The National Theatre is the prime stage of the Czech Republic. It is also one of the symbols of national identity and a part of the European cultural space, with a tradition spanning more than 130 years. It is the bearer of the national cultural heritage, as well as a space for free artistic creation.
The National Theatre (Czech: Národní divadlo) in Prague is known as the alma mater of Czech opera, and as the national monument of Czech history and art.
The National Theatre belongs to the most important Czech cultural institutions, with a rich artistic tradition, which helped to preserve and develop the most important features of the nation–the Czech language and a sense for a Czech musical and dramatic way of thinking.
Today, the National Theatre is made up of four artistic companies – the Opera, Drama, Ballet and Laterna magika. It artistically manages four stages – the three historical buildings: the National Theatre (1883), the State Opera (1888), and the Estates Theatre (1783), and the more recently opened New Stage (1983). The Opera, Drama and Ballet companies perform not only titles from the ample classical legacy, in addition to Czech works, they also focus on contemporary international creation.
The National Theatre was opened for the first time on 11 June 1881, to honour the visit of Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria. Bedřich Smetana's opera Libuše was given its world premiere, conducted by Adolf Čech. Another 11 performances were presented after that. Then the theatre was closed down to enable the completion of the finishing touches. While this work was under way a fire broke out on 12 August 1881, which destroyed the copper dome, the auditorium, and the stage of the theatre.
The fire was seen as a national catastrophe and was met with a mighty wave of determination to take up a new collection: Within 47 days a million guldens were collected. This national enthusiasm, however, did not correspond to the behind-the-scenes battles that flared up following the catastrophe. Architect Josef Zítek was no longer in the running, and his pupil architect Josef Schulz was summoned to work on the reconstruction. He was the one to assert the expansion of the edifice to include the block of flats belonging to Dr. Polák that was situated behind the building of the Provisional Theatre. He made this building a part of the National Theatre and simultaneously changed somewhat the area of the auditorium to improve visibility. He did, however, take into account with utmost sensitivity the style of Zítek's design, and so he managed to merge three buildings by various architects to form an absolute unity of style.