Little-known facts about the Bolshoi Theatre

The Bolshoi Theater. Source: Lori/Legion Media

The Bolshoi Theater. Source: Lori/Legion Media

The famed Bolshoi Theatre turns 240 years old on March 28. As it celebrates the anniversary of its existence, we asked Lidia Kharina, the Bolshoi Museum Director, to disclose some little-known facts from the history of Russia's principal theatre.

A tender to open a theatre

The history of the Bolshoi began in March 1776 when Prince Petr Urusov received permission from Empress Ekaterina II to open a public theatre in Moscow. Several years ago, however, it was learnt that the Empress had actually in 1776 issued what would today be called a tender to establish a public, not royal/court, theatre. Four applications were filed: one from a Frenchman, two from Italians and one from a Russian, Nikolai Titov. Titov won and founded an Opera House on the Yauza River, which staged its first performance on February 21, 1766. We can say that the history of the Bolshoi began with that Opera House.

Foreign bosses

Three years later Titov practically went bankrupt under the weight of his debts and was forced to sell the tsarist license for the theatre. It was bought by two Italians, Belconti and Cinti and, two years later, another Italian, Gratti, became the owner. Five years later it was Prince Urusov's turn to own the company and the Bolshoi's historical beginning dates to him.

The building that Urusov built was burnt down before the opening, so he decided to sell the enterprise to Englishman named Michael Maddox, a mathematician from Oxford who had been invited to Russia to teach the sciences to the Tsarevich Pavel Romanov. Maddox chose a plot of land where the Bolshoi stands today and built a three-storey brick building. The theatre was inaugurated in a solemn ceremony on December 30, 1780.


Maddox's theatre had a hall with almost one thousand seats, a stage and an orchestra pit. Directly over the stage there were boxes where "theatre lovers" sat, where almost everyone was from the nobility. They provided signals for the general audience to react. For example, if they showed two fingers, everyone would loudly applaud. These noblemen could be considered as predecessors of the claques.

A ball at the opera

The most famous balls at the opera now take place in Vienna. But the Viennese Opera House was built almost 100 years after the Bolshoi. Maddox had at first thought of creating ‘rest cabinets’ at the Bolshoi where, during the day, women could socialize and men could conduct negotiations. The Rotunda circular masquerade hall, where balls took place, was added to the theatre in 1788.

A French prima ballerina

As amazing as it sounds today, the Bolshoi's first prima ballerina was a Frenchwoman. Félicité-Virginie Hullin Sor arrived in Moscow on invitation with her guitarist and composer husband. She dazzled everyone at the premiere on January 6, 1825 after the reconstruction of the burnt Bolshoi Theatre.

Demolishing the Bolshoi

In 1918, Vladimir Lenin insisted on demolishing the Bolshoi Theatre. He said opera was a bourgeois art, it cost too much, and the performers were arrogant, they wanted money. Surprisingly, it was Joseph Stalin and Anatoly Lunacharsky, considered the Soviet Union’s first culture minister, who succeeded in changing Lenin's mind.

Soviet muses

The plafond with the inscription "Apollo and the muses" was built in the middle of the 19th century. The government held a competition in 1940 to recolour the muses in the "Soviet workers' style." Many famous artists, like Evgeny Lansere and Konstantin Yuon, participated in the competition. A bomb damaged the plafond at the beginning of WWII. It was subsequently restored and new peasant-muses were added by Pavel Korin.

Censorship behind the curtain

There was censorship in tsarist and in Soviet times. During the tsarist epoch there was a special collection of librettos exclusively by Russian authors. The composers could use only their works. In 1948 it so happened that all the theatre managers; from the general director to the chief conductor; were removed for having staged Vano Muradeli's The Great Friendship, in which Lenin first appeared as a character. The Communist Party accused everyone of formalism and distortion of historical facts: the libretto spoke of hostile relations between Russians, Georgians and Ossetians, in the 1920s.

Fleeing the USSR

Working at the Bolshoi was a dream for performers. In the Soviet Union, the theatre guaranteed the highest level of salary and other privileges to employees. However, there was one scandal involving an escape from the Bolshoi: in the summer of 1979, during a tour in New York, dancer Alexander Godunov sought political asylum there. Soviet authorities tried sending his wife, ballerina Lyudmila Vlasova, home to Moscow, but for three days the Americans did not let the plane take off. In the end, Vlasova was convinced to return to Russia and Godunov enjoyed a short career with the American Ballet Theatre.

The quadriga mystery

The famous Apollo ‘Quadriga’ has been on the theatre since 1825. The first was made of alabaster and broke during a fire. It first stood not facing the visitor but sideways. The current bronze quadriga is considered the work of sculptor Petr Klodt (the sculptor whose sculptures stand on the Anichkov Bridge in St. Petersburg). There are, however, no documents confirming this claim.

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