Living History

By Molly Harris


The thick red curtain opened the stage of the Croatian National Theatre in Zagreb. As the orchestra began to play, the lights went up and the first performers glided to center stage. Giselle, a ballet by Adolphe Adam, was one of the company’s many performances. With a full schedule each week, this cultural experience will enrich any time spent in Zagreb while continuing a centuries-old tradition.

In Zagreb, viewing a performance is more than a cultural experience to check off the list. In 1860, the hall represented independence from the Austro-Hungarian empire when shows performed in German ended and began to be performed in the native Croatian language. By 1861, the odeum gained similar notoriety to that of other European theaters when more than 1,500 halls sprung up after World War I during city revivals. Though once housed in the Old City Hall, which held 750 seats located in St. Mark’s square, the company eventually moved to the current location which now holds 790 seats. In spring of 1894, the Croatian government funded construction in anticipation of Emperor Franz Joseph’s visit scheduled for October 1895. The auditorium was intended to house three companies on one stage: ballet, drama and opera and thereby offer audiences three distinct experiences.

Giselle is not unique to Zagreb and is one that can be replicated by other theatre companies. Giselle was performed on May 11th, 14th and 17th at 19:30 p.m., with shows generally lasting about two hours. Other shows vary from classical to modern styles. Artistic Director Dubravka Vrgoc intends to attract a younger audience in the future. “I wanted to make it [the theatre] more open,” said Director Vrgoc, which she has pursued by partnering with companies in Italy, France and the United States, among others. However, more than 120 years later the effort to make the house a universal collaboration continues today.

After the curtain ascended, the brass swans lining the staircase banisters guided goers back out onto the street. Though the event may change, the audience is only a part of the life of the yellow neo-Baroque facade for a few hours at a time. The theatre’s historical, cultural and architectural values are rich and waiting to be discovered by travelers who come and go. When in Zagreb, settle into the plush straight-back chair as so many before have and enjoy an age old art.


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