo, California the first thing they notice is the dozens of hand-painted murals that adorn the walls. After purchasing the old opera house, Marta Beckett spent years painting the walls of the old theater, while also organizing theatrical and mime performances. Just off the shores of the Oslofjord inlet, an intricate building appears to be floating in the water. The Oslo Opera House in Norway design was inspired by the glaciers that populate the region. These are just a small sample of the gorgeous theaters and opera houses that populate the globe. Those where visitors are not only drawn in by the show, but also by the wonders of the architecture itself.

In the thread below, tell us about some of the most astonishing theaters and/or opera houses you’ve ever seen. Where is it located, and what makes it so special? What’s the history behind its construction and design? What about this particular location caught your attention the most? Are there any hidden secrets? Be sure to include any pictures you might have as well, and drop in your Instagram handle. Your response and photo may be included in an upcoming round-up article on Atlas Obscura. :musical_note::movie_camera::microphone:

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It’s not the grandest, nor the most astonishing, etc., but the Golden State Theatre in Monterey, California, has a special place in my heart. I grew up going to movies there, and from a kid’s perspective it was the most magical building I had ever seen. It opened in 1926, and by the time I came along it had been in decline for years and very little money was spent on maintenance. In 1976 it was triplexed by the creation of two small auditoriums in the original balcony. I was 18 years old at the time and that was when I began to dream of restoring it someday.

In 1990 I had an opportunity to form a small non-profit with a few other people. I did a ton of publicity and attracted some dedicated volunteers. I also collected a number of old photos of the interior which, although black-and-white, showed how grand the original decor had been. Armed with these, I approached the building’s owner at the time, United Artists Theatres, and secured their kind permission to do some grass-roots shoestring-budget restoration.

In the process of researching the building I learned of a Wurlitzer pipe organ, one very similar to the theatre’s original instrument, which was available nearby. With the permission of UA we installed the organ in the theatre, a process which took almost four years, and then began presenting concerts and silent films to the enthusiasm of the public. At the same time I and my volunteers continued the restoration process in our spare time for more than a decade.

In 2004 the building was purchased by a new owner and the non-profit faded out of existence. The new owner restored the balcony to its original use and put in all new seating, but he was not a good businessman and eventually sold the building to its present owners. They changed the theatre’s use to live concerts exclusively, and it is financially successful but they are not interested in the building’s history nor in continuing the restoration which we began almost 30 years ago. This past spring the pipe organ was damaged by rainwater leaking through the roof and they are not interested in repairing it since they never use it. Rumor has it that they are interested in selling the building again, and I have no idea what its future holds.

The building was designed by the architectural firm of Reid Bros., who also designed San Francisco’s Fairmont Hotel and San Diego’s Hotel Del Coronado. The Golden State Theatre was the first on the Monterey Peninsula to show “talking pictures,” beginning in 1929.

Below are a few snapshots taken at various times.

The grand lobby:

Another lobby view:

Auditorium detail:

One of our volunteers restoring the auditorium wall in the 1990s:

A scale model that I built showing how the facade of the building originally appeared:


The Guangzhou Opera House by Zaha Hadid. Unfortunately, you can only enter if you have a ticket for an event.


The Golden Rondelle, Racine, Wisconsin. (I saw Psycho there the first time!) I see there’s already an Atlas Obscura article about it: https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/the-golden-rondelle-racine-wisconsin

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One of the best new theatres in the world has to be the intimate National Opera House in Wexford, Ireland. Home to the internationally-recognized Wexford Festival Opera, it seats fewer than 800 patrons and has perfect acoustics with wood-lined walls. It can be easily seen in the town’s skyline, but you can miss it walking down the High Street as it is subtly hidden behind simple doors and looks to be part of the street’s row of houses.


The stunning Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza, Italy; built in 1585 and designed by the Italian Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio, it features the oldest surviving stage set still in existence. Palladio based his design on the ‘De Architectura’ treatise by Vitruvius and on the ruins of the ancient theaters. Its trompe-l’œil onstage scenery gives the appearance of long streets receding to a distant horizon, the elaborate reconstruction of a Roman scaenae frons. The first performance, on the occasion of the Carnival of 1585, held a Greek tragedy, ‘Edipo Tiranno’, which featured the reproduction the seven streets of Thebes, seen in the five openings of the proscenium.


The Concert Hall in Reykjavik (Harpa) is magnificent. It is like lots of huge lumps of ice stacked together. The ‘ice blocks’ are actually cubes made of glass. The effect inside and out is astonishing and you can wander around and gaze upwards for hours at a time. The lobby and walls leading to the various concert theatres are lined with beautiful dark, almost black lava slabs. The whole effect is of being inside a beautiful mountain.

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The Palau de la Música Catalana in Barcelona is definitely my all-time favorite.

Built between 1905 and 1908 in the classic Catalan Modernist style by the architect Lluís Domènech i Muntaner to house the Catalan Orpheum choir which was instrumental in the Catalan Renaixença, it’s constructed on a small plot of land in the old city. I’ve found that while it’s not the easiest building to take good photos of from the outside because it’s in a part of town where the streets are very narrow and rather cramped, it does not take away from being able to enjoy the building from the outside, and the inside is absolutely spectacular.

Stained glass skylight in the main concert hall, designed to bring natural light into the hall. The bulb dips down into the room to give the illusion of the sun coming into the room, and while there is some lighting in the mezzanine and the sides, the main room is very well lit, even on a cloudy, overcast, rainy day. The electric lighting is predominantly only used at night; during the day it’s lit entirely with the skylight.

The organ.

A more panoramic view of the skylight.

Detail of the sculptures representing the Muses that line the back of the stage.

The organ behind the skylight.

Fuller view of the stage. As it was built to house a choir, grand theater/opera productions cannot be performed here; those are performed in the older Liceu, located on the Ramblas. The main hall is designed to house simple music performances, and even today is still a very popular venue for smaller productions.

View of part of the outside, with the statue of Sant Jordi (Saint George), the patron saint of Catalonia and the city of Barcelona.

The original entrance; the main entrance has been moved to a larger area off to the side.

The original entrance on the Carrer de Sant Pere Més Alt, where it’s pretty clear that it’s in a very cramped area.

It’s kind of like a “blink and you’ll miss it” buidling as you probably won’t find it if you’re just wandering aimlessly through the Barri Gòtic. It is about two blocks off the Via Laietana and isn’t terribly far from the Cathedral, but if you’re not specifically looking for it, you could probably easily go to Barcelona and not see it.

It’s definitely my most favorite building in the entire city. Not at all a well-kept secret, but I definitely think it’s one of the most underrated buildings, especially since it wasn’t designed by architectural darling Antoni Gaudí.


I knew someone would mention this one! It’s so neat inside and out.

Two worth mentioning for me:
The Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg, Germany. Its architechture mimics a sail in the wind but also water waves

And from my hometown São Paulo, Brazil, Sala São Paulo, build inside an old train station (Estação Júlio Prestes)


One of my favourites here in Sydney, Australia is the State Theatre.


While Mexico has some famously magnificent theaters like Mexico City’s Palacio de Bellas Artes
Palacio de Bellas Artes by ndminick, en Flickr

and Guanajuato’s Teatro Juárez
teatro juarez by Villa Amor Guanajuato, en Flickr

Teatro Juarez. by Miguel Martinez, en Flickr

my favorite might still be the comparatively simpler Emperador Caltzontzin Theater in Pátzcuaro. “Caltzontzin” was the word for the ruler of the region’s indigenous Purépecha people, so the theater is basically called “Emperor Emperor Theater” and was built on the building of a 16th century convent.

The walls have long wood panels on which murals have been painted and slightly carved and illustrate folkloric scenes of life and people in the region of Lake Pátzcuaro. I also like the light feature on the ceiling, very reminiscent of traditional Michoacán handcrafts of lacquered wood.

(pictures by me)