Mozart reportedly shocked the Viennese when he once scoffed at his Austrian patrons, claiming that "Praguers understand me." His trips to the outpost in the Austrian Empire became the subject of music folklore. His defiant 1787 premiere of Don Giovanni is the high watermark in Prague's cultural history -- not that there haven't been fine performances since. Czech composers Antonín Dvorák and Bedrich Smetana each moved the resurgent nation to tears in the 19th century, while Bohuslav Martinu and Leos Janácek ushered in a new industrial-age sound to classical compositions in the first half of the 20th century. You can still hear many works in grand halls throughout Prague; they're worth a visit just to immerse yourself in the grandeur of the setting, let alone the musical accompaniment.
Dressing the Part -- Czechs generally are a casual live-and-let-live people. Ex-president Havel, who had collected an extensive official wardrobe, is etched in everyone's memory as the dissident playwright wearing old frayed sweaters. Journalists often show up for news conferences with the president or the prime minister in T-shirts. But if you plan on attending the opera or theater, proper evening wear is highly recommended. There may be no worse faux pas in Bohemia than dressing bohemian for a classical performance. For men: a dark suit or at least a coat and tie. For women: a midlength dress or pants.
Prague is a great opera town, though the standards don't quite reach New York, London, or Vienna levels. The good news is that opera here is much more affordable and tickets are usually easier to get. Prices at the State Opera, for example, range from 200Kc up to 1,150Kc for the best seat in the house.
Prague has three main venues for opera. The primary stage is the Prague State Opera (Státní opera Praha), at the top of Wenceslas Square, situated in a beautiful neo-Renaissance building blighted only by its unfortunate location across a major highway from the square. To find it, look to the left of the National Museum beside a modern building that used to house the headquarters of Prague-based Radio Free Europe.
The State Opera's repertoire is focused mainly on Italian classics, though a few Czech favorites are included each season. These are highly enjoyably performances, though local critics have been tough on the opera in recent years, calling its staging of Puccini's Tosca, for example, solid but staid and without sufficient emotion. Verdi's works like La Traviata and Aïda have also received mixed reviews.
The National Theater (Národní divadlo) is also a prime opera venue. This is home to the National Opera, and as you might expect the repertoire leans more toward home-grown productions such as Smetana's peppy Prodaná nevesta (The Bartered Bride) or Janácek's inscrutable but interesting Kát'a Kabanová. The choreography is fun for the whole family, and explanations of the plot are provided in English. Once in a while, internationally acclaimed soloists stop by.
A third main venue, The Estates' Theater (Stavovské divadlo), is wholly affiliated with the National Theater and as such mostly focuses on dramatic works performed in Czech. During some summers, however, private troupes put on performances of Mozart's Don Giovanni aimed primarily at tourists and these are worth looking out for. Other times of year, the theater occasionally stages wonderful and rare works of baroque opera.
Prague is truly a great city for classical music, and a trip here is a rare chance to hear works by Czech composers such as Antonín Dvorák or Bedrich Smetana and other central Europeans performed in their natural setting.
The capital boasts three full orchestras and a virtual army of smaller chamber groups that perform regularly in churches and palaces around town. On any given day during the season (Sept-May) there may be as many as a dozen classical performances going on.
The high point of the classical music season is the annual Prague Spring Music Festival (www.festival.cz), which draws performers and music fans from around the world to Prague for 2 weeks from mid-May until the beginning of June. The main performances are held at the Art Nouveau Smetana Hall at the Municipal House (Obecní dum), though concerts are held at other venues around town. Tickets for festival concerts range from 400Kc to more than 3,000Kc and are available in advance through Ticketpro or in person at Hellichova 18, Prague 1 (tel. 257-310-414; www.festival.cz).
The country's main orchestra, the Czech Philharmonic (www.ceskafilharmonie.cz), has an international reputation and performs at the stunning neo-Renaissance Rudolfinum in Staré Mesto. The Philharmonic has gone through some turbulent years in the recent past and as this book was being researched, it was currently without a conductor. Nevertheless, the performances are of a high standard and programs usually include at least one regional composer you're not likely to hear during a visit to your hometown symphony. Tickets range from around 400Kc to 600Kc for the best seats.
The Philharmonic's main rival, the Prague Symphony Orchestra, known locally by the initials "FOK" (www.fok.cz), has positioned itself as a fresher alternative, with a frequently livelier and more daring repertoire, and many more modern composers on the roster. The FOK performs regularly at the Smetana Hall of the Municipal House (Obecní dum), and this is where you'll find the company's box office and scheduling information.
The Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra is primarily a studio band but does make regular concert appearances. The group plays sufficiently good versions of classical and contemporary works in the Rudolfinum or Obecní dum.
Two solo Czech violinists to look out for when booking your tickets: the veteran virtuoso Josef Suk, a great-grandson of Dvorák, who still plays with crisp, if not exact, precision; and his flashier heir apparent, Václav Hudecek, who attacks every stanza with passion and bleeds through his bow.
In the years since the Velvet Revolution, Prague has developed a rapidly growing cottage industry of informal church concerts. Initially, these concerts were performed by music students and journeymen musicians as a way of picking up some spare cash. Nowadays, church concerts are big business and wherever you go, you're likely to see posters and flyers advertising the next extravaganza, featuring well-known and popular composers like Bach, Handel, Vivaldi and, naturally, Mozart.
Church concerts can be great when done well and a real treat, combining a lovely baroque setting with music that was composed precisely for that kind of setting. However, like many other things in Prague's tourist world, caveat emptor. Ticket prices for these informal church concerts have crept up so high in recent years, anywhere from 200Kc to 500Kc, that the more expensive concerts now cost as much as or more than a good seat at the Czech Philharmonic, and the quality of the playing is likely to be vastly inferior.
Be wary of touts, often dressed like Mozart and offering a menu of concerts, or aggressive promoters that seem more intent on getting you in the door than delivering a quality performance. The venues listed below can be counted on to hold concerts that provide good value for money.
Because of its extravagant beauty, the Chapel of Mirrors in the Klementinum, Mariánské námestí 5, Prague 1 (tel. 222-220-879; www.klementinum.com), is a favorite chamber concert venue. Almost every evening a classical concert highlights strings, winds, or the organ.
The Church of St. Nicholas (Kostel sv. Mikuláse), Staromestské námestí, Prague 1 (tel. 224-190-994), is one of the city's finest baroque gems. Chamber concerts and organ recitals are popular here, usually starting in the late afternoon, and the acoustics are terrific. There's also a lot to look at: rich stucco decoration, sculptures of saints, and a crown crystal chandelier.
Prague's other Church of St. Nicholas (Chrám sv. Mikuláse), in Malá Strana, at Malostranské námestí 1 (tel. 257-534-215; www.psalterium.cz), is another beautiful baroque venue for early evening concerts. The music normally starts at 6pm and runs about 60 minutes. Admission costs 490Kc for adults, and 300Kc for students.
Of all the musical arts in Prague, dance is the most accessible. From classical ballet to innovative modern dance, there are several options each week that demonstrate an enjoyable mix of grace, beauty, and athleticism. The National Theater Ballet troupe has seen most of its top talent go west, but it still has a deep roster as the country's premier troupe. Beyond the classical favorites at the venerable National Theater's main stage, the ballet's choreographer, Libor Vaculík, has come up with dance twists on films like Some Like It Hot and Psycho next door at the modern, comfortable theater-in-the-round, Nová scéna. Vaculík's works are popular, making this one of the most financially secure dance companies in Eastern Europe. Tickets range from 200Kc to 550Kc and are available from the National Theater box office.
Divadlo Ponec, at Husitská 24a (tel.222-721-531; www.divadloponec.cz) in the outlying district of Zizkov, is home to more progressive modern dance and each year in June hosts the city's popular Tanec Praha modern dance festival. Performances are held most nights of the week and tickets cost around 200Kc. You can buy them through Ticketpro or at the theater box office (open Mon-Fri 5-8pm as well as 1 hr. before performances).
Drama has a long tradition in Czech life. Its enormous influence was reconfirmed during the revolutionary events of 1989, when theaters became the focal points and strategy rooms for the opposition.
Most of the city's theater offerings are in Czech, but a few English-language expatriate troupes have taken root and stage performances whenever they are ready -- or not -- at various locations. Check The Prague Post (on newsstands or at www.praguepost.com) for the latest listings.
Czech productions by local and translated authors are staged almost every night. The most highly respected theaters are the gorgeous Vinohrady Theater (Divadlo na Vinohradech), Námestí Míru 7, Prague 2 (tel. 224-257-601; www.dnv-praha.cz), the former workplace of ex-president Václav Havel's wife, Dagmar, who made a final performance as Queen Kristina soon after becoming first lady. The Theater on the Balustrade (Divadlo Na Zábradlí), Anenské nám. 5, Prague 1 (tel. 222-868-868; www.nazabradli.cz), is the place where Havel got his start as a playwright. Tickets, usually costing between 100Kc and 250Kc, should be bought in advance. Simultaneous translation into English is sometimes offered through earphones provided by the theaters, but the translator reads all parts from a script (usually without much dramatic verve). Ask when booking if translation is offered.
Two Prague theaters deserve special mention for their unusual commitment to performing dramatic works in their original language, including occasional English and American plays. They also both regularly schedule engaging concerts, performance-art pieces, and dance, and are worth checking out during your visit. Divadlo Archa is at Na Porící 26 in Nové Mesto, Prague 1 (tel. 221-716-333; www.archatheatre.cz). The box office is open Monday to Friday from 10am to 6pm and performances usually start at 8pm.
The second theater, Svandovo divadlo, at Stefánikova 57 in Smíchov, Prague 5 (tel. 257-318-666; www.svandovodivadlo.cz), focuses on international dramatic works and dance and all performances in the main hall are subtitled in English. The box office is open Monday to Friday from 11am to 7pm, Saturday and Sunday 5 to 7pm.