Have you ever wondered what it would look like to view some of the world’s most renowned opera houses from center stage?
Wonder no longer.
New York-based fine arts photographer David Leventi’s 120-page book “OPERA” answers this question in stunning color and detail. The son of architects, he photographed the auditoriums of nearly 50 opera houses in the United States and abroad, shooting from center stage, and using only a wide-angle camera and the lighting from chandeliers and other house lights.
“OPERA” also provides a bit of a history lesson, since the opera houses represent several centuries’ worth of construction, ranging from La Fenice in Venice (1792) to The Metropolitan Opera in New York (1966) to Palau de les Arts Reina Sofía in Valencia (2005). Shifts in décor, balcony façades, ceiling artwork, and lighting, from ornate to modern, are evident.
Along with shooting from the space occupied by lead singers, Leventi had another reason for choosing center stage: “It is the most sacred part of an opera house, giving you an awe-inspiring feeling. Almost everything is visible from this point. It’s the heart of the house.”
Arriving at Center Stage
How he arrived at those stages can be traced to his family. Now 39, Leventi developed his love of opera about 15 years ago when he and his grandmother attended a performance of Prokofiev’s “War and Peace” at the Met. “Everything onstage looked like a grand history painting you would find at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, but it was alive,” he said. “It was a spectacle!”
The project also pays homage to his maternal grandfather, tenor Anton Gutman, who never had the opportunity to perform as an opera singer on international stages. As described in the book’s introduction, Gutman was a Romanian Jew and cantor who, from 1942 to 1948, was detained in Krasnogorsk, a prisoner-of-war camp in the Soviet Union. Another prisoner, the Danish operatic tenor Helge Rosvaenge, gave him voice lessons, but the operatic career that Gutman dreamed about never materialized due to circumstances following his release.
Choosing the Houses
While researching which opera houses to photograph, Leventi guided himself by asking, “Which are the most relevant opera houses, as far as history goes?” and “Which are the most famous?” “I was more interested in the architecture and the history of the houses. I wanted famous theaters, built by star architects. I wanted smaller houses, which are gems. I wanted a mix. There’s always another opera house to shoot, but how relevant would it be to the project? New theaters don’t have history, but it’s good that star architects are building new opera houses because they want cities to have cultural relevance.”
In fact, Leventi takes this concept of history a little further, to encompass soul. “A building absorbs the souls of its inhabitants, a real reflection of its history. These incredible buildings are capsules of history, and you feel like they’re living. When you walk into an empty opera house, you feel something. In a way, it’s the soul of the building, so the opera houses with the most history are the most soulful and interesting.”
And so, he spent eight years on the project (while working on other jobs around the world, too), lavishing his attention on these historic sites. The first theater to be photographed—and the impetus for the project, because of his grandfather—was the Romanian Athenaeum in Bucharest.
Of course, with their rehearsals, performances, technical rehearsals, and other events and activities happening on stage, opera houses often have busy schedules, so Leventi had to negotiate with many of the theaters to find time for picture-taking. “Most places are 24 hours,” he said, “so I photographed some of them in the middle of the night or when scheduling permitted. Then, the project kind of snowballed because it became easier to photograph and get permission when I had something to show and I could ask, ‘Would you like to be part of it?’ For those who were initially reluctant, their answers changed to yes.” (Indeed, lesson learned for Leventi and others who might want to tackle an ambitious project: When someone says no, it doesn’t mean forever—it means for the time being.)
Once inside, he used an Arca-Swiss 8×10 View Camera (film, not digital) and carefully lined up each shot, faithful to geometry and symmetry. “I photographed each house systematically. I tried to flatten out the space, making it look like a painting, anchoring the top balconies to the upper corners of the frame and anchoring the edges of the stage to the bottom corners of the frame. The central chandelier hangs down, but it looks askew, tilted toward you. From background to foreground, sconces and luxury boxes repeat in succession.”
However, Leventi photographed more than architecture, as the book includes curtains from Palais Garnier in Paris, Kungliga Operan in Stockholm, and Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires. “The curtains are a rhythmic break in the sequencing of the book…a pause,” he explained. “They are interesting in that they are trompe l’oeil painted curtains [creating the illusion that an object is three-dimensional], except for the Buenos Aires curtain, which is a bit of both.”
Perhaps with that memorable “War and Peace” in mind, and considering the busy schedules he had to work around, Leventi developed a new appreciation for opera through this project. “There are so many people involved to make something so extraordinary, an extravagance, a spectacle,” he said.
He also hopes that “OPERA” will foster a new appreciation for these theaters, which would be gratifying after his years of research, traveling, and photography. “It is the details included in the images that make them more than sterile architectural interiors—they become portraits of spaces with remarkable depth and history,” Leventi said. “Perhaps this work even casts a new light on the Renaissance debate of seeing versus hearing as the primary means of perceiving beauty.”