The baroque theatre is one of Český Krumlov’s hidden gems. It is the oldest baroque theatre in the world that has survived and remained unchanged over time. While most of the theatres of that time have burned down because of the use of fire in theatrical plays or have been adapted to modern times, at the Český Krumlov theatre time has literally stood still. This makes it a unique place to visit, though it isn’t always open to visitors unfortunately. And although the castle theatre is part of the most visited tourist attraction in the city, only a few visitors know about this beautiful place. In this blog we’ll tell you exactly why you should visit the theatre and of course how to do it.
The oldest baroque theatre in the world
The origins of the Český Krumlov Castle Theatre go back to the time when the Von Eggenberg family lived in the castle. In 1680-1682 Prince Johan Christiaan I von Eggenberg had a theatre built next to his castle and he housed his own theatre group in the castle. The seventeenth-century castle theatre was a basic building made of wood and only got its current shape a hundred years later. The Von Eggenbergs died out and eventually the castle came into the hands of the wealthy Schwarzenbergs.
Prince Joseph Adam of Schwarzenberg was responsible for a large-scale renovation from 1765 to 1766, creating an extravagant theatre that wouldn’t even have looked out of place in Vienna. He wanted his court to be able to measure up to the imperial court in Vienna and that his castle theatre should match up with great love for the opera. He brought in the best performers to sing and play his theatre and he hired an enormous staff. He even had talented children of his castle staff trained in Italy to come and work in his theatre.
That big staff was needed to be able to run the large-scale theatre performances the prince had in mind. There were people to look after the real horses and other animals that were needed for the play, but especially for the special machinery. The theatre had a very ingenious system to do set changes, there were false doors in the stage floor, children could fly through the air dressed up as angels, sound effects could imitate weather sounds, etc. And all of these systems are still working today! During a visit to the theatre, you’ll get a look under the stage to see where all the machinery is and how it works. Did you know that in the eighteenth-century baroque theatre in Český Krumlov, they were able to change the set in ten to twelve seconds with this ingenious system?
The theatre was used for over thirty years by Prince Josef Adam, who, incidentally, also climbed on stage himself as he was a good opera singer. He also had Český Krumlov’s famous Cloak Bridge built, so that he and his family could easily walk from the castle to the princely lodge in the theatre using the covered bridge. A curtain was placed in front of the beautiful family lodge, with which the prince could express his displeasure. When the prince closed the curtain, the evening was cut short and everyone left. The play then did not meet the prince’s Viennese quality standards.
As part of his spectacular parties that could last up to a week, the theatre had performances of up to eight hours. Those parties are still alive today during the annual baroque festival in June. During that festival and another Baroque-related festival in the fall, the theatre is used exactly as it was in the times of Prince Josef Adam. Historians ensure that only operas are chosen that were actually performed in this theatre at that time. The actors wear replicas of the old costumes – 600 original costumes have been preserved! – and the 250-year-old decors are used as they were used back then.
Why is Český Krumlov’s theatre the only one that has stood the test of time? Most theatres went up in flames in the eighteenth century due to the use of fire, candles and even fireworks during the plays. To prevent such a thing from happening here, the baroque theatre of Český Krumlov always had water tons available in the wings and a large fountain was built right next to the theatre for even more water within reach. And the Cloak Bridge to the castle we mentioned, had some sort of metal fire doors to prevent a possible fire from spreading to the castle. Luckily, none of this was ever tested and the theatre never had to deal with a fire.
But of course it wasn’t the only Baroque theatre that didn’t burn down. Most theatres were adapted to modern tastes and technology in the following centuries. But time stood still in Český Krumlov. Simply because the castle inhabitants after Prince Josef Adam were not theatre lovers like he was. And the Schwarzenbergs also considered the baroque theatre a bit too big and they created a more modest family theatre in their Hlluboka castle, not far from Krumlov. As a result, the Baroque theatre wasn’t used for ages. Until it was restored by the Soviet government in 1966 for folk festivals. That restoration is still in progress and about 70% of the theater has been restored now.
Český Krumlov now also has a modern theatre, again with all kinds of modern technology. The castle garden has a large open-air theatre that can rotate 360 °C. However, this is not in accordance with UNESCO’s demands, as part of a UNESCO listing is the requirement that no modern adjustments are made and the site remains historically accurate. A deadline has been set for the theatre to be demolished. Otherwise, Krumlov would be removed from the World Heritage List.
How to visit the Český Krumlov theatre
The theatre is open to visitors and not just during the baroque festivals in Krumlov. you can book a guided tour of about 50 minutes. A guide will tell you more about the theatre history and the machinery, you will go under the stage to see the eighteen-century technology and watch a video of a play during the Baroque festival to see how a set changes and other special effects looked like. A ticket costs 250 Czech crowns (just under €10) and can be bought at the castle ticket office.
We heard that the tours are only available during the high season and even then, not every day. The groups are also quite small. So if you want to make sure to get a hold of a ticket, you could book it online in advance. We bought our ticket online two days before on the official castle website.
You can find the theater in the fifth courtyard of the castle, between the gardens and the Cloak Bridge. That’s also where the tour starts and you need to be before the tour starts.