The São Carlos National Theater, the primary opera house of Portugal, is one of the oldest houses in Europe not to have been destroyed and rebuilt.
A decree of 1592 established a royal chapel in Lisbon, comprised of forty-six male voices with musicians, in addition to the royal chamber musicians, who were predominantly Spanish. A rich period of church music followed. The two long-ruling kings of the eighteenth century, João V (1706-1750) and José I (1750-1777), both had a passion for opera and established the first opera houses. In March, 1755, they built the Teatro do Paços da Ribeira, considered the best opera house in Europe. But it was short-lived, falling in the disastrous earthquake of November 1, 1755.
Seeking a new permanent opera house, a group of merchants and government officials started construction of a new theater as part of celebrations of the birth of the first son of Crown Prince João and Princess Carlota Joaquina. The building, designed by José da Costa e Silva, was inspired and named after the Teatro San Carlo of Naples.
In 1799, the composer Marcos Portugal became director of the company, whose stars for many years were the castrato singer Girolamo Crescentini and soprano Angelica Catalani. Marcos Portugal was fond of the outdated form of opera seria, composing thirteen of them for São Carlo and playing several others. Significantly, the only Mozart opera he ever staged there was La Clemenza di Tito, an opera seria.
During the first seven decades of the nineteenth century, the opera house was firmly under the control of Italian directors and, hence, stressed works of great and not-so-great Romantic-era Italian composers; in addition to Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, and Verdi, Lisboans heard operas of Valentino Fioravanti, Carlo Coccia, Saveria Mercadante, Angelo Frondoni, and Pietro Antonio Coppola, as well as all the famed Italian singers. Changes of administration after 1870 broke this monopoly, and operas by Massenet, Gounod, Delibes, and Wagner were also often heard.
The theater is a small one, with five tiers of boxes holding 456 spectators and regular seating for about 400 more. It became increasingly outmoded, and even before the end of the nineteenth century was declining in popularity in favor of new theaters. The opera company sputtered out, leaving the theater for use mainly by visiting opera companies. Nevertheless, the house saw several notable performances during these slack years, including the Portuguese premiere of Wagner's Parsifal (1919), conducted by Tulio Serafin, and Boris Godunov (1923), led by Serge Koussevitzky.
São Carlos was extensively remodeled and reopened in 1940 with the opera Dom João IV by Rui Coehlo. In 1946, the Portuguese national Ministry of Culture took over the theater and the opera company. Since then, many leading conductors and singers have appeared with the São Carlo company, including Beniamino Gigli, Tito Gobbi, Mario del Monaco, Birgit Nilsson, Renata Scotto, Renata Tebaldi, Alfredo Krause, Maria Callas, Grace Bumbry, Monserrat Caballé, Joan Sutherland, Plácido Domingo.
Its most recent large-scale renovation, adding much in the way of backstage facilities, was in the early 1990s. This renovation also introduced electronic sub-title systems. Since 1993, the management of the theater has been assumed by the São Carlo Foundation, a co-operative venture of the Ministry of Culture, Radiotelevisão Portuguesa, Radiodifusão Portuguesa, Portugal Telecom, and Banco Comercial Português.