'Never has an art so suited the temperament of the people', observes Peter Ackroyd in his book Venice: Lion City. He is, of course, referring to opera. Florence might have given birth to this most extravagant and aristocratic of art forms, but it was in Venice that it was made available to the fee-paying public.
Opera was initially the preserve of the nobility, but two enterprising brothers from the Venetian Tron family saw there was a market beyond the confines of the court. In 1637 they opened the Teatro San Cassiano and duly charged the public a fee (quite a substantial one) for admission. It was an immediate success and two years later a second opera house opened. Within fifty years there was a total of seven in the city, which, between 1680 and 1743, staged 582 individual operas.
Nowadays, Venice has only one opera house, the Gran Teatro La Fenice, but it is one of the most famous in the world. It first saw life as the Teatro San Benedetto, but, in 1774, it burned to the ground. The theatre was rebuilt and reopened in 1792 under a new name, the Gran Teatro La Fenice. Fenice is Italian for phoenix, the legendary bird which obtains new life by rising from the ashes of its predecessor.
Fire struck once more in 1836 and the theatre was again rebuilt, but this time its name remained unchanged. One hundred and sixty years later, on January 29th, 1996, La Fenice burnt down for a third time. It was duly rebuilt, following the Italian mantra, com'era, dov'era (how it was, where it was). It reopened at the end of 2003 and the only change to the original 19th century design was an increase in the seating capacity from 840 to 1000.
The premieres of many famous operas have taken place at La Fenice, including Verdi's La Traviata, Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress and Britten's The Turn of the Screw.