Bolshoi Theater Makeover Reaches Halfway Point

View from the stage of the inside of the 200-year-old Bolshoi Theater (courtesy: Sergei Isakov), which has twice been destroyed by fire and then rebuilt.

Founded the same year as the United States, the Bolshoi Theater has been one of the world's grand performing venues for over 200 years. First built at its present location in Moscow along the river Neglinka in 1780, the theater has survived two world wars, two revolutions, totalitarianism, communism, and catastrophic fires. Now it remains to be seen if the home of the prestigious Bolshoi Opera and Bolshoi Ballet can survive renovation in a new market economy to a state-of-the-art venue for the 21st century.

“The historic building of the Bolshoi Theater was constructed in the same time period as the Paris Opera, La Scala in Milan, and Covent Garden in London,” explains Anatoly Iksanov, general director of the Bolshoi Theater. “Obviously, its condition today must be modernized according to contemporary standards. As is well known, the Paris Opera, as well as Covent Garden, already accomplished their reconstruction. Last year, La Scala started its reconstruction. Now, it's our turn.”


Indeed, the current version of the theater has long been in need of repair. The prototype for the current edifice, with its famed eight-column portico crowned by Apollo's chariot and horses in bronze, was, after a major fire, originally designed by master architect Osip Bove and opened in 1825 as the Bolshoi Petrovsky Theater. It routinely accommodated 2,200 to 3,000 spectators and was the second largest theater in Europe, after La Scala.

A second major fire occurred in March 1853, however, and burned for three days. The only things left were the stone walls and columns of the façade. Architect Albert Kavos was chosen to rebuild the theater based on Bove's original design. Kavos redesigned the proportions, increased the height of the building, adding a third story, and remodeled the opulent décor. The new theater, christened the Bolshoi, opened on Aug. 20, 1856. The current auditorium seats 2,153 patrons and is 69ft. high, 82ft. long, and 85ft. wide.

The five-tiered Bolshoi auditorium was well known for its acoustics. The interior was trimmed in wood, and it was said that the theater itself was a musical instrument — one of the most acoustically perfect houses in the world. But even those acoustics have fallen into disrepair.

“The main thing [for the renovation] is to preserve and improve the existing acoustics,” says director Iksanov. “We need to make the following changes: To put the orchestra pit back to its historic position, because in the middle of the 20th century when the theater was modernizing its lighting equipment the orchestra pit was pushed some meters forward into the auditorium. We will also have to re-create spare space under the floor of the parquet circle as it used to be. In order to preserve the existing acoustics, we won't make any changes in the stage size.”

In 1987, the Ministry Council of the former Soviet Union decreed that the Bolshoi Theatre needed renovation to keep up with the evolution of theatrical production. “The primary aim was to save only the construction of the building and strengthen fire-prevention measures,” says Katerina Novikova, press secretary at the Bolshoi. “Today, though, the technical equipment of the Bolshoi stage does not measure up to the quality used in other similar theater structures. Thus, it limits the possibility of embodying many monumental productions.”

Apollo’s bronze chariot and horses atop the portico.

The next few years gave rise to political and economic upheavals, initially delaying the renovation. In 1993, the government issued another decree for the Bolshoi — this time to begin construction of another theater and auxiliary buildings, called the Bolshoi Branch Establishment. The second theater was to be used to maintain the production schedule during the renovation of the main theater. This two-phase plan — construction of the New Stage and renovation/restoration of the historic main theater — was approved in 1994.

But the Bolshoi's troubles were still not over. With perestroika and Russia's eventual transition to a market economy, the theater, as a state-run institution, found itself enjoying a substantial degree of autonomy at the same time that government funds began to dry up. Due to turbulent economic conditions, construction was again put on hold for a time, but in 2000, the Russian government stepped in to save the foundering theater. The facility is now under the direct control of the Russian Ministry of Culture.

“The Bolshoi Theater always was financed by the state,” explains Iksanov. “In the beginning, it was supported by the royal family, and after the Revolution the theater was financed through the state budget. Nowadays, changes in the social and economic life of the country dictate changes at the theater management level, as well. Introduction of the market economy and the lack of ideological control gave the Bolshoi total freedom in all senses — economic, as well as repertoire.”


Construction moved ahead in the next two years, and in Sept. 2002, the Bolshoi Branch Establishment was completed and opened with great fanfare. The Bolshoi complex now consists of the 25,000-square-meter New Stage with seating for 950; the 12,000-square-meter auxiliary block, which includes administrative services, rehearsal halls, and an atrium with a winter garden; and a 6,000-square-meter engineering building with three stories underground and workshop buildings. Also, the unique 17th century Sherbatov House residential building has been renovated to house the Bolshoi Theater Club, museum, and conference hall.

In compliance with tradition, the design of the Bolshoi Branch Establishment is based on classical Italian architecture, which was in vogue when the original Bolshoi was built. In adherence with Russian national heritage laws, however, the new building cannot be taller than the original structure, so the auditorium seats half as many spectators as the main house. This means the stage is not big enough for standard Bolshoi performances, and as a result, a special repertoire is currently being planned.

A scene from "Turandot," the latest opera premiere that opened the Bolshoi this season. Photos from the Bolshoi archives.

A collection of international companies have contracted to help burnish the image of the new Bolshoi, and much of the technology will be used in a Russian facility for the first time. Indeed, the New Stage is equipped with almost everything a new state-of-the-art theater could wish for. Austrian company Waagner-Biro created the medium-sized stage, featuring a fully mechanical over-stage and under-stage.

The over-stage has a special feature that is very popular in Russia — moving panoramas. The system consists of two motor-driven, conic drums upon which are wound 120m of Russian cloth, 11-meters-high. The cloth is suspended on hemp rope with steel core and is guided between the drums in a wooden channel mounted on a fly batten above the stage. When the cloth is moved, it is possible to present either a series of stage settings or a moving panorama.

The over-stage features 68 across-stage hoists and five proscenium hoists, with electromechanical drives and counterweights with a lifting capacity of 500kg. They can operate at continuously variable speeds of up to 1.5m per second. Also, 20-point hoists on the grid and the five units on the proscenium (each with a lifting capacity of 4×250kg) can be displaced by variable shifting sheaves over the complete stage area. The across-stage hoists have been equipped with squirrel-cage motors with flux-vector control and offer a control ratio exceeding 1:1000, with speeds between 0.0015m per second and 1.5m per second. All 98 hoists are equipped with state-of-the-art computer controls and offer many possibilities for combined synchronous travel of the across-stage hoists and point hoists.

The New Stage is capable of transforming into almost any size and configuration. A lifting portal bridge can move the columns of the proscenium arch to bring the stage portal from 10.8m high down to one meter, and from 17m wide to 12m. The stage also has a new safety curtain, made with fireproof Promatec lining. There are also six lighting scaffolds with a lifting capacity of two tons each, as well as moving lighting frames and rail trolleys for spotlights. Eight mechanical lighting flaps are integrated into the proscenium floor. Waagner-Biro's Yugoslav partner, Svetlost Teatar, carried out the lighting contract. Svetlost Teatar also supplied the steel structure for the safety curtain and the proscenium bridge.

In turn, the stage or the auditorium can be made smaller or larger by moving the 80-square-meter orchestra pit with removable railings. “The pit can be the same level as the auditorium, and it can be the same level as the stage,” says Novikova. “If you need to play [small] concerts, you don't need to have a pit, so you can have the stage deeper. In other cases, if you don't have an orchestra, you can lengthen the auditorium to the stage, and put in more chairs.”

The New Stage, opened in Sept. 2002, seats 950. Productions will be scaled to fit the new, smaller building during the renovation of the original Bolshoi Theater. Photo courtesy of Igor Zakharkin.

In keeping with the Italian design, the actual stage is raked at a four percent incline and is checked with 20 platform units in four rows of five, each 3m×3m, with a 2.35m lifting range. The platforms are each powered by individual central electric engines with power dividers, cardan shafts, and four spindle lifting units. The lifting speed of 0cm to 2.5cm per second is continuously adjustable, and a programmable logic controller ensures synchronous displacement of two, several, or all the platforms simultaneously, creating the impression of a 15m×12m surface being lifted or lowered.

Behind the main stage are four scenery-lifting platforms driven by two lifting spindles with a carrying capacity of 30 tons each. They can be moved from the under-stage level, where the rolled scenery is stored, to 5m above stage level.

The New Stage also allows for television transmission, as will the historic theater. The entire television component for the New Stage was designed and coordinated by the systems integration company Pro Video of Berlin. That company engineered the entire satellite head station, including the internal TV cable system. Signal transmission is possible through both conventional copper wire means and fiber optics, which were supplied by Network Electronics of Norway. According to Novikova, Panasonic supplied five or six DVC PRO AW-E600 remotely operated cameras for the venue.


“We consider that the first step of reconstruction is accomplished,” Iksanov says, with some relief. Novikova estimates the preliminary total cost of reconstruction of the complex at about $400 million, with the second phase — renovation of the main building — estimated at around $200 million.

As 2003 dawned, the task of restoring the historic theater got underway but with the idea that there will be little interruption of the Bolshoi's rigorous creative output. During the renovation period, expected to take four or five years, the Bolshoi company will “liberate” the historic theater for three years by moving to the New Stage temporarily.

The auditorium of the New Stage of the Bolshoi, which features a fully mechanical over-stage and under-stage. Photo courtesy of Igor Zakharkin.

“Reconstruction will go step by step,” says Iksanov. “We won't close the historical building of the Bolshoi for several seasons, but we shall close it yearly for four to five months around the summer period. Of course, now that we have our New Stage, it will ease this process a lot.”

As the renovation of the historic Bolshoi begins, of course, some purists remain concerned that the goal of modernizing the theater could conflict with the building's classical appearance and pedigree.

“This problem exists,” admits Iksanov. “All parts of the theater that are open for spectators — foyers, corridors, auditorium — will only be carefully restored [to their former grandeur]. The stage part of the historical building will face a more radical approach, which is only logical since we have to modernize the stage equipment according to the demands and needs of contemporary theater.”

Darroch Greer is a documentary filmmaker and historical researcher. He writes, produces, and directs documentaries which have appeared on PBS, the Discovery Channel, the History Channel, and VH1.