Slovak National Theatre

A capital city cannot be short of representative buildings and institutions – one of these is undoubtedly a National Theatre. We can be lucky that we have many first-rate actors and directors here in Slovakia, that always able to lure as to theatre performance. Ever since we were little kids, schools organized excursions and visits to regional and county theatres. It is true, however, that many of us may not like it and as little kids we were bored there, but dozens of stylishly dressed people in front of two distinctive buildings in Bratislava assure us that love to theatres may display in adulthood.

What comes to your mind when we say National Theatre? Is it a historical building at Hviezdoslav´s Square? A New Building near the statue of M.R. Štefánik at Danube riverbank? Or famous actors, singers, and dancers? The truth is, that all of these create an undoubted part of our national theatre scene. 

But let´s go nicely step by step and let´s go visit a place where it all started.

The Historical Building dominating the Hviezdoslav´s Square wasn´t the first to host theatre. From 1776 there stood a City Theatre, which tradition preserved until these days, and you can visit it few streets farther under the fitting name P.O. Hviezdoslav´s City Theatre. Back in those days the square didn´t have the name of our famous writer but it fulfilled the same function as today – it was a heart of the town, where the mostly higher and middle class was meeting in search of cultural life. Today, the door is opened wide to everyone, well only with the purchased tickets 😊. However, this wasn´t a commonplace in the past – a theatre visit was a social event and one had to prepare for it properly. It is good to say that we cannot speak about the national theatre at that time as the Slovak Nation was still politically forming. This, however, couldn´t derogate Bratislava´s cultural prestige and effort for its uplifting. 

These and other efforts led to a construction of new building in 1886 by two architects Ferdinand Fellner and Herman Hellmer. These two constructors have already created several successful buildings in historical metropolises like Budapest, Sofia, or Zürich. If we would like to learn more about the style of the building, it won´t be enough to say it is “historical” but more appropriate is to describe it as “eclectic”. But what does this word describe and how is this style manifested at the building of SND (Slovak National Theatre). It describes the imitating and mixing of varied architectonical elements from various architectural styles that altogether creates unique new units. At the Historical Building of SND you can find, in particular, elements of Baroque and Renaissance that reflect the then desire for grandiosity. Did you know that the interior of the building was originally lit by gas lamps? A safety inspection wouldn´t allow it nowadays but back then it was a modern and practical solution. Exterior was adequately ceremonial so even without knowing how does it look inside, you could rightly assume that it is a theatre worth the importance of Bratislava. A Ganymede´s Fountain beautifies the exterior of the Historical Building since1888 and you can admire it during your walk through the town. The fountain was designed directly for the theatre by the Bratislava sculptor Viktor Tilgner. It depicts the myth of a beautiful boy Ganymede who was kidnaped by Zeus in the figure of a giant eagle. The author wanted to interconnect the Greek mythology with Bratislava and therefore there are four little boys standing at the pedestal and holding four types of fish from Danube River together with aquatic animals typical for this river – crayfish, frogs, and turtles. Because the theatre is not primarily about animals but about humans, the front façade is decorated by the busts of five renowned artists. Beside the worldwide famous artists William Shakespeare, J.W. Goethe, and Franz List there are also two Hungarian writers Katon and Vörösmarty (who is now replaced by W.A. Mozart). This partially predicted the theatre performances brought to stage. It would a vain effort to searched for Slovak language on stage - the stage belonged mostly to hosting German and Hungarian companies. 

When you look at the top of the building, you can still see there a group of statues of the Muse of Comedy Thalia and the putti (small chubby boys) holding the symbols of tragedy and comedy. Exterior and interior of the building were representative enough but after all, there came the time for a change hand in hand with progressing Slovak National Revival and need for having national institutions, not only city institutions. This resulted in 1920 in creating national theatre company a step by step adapted for the growing public interest – the theatre was no longer a matter of elite but created a part f national identity and pride. 

The equipment was also modernized to keep up with the times and of the biggest reconstructions took place after the Second World War, when the building was partially damaged. Another extensive reconstruction was needed between 70´s and 80´s and luckily preserved the historical elements so we can now admire the Old Historical building in almost original appearance. The fact that this building is a listed historical building contributed to its preservation. However, the management had the opportunity to make necessary modifications in the auditorium for the better comfort of visitors and the lack of space was also skilfully solved by new extension where you can find offices, storerooms, dressing rooms and rehearsal studios. Today the Historical Building stages mostly ballet and opera but it also annually hosts the prestigious social event - Ball in the Opera.

The New Building of the Slovak National Theatre is equally interesting. Opened in 2007, located at the representative and lucrative place in the newer city centre, neighbouring with the Danube and Milan Rastislav Štefánik. The truth is there is also a shopping centre but at least you can have a dinner before you head to the theatre. 😊 The place for the construction of the New Building of SND was established long before they started to think about a shopping centre. The first decision has been made in 1961 – initially the building was intended to be placed more in the historical centre but didn´t want to sacrifice the old historical buildings so they opted for a decent place on riverbank. 

Fifty-three projects joined the competition for the new design of SND and in this wide competition architects Martin Kusý, Pavol Baňák and Peter Bauer won. Realisation was difficult as well and 27 years past since the announcement of the winning design until the opening of the building - this was, unsurprisingly, caused by the lack of finances. This long construction time caused that for some time it was known as “the oldest new-build”. But from the first sight the building gives an expression of massiveness and mightiness, with even more space in the interior. The building has seven floors, three main theatre halls and more than two thousand rooms! We, as the visitors, usually get into the Opera and Ballet Stage, the Drama Stage, The Studio or the Blue Saloon. Just as its older sibling, the New Building has it own fountain in front of the entrance called the Dancer, but this time with no mythological inspiration, on the contrary it´s simple, modern, and matching with the new design and purpose of the theatre. 

The facing of the building is from the typical Slovak stone – the Spiš travertine and inside you can admire the Carrara  marble. The New Building has the feel of modern and timelessly and a little but industrial as the opposite to the historical Old Building. 

By the way, did you know that the building has its own theatre spirit? The Drama actors took the Genius Loci from their former engagement at P.O. Hviezdoslav´s City Theatre. As it seems he likes his new home as the SND is still very popular place not only amongst Bratislava people but also among all Slovak people proud of our culture  and also among foreign visitors who want to know our culture. 

The theatres have their door opened for everyone and it´s only up to us what performance we will visit. We hope that whatever your choice will be, it will become an unforgettable experience.