Best Seat in the House

Opus Osm's Hana Škrdlová on getting the most out of a night at the National Theatre

This article originally appeared in Opus Osm, the free-of-charge, paperless daily magazine about Czech classical music, opera, and ballet, published in Prague for an international audience.

The National Theatre (Národní divadlo) in Prague is one of the best-known theatres in the Czech Republic. Its origins have more to do with the social structures of the day than modern acoustic and visual demands.

It has a large pit to accommodate an orchestra and an impressive stage for the extensive use of scenery. Its auditorium is traditionally U-shaped with balconies and galleries extending above the ground-floor seats.

Finding the best seats for a performance is a delicate balance of common sense, price, and insider information. The latter is best gleaned from those with personal experience.

To that end, we visited three opera productions: Aida, La Traviata, and Rusalka.

The most-expensive seats are the ground floor seats known as the stalls. They provide the closest view of the stage. However, given that the acoustics of the National Theatre building are excellent, and the character of opera itself, watching the sweat bead off a stout mezzo-soprano's nose may not be all that high on your list of priorities. Moreover, sitting close to the brass section of the orchestra may cause a certain degree of sound distortion. If you must sit on the floor, the fifth to ninth rows of the National Theatre are considered best.

In choosing among the numerous balconies and galleries above the stalls, knowing something of the history of the building is enlightening. Although the National Theatre is located on the banks of the Vltava river, facing a beautiful panorama of Prague Castle, this magnificent site used to belong to a former salt works. The cramped area and trapezium shape of the parcel posed a challenge to the architects.

Additionally, the provisional theatre it replaced had to become a constituent part of the National Theatre. The original specification that the theatre should have a capacity of 2,500 was almost immediately reduced to 1,800. After a devastating fire in 1881, this number was further reduced to 1,380.

The theatre then served for almost 100 years until its very bad condition forced extensive renovations between 1977 and 1983. During these renovations the number of seats was further reduced to 986. Even so, the boxes at the sides of the second balcony and areas of the galleries have considerably reduced visibility.

For the performance of Aida, we chose first-row seats in the first balcony. Visibility was excellent and we were in pleasant company -- a remarkable experience. Another advantage of the greater height was that we could observe events in the orchestra pit.

For the performance of La Traviata, we selected central seats in the first gallery but, unfortunately, not the first row. There was no problem with visibility and the acoustics were admirable, yet the performance was a test of endurance during which we looked forward more to the interval rather than the continuation of the performance. Reason: leg room. At 170 centimeters tall I found it quite inadequate, not to mention the suffering my escort had to endure with his 180-centimeter frame.

Having clued in to the fact that bruised knees detract from any performance, our next selection, for Rusalka, was first-row seats in the second gallery. We were offered opera-glasses at the cloakroom, which we took without hesitation, fearing that otherwise, from that dizzying height, we would only see performers dancing about like motes of dust. This fortunately turned out not to be the case; the occasionally used opera-glasses were returned after an enjoyable performance, knees intact.

When all is taken into consideration, the combination of good acoustics and good sightlines makes central positions in the balconies an ideal position. The central positions in the galleries still provide good acoustics and decent sightlines, but are not suitable for those with vertigo. Reaching the galleries alone may be considered an ordeal by some, as the cramped parcel the building was built on necessitated skimping on width, leading to seemingly endless, narrow twisting stairwells. Moreover, anyone of above-average proportions should consider first-row seats to avoid leg cramps. Regardless, a suitable concession between price and visibility is to be had in the upper tiers.

But don't let the problems of history deter you from visiting this architectural jewel -- just remember to stretch your legs.

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