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The Croatian National Theatre Zagreb

The History

The Croatian National Theatre Zagreb (Croatian: Hrvatsko Narodno Kazalište, HNK) is Croatia’s central theatre institution and has three ensembles: drama, ballet and opera. It produces at least twelve premieres annually and, together with twenty rerun titles, more than 220 stage performances per season. The repertoire varies from classical to contemporary, and from local to international authors. 

Every trip to this theatre is a feast for ears and eyes since it’s placed in a beautiful building and has a rich history, as well as a programme for every theatre and art lover.

Copyright The Croatian National Theatre Zagreb

The Croatian National Theatre in Zagreb is the oldest theatre institution in Croatia, officially established by The Parliament of the Triune Kingdom of Croatia, Slavonia and Dalmatia on 24th August 1861. 

On that day, the parliament enacted Article LXXVII and made it a national property under its protection, providing permanent administrative and financial support. The Croatian National Theatre idea emerged more than twenty years earlier from Dimitrije Demeter and other members of the Illyrian Reading Room (Croatian: Ilirska čitaonica) in Zagreb. 

The Illyrian Reading Rooms were the associations for people gathered around the Illyrian Movement because, for this type of association, they only needed the approval and support of the local authorities, not the Hungarian and Austrian, which at the time, ruled the country. 

Copyright The Croatian National Theatre Zagreb

In 1840, they invited the actors from Novi Sad, who, together with the locals, made over 45 premieres in one year, starting with the historical drama Juran and Sofija by Ivan Kukuljević Sakcinski.

That was the starting point of building the Croatian theatre and cultivating the domestic audience and the Croatian language on the stage. 

The exact date often cited as the most important in establishing the Croatian national theatre is 24th November 1860, when the demonstrators interrupted the performance on the German language at the Stanković Theatre on St. Mark’s Square. 

Tko pjeva zlo ne misli | Copyright The Croatian National Theatre Zagreb

The actor Vilim Lesić stopped the play by announcing that they will perform only in the Croatian language from that day onward. However, even though the event was a huge step forward, both German and Croatian languages were used after demonstrations. 

The first full play in the Croatian language was The Black Queen (Croatian: Crna kraljica) by Josip Freudenreich, actor and director and one of the founders of the Croatian theatre. Together with Demeter, he is responsible for the first repertoire and the style of the theatre. 

One of the first artistic directors was the prominent Croatian writer August Šenoa. In 1870, the arrival of Ivan Zajc, one of the most important Croatian composers, marked the opera department’s establishment. The ballet department started in 1876, with the premiere of Nikola Šubić Zrinski written by Zajc.

Ero s onoga svijeta | Copyright The Croatian National Theatre Zagreb

The Programme and the people

Over the decades, HNK Zagreb was the home of many important Croatian directors, artists, writers, dancers, singers, scenographers, and other people and roles that make a theatre. The audience enjoyed the plays by the most critical Croatian dramatists like Ivan Gundulić, Marin Držić, Miroslav Krleža and Ranko Marinković. 

The first stars were actors Marija Ružička Strozzi and Andrija Fijan. Later, HNK was the place to see the biggest Croatian actors like Vanja Drach, Špiro Guberina, Relja Bašić, Tonko Lonza, Boris Buzančić, Mustafa Nadarević, Rade Šerbedžija, Zvonimir Zoričić, Božidar Orešković, Krunoslav Šarić, Božidar Boban, Mira Furlan, Dragan Despot, Zijad Gračić, Ena Begović, Alma Prica, Ivo Gregurević, Siniša Popović, Livio Badurina, Luka Dragić, Franjo Kuhar, Alen Šalinović, Milan Pleština, Goran Grgić, Olga Pakalović, Zrinka Cvitešić, Daria Lorenci Flatz, Nikša Kušelj, Daria Lorenci Flatz, Bojan Navojec, Iva Mihalić and others. 

The magic flute, Mozart | Copyright The Croatian National Theatre Zagreb

The opera was discontinued several times over the years but found continuum after 1902. Some of the most prominent local opera singers, like Milka Trnina and Irma Polak, and later Zinka Kunc Milanov, performed. 

The Croatian Opera performed worldwide, with the plays of Croatian composers such as Blagoje Bersa, Krsto Odak, Jakov Gotovac, Boris Papandopulo, and other iconic Croatian composers. 

Naturally, the repertoire consisted, and still is, of great international names too, and Croatian audiences had a chance to hear and see the most important operas and international artists as well.

The ballet department established the ballet school for children at the end of the 1890s, and foreign dancers were invited to form the ensemble.

The first domestic premiere was the ballet Na Plitvička jezera by Srećko Albini, with the choreography signed by Ema Grondona. 

The golden years started in the 1920s with the prima ballerina Margareta Froman’s engagement from the famous Moscow Bolshoi Theater and a member of Diaghilev’s troupe. In thirty years of her work, she made a foundation of the Croatian ballet.

The Swan Lake, Tchaikovsky | Copyright The Croatian National Theatre Zagreb

The building

The yellow building at the Square of the Republic of Croatia wasn’t the first official building. The first professional theatre in Zagreb was built as an investment of one wealthy man, Kristofor Stanković, who decided to build a theatre with the 30 thousand ducats he won as the main prize Vienna lottery. The building was opened in 1934 and known as the Stanković theatre.

The building of the Croatian National Theatre in Zagreb, as we know it today, was built in 1895 by famous Viennese architectural firm Helmer and Fellner, specialising in theatre buildings and concert halls. 

The architects Ferdinand Fellner and Hermann Helmer also built the Croatian National Theatre building in Rijeka and the Art Pavilion in Zagreb.

The building was planned from the beginning of the 1870s, but it was only after 1880 and the great earthquake in Zagreb, which significantly damaged the old theatre, that things finally moved forward, the budget was made, and the project was commissioned to Helmer and Fellner.

Croatian craftsmen were engaged in the construction work, and, besides the specialists, more than 200 workers constructed the building. 

The famous ceremonial curtain was made by renowned Croatian painter Vlaho Bukovac. He made a curtain that can be seen today on special occasions, with the theme of The Revival of Croatian Literature and Art, today known as the Croatian Revival (Croatian: Hrvatski preporod). 

Austrian painter Alexander Demetrius Goltz made the paintings on the auditorium ceiling, and on the first floor, works by Croatian painter Ivan Tišov. 

The author of the four busts of Ivan Gundulić, Junije Palmotić, Dimitrije Demeter and Vatroslav Lisinski is unknown. 

Before the building was made, there was strong resistance to building the theatre at the city’s fairground as it was thought it was at the outskirts of the town at the time. Today we can see that the Croatian National Theatre couldn’t be better placed, because together with Ivan Meštrović’s bronze Well of Life placed in front of the main entrance, it makes for one of the most beautiful city squares.

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