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Creating sustainable tourism for Venice through opera

Model of San Cassiano Theatre, Venice - made by Base Models and photographed by Janie Airey (Courtesy Teatro San Cassiano)

Post pandemic there have been rumblings again around how to create a sustainable form of tourism for Venice. The 'day tripper' still accounts for a huge swell in visitors to the city, but without drawing in significant spend. Could re-building the 17th century Teatro San Cassiano help to start a new destination for opera lovers, who would be tempted to stay overnight following performances, boosting revenue? Would the theatre bring in new audiences sampling opera for the first time and be of benefit to the Venetian community itself, not just tourists?

In Venice - the city where opera was invented - entrepreneur and musicologist Dr. Paul Atkin is leading the project to re-build what was the city’s first public opera house, Teatro San Cassiano 1637, and he is being supported by a team of British architects and academics. This includes Jon Greenfield of Greenfield Architecture – UK, who worked extensively on Shakespeare’s Globe in London, and on the Sam Wanamaker Theatre. both being accredited with helping to restore the fortunes of Southwark's Bankside cultural district.

In 17th century Venice and previous to opera performances in Teatro San Cassiano, musical evenings were held in palazzos behind closed doors and only among the Venetian elite. The new theatre, as it was then called, opened up performances to a more diverse audience and the art form was a runaway success. In this decade, could the same enthusiasm prevail if the theatre project goes ahead? Could it compete with La Fenice - the city's established opera venue - without stealing its thunder? Dr Atkin is determined that it should not draw audiences away, but form part of an on-going regeneration of culture in the city.

Some believe that Teatro San Cassiano was destroyed by Napoleon's soldiers, and as the site of the original theatre is now a private garden, there are searches for a new location while fund-raising is taking place to make the dream of Dr. Atkin's theatre re-build a reality. However, both the Italian and English members of the team believe that there is still research to do to ensure that the new building is as close in design to that of the original.

Jon Greenfield explained to Future Cities Forum:

‘The idea is to reproduce the opera house as authentically as possible using traditional craftsmanship. There were five or six different versions of the theatre erected over time on the same plot but we want to re-build the original. I think the true description of it, is as a ‘theatre of music’ but also that of spectacle. Most importantly, the project should restore historically informed Baroque opera to Venice. When the theatre was operating in the 17th century, there was a particular type of stage machinery being designed in Italy at the time with five or six stage flats either side of the performing space, where all sorts of things would emerge, as well as from the ceiling, such as flying gods. It was quite unlike anything we would recognise today and even would have involved water scenes. The theatre itself would have had a small footprint with the audience sitting in five tiers of boxes – not seats – and they would have been entertained by lots of moving sets. The acting was very stylised, involving specific poses and gestures.

‘Trees from the Alpine foothills would have been brought to Venice and used in the construction at the time. Plaster work would have decorated the walls with intricate designs painted on them. It would have been very opulent with lots of gold leaf and trompe l’oeil, and lit by oil lamps. The floor would have been made from terrazzo. The Venetians were well ahead of anyone else at that time in decoration. We know a lot about the design from documents handed down through generations of ancient Venetian families, who back in the 17th century, had a stake in the original theatre. It is no good looking at theatre design outside the city. Venice was different to other places and looking at other theatre plans can lead you astray.

‘We are now looking for a suitable site for the re-construction of the theatre, somewhere accessible and conversations are on-going around this. We could use pine timbers to construct the building again – timber is very sustainable – but we have to be mindful of safety and work within Italian regulations. There will be an outdoor space where the performance going on inside can be projected to a wider audience and we are hoping to interest a diverse range of people, not only in the construction, but through our education programme. We have to make sure that in building the theatre again that we can get back to the authentic sounds that would have been produced at that time – the whole project has to be authentic and it is our aim to encourage a new type of tourism, a sustainable one over the day-tripper model at the moment.’

Among the partners involved in developing the project are Instituto Italiano Antonio Vivaldi, Shakespeare’s Globe, Venice Baroque Opera, the Academy of Ancient Music and Sotheby’s. Since its launch, the Group has targeted over 25 Venetian companies and the completed theatre will employ around 160 direct and indirect staff. The theatre will be offering apprenticeships and employment to Italy’s talented artisans. Singers, musicians and production staff will take opera scenes into schools and the wider community to place the theatre at the heart of a shared Venetian identity.

Image below - Paul Atkin and Jon Greenwood with model of Teatro San Cassiano (photographed by Janie Airey)

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