‘The Opera’ by Henning Larsen

Copenhagen Opera House by HLA

Copenhagen Opera House

The Opera is the most imposing and impressive monumental building of modern Copenhagen. And it is the outcome of controversy. 

By Danes, the ‘Copenhagen Opera House’ is almost invariably just called ‘The Opera’ (in Danish ‘Operaen’).

A long runup

For decades, Copenhagen couldn’t agree on a new cultural building for music or theatre. But within 5 years Copenhagen opened no less than 3, all of a very high functional standard. And all by prominent architects.

  • The Opera in 2005,
  • The Royal Playhouse (across the water) in 2008, and
  • The Danish Radio Concert Hall in 2009 (designed by French Jean Nouvel).

The richest man in Denmark, Mærsk Mc-Kinney Møller, was the head of the Danish shipping company, Mærsk. Born in 1913, Møller was an old man when in 2000 he offered to fund the building of an opera. So one can only assume, he was eager to secure his legacy with this spectacular and costly gift to the Danes. 

However, the gift came with two conditions. 1) this prominent location (lining up with the Royal Palace directly across the water), and 2) the internationally acclaimed, Danish architect, Henning Larsen, was to design the building. Møller knew Larsen from collaborations on previous building projects.

These conditions cut short the typical public process involving city planning and architectural competitions. Which are normally in place for important projects to secure common and collective interests and to qualify the end result.

Citizens, planners and other architects protested the bending of rules in vain. Politicians couldn’t decline such a generous offering on their watch, so they accepted the gift on the given conditions.

And GO!

After decades of discussions, an accelerated construction process started. And soon enough a dispute arose between the builder and his architect about the architecture. The builder forced his will upon the design to the degree to which the architect later denounced the building. It was not Henning Larsen’s architecture. The two old authoritative personalities developed a poisonous animosity between them.

Opening the gift

On that background, it’s actually surprising that the Opera House didn’t turn out much worse.

Looking at the end result, the Opera House is a statement. And knowing the background, one knows that it’s a manifestation of one rich man’s ambitions and success, wealth and influence.

The Danish social culture is thoroughly egalitarian, homogenous and group-oriented. So many consider it unusual and out of place to stand out or to proclaim any sort of special status. Or to build a monument.

Others (mostly non-architects, though) find it liberating to finally have something monumental to point to in a country with little appreciation for grandeur and monuments. 

The builder lived to open the building in 2005, and beyond that to the age of 98, when he died in 2012.

My main concern with this building is the scale and context of it. It appears to me like a spaceship that has landed and now dominates the city, including the royal palace. Directly from across the water, by the royal pace, the main facade looks good, though. But from anywhere else, the Opera is a massive box with an unreasonable, protruding roof. 

A few times, a competition of cliff-diving has taken place from the roof, which is, of course, cool and spectacular. 

Another cool feature is the three light globes hanging in the foyer. With their complex geometry and colour play, they are a real touch of beauty and fascination. These are designed by Olafur Eliasson.

The functional qualities as an opera are said to be second to none. The backstage is huge and highly advanced, so multiple shows can run in the same period. Acoustics are world-class, I’m told. But I have to admit, I’m too simple-minded to appreciate it… I’m sorry, opera lovers!

Whether you like opera or the building or not, please make the comparison with the Royal Playhouse across the water. 



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