In 1890 three Bulgarian musicians – Dragomir Kazakov, Ivan Slavkov and Angel Bukoreshtliev, set up the first opera company in Bulgaria as part of the Metropolitan Drama and Opera Company. The repertoire of 12 entire opera productions and extracts of 11 operas, with the participation of Bulgarians, Czechs and Italians with piano accompaniment, the orchestra of the 6th Infantry Regiment and the chorus of the Italian Choral Society met an unexpected success.
In May 1891 the Drama division was established as separate company under the name “Salza i smyah” (Tears and laughter), and the Opera division became the Metropolitan Bulgarian Opera. Due to financial difficulties and lack of support from the state, on the 1st of October 1892 with a decree, the dissolution of the company was announced. In the beginning of the 20th century the interest in the opera gradually increased again and the public opinion was ready for the creation of an opera company in Sofia.
The article of Petko Naumov “Opera” initiated a long discussion “for” and “against” the Bulgarian opera. His words published in newspaper Den in 1908 sound prophetical: “More confidence is needed, gentlemen pessimists, more respect to the musicians dedicated entirely to a cause that will make Bulgaria proud”. Eventually the supporters of the opera art prevailed.
On October 18th, 1908 the Bulgarian Opera Fellowship gave its first trial performance – extracts from “Faust” of Gounod and “Troubadour” of Verdi. The company “Opera Fellowship”: was registered officially under the names of Dragomir Kazakov, Konstantin Mihaylov – Stoyan, Ivan Vulpe, Dimitar Popivanov and Stoyan Nikolov. Other members of the company were: Zlatka Kurteva, Bogdana Gyuzeleva-Vulpe, Mara Vasileva, Olga Orlova, Doychinka Kolarova, Zhelyu Minchev, Panayot Dimitrov, the conductors Heinrich Wisner, Alois Matsak, Todor Hadzhiev, the chorus masters Dobri Hristov and Konstantin Ramadanov.
From the end of 1908 a resident chorus was established. On June 5th, 1909, the first performance of an entire opera was given – Pagliacci from Leoncavallo. Together with the classic world known operas, the first Bulgarian opera works were also put on stage – Siromahkinya from Emanuil Manolov, Kamen and Tsena from Ivan Ivanov and Václav Kaucký, Borislav by Maestro Georgi Atanasov and Tahir Begovitsa by Dimitar Hadzhigeorgiev. The company of the Fellowship gradually enlarged with the names of eminent Bulgarian singers Petar Raychev, Stefan Makedonski, Hristina Morfova, Ana Todorova, Mariya Milkova – Zolotovich, Tsvetan Karolev, Petar Zolotovich, Diana Georgieva, Penka Toromanova, Mariya Mitovich, and others; the productions were directed by Dragomir Kazakov, Konstantin Mihaylov-Stoyan, Petar Raychev, Hristina Morfova,, the dances were choreographed by Aleksandar Aleksandrov, Pesho Radoev, Ruska Koleva. The props and the costumes were designed by the founder of the Bulgarian scenography Aleksandar Milenkov. At first the performances were with the accompaniment of military brass bands but in 1920 the first resident orchestra was established of 32 musicians, with Sasha Popov, Todor Lechev, Nikola Stefanov, Arseni Lechev and others among them.
By 1922 the Bulgarian Opera Fellowship continued its activities thanks to the resolute and enthusiastic work of the artists thus proving that Bulgaria was a fruitful ground for the art of opera. The continuous striving for recognition was crowned with success – in 1922 the Fellowship became a State organization under the name of National Opera. The artistic management was in the hands of the conductors: Moysey Zlatin, Maestro Atanasov, Todor Hadzhiev, the directors Dragomir Kazakov, Nikolay Vekov and Hristo Popov. In 1923 Petko Naumov became Director of the opera house for several years.
Despite the continuing difficulties, ups and downs, and the crisis to overcome, the opera company affirmed its prestige, the repertoire continued to enlarge its variety and the principal lines of development were defined with works of the Western European classics, Russian and Bulgarian composers, the level of professionalism continued to improve along with the ambition to create an ensemble theatre company. In the 20s and 30s a number of singers stood out: ElisavetaYovovich, Tsvetana Tabakova, Katya Spiridonova, Konstantsa Kirova, Sabcho Sabev, Ilka Popova, Mihail Popov, Pavel Elmazov, Mihail Lyutskanov, Georgi Hinchev, Ivan Petrov, followed later by Nadya Todorova, Siyka Petrova, Lyuben Minchev, Evgeniy Zhdanovsky and many others.
The singers from the next generations learned from them the main principles of the vocal and acting art. Ivan Vulpe laid the foundations of the Bulgarian musical pedagogy and some of the eminent singers alongside with their stage career worked as vocal tutors. In the 30s the following distinguished singers were members of the company: Hristo Brambarov, Todor Mazarov, Tanya Tsokova, Rayna Stoyanova, Konstantin Karenin, Lyubomir Vishegonov, later followed by Nadya Afeyan, Virginiya Popova, Georgi Belev, Stoyan Kolarov, Dimitar Nenkov, Kosta Getsov, Dimitar Kozhuharov, Ivan Maslarov and many others.
Significant imprint left the work of the conductors Moysey Zlatin, who affirmed the tradition of performances of Russian classical operas in the repertoire, Isay Dobroven, Yuriy Pomerantsev, Hermann Stange, Emil Cooper, Asen Dimitrov, Sasha Popov, Venedikt Bobchevski, Atanas Margaritov. Asen Naydenov distinguished himself with his impressive talent and later he would be responsible for the artistic management of the theatre. The productions were directed by Iliya Arnaudov, Dragan Kardzhiev, Hristo Popov; Pencho Georgiev, Preslav Karshovski, Ivan Penkov, Asen Popov and the expert Aleksandar Milenkov were scenographers. Vladimir Vasilev, Konstantin Sagaev, Petko Staynov were some of the directors that had stood at the head of the company.
Along with the growth of the opera company, its ballet company was established and presented its first independent performance in 1928 – Coppélia, set by Atanas Petrov - founder of professional ballet in Bulgaria. Thrilling events for all opera enthusiasts and artists were the guest appearance of Feodor Chaliapin in the productions of Boris Godunov and Knyaz Igor, the performances of the Parisian Opéra Comique and San Carlo Theatre from Naples. Among the hundreds of premieres several productions stood apart: Knyaz Igor, Boris Godunov, Khovanshchina, Sadko, Ivan Susanin, Kitezh, Sorochintsy Fair, Tiefland (The Lowlands), Turandot, Werther, Don Pasquale, Lohengrin, Le jongleur de Notre-Dame, Don Carlos, Prodaná nevěsta (The Bartered Bride), L'Orfeo, Hérodiade, Das Rheingold (The Rhinegold). Some of the classical Bulgarian operas were created: Gergana by Maestro Atanasov, Tsar Kaloyan by Pancho Vladigerov, Yaninite devet bratya (Yana’s nine brothers) by Lyubomir Pipkov, Zhensko tsarstvo (Petticoat government) and Salambo by Veselin Stoyanov.
The talent and determination of the founders of the Sofia Opera propelled its development and only for the brief period of 35 years the company succeeded to draw level with theatres with century-old history.
After the bombing raids of 1944 the opera house briefly interrupted its activities. In 1945 the great Bulgarian composer Lyubomir Pipkov became the Director of the Opera house, in 1946 Asen Naydenov was appointed for Principal Conductor, Artistic Secretary was the composer Georgi Dimitrov, conductors – Asen Dimitrov, Atanas Margaritov, and directors – Boyan Danovski and Iliya Ivanov, Principal Choreographer – Atanas Petrov. The increase of the state subsidies in the years following 1945 gave significant push to the company to reaffirm its positions. Opportunities opened to fill in the missing positions in the different departments and to focus on raising the level of stage production. Apart from Bulgarian artists, a number of eminent masters of the Russian opera traditions participated in the realization of the productions: Pavel Rumyantsev, Evgeni Sokovnin and Boris Pokrovksi, the choreographers Yuriy Grigorovich, Vahtang Chabukiani, many painters, pedagogues, etc. The productions War and piece and especially Khovanshchina of Boris Pokrovksi were presented by the company at several tours abroad before the European audience thus demonstrating the high level of artistic performance.
At the end of the 40s in the theatre appeared new names of conductors, singers, ballet-dancers, scenographers, most of them trained or specialized in the USSR, and some in the renowned European music institutions. During this period the directors Mihail Hadzhimishev and Petar Shtarbanov set their first productions followed by Emil Boshnakov and Nikolay Nikolov. In different periods of time a number of conductors collaborate with them: Emil Karamanov, Konstantin Iliev, Radosveta Boyadzhieva, Dobrin Petkov, Vasil Kazandzhiev, etc. Long lasting and fruitful was the presence of the conductors: Ruslan Raychev, Ivan Marinov, Mihail Angelov, Boris Hinchev, Nedyalko Nedyalkov; the chorus masters Dimitar Goncharov, Angel Samokovliev, Lyuben Kondov, Lyuben Pintev, Lyubomir Karoleev, Hristo Kazandhziev; the scenographers Asen Popov, Neva and Nikola Tuszsuzovi, Ana Hadzhimisheva, Mariana Popova, Konstantin Radev, Boyana and Radostin Chomakovi.
A number of talented artists – singers, conductors, painters, ballets-dancers, répétiteurs, accompanists, technical crews and administrative personnel devoted their efforts to the cause of the opera art and their personal career successes contributed to the general prosperity of the opera company. Alongside with the renowned artists Ilka Popova, Katya Spiridonova, Siyka Petrova, Nadya Todorova, Tanya Tsokova, Hristo Brambarov, Mihail Popov, Mihail Lyutskanov, Sabcho Sabev, Lyuben Minchev, Pavel Elmazov, Georgi Hinchev, and others, in the late 40s and during the 50s a number of artists distinguished themselves with their extraordinary talent: Rayna Mihaylova, Ekaterina Apostolova, Lilyana Bareva, Nadya Afeyan, Katya Popova, Mati Pinkas, Yuliya Viner, Iliya Yosifov, Nikola Nikolov, Dimitar Uzunov, Nikolay Gyaurov, Lyubomir Bodurov, Nadya Sharkova. In the following decades the list of remarkable performers continued to grow: Aleksandrina Milcheva, Asen Selimski, Blagovesta Karnobatlova-Dobreva, Gena Dimitrova, Nikola Gyuzelev, Pavel Gerdzhikov, Rayna Kabaivanska, Stefan Elenkov, Stoyan Popov, Boyka Koseva, Galya Yoncheva, Dimitar Petkov, Ivan Velchev, Nikola Vasilev, Nikola Smochevski, Nikolay Stoilov, Sabin Markov, Stefka Evstatieva, Stefka Mineva, Hristina Angelakova, Rumyana Bareva, Rumen Doykov, Dimitar Stanchev, Lyudmila Hadzhieva and others. Their performances in Bulgaria and abroad defined an important stage of the development of Bulgarian opera art.
Following in the footsteps of the founders, the company continued to reaffirm the ensemble approach with equal input of singers, chorus, orchestra and ballet. This helps the company to leave a lasting impression at the tours in countries with prominent opera traditions such as Austria, France and Italy – “Triumph of the ensemble theatre. We witnessed an extraordinary singing ensemble, in which a single weak spot couldn’t be found”. (Newspaper Weiner Zeitung).
The artistic divisions of the opera company – chorus, orchestra and ballet, have given independent performances at the stage of the theatre and abroad. The chorus, established as a homogeneous ensemble with beautiful Slavic sounding, has given independent concerts of opera, Church-Slavonic and chorus music. Herbert von Karajan has invited it to participate in the Salzburg Festival and for recordings. The orchestra – a community of talented instrumentalists with academic training, has worked with the greatest Bulgarian conductors and composers and its professional growth has been influenced by a number of eminent foreign artists. Nikolay Gyaurov, Mirella Freni, Nikola Gyuzelev, Agnes Balsa, Aleksandrina Milcheva, José Carreras, Plácido Domingo, Montserrat Caballé, Juan Pons, Elena Obraztsova, Olga Borodina have been soloists for concerts of the orchestra.
The Directors of the opera house – Stoyan G. Stoyanov, Veselin Stoyanov, Dimitar Petkov (occupied the office for two terms), Iliya Yosifov, Marin Goleminov, Dimitar Tapkov, Aleksandar Getman, Dimitar Uzunov, Ruslan Raychev (occupied the office for two terms),Svetozar Donev, all of them remarkable artists, followed the goal of creating the artistic character of the Sofia opera company based on a diverse repertoire of Western European classics, Russian classic and modern compositions and Bulgarian musical stage works. Among the most significant performances were: Aida /1951, 1972/, Faust /1955/, Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) /1957/, Fidelio /1957/, Otello /1953/, Der fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman) /1959/, Don Carlos /1960/, Manon /1960/, Turandot /1961/, Don Giovanni /1963/, Tosca /1963, 1972/, La bohème /1966/, Nabucco /1967/, Lohengrin /1968/, La Cenerentola (Cinderella) /1968/, Macbeth /1974/, Andrea Chénier /1976/, L'italiana in Algeri (The Italian Girl in Algiers) /1980/, Mefistofele /1982/, Tannhäuser /1983/, Norma /1983/. The Russian classic was presented by Boris Godunov /1965, 1971, 1983/, Pikovaya dama (The Queen of Spades) /1955, 1973/, Knyaz Igor /1964, 1974/, Eugene Onegin /1970/, etc.
At its first tour to Moscow, the company presented the opera Momchil of Lyubomir Pipkov. It was followed by compositions of Marin Goleminov, Parashkev Hadzhiev, Konstantin Iliev, Aleksandar Raychev, Zhul Levi, Aleksandar Yosifov. Following the democratic changes in Bulgaria the sources of financing of the opera house also changed. From the moment of assumption of the office of Director of the opera house in 1994, Plamen Kartalov shifted the emphasis on securing funds through co-productions, sponsorships, etc. New contacts for performances abroad were established - first tours in the USA and Japan, first participations in music forums in Switzerland, Greece, Turkey, etc. Alternative forms were used to attract the public interest and connect to new audiences. The Easter Festival and the Christmas Soirees became traditional as well as the New Year performances and concerts – A glass of champagne at the opera house, summer opera performances at outdoor stages, camera performances.
The directors of the National Opera and Ballet – Hristina Angelakova and Borislav Ivanov, who were at the head of the opera house for the period from 2001 to 2007, continued the efforts to work in the new economic reality. To the interesting events from previous years, already part of the public life, they added new initiatives to attract audience and diversify the repertoire.
Since December 2007 Prof. Plamen Kartalov stepped in once again as Director of the opera house. From 1994 until today the repertoire of the National Opera and Ballet includes together with the well recognized classical titles, a number of unknown or not performed for long productions. World famous Bulgarian opera singers take part in gala performances and concerts, some of them having started their stellar career on the stage of the Sofia opera house. Anna Tomova-Sintova, Gena Dimitrova (deceased 2005), Rayna Kabaivanska, Aleksandrina Milcheva, Nikolay Gyaurov (deceased 2004), Nikola Gyuzelev, Stoyan Popov, Boyko Tsvetanov, Kaludi Kaludov, Darina Takova, Tvetelina Vasileva, Krasimira Stoyanova, Yulian Konstantinov, Orlin Atanasov have appeared in performances for the enjoyment of Bulgarian spectators.
The ambition to foster the development of talented performers led to close collaboration between the National Opera and Ballet and the Bulgarian State Conservatory through co-productions and other joint initiatives. The national competition New Voices offers important encouragement to young artists. Among the hundred candidates who took part in its last edition /2008/ were the future participants in the newly created Opera Studio at the National Opera and Ballet. Another initiative carried out in support of young artists, was hosting the International Competition for Young Opera Singers “Boris Hristov” and the conduction of the third phase with productions of the opera house.
Special attention is given to associating the youngest audience. The Children educational programme “We go to opera” which started in February 2008, was accepted with great interest. The performances for the first two months were attended by over 4000 spectators at the age of 3 to 14. Since its establishment until today the National Opera and Ballet has fulfilled its main function as a cultural centre for preservation and development of the traditions of the national music and stage art. In this the opera house has always relied on the living connection with its most faithful supported – its audience!