Reviving San Cassiano – Paul Atkin Discusses His Plan To Rebuild The World’s First Public Opera House (Part 2)

By Alan Neilson

Since 1999 Paul Atkin, CEO of the San Cassiano Project, has been working towards fulfilling his dream of rebuilding the world’s first public opera house, the San Cassiano theatre: a place that the world has not seen since its destruction in 1812 during the French occupation of Venice. In the first part of OperaWire’s interview with Atkin, he talked about his background; his motivation behind the decision to undertake what is, by any standards, an ambitious venture; and his overall vision for the project. In this, the second of the three part interview, he discusses aspects of the theatre’s design; how he plans to recreate it as it existed when it first opened its doors to the public in 1637; and his ideas on how the theatre will be used to present 17th century baroque opera in its original performing conditions.

The 1637 Theatre

Over the course of its storied life there have been five, possibly six, versions of the San Cassiano theatre, with the first record of it dating back to 1581. It is the 1637 construction, however, that Atkin considers the most important version of them all.

“When we first started, we were told that we couldn’t recreate the San Cassiano of 1637: there were no images, no drawings, no plans, no data! If I wanted to build the 1763 version then I could have started immediately, that information was available: but that is not what this project was about.”

This in itself would, no doubt, have deterred most people from pursuing the idea any further; but not Atkin.

“I realized from a study of the Venetian opera archives that most people go there thinking about a specific opera, a specific composer or a specific performance and focus solely on that. No one had tried to rebuild the original theatre and I felt we had a good chance of finding the original measurements and supporting data in the archives, if we went back and searched from this perspective. So I, along with my project partner and Director of Research Stefano Patuzzi—whose skills and knowledge have been absolutely invaluable—took a gamble and went back to the sources. Sure enough we found the original measurements of the theatre from circa 1690. When we applied other primary sources to this and crossed-referenced our data with the measurements of the actual site, we were able to quantify precisely the San Cassiano theatre of 1637. We are now able to construct a very accurate replica of the theatre. So what was once thought to be impossible has become possible.”

Atkin has now also been able to positively identify the original theatre.

“We just released an image of it on our website. This is the first time we have been able to identify the exterior of the theatre in modern times.” The San Cassiano is the circled building in the picture at the top of this page.

The site is now, in fact, a garden, which Atkin was able to gain access to, thanks to the modern owners.

“The family have been great. They took me inside and what I saw was very interesting. Upon entering the garden you can see exactly where the theatre was situated. After it was demolished they did not level the ground, and the gradient of the garden retains the original slope of the stalls, which were set at an angle and built of wood in order to vibrate with the music. When you are standing there you realise how impossibly tiny the theatre actually was: a mere 17 meters by 28 meters. The garden path follows the contours of the theatre, which means you can identify where the orchestra pit started, and the second curve—which you find in Venetian theatres—allows you to identify the position of the stage.”

The visit to the garden was not all good news. “I tried to convince the family to sell me the site so I could build on the original spot, but they don’t want to do that. In fairness, we would never get the planning permission anyway. However, this in itself creates an opportunity to build the theatre on a site which will deliver the kind of world-leading cultural center that Venice deserves, and one that will do justice to the original theatre.” Atkin is confident of announcing the position for the new theatre soon.

Atkin’s knowledge of the principles underlying the design of Venice’s early theatres is clearly illustrated with his explanation as to why the city’s 17th-century opera houses had different dimensions: some were short and wide, while others were long and thin.

“If you want to create the perfect Venetian theatre then you are inventing something that never existed, and that is wrong.”

“There are a couple of things we must remember about theatre construction, especially in Venice. First of all, the shape of the theatre is dictated by the shape of the site itself. If you compare the longer and narrower San Giovanni e Paolo theatre to the short and fat San Cassiano, it means that the San Cassiano would have had a very short stage, which the measurements confirm. What is very interesting is that we now believe the same principles of design were applied to the San Giovanni e Paolo and the San Cassiano, even though when you first look at them they appear as two completely different theatres. We think that they are both Roman semi-circular theatres, which takes you to the maximum width for the theatre, while the sides were treated as secondary—we used to think they were of primary importance—filling the gap from the Roman semi-circle to the stage. In the case of the San Cassiano, it was very short, while in the case of San Giovanni e Paolo it was very long, as it was a narrow theatre. Yet the same, fundamental principle applies to both!”

“Secondly, they were designed for commercial purposes. The architects did not start from an artistic point of view. They wanted to fit as many people into the theatre as possible. The boxes in the San Cassiano were one meter wide and accommodated two people sitting at the front: it was a tight fit. This was the Tron family—the theatre’s owners—being business people.”

From our conversation, it becomes clear that the designs for the San Cassiano are far from set in stone, and that research is still ongoing. There are many issues that need to be investigated, including the decoration of the boxes, and a variety of questions relating to the architecture.

“Jon Greenfield, the project’s lead architect, wrote to me last night about his most recent thoughts on the ceiling above the proscenium. So this is something we have to research and follow up on. There are so many threads we need to consider. As Jon says, ‘we just don’t know what we don’t know.'”

A Theatre Inside A Modern Shell

The project does not aim to recreate the original building, just the the interior.

“I actually wanted to recreate the original shell of the building, but this was thrown out by every single person I consulted. It wasn’t feasible and, in any case, it wouldn’t be genuine. We learnt from Jon that you must have the theatre in a modern shell, meaning it has to be constructed to modern day building and safety standards. Therefore, when the audience arrives, they will see a historic-looking theatre, although not with an authentic design. After entering the building they can then enter the theatre itself, which is inside the building. People will walk into the theatre and they will think, ‘Wow, I am in 1637!’ This is what we are confident of creating.”

The small size of the theatre becomes increasingly clear as Atkin starts to go into the details of the design. It will have a seating capacity of 405, consisting of 153 boxes with two people in each and 99 seats in the stalls. “It is enough to make us profitable, enough to survive.”

It is, however, the size of the performance space that really catches the attention: the imboccatura della scena is just eight meters wide with a stage depth to the proscenium arch of only five meters.

“We know there was not much space on stage, and I am increasingly of the view that the stage functioned like the one at the Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza in the sense that it becomes the backdrop to the action. Of course, our stage will have moving scene-sets, whereas the Olimpico has a fixed set.”

“You would not have much space to move deep into the set because the farther you would go back the sooner you would break the perspective. So the action would appear to have been exclusively in the proscenium area. You come on stage, and you are immediately in the performing area.”

It would be wrong to conclude, however, that such a staging would be dull. Venetian theatres were well-known for their stage machinery and inventive ideas.

“They were using the cutting-edge technology of the day to create a three-dimensional effect. We know, for example, that if they had dancing nymphs across the front of the stage, the floorboards, which were wave-shaped, would turn upwards to create the sea and fill the whole of the main stage.”

Stage Machinery

When one thinks of 17th-century Venetian opera, one of the things that immediately comes to mind is their use of special effects and elaborate stage machinery. Surely there must be a temptation to use modern technology behind the scenes to recreate an authentic visual appearance on stage. Atkin is quick to dispel any such thoughts and categorically dismisses the idea.

“We will not be using modern versions, we will be recreating the original machinery.”

His research into Torelli’s 1641 designs, along with the information he has found in privately-owned manuscripts, means that “we know how to build everything.”

“The creation of the machinery actually relied on the craftsmen knowing certain things to complete the project, as all the information was not included in the designs. But we have managed to understand it all: it is the least of our problems. We can reproduce the machinery as it was in 1637.”

Such is the importance that Atkin attributes to this aspect of 17th-century opera that he wants the machine operators to come on stage at the end to receive a round of applause.

Health & Safety Concerns

A couple of issues immediately come to mind, one of which is surely going to cause serious problems in realizing the project: health and safety regulations. Surely a 17th-century theatre cannot conform to present-day standards. Will permission really be granted? Atkin is assertive on this matter.

“I will take issue on that. We are certain we will be given permission. We are lucky to be working with Jon Greenfield, who designed the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, and with Peter McCurdy, who built the Globe Theatre and the Wanamaker, as well as Professor Martin White, who is a lighting specialist and waiting to get involved. With the Wanamaker Playhouse, they managed to protect the original measurements of the 17th-century theatre because they came to an agreement with the authorities. They determined that in the event of a fire the audience will be able to leave the historic theatre and within three seconds be in the new, modern area surrounding it, which meets all the current safety standards. We are still in the early stages, but this is also our plan for the San Cassiano. We are determined that when you step into the theatre, you will step into the theatre as it was in 1637.”

Atkin also speculated that the theatres may actually have been designed to help prevent the spread of diseases, a pertinent consideration in these days of Covid.

“To my knowledge, no one has ever studied the theatre from the point of view of disease. We believe the boxes were designed foremost for privacy, but there is also a practical element here: they protect the people from smells, from other people, and from disease. I wouldn’t be surprised if the boxes were designed to help prevent the spread of the plague. So there will be no need for plastic partitions to make the theatre Covid safe.”

Candle Light

On specific issues such as lighting Atkin is equally positive. The plan is to use candles, as in the original theatre.

“The issue of candles is not an issue. As Martin White showed us, the candles were designed not to set fire to wood, the wood will not ignite easily if it has been treated. We must also remember that the Venetians were used to dealing with these types of problems. They knew what they were doing, and they were good at what they did. One of the problems with Venice, however, is that sometimes the theatres used oil for lighting. We will take our time, but it is possible to solve all these problems once you get over the initial shock of dealing with a natural flame.”

“It is also about how we can work with candles in the performance. If you read the description in the libretto of the first act of “L’Andromeda”, the first opera to be performed at San Cassiano when the theatre was opened up to the public, you can see how fundamental candles were to the scene. We have to replicate this.”

Modern Day Comforts

Another issue is the degree to which the theatre will have to be adapted to meet modern-day standards of comfort. Do people really want to sit next to each other in a box that is just a meter in width?

“I cannot compromise on measurements. I have made an agreement with my team that we must treat the San Cassiano as if it already exists and that we are restoring it. There can be no discussion about widening the boxes, as we would be creating another theatre, not the San Cassiano. Yes, we can make it safe, but the actual interior of the theatre must be rebuilt as it existed.”

And what about air conditioning and heating? After all, Venice can be very humid and the summers can be very uncomfortable indeed. Surely he cannot expect the audience to suffer in the oppressive heat of summer or to freeze in the winter.

“I am all for invisible modern-day comforts. Acousticians and architects have done an awful lot of work on air conditioning in theatres. I have no problem with making life comfortable: I don’t want people to go there and sit next to someone with the plague just to make it realistic! It must be done, however, in a way that does not compromise the 17th-century experience: we cannot have the air conditioning blowing out the candles.”


There are also issues surrounding acoustics. Is Atkin prepared to accept a poor acoustic if it turns out that the original San Cassiano had problems in this area?

“This was the very first question that Jon Greenfield asked me: did I want a perfect acoustic? I said no! I want the San Cassiano acoustic! If we don’t build the theatre as it was, how can we explore how they managed the theatre?”

But he does not believe that acoustics will be a problem.

“I was talking with Deborah Howard at the University of Cambridge. She has done so much great work on Venice, and she was teasing me, saying that we have all the necessary knowledge on acoustics to create the perfect theatre, and explained it requires alternating boxes to be convex then concave to break up the sound. I started laughing and pulled out a drawing of the 1763 version of the San Cassiano which showed that alternate boxes were convex and concave. I told her jokingly that she was 250 years too late.”

Performance Criteria

Authenticity lies at the heart of the San Cassiano Project, but to what extent will this translate into opera performances? Does Atkin see the theatre as rigidly sticking to Venetian opera of the baroque period, or will he widen this out to include baroque opera in its entirety?

“It is one thing to create the theatre realistically as possible, but remember, we don’t have this type of theatre anywhere in the world. We cannot say we are only doing Venetian opera, or only operas historically performed in the San Cassiano, otherwise, I couldn’t stage Monteverdi or Vivaldi, and so it has to be everything, it has to be about embracing the world. Look at the tradition of Naples: we cannot ignore that, we can’t not have that performed. It would also be wrong to deprive the world of the chance of seeing French opera or English Opera, for example, in a theatrical setting of the period. Actually, I would go further, I would actually like to see Shakespeare’s Globe come and do a play there. Everything is on the table.

“It will be such an intimate place there is absolutely no reason why we can’t have anything, including a single person doing a monologue or a recital or even, dare I say, performing more popular music like jazz. I think it will become a venue in its own right. I hope and expect, however, that we will be able to keep it to opera, that the interest generated will ensure that we will be just doing opera. Nevertheless, if Yo-Yo Ma wants to give a recital in the theatre we are not going to say no to him.”

Atkin has no wish to dictate programming, or even how operas should be performed. When the discussion turned to the area of performance, he was quite forthright about how he sees his limitations.

“First of all, I am not the arbiter of what is right or wrong: I am not a good-enough technician to decide, nor am I a good-enough musician or musicologist. However, I do see myself as a good facilitator. I can create the environment for these guys. This is my contribution to music.”

Nevertheless, he does hold views on this matter.

“I think when we are performing as the Teatro San Cassiano we should try to be as pure in our execution as possible, including singers’ gestures and costumes, as well as the orchestra who will be wearing costumes and wigs of the period.”

He is certainly not rigid on this point, however.

“I want to make it a melting pot of experimentation and to do that you have to make changes and take risks. If you take someone like Christian Curnyn, he has a very different view to me on what constitutes an historically informed performance, but one that is equally valid. He is brilliant at what he does. As far I am concerned anyone who is doing baroque opera is welcome and can do it their way.”

But it is not an open-ended invitation.

“The one stipulation I will have is that even though you can put on a modern performance, it must not be one that completely subverts our philosophy. I am not having audiences paying money to see the scenery and we don’t use it. So if someone has a production with their own scenery and lighting we will not be able to help them with that.”

“In theory, any interpretation will be acceptable. There are plenty of theatres around the world, however, which do modern productions. I think if you want to work with the San Cassiano the goal has to be to try to get back to the original meaning of the opera. Curnyn would say that a production done the way I would do it belongs in a museum. He wants it to be as relevant today as it was when it was written, which is a good argument: he is still trying to get to the truth, which is what we all want, and fundamentally he is still producing ‘HIP’: it is just in a different way to how I would do it. If, however, you want to do a completely modern interpretation I don’t think we will be the right theatre for you; I think there will be a natural divide.”

Sitting Or Standing In The Platea?

On the San Cassiano website, it is stated that one of the wider aims of the project is to recreate the interaction between audience and performers as it then existed. In discussing the design for the theatre Atkin talks of seating in the stalls. It is widely accepted that historically people did not sit, however: they stood in the stalls. Atkin readily accepts the criticism.

“Modern-day realities mean that people will be sitting to start with. In time, however, I would like to experiment by taking out the seating and inviting people to come and stand. I learned from watching performances at The Globe that when people are standing they are more free to speak out and comment, to respond, and I am very interested as an academic, as a musicologist, to see how that affects the drama.”

“The intimacy that the theatre will offer is one of its many points of interest. I was talking to Isteyn Davies recently and he was saying how singers don’t like seeing the faces of the audience when they are singing. They will have no choice at the San Cassiano. The people sitting in the proscenium boxes will literally have their elbows on the stage looking up at them: they will be four meters away from some of the best singers in the world. Think of the soundscapes, acoustics, the intimacy of sitting or standing next to someone in such a theatre. Think of some of Vivaldi’s arias: it will be the equivalent of a jet taking off, it will be really loud and, I imagine, intimidating for both sides. You will be able to follow every single word because there is no need for singers to project their voices. The drama becomes easier to follow.”

Atkin finishes this section of the discussion in a reflective fashion.

“It is also important to get things wrong. We have to get things wrong to know what is right. It should not be a bad thing if we do not know all the answers, and this is going to be one of the joys of the project for me.”

In the final part of the interview we will be discussing the financial aspects of the project, the educational and research plans, and what being a public opera house in the 21st century actually entails.


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