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The History of the Royal Danish Theatre

The Royal Danish Theatre has been located at Kongens Nytorv in Copenhagen since 1748, originally designated as the king’s theatre but with public access. The first edifice on the site was designed by court architect Nicolai Eigtved, who also masterminded Amalienborg Palace. In 1774, the old theatre seating 800 theatregoers was reconstructed by architect C.F. Harsdorff to accommodate a larger audience. 

During the theatre’s first seasons the staffing was modest. Originally, the ensemble consisted of eight actors, four actresses, two male dancers and one female dancer. Gradually over the following decades, the Royal Danish Theatre established itself as the kind of multi-theatre we know today, home to drama, opera, ballet and concerts – all under the same roof and management.

An important prerequisite for the theatre’s artistic development are its schools. The oldest is the ballet school, established at the theatre in 1771. Two years later, a vocal academy was established as a forerunner for the opera academy. A number of initiatives were considered regarding a drama school, which was established much later.

King Frederik VI, who ascended the throne in 1808, is probably the monarch who most actively took part in the management of the Royal Danish Theatre, not as an arbiter of taste but as its supreme executive chef.

 

 The theatre’s bookkeeping accounts of these years show numerous endorsements where the king took personal decisions on everything from wage increases and bonuses to the purchase of shoelaces for the ballerinas. Indeed, the Royal Danish Theatre became the preoccupation of an introvert nation, which following the English Wars had suffered a state bankruptcy. “In Denmark there is only one city and one theatre,” as philosopher Søren Kierkegaard put it.

This was the theatre to which the 14-year-old fairytale storyteller Hans Christian Andersen devoted his early ambition. This was also the theatre that became the social and artistic focal point of the many brilliant artists of Denmark’s Golden Age. 

After the abolition of absolute monarchy in 1849, the Royal Danish Theatre’s status as “the city’s theatre” fell into decline. No longer enjoying a monopoly within the performing arts, the Royal Danish Theatre was now required by its new owner, the state, to serve the entire nation. The dilapidated building at Kongens Nytorv also found it hard to compete with the splendour of the new popular stage that were rapidly emerging across town. The solution was to construct a brand new theatre building. It was designed in the Historicist style of the times by architects William Dahlerup and Ove Pedersen and situated alongside the old theatre, which was subsequently demolished. 

 

The inauguration of what we today call the Old Stage took place on 15 October 1874. Here opera and ballet were given ample scope. But due to the scale of the building, the auditorium was less suited for spoken drama, which is why a new playhouse was required. 

The Royal Danish Theatre has over the past decade undergone the most extensive transformation ever in its over 250-year history. The Opera House in Copenhagen was inaugurated in January 2005, donated by the AP Møller and Chastine Mc-Kinney Møller Foundation and designed by architect Henning Larsen. And the Royal Danish Playhouse was completed in 2008. Located by Nyhavn Canal across from the Opera House, the playhouse is designed by architects Boje Lundgaard and Lene Tranberg. 

Today, the Royal Danish Theatre comprises the Old Stage, located by Kongens Nytorv, the Opera House and the Royal Danish Playhouse. In addition, the stagecraft workshops are housed in the old B&W shipyard close to the Opera House.

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