It was the need to upgrade the mechanics of the stage that led to the start of renovations to Budapest's Hungarian State Opera building, nearly five years ago. But what struck my eyes shortly before its reopening, as I was led on a tour of the premises, was the splendour of an interior that was already one of the most beautiful of its kind even before the first touch of a restorer’s brush began returning the house to its 1884 opening-day glory.

Hungarian State Opera
© Valter Berecz | Hungarian State Opera

The scope and logistics of this rebirth are impressive. Since the start of the shutdown in 2017, the ornate arcaded façade of the Neo-Renaissance building has been cleaned, its statues and decorations restored and the roof tiles replaced. The stage technology is now cutting edge – the already fabulous acoustics further improved, the orchestra pit expanded, its electric and other utility systems replaced and its physical plant completely renewed.

But it’s the beauty of gilt and marble halls and chambers festooned with statues, rich oak wood panels and 19th-century frescoes and paintings freed from the decades of patina accumulated since the last major redo that visitors will carry with them after the curtain falls on the Reopening Gala, on the 12th of March, and on Ferenc Erkel’s Hunyadi László the following day.

Hungarian State Opera
© Valter Berecz | Hungarian State Opera

General Director Szilveszter Ókovács says most of what is completely new is hidden below or above the stage, or behind walls separating public spaces from the workshops and maintenance spaces. Elsewhere, the focus was on restoration, not replacement. “But whether you’re familiar with the building or new to it, you’ll see its beauties shine in a new light,” he told me.

The majestic entry hall was cluttered with workers’ trestle tables and the sound of drills and hammers resounded throughout the building during my late February visit. Amid all this, the ballet corps was already on stage, rehearsing for its 14th March premiere of Mayerling, reflecting the little time remaining until the reopening. Yet much was already done.

Some floors, corners and statues in the hall were still covered or wrapped to protect against damage, but careful removal of stains and etching had already restored the sheen of its grey and pink marble walls. Each detail of the gilded vaulted ceiling with busts of famed Hungarian composers, its murals and secco of the nine Muses and other musical themes, shone with the vivid evidence of painstaking restoration. Even the scores of paintings scattered throughout the building, that had been worked on during the last general makeover between 1980-1984, had undergone cleaning and a careful touch-up by a restorer’s brush.

It's said that when Franz-Josef I toured the house, the ruler of the Austro-Hungarian Empire acknowledged that – though smaller than its Viennese counterpart, as he had demanded – this opera house was even more beautiful. Conserving and restoring that beauty have been the main goals of this latest renovation.

The theme has been “back to the original” of Miklós Ybl, its main architect and designer, said Anka Jozsa, the house’s chief engineer and facility manager, and the efforts to right past wrongs were apparent. The white paint covering the marble door frames in the magnificent main staircase has been carefully stripped away and their surface buffed to their original sheen. Some curtains and textiles needed to be replaced, she said. But where possible, they were taken down for a careful cleaning before being rehung or, in the case of surface fabrics, gently cleaned and groomed in place.

“Everything has to be perfect, down to the smallest detail,” said Ókovács. “We owe it to the paying audience”.

Hungarian State Opera
© Valter Berecz | Hungarian State Opera

But with all the attention to those small details, it is the big-ticket renovations, most notable in the auditorium, that will entrance audiences. Its centrepiece, the 3,050-kilogram multi-tiered bronze chandelier, was painstakingly taken apart to upgrade its lighting so that it shines from below, to resemble the gas lights originally in its ground-glass coverings. Reassembling it, the workers involved told me, was like working on a giant picture puzzle, with hundreds of even seemingly interchangeable parts differing slightly in dimensions from each other. It hangs from a monumental fresco adding to the magnificence of the round ceiling. Like many other paintings in the building, it is the work of Károly Lotz (1833-1904). The Apotheosis of Music shows Apollo playing his lute surrounded by the deities of Olympus, the graces and the muses. It was gorgeous even before its restoration; now it seems as if its figures are suspended in the open blue skies above the auditorium’s dome. 

Hungarian State Opera
© Valter Berecz | Hungarian State Opera

And there’s more to wonder at, here and throughout the building: painting after painting in cassette ceilings by Lotz and his contemporaries surrounded by intricate geometric patterns, chubby putti, majestic statues and rich oak panels shiny with repeated applications of beeswax. The more than 1,000 new audience chairs were still in their boxes during my visit, but they’ve been built true to the original, down to the tacks holding the upholstery to their frames and the black-on-white lettering on the seating number plates.   

Yet, to Ókovács, all the restored or rebuilt splendour is secondary. The shutdown in 2017 was originally mostly planned for work that he said was needed the most: the replacement of the old stage technology. “They started installing the previous system in 1982 and were forced to turn to fairly basic East German machinery,” he explains, “because more advanced technology from the West was on the banned list of exports to countries of the Soviet bloc. So, we had to work with more modest technological means with a shorter life cycle.” 

Back then, the opera house was shut for two years, the time it took to install the new system. It wasn’t long before the first problems surfaced, however. Curtains sometimes refused to open or close and platforms to rise or fall, with mishaps increasing. So much so, said Ókovács, that Miklós Szinetár, one of his predecessors, started lobbying for a redo of the stage back in 1997.

Initially, he said, the plan was to stay closed for less than a year, to allow for the installation of the new stage technology, expand the orchestra pit, install new chairs and renovate the plumbing and electrical network. “The idea was to stay closed for ten months, but then the government decided to renovate the whole building. And so that’s where we are now, nearly five years later.”

The new rehearsal space at the Hungarian State Opera
© Valter Berecz | Hungarian State Opera

The stage engineering and the gigantic equipment in the electrical room were museum pieces. Since a modern smartphone can perform their functions, updating them freed up a great deal of space. More space was gained by the relocation of most of the workshops to the newly built Eiffel Art Studios, in Budapest’s 10th District. Much of the room gained has been transformed into a 450 square meter ballet rehearsal hall and a rehearsal stage for 10 to 15 singers.

All this is behind the scenes, just like the new technology, which means that it will likely be noticed by the average operagoer only when it’s used to hoist the Queen of the Night into the heights, lower Don Giovanni into hell, or perform other tasks called for by a particular director’s vision of a production. But it’s often the flying systems, revolving platforms, slip stages, stage elevators, the motorised rigging hidden out of sight in the fly loft above the stage and the other devices that rotate, go up or down, or slide across the floor, that make a performance a success. The new technology was fitted for a stage that’s 28 meters wide and 24 meters deep. There are six stage lifts, each 12 meters wide and three meters deep, each flanked by smaller 3x3 meter lifts. The revolving stage is 11 meters in diameter, with outer and inner rings that can move together, in opposite directions or individually.

Refitting the stage alone cost 25 million euros, about a sixth of the total renovation price tag of 150 million euros. Not cheap, Ókovács acknowledges. But he considers it money well spent. “Because we can always play with seats where the fabric has faded or while the façade is covered with scaffolding. But we cannot play without a working stage.” 

Hungarian State Opera
© Valter Berecz | Hungarian State Opera

Ókovács is not new to challenges. Since he was appointed general director in 2011, he has overseen the renovation and reopening of the Erkel Theatre, the Opera's second venue, and the creation of the Eiffel Art Studios, the opera’s arts and cultural center stamped out of an abandoned railway maintenance hall. Under his management, the outdated repertoire has been revamped, with premieres of 80 new productions over four years He has doubled the sales of subscriptions and tickets (the total number now exceeds 600,000) and greatly increased the number of performances. 

Still, with most work done but some remaining, he acknowledged some trepidation with the March deadline approaching.

Hungarian State Opera
© Valter Berecz | Hungarian State Opera

“I’m definitely nervous,” he told me. “Will the building be ready in its smallest details, no matter where the visitors look? What about the stage technology, the lighting? We don’t have months to familiarise ourselves with their details.”

At the same time, he’s looking forward to the reopening with Erkel’s Hunyadi László. A former baritone, he’s no stranger to the stage, but this will be his first production.

“It will show off the creativity of our workshops and our new technical devices,” he concluded. “But most of all, it will demonstrate that this organisation has survived the past 4 and a half years of closure and the additional problems caused by the Covid virus.”


The Hungarian State Opera will reopen on 12th March. Click here for details of all upcoming productions.

This article was sponsored by Hungarian State Opera.