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HNK – Backstage story

It just so happened that while I was finally writing this post, Prince Charles and his main lady, Duchess Camilla, were taking a tour of HNK, the Croatian National Theatre. During their two-day visit, they made a stop at the theatre to see a short program devoted to the 400th anniversary of death of William Shakespeare.

The British royal couple has not been the only celebrity sighting in the Zagreb national theatre – when HNK was visited by Pope Benedict XVI, the soloist wardrobe had to be moved so that the Pope could have his private area there, closest to the back entrance which he used.


What’s more impressive than the guest list is the list of names that have passed through the stage from the grand opening in October 1895 until today. Let’s mention only some – Vivien Leigh, Laurence Olivier, Franz Liszt, Sarah Bernhardt, Dmitrij Šostakovič, Gérard Philipe, Richard Strauss, Constantin S. Stanislavski… The list goes on and on.


But the building, one of the main symbols of the city, was not the first home of the Zagreb HNK. Many people don’t know that, prior to the location on Maršala Tita Square, the theatre had found its home in another famous Zagreb square – St. Mark’s Square. It was in 1834, and the story of the building of the theatre, which was literally won on the lottery, is an anecdote of its own. Krsto Stanković was, as they jokingly say, Todorić of the time, estate owner and tradesman who won 30 000 gold coins at the Viennese lottery – about have a million euro when adjusted to today’s monetary values. Knowing the area he lived in (oh, why has nothing changed at all), he sent three carriages from Vienna to Zagreb – two of them were robbed on the way. There was still enough money to build the theatre building in Upper Town, but the shows done there were mostly lacking in national spirit and language – that is, they were foreign guest productions.

Thanks to the efforts of the Illyrian movement, the national theatre in Croatian language was founded in 1860. Since cultural life was developing and the Great Earthquake of 1880 damaged Stanković’s theatre, the issue of a new theatre building was raised.

Matea s ledja1
Matea s cigaretom

Six different addresses were discussed, and the one it’s at today was among the least popular. Why? Apart from the fact that Maršala Tita Square housed a cattle fair at the end of the 19th century, it was located at the “outskirts of the town”. Hahaha, I know, Zagrebians of the time found it preposterous that a theatre would be built in a place with “energy of that kind”, and in the suburbs even, while life still happened around Gradec and Kaptol, which had not been united with the surrounding areas until 1850. But in 1895, Zagreb finally got a monumental theatre in the Neo-Baroque style, designed by Viennese architects Ferdinand Fellner and Hermann Helmer.

And the opening?

Matea na stepenicama
Collage_Matea i interijer

It was a warm night of October 14, around seven in the evening. Kaiser Franz Joseph walked the red carpet (red carpet before the red carpet 😉) from the Faculty of Law to the building of the theatre (Meštrović’s Well of Life has been located in front since 1912). If we take into consideration that Zagreb had about 10 times less inhabitants then (around 100 000), and that the car had the status of, let’s say, a space ship, it’s no wonder there were only eight cars at the opening.

Now this you didn’t know, right? :-)


Let’s go back to the future and visit HNK today. From its founding until today, it has changed five countries and twelve names. The stage covers about 100 square meters, and the theatre employs 515 people – (only) 38 actors, but there are 90 choir singers, 20 soloists, 80 members of the orchestra, eight tailors who sew and take care of all the costumes, cleaning staff, and many people you don’t see, but who are important cogs in such a great mechanism.

How do I know all this? Have I lost my mind with all the extra time and no work on my hands? No, quite the contrary – HNK has developed an amazing project that enables citizens to take a peek behind the curtains, to get to know the theatre from another angle. The name of the project is the Secret History of the Theatre, and once or twice a month visitors are guided by actors and told the story of the theatre as it used to be and as it is today. The groups are different and interactive since you can “hassle” the actors and ask questions, and I had the privilege of trying on some of the wigs in the wig shop. Our team took a walk with Kristijan Potočki (thanks, Kiki!), who told us most of the things I have already mentioned in a relaxed atmosphere, but also made us walk quite a bit so we could see everything he was talking about.

Skladiste cipela

What to add? The entire theatre is divided into the male and female side, which are connected with the scene – we were underneath it while it was rotating, and the feeling is – hmm – unusual. We started our tour while they were trying out for Kosor’s Woman; we were impressed by the shoe storage (and we only saw the lesser part – several thousand, as far as I could estimate); the rehearsal room housed the orchestra which was rehearsing for Romeo and Juliet, and we ended the tour in – logically – the theatre bar.

Mental note to self – next time wear sneakers.

Na fotelji s dvije noge

The next guided tour of the theatre takes place 9 April, 2016, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Many thanks to:

Photo: Dunja Plazonja, Lidija Šeatović

Translation: Nevena Erak


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