The Teatro Massimo Vittorio Emanuele in Palermo opened its doors to the public on the evening of 16 May 1897, twenty-two years after the solemn public ceremony of the laying of the first stone. This took place on 12 January 1875, and ended a chequered series of vicissitudes with interminable squabbles lasting over ten years.
The international competition for the project and realisation of the opera house had been announced by Palermo Council in 1864, and its prime mover was the mayor, Antonio Starrabba di Rudini.
For a long time there had been talk of building a big new theatre in Palermo, worthy of the second biggest city in southern Italy after Naples.
Palermo, in the second half of the nineteenth century, was engaged in getting itself a new identity in the light of the new national unity.
Cultural life was influenced by the new Italian State and the positive consequences of the activity of enlightened entrepreneurs like the Florios, who also made generous donations to the building of the opera house and for some years were also its no less enlightened managers.
Intense commercial relations led to the convergence and development in Palermo of interests with a European dimension and brought the city to be continually in touch with different cultural models than its own. This was the start of the Belle Epoque, a time of cultural and economic rebirth for Palermo which would in turn become almost mythical for the future generations and was only to be interrupted by the outbreak of World War I.
The opening night happened on May 16 1897: Giuseppe Verdi’s Falstaff was the inaugural opera. The conductor was Leopoldo Mugnone. A ticket in the boxes would then cost 80 liras, one in the gallery just 3. At the time of its first opening, thanks to its surface of 7,730 square metres, the Teatro Massimo was the third in Europe, after the opera houses in Paris and Wien.
From the opening in 1897 to 1935 the opera seasons were put together by private firms, often a different one each year, that would organize the performances.
In 1935 the theatre was officially designated with a Decree from the Italian Ministry of Culture “Ente Teatrale Autonomo”, and thus recognized as a public theatre.
In 1974 the theatre was closed for reconstruction works that were supposed to be finished in a relatively short time. It remained closed for 23 years and was reopened with the concert on May 12 1997, conducted by Franco Mannino in the first part and by Claudio Abbado in the second, with the Berliner Philharmoniker.