The Théâtre de la Monnaie is the principal opera house in Belgium and one of the most historic opera theaters in the world.
In the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries, the Low Countries were usually ruled by governors under Spain or Austria, who maintained courts almost as elaborate as those of kings. The first opera produced in Brussels was Ulisse all'Isola da Circe by Gioseffo Zamponi, the master of chamber music to the governor, Archduke Leopold Wilhelm, as a part of the festivities honoring a Spanish-Austrian royal wedding. The first regular opera house, the Opéra de Guai du foin, was opened in 1681.
A few years later a merchant named Bombardo applied for and received a permit to build a new theater. He began with property occupied by an old government building that had served as a mint during the fifteenth century. Hence, the opera building became known as the "Theatre de la Monnaie" or "Theater of the Mint." The building was designed by Paolo Bezzi and had an entirely wooden interior, which proved inadequate, deteriorating very rapidly. In 1784, an architect named Wailly was commissioned to make plans for a new theater. However, political events, including the Revolution in France and the capture of Brussels by the French, intervened.
The resolution of the Napoleon Wars resulted in Belgium coming under the rule of the Kings of the Netherlands in 1815. Plans were immediately approved for the construction of a new opera house, designed by Damesme. The building was erected on property behind that of the Théâtre de la Monnaie, and was given the same name. After it was finished (it opened on May 25, 1819) the old theater was torn town and left as the ground was left as an open space, the Place de la Monnaie.
On August 25, 1830, the opera presented Auber's La muette de Portici (The Mute Girl of Portici), also known as Masaniello. This opera with a patriotic theme includes an aira "Amour sacrée de la patrie" (Sacred love for the fatherland). This so inflamed members of the audience that a riot broke out in the house, which soon spread to the streets outside. This, in turn, sparked a national revolution against Dutch rule and resulted in the establishment of Belgium as an independent kingdom.
Fire destroyed the interior in 1855. This was redesigned by Poelaert, resulting in one of the most sumptuous and striking surroundings for opera in Europe. Despite subsequent renovations this look has been retained with little change.
La Monnaie has remained an important European opera house throughout its history. Its repertory is international, although it has a historical tendency to emphasize French opera. These have included the first French-language productions of Wagnerian operas, Strauss' Salome and Elektra, and Berg's Wozzeck.
In 1960 the theater added a ballet corps, Maurice Béjart's Ballet du XXème Siècle, which has been one of the innovative dance companies and very popular with young audiences. This resulted in a ballet school, the Mudra, also associated with La Monnaie.
Financial considerations forced the municipality of Brussels to end its funding of La Monnaie in 1963 in favor of the more secure support of the national government, when it became the Théatre Royale de la Monnaie. Since Belgium is officially bilingual, the house also acquired its equivalent Dutch name, the Koninklijke Muntschouwberg. Its music director is the British conductor Antonio Pappano.