Until the 1600s, public performances were mostly limited to equestrian shows organized in outdoor spaces, which were very popular among the citizens. The only few indoor spaces were under the porches of noble residences and could offer more exclusive shows, for example arms demonstrations by experts or more culturally centered events such as literary and arts meetings and study sessions. For these events, a temporary wooden theater structure would be built and it needed to be dismantled each time. In fact, all theaters were temporary structures until the mid-18th century and only used for a short time then dismantled. It is well known that permanent theaters were not built until well into the 1700s.
Humanism and Renaissance had produced a lay theater with performances for the elites and courts, managed by restricted groups of literates, definitely more inclined to showing tragedy than comedy, and polling from the ancient tradition. Almost in parallel, a second theater was developed mostly to entertain masses. The resulting performance was half-way between comedy and farce and represented everyday life situations.
In the 1700s, people would go to the theater to meet in a large common area where they could listen to musicians and singers, converse, or play. However, the equestrian and arms shows were the most popular.
In the late Baroque period, between the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century, melodrama became the most successful type of theater performance. This so called opera was a drama with accompanying music and was considered “perfect”. It was popular among the bourgeoisie and the masses alike.
Teatro Grande followed the same development as the other historical Italian and European theaters. Starting from the end of the 18th century, there were two main seasons: Carnival (between December and February), and Fair in August and September during Brescia’s end of summer fair. The Spring season was added only in 1912. The new Theater called “Grande” opened on December 26, 1810 with the first representation of Ephigenia’s Sacrifice, with music by Giovanni Simone Mayr (1763-1845), a Bergamo musician and mentor of Gaetano Donizetti.
The most important operas of the Italian tradition have been performed at Teatro Grande since the end of the 19th century, registering sold-out shows almost all the time. The greatest Italian and international artists have performed at Brescia’s Theater either during the opera season or in concerts during special events.
Memorable performances were 1896’s La Bohème conducted by Maestro Arturo Toscanini and the 1963 version with Ms Zeani and debuting tenor Luciano Pavarotti (who had already sung in Rigoletto the year before), the 1937 season with debuting Magda Olivero and tenor Giuseppe Lugo, and the 1950 opera season with Maria Callas performing in Aida.
During its years of activity, Teatro Grande has been the venue not only for the opera season, plays, dance shows, and operetta with the participation of the most renowned artists. From the second half of the 20th century, it has also hosted classical, jazz, and light music concerts.
Several piano performances by Maestro Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli are to be remembered. The Piano Festival dedicated to the Maestro has brought on stage the greatest world musicians in its over 40 editions.
Since 2010, the Teatro Grande Foundation has extended the program to include all genres of live performance. The main objectives of the new management are having a multi-disciplinary approach and attracting the young. The idea is to create an open theater which can become the reference point for the city and the surrounding area and where different genres can attract different audiences so that the theater becomes a live space thriving with dialogue.