Erkel Theatre is 110 years old - The largest theatre in the country was originally opened as people's opera

Hungarian version of the article: 110 éves az Erkel Színház – Eredetileg Népoperaként nyílt meg az ország legnagyobb teátruma

Written by: Csaba Domonkos

December 7, 2021 at 9:00 AM

The Erkel Theatre was People's Opera, City Theatre, a variety show and the House of Hungarian Culture, later a cinema and then a scene of the Opera House. Its original façade and interiors have been rebuilt over time, and in 110 years, just one thing hasn't changed: it is still the largest permanent stone theatre in the country.

The original idea of the founders was to create a cheap theatre that would be affordable for the masses, where operas would be performed. The idea was not new, as they had tried an opera company for the people years ago in Budapest, the "Vígopera" [Comedy Opera], but this plan quickly failed.

The idea was revived by Dezső Márkus, the conductor of the Opera House, and the People's Opera was built in just nine months according to the plans of Dezső Jakab, Marcell Komor and Géza Márkus on a plot gifted by the capital. The company operated as a joint stock company, so it had to give successful, popular performances.

The original facade of the Erkel Theatre (Source: FSZEK Budapest Collection) 

The opening was held on Thursday evening, 7 December 1911. The new building was presented in the 17 December 1911 issue of the Vasárnapi Ujság as follows:

“The façade of the People's Opera is an impressive, revering image of Egyptian-influenced ancient Greek architecture, even from the side, but the upper windows windows, and the close-up of the stained glass, tell us that the new great pagan temple was modern. Large surfaces, all straight lines, all majestic simplicity.

Arriving from the Rákóczi Road (beyond the Luther Court) to the People's Opera, we find the main gate in front of us. Entering, we reach a huge wide lobby, where the entire audience of the theatre can comfortably fit in, without the life-threatening crowds elsewhere. (…) The auditorium is not exactly high: a short row of lodges protrudes on the two floors of the side walls, but the hall of the chair masses on the floors is all the more opposite to the stage. The People's Opera is the largest theatre in Budapest: 3,200 seats, twice as much as the People's Theater (largest until now). "The auditorium is as simple as it is unadorned: its whiteness is replaced only by the brown colour of the arched bench."

The auditorium after 1917 (Photo: FSZEK Budapest Collection)

The huge theatre, which can seat 3,200 spectators, had to meet significant conditions, as it was the only way that the capital gave the plot for free.  On the one hand, it had to contract a permanent Hungarian acting company, the language of the performances could only be Hungarian, and in addition to foreign plays, a lot of Hungarian works had to be shown. The price of the tickets was also maximized, the most expensive was 3 korona, while the cheapest was 50 krajcár, and it could not be raised for 3 years. The purpose of the People's Opera was defined in the October 1912 issue of the magazine Zene as follows:

With the revival of "Lucia di Lammermoor", the People's Opera completed a cultural mission. The "people" really need to be won with such light, catchy music for music culture and you won't find more suitable masters for this­ than Verdi, Donizetti, Lecocq, etc., all the more so because the Hungarian Royal opera has also neglected them. ”

Until the First World War, the People's Opera operated successfully, with a very rich repertoire, showing Wagner's complete oeuvre, Hungarian classics and almost all popular operas at that time.

However, the war dampened the enthusiasm of the broad masses for the grandiose opera performances, and the business went bankrupt. The People's Opera was closed on 15 May 1915, and in the following years only outside companies played in the huge building.

At that time, the profile of the building changed somewhat, as Gábor Falidi rented it out and transformed it into the City Theatre. He reduced the number of seats to two-thirds, to 2,400, but he was also unable to keep it alive for a long time. The tenants came after tenants, later its name also changed, and from 1932 it operated under the name Labriola Varieté. Despite frequent changes in the tenants, prestigious performances were held in the huge theatre building, and almost all the great singers of the age appeared on stage.

Between 1940 and 1945, the building was called the House of Hungarian Culture, and in addition to prestigious opera performances and concerts, it also hosted performances of the Gyöngyösbokréta movement that was unfolding at that time, but the Kolozsvár [Cluj-Napoca] theatre that fled to Budapest also played here for a few months.

The auditorium of the House of Hungarian Culture at the concert of the Budapest Choir in 1942 (Photo: Fortepan / No.: 71823)

After World War II, a cinema operated in the building for a short time, and from 1951 it came under the control of the Opera House. At that time, the building was remodelled, and the auditorium could be occupied by “only” 1,819 people.

At that time, they tried to improve its acoustics as well, but it was only permanently solved during the 1961 reconstruction, according to the plans of Iván Kotsis. From what was previously not a very good-sounding room, “one of the best-sounding rooms in the world” was created as defined on the Opera website.

The new facade in 1971 (Photo: Fortepan / No.: 21812)

At that time, the exterior of the building also changed, in front of the original façade there was a 13-meter-wide new part of the building, a superstructure, this is today's façade, so a spacious foyer was created. On the first floor, a new lounge bar with a two-floor ceiling height, and more than 400 square meters floorspace has been created.

The Erkel Theatre today (Photo: Balázs Both /

The theatre has been named after Ferenc Erkel since 1953, and the most popular operas were played in it, endearing this genre to a lot of people. However, the building was too old by 2007, when it had to be closed. Its existence has become uncertain, it has become a rehearsal site first, then a warehouse, and it has even been said that it would be demolished. In the end, however, a decision was made to renovate it, and it reopened on 7 November 2013, the anniversary of Ferenc Erkel's birth, the Hungarian Opera Day.

It was almost demolished, but in the end it was renovated again (Photo: Balázs Both /


Cover photo: The Facade of the People's Opera in the 10 December 1911 issue of Élet 

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