At the beginning the Bolshoi was a private theatre called the Petrovski theatre and belonged to prince Peter Urusov, whom Catherine the Great had gifted with the privilege to organise the court’s spectacles, mascarades and bals for a 10 years period. The theatre’s company was very diversified and included artistes from Moscow as well as famous guests from abroad. The prince’s privilege was not extended as the court stopped believing in his entrepreneurial skills. Indeed, under his management, the theatre accumulated enormous debts. When the prince’s privilege expired, the theatre’s management and debts were transferred to the Tutelar Council.
In 1802 the theatre’s rent was granted to prince Volkonski, director of one of Moscow’s best theatre companies. But 3 years later, as the competition between Saint Petersburg and Moscow grew, Moscow needed to catch up on its Northern rival, and so the Petrovski theatre got the status of imperial theatre and its control was transferred to the Direction of imperial theatres. The same year, the Petrovski theatre’s school became Moscow’s imperial theatre school. In 1805 a fire destroyed the theatre and the company started to appear on private stages.
The reconstruction of the new building started in 1820. In the 1840s, operas and ballets started to be included in the theatre’s repertoire more and more often. 30 years after its reconstruction, the theatre burnt down again in a fire that lasted 3 days. It took no less than 2 years to clear out the premises and start the reconstruction. The latter was completed in record times as the inauguration of the theatre had been planned in honour of the new emperor’s coronation, Alexandre II.
The new building was renamed the Bolshoi theatre («bolshoi» means big in Russian). Indeed, it was bigger and higher than all of its previous versions. The main room was enlarged so as to build antechambers, i.e. small parlours to receive visitors from other loges. The main room was 6 floors high and could sit up to 2300 spectators. The central chandelier lit 300 oil lamps.
Like most buildings on Teatralnaya square (translated the square of theatres), the Bolshoi was built on stilts, and as a consequence, the building steadily rot. Maintenance work was carried out in 1895 and 1898, which stopped the decay of the building for a time. In 1987, large sclae recontruction of the theatre was decided.
This necessity rose again in 2005, and the theatre closed down for 6 years. During this time, over 3500 professionals worked inside the theatre and another 1000 specialists toiled in surrounding workshops. Special attention was given to the legendary acoustics and specialists from the all over the world came to the Bolshoi to restore it. An additional place under the proscenium was created for the orchestra, after which the Bolshoi’s orchestra pit became one of the biggest in the world, sitting up to 130 musicians.
Many think of the Bolshoi as an inaccessible luxury, but since 2005 the minister of culture took a measure to make the greatest Russian theatre accessible to students (and other citizens with particular status such as pensioneers and veterans). Students can purchase tickets to the historical and new stage of the Bolshoi for 100 roubles (less than 1,5€). Because a lot of students wish to obtain a ticket to the Bolshoi, the procedure is simple but strict: one student can obtain one ticket upon showing his/her student card at the theatre tills at 16 o’clock on the day of the performance when the performance starts at 19 o’clock. Students also need to be prepare to show their passport, even though it is never asked. There are 30 tickets for the new stage and 60 for the historical stage that are reserved for students and can be bought for 100 roubles by students only. The unofficial but even stricter procedure is set by students themselves: in order to be among the 30 or 60 first in the queue, you need to come early in the morning (the most popular the spectacle is, the earlier you should arrive) and write down your name on the list.
The list is «guarded» by students all day long, until the tills open, at 16 o’clock. It has 30 or 60 numbers written down and a name next to each number. If you appear amongst those, you are guaranteed to be accepted in the queue. The student guarding the list at 15.30 will ask you your name and if you appear on the list he/she will tell you your number and show you where in the queue you should stand. The queue is very strict, but this way, it rewards those that were brave enough to wake up early. Sometimes, the student guarding the list in the morning or day will ask you if you can relay him/her. This unformal procedure also enables you to expand your network of Russian aquaintances and make friends! If you have friends who would like to attend the performance but cannot come at 16 o’clock to purchase their tickets or cannot come in the morning to write down their name on the list, you can write down their name on the list for them but you need to find someone with a student card to show up at the till at 16 o’clock and officially purchase the ticket and give it to you at the exit.
The golden rule is to sign on the list in the morning and for every single ticket one person should show up! You can purchase tickets to the Bolshoi for 100 roubles as often as you please. You may also chance it if you don’t manage to go and write down your name on the list in the morning, as some of those 30 or 60 who signed in the morning do not show up at the till.
These tickets give you access to the 6th and last floor of the historical stage, where there are no seats. There are a few bencches, but you cannot see the stage from there, so people only seat on them when they need to rest after a couple of hours standing up. In the new stage, however, the student tickets give you a seat, on the 3rd and last floor. You are indeed much closer to the stage but you need to bend over a lot to be able to see the entire stage.
Author: Diane Pallardy, Double master world politics in Eurasia at the HSE