In Copenhagen, There's Music in the Air

Sunday, March 27, 2005

Months before its completion, it was clear that something intriguing was taking shape at Copenhagen's former Royal Naval Dockyard. A huge glass sphere topped by a flat roof, the evolving structure became a standout in a city known for its innovative architecture and design.

Now, after 3 1/2 years of construction, the Danish capital's 14-story opera house, or Operaen, has finally opened. And while music lovers are flocking to the city's newest cultural facility, the venue itself has been mired in controversy since its inception.

For its part, the Danish newspaper WeekendAvisen reported that the project was really a story about "two old chaps"--91-year- old shipping magnate Maersk McKinney Moller, one of Denmark's richest men and the opera house's progenitor, and architect Henning Larsen, 79, of the architecture firm Henning Larsens Tegnestue.

Much of the controversy surrounds Moller's request to Larsen to break up the uninterrupted-glass bubble with horizontal metal lines. The architect did so, but to seemingly ill effect: The Danish newspaper Politiken wrote that the metal-and-glass facade looks like the grille of a 1955 Pontiac.

Then there's the roof. "One particular criticism is the styling, because the main concept of the cantilevering roof is a quote from the French architect Jean Nouvel's concert center in Lucerne," says Bjarke Ingels, an architect at Copenhagen's up-and-coming Plot. "It might be accidental, but it's quite a well-known building."

Moller, who owns A.P. Moller-Maersk Group, one of the world's largest shipping companies, supplied the approximately $442 million to build the venue. He then donated the building, which will cost $25 million a year to operate, to the government.

Still, little of this will matter to music buffs, who are rushing to see the Royal Danish Opera's first performance of "Aida" in the new concert hall. Royal Danish Theatre, the Operaen's main tenant, comprises the Royal Danish Opera, Ballet and Orchestra, as well as theater activities.

Seating up to 1,500 people, the opera house is equipped with stellar acoustics and an orchestra pit that can accommodate 110 musicians. Aside from the main stage, there is also rehearsal and office space as well as a smaller experimental stage that seats up to 200 people.

Artists have had a considerable hand in Operaen's look. The curtain for the main stage was designed by Per Arnoldi, known for his provocative posters; he also devised the colors for Norman Foster's egg dome at Berlin's Reichstag. Icelander Olafur Eliasson is responsible for the three unusual spherical lamps in the foyer, which are composed of millions of crystals that splinter and project the light. Danish artist Per Kirkeby created the bronze reliefs displayed in the foyer, which is coated in golden maple veneer to a height of about five stories.

German limestone was used for the exterior walls; oak and Sicilian marble make up the indoor floors; and the outside plaza is made of Chinese granite. The concert hall, with its towering expanse of maple walls, exemplifies the Scandinavian emphasis on naturalness.

Larsen's architectural presence in Copenhagen is well established. Visitors who wish to explore his other works can seek out the Information Technology University in the Orestad neighborhood and the Frederiksberg High School, both completed within the past few years. His most important local work, however, is the Unibank headquarters, which sits on the harbor in the historic neighborhood of Christianshavn. Completed in 1999, the U-shaped wings alternate between city promenades and courtyards, demonstrating Larsen's minimalist approach--light, sleek and airy with a lot of glass.

As for the Copenhagen Opera House, operatic highlights in the coming months include Wagner's "Siegfried" and Poul Ruders's "Kafka's Trial." Performances by the Royal Danish Ballet include John Neumeier's "The Little Mermaid" and August Bournonville's "La Sylphide."

And there's another, even more important date ahead: In 2008, the Royal Danish Theater expects to open a new playhouse in nearby Kvaesthusbroen by the harbor.

--Erika Lorentzsen

Most performances at the Copenhagen Opera House are sold out for the season. Visitors can take guided tours on Sundays for $17.75 and Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays for $35.50 (includes a glass of white wine or soda and a sandwich). Spring tours are full, but fall tours go on sale in August. Book tours at 011-45-3369-6969, General

To get to the Operaen, you can take a cab; Bus 66 (about $2.66), a 10-minute ride from downtown; or Boat Nos. 901-902, across the harbor. From May to November, ride one of the city's free loaner bikes; you must pay a $3.55 deposit, which you get back when you lock it up.

The new Copenhagen Opera House, or Operaen, lights up the old Royal Naval Dockyard.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company