Founding of Bolshoi Theatre Company

Since it was founded by Catherine the Great, the Bolshoi Theatre Company has been a preeminent opera and ballet, and it has staged significant works by Russian playwrights. Its influence has been global, and its name is familiar to most, if not all, arts enthusiasts.

Summary of Event

Before the Bolshoi Theatre Company was founded in 1776, the Znamensky Theater Znamensky Theater, Moscow served as Moscow’s opera house. Catherine the Great, an ardent supporter of the arts, had encouraged artistic development both in St. Petersburg and throughout Russia. She also wrote several operas, some of which were eventually performed at the Bolshoi Theatre. [kw]Founding of Bolshoi Theatre Company (Mar. 28, 1776)
[kw]Company, Founding of Bolshoi Theatre (Mar. 28, 1776)
[kw]Theatre Company, Founding of Bolshoi (Mar. 28, 1776)
[kw]Bolshoi Theatre Company, Founding of (Mar. 28, 1776)
Bolshoi Theatre Company
[g]Russia;Mar. 28, 1776: Founding of Bolshoi Theatre Company[2230]
[c]Organizations and institutions;Mar. 28, 1776: Founding of Bolshoi Theatre Company[2230]
[c]Dance;Mar. 28, 1776: Founding of Bolshoi Theatre Company[2230]
[c]Music;Mar. 28, 1776: Founding of Bolshoi Theatre Company[2230]
[c]Theater;Mar. 28, 1776: Founding of Bolshoi Theatre Company[2230]
Urusov, Peter
Medoks, Mikhail
Catherine the Great
Roseberg, Christian
Bovet, Osip

On March 28, 1776, Catherine granted Prince Peter Urusov the exclusive right for a period of ten years to operate a private theater in Moscow and also obliged him to build within five years “a stone building of a theater that would decorate the city and also serve as the premises for public masquerades, comedies, and comic operas.” Urusov, an educated aristocrat who served as Moscow’s public prosecutor, had the connections to secure the grant, but he needed help. Mikhail Medoks, his partner, was an English entertainment entrepreneur who had come to Russia to demonstrate clever scenic illusions. He supplied the funds for the building, which was erected on Petrovka Street and named for the street. The Bolshoi (“big” in Russian) Theatre now stands at the site where the Petrovsky Theatre, Petrovsky Theatre, Moscow which was burned to the ground in 1805, was built.

In 1776, Medoks and Urusov owned the Znamensky Theater, where they were soon staging performances. On January 8, 1777, D. Zorin’s La Renaissance, Renaissance, La (Zorin) the first Russian one-act comic opera Comic opera
Opera;Russia derived from original Russian songs, was staged and was a great success. Urusov’s troupe consisted of thirteen actors, nine actresses, four dancers, three ballet dancers with a ballet master, and thirteen musicians. Performers from Moscow University and the troupe of Nikolay Titov augmented Urusov’s company. The troupe performed ballets, operas, and plays, although initially opera was the most important. Eventually, all the best performing artists in Moscow, in addition to the dancers and actors who were trained at the Moscow Orphanage, worked with the Medoks troupe. (The orphanage, whose members were serfs, was established in 1764 and began ballet instruction in 1773. Medoks acquired the ballet school of the orphanage in 1784.)

Before the partners began construction of the Petrovsky Theater, they began adapting the Stroganov mansion for the company’s purposes. When the Znamensky Theater, which had housed all the stage properties and costumes, was destroyed by fire in 1780, Urusov, who lost most of his funds, gave his privileged grant to Medoks. Medoks devoted his money and energy to the construction of the Petrovsky Theater, an unattractive red-brick structure designed by Christian Roseberg. It seated eight hundred and had three tiers of boxes, a gallery for poorer patrons, and several rows of armchairs in the front of the orchestra for privileged customers. It was one of the best-equipped theaters in Europe, and its orchestra floor could be raised and converted to a ballroom.

Aleksandr Onisimovich Ablesimow wrote The Wanderers
Wanderers, The (Ablesimow) (pr. 1780), a prologue, for the opening performance of the completed Petrovsky Theater in 1780. In the prologue, two characters, representative of the arts, wander in search of a venue, because their previous home (the Znamensky Theater, regarded by Natalia Roslavleva as the “cradle” of Russian national opera) was destroyed by fire. Apollo descends to Earth to tell them that they have a new venue, the Petrovsky Theater, created by a mortal (Mikhail Medoks) at Apollo’s command. During Apollo’s speech, the scenery changes and the backdrop features Moscow and Medoks’s theater.

The prologue was followed by The Magic School (pr. 1780), a pantomime ballet, and by some operatic works by Russian writers. Initially, most operas were written by Russians, such as Vasily Pashkevich, about scenes from everyday life, but works of such foreign composers as Antonio Salieri, Luigi Cherubini, and Giovanni Pergolesi were also included. Ballet scenes were used as divertissements (diversions) for operas and dramatic productions. The Petrovsky Theater, unlike many other theaters, had an advisory council composed of actors, dramatists, and art critics who made decisions about what to perform and whom to cast. In 1805, the Petrovsky Theater met the fate of it predecessor: It was destroyed by fire. This time, it was Medoks who was financially ruined, and in 1806 the theater in Moscow was taken over by the imperial government, and the serf actors were freed.

The troupe continued to perform in various venues until January 6, 1825, when the new Bolshoi Theatre was completed. One of the largest theaters in Europe, eclipsed only by La Scala La Scala (Milan, Italy) in Milan, the Bolshoi was designed by Professor Alexander Mikhailov and constructed by architect Osipe Bovet. Mikhail Dmitriyev wrote the lyrics and Alexei Vertovsky and Alexander Alyabyev wrote the score for Torzhestvo muz
Torzhestvo muz (Dmitriyev, Vertovsky, and Alyabyev) (pr. 1825; the triumph of the muses), which was performed opening night. Under Vertovsky’s and dramatist Fyodor Kokoshkin’s leadership, the Bolshoi established a primarily Russian operatic repertoire derived from traditional songs and melodies. Moreover, the ballet sequences in the operas, which had been incidental, became integral parts of the operas.


Since 1776, the Bolshoi Theatre has occupied several structures and taken several forms. It was damaged by fire again in March, 1853, and extensively reconstructed. It remains synonymous with Russian opera and especially ballet, although it has had its low points, such as the period when it was under the control of the imperial theaters in St. Petersburg. In the late nineteenth century, an Italian company performed at the theater four or five times a week, leaving the Bolshoi Theatre Company only one day a week to perform. Before 1900, Russian nationalism prevailed. Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky’s opera Eugene Onegin (1878) was staged at the Bolshoi and was followed by three Russian classics: Petrovich Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov (1889), Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov’s Snegurochka (the snow maiden; 1882), and Yevgeniy Borodin’s Prince Igor (1898). In the same period, Tchaikovsky’s classic ballet Swan Lake (1877) was staged at the Bolshoi.

Russian opera dominated the theater, but the operas of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Gioacchino Rossini, Giuseppe Verdi, Richard Wagner, and Giacomo Puccini were also performed. Russian nationalism and Western art operated in a kind of tenuous balance. Because the Bolshoi troupes tour frequently, they have had a tremendous influence on the arts, particularly in ballet. So dominant was Russian ballet that non-Russian dancers assumed Russian names to give themselves more credibility. Lilian Marks, for example, adopted the name Alicia Markova and became a famous English ballerina.

The Bolshoi Theatre operates on a ten-month schedule, allowing the ballet and opera troupes to tour, and foreign companies and outstanding performers have appeared at the Bolshoi, considering it one of the premier venues in the world.

Further Reading

  • Bocharnikpva, Yelena, and Mikhail Gabovich. Ballet School of the Bolshoi Theatre. Translated by K. Danko, edited by D. Ogden. Moscow: Foreign Languages, n.d. The chapter “A Peep into History” discusses the origins of Russian ballet at the Orphanage Theatrical School, which was turned over to the Petrovsky Theatre, site of the Bolshoi Theatre.
  • Lushin, Stanislav, ed. The Bolshoi Theatre of the USSR: History, Opera, Ballet. Translated by Sally Patterson. Moscow: Planeta, 1987. Short introductory chapter about the origins of the Bolshoi Theatre. Includes a synopsis and a production history. Color photographs.
  • Pokrovsky, Boris Alexandrovich, and Yuri Nikolayevich Grigorovich. The Bolshoi: Opera and Ballet at the Greatest Theater in Russia. New York: William Morrow, 1979. History of the ballet and opera in Russia, supplemented by photographs of the actors, singers, dancers, and scenes from lyric operas and ballets staged at the Bolshoi.
  • Roslavleva, Natalia. Era of the Russian Ballet. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1966. First chapter focuses on the origins of Russian ballet and the contributions of Mikhail Medoks, Prince Urusov, and others in the creation of the Bolshoi Theatre.

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