Behind the Curtains of Croatian National Theater

Behind the Curtains of Croatian National Theater

People often ask me what exactly do I mean by secret Zagreb? The truth is, everything about this city is a bit secret(ive). There are so many stories left untold, some of them forever lost, other ones merely forgotten, but most of them patiently waiting to find their way back to life. 

Yellow theater building is the perfect example. One of the most touristy spots, one of the most impressive sights and most well-known places in Zagreb… and it still remains unknown. So many persons have left pieces of their souls in between those yellow walls, you can almost hear whispers of their memories in the hallways. So many corners of the building are left unexplored by common people who pass by every day, not even stopping to think what goes on in that huge place before the actors, singers and dancers take over the stage. 

I had a unique opportunity to wonder around Croatian National Theater building recently. It’s such an amazing feeling when you find yourself in there, and start thinking about its immense history. You should know that here in Croatia, it’s not just a pretty opera house. It has a much greater importance. Before 19th century, Zagreb didn’t even put up plays in Croatian. Back then, Croatia was part of Austro-Hungarian empire, and if you liked theater, you had no choice but to enjoy it in German. Early days of the national theater symbolize resurrection and rebirth of Croatian culture. 


So many historical persons and world-known artists visited this place. Franz Joseph, Austro-Hungarian emperor, ceremonially opened the building himself. Tito organized anniversaries of anti-fascist movement there. Even the most famous Zagreb football club called Dinamo once celebrated its birthday there. And if you happen to think that it’s inappropriate to have sports celebrations in such a monumental cultural institution, you should know that one of the greatest Croatian theater artists ever, Branko Gavella, happened to also be the first football referee in Zagreb 🙂

Emperors and top-class artists aside, this building hides so many stories and strange sights. Wandering through the building all by yourself isn’t really advisable. You could easily get lost in the most distant corners. There are so many unexpected spots, from heavy machinery to underground passages. Some of those passages lead outside of the very building. Some of them, we don’t even know where they’re heading anymore…

And since you already know I’m into the dark side of this city, you should be warned this theater has one, too. I wrote before about the sad love story of a charming actress called Lady Sram… but there are events even more dreadful. Take the poor Czech composer Oskar Nedbal. He decided to end his life by jumping off a theater window after his Christmas Eve performance in Zagreb! 

Hidden passages… underground or even below the ceiling.

Even though Zagreb is a growing tourist destination and it’s famous forthe variety of its cultural offer, you’ll have a hard time finding a theater play in English.  If you’re coming to Zagreb and you like theater, your only choice is seeing a ballet or an opera,  precisely on this theater’s stage. That’s not a bad choice at all, plus it’s an opportunity to visit this enchanting monument of Croatian culture. 

19th century piece. Probably used by Emperor Franz Josef himself 🙂

When you find yourself inside, try to hide in a quiet corner and listen carefully for the echo of old Zagreb.