Sunday, September 9, 2012

The Theater King of Sweden

Your comments about my picture of the rear of the Royal Opera House in Stockholm, inspired me to want to write a story again. It's been a bit too hot for stories this summer. The picture above, courtesy Wikipedia, shows the front and south side of the Royal Opera House, or the Opera as it is called in Stockholm.  The Opera was finished in 1899 and replaced the one in the story of the Theater King below.

Gustav III

As I was thinking about the Opera and Stockholm's theaters that I loved so much when I lived there, the story of the king who was the beginning of cultural life in Sweden came to mind and I want to tell you his story. Sort of wondering if anyone here would be interested in this piece of history.

His name was Gustav III, and he ruled Sweden from 1771 - 1792. Also known as the Theater King, Gustav was a patron of the arts, of architecture and the building of beautiful palaces and the old Royal Opera House in Stockholm. He founded the Royal Swedish Academy, which focuses on the Swedish language and, since 1901  decides who will be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature every year. He also founded the Royal Swedish Opera, the Royal Swedish Ballet and the Royal Theater, where his own historical dramas were performed. Gustav III was also a patron and supporter of my favorite Swedish artist, the poet and composer Carl Michael Bellman. Those of you who read my A to Z Challenge this year, may recall I called Bellman the world's first rock star.

Carl Michael Bellman

Gustav III also reformed criminal justice, eliminating the use of torture to gain confessions and restricting the death penalty to murder and a few other crimes. King Gustav proclaimed liberty of the press, however, "within certain limits." He also proclaimed limited religious liberty for Roman Catholics and Jews. 

Gustav III ruled at the time of the American Revolution and took an interest in what went on across the Atlantic Ocean. According to Wikipedia, he had this to say in 1776: 

General Washington and Lafayette at Valley Forge

It is such an interesting drama to see a nation create itself, that I – if I now had not been who I am – would go to America to follow up close every phase in the emergence of this new republic. – This perhaps is America’s century. The new republic, which hardly has a population put together better than Rome had to begin with, may perhaps take advantage of Europe some day, in the same manner as Europe has taken advantage of America for two centuries. No matter what, I cannot help but admire their courage and enthusiastically appreciate their daring.

Gustav III

There were wars, corruption, and politics as usual. Reading about the politics of the day, back then in the 18th century, made me feel a bit less distraught about politics in today's United States. It was comforting to be reminded that History Repeats Itself. And somehow humanity survives and moves on.  

After 1786, Gustav III became more and more determined to rule without a parliament, changing from semi-constitutionalism to semi-absolutism. He declared war on Russia in 1788, thus violating his own constitution. In the battle of Svensksund, the Russian navy lost one third of its fleet and 7,000 men. This is considered the greatest victory ever by the Swedish Navy. The war with Russia ended in 1790. At this time, the king also abolished most of the old privileges of the nobility.

The Royal Opera House where Gustav III was assassinated.

Needless to say, this did not sit well with members of the aristocracy. Conspiracies and threats against the king's life were not uncommon. Thus, when Gustav received an anonymous letter, threatening his life, while he attended a dinner before a masked ball at the Royal Opera House on March 16, 1792, the king ignored the warning. But soon after he entered the masked ball, he was surrounded by three men, all part of the nobility, wearing black masks. One of them fired a pistol shot in the king's back. The king cried out "I'm wounded, take me away from here and arrest him!" The king was taken to his rooms, the doors of the opera house were sealed, the conspirators were arrested, and they confessed. King Gustav didn't die immediately, but his wound became infected and he died on March 29, 1792.

Giuseppe Verdi

The assassination of King Gustav III became an opera in the early 19th century. In 1857, using the first opera as a basis, a libretto by Somma for an opera called Gustavo III set to music by Guiseppe Verdi was presented to censors in Italy.  
Objections to presenting a king's assassination on stage were raised. Many changes were made, including what became the final one, where the setting was changed to North America, to Boston. This was approved and the name of the opera was also changed to Un ballo in maschera (A Masked Ball). In later years, some opera houses have presented A Masked Ball as it really happened with the assassination of Gustav III. 

A final note of interest: On January 7, 1955, Marian Anderson sang the role of Ulrica in A Masked Ball and thus became the first African-American artist to perform with the company at the Metropolitan Opera, in New York City. 

Source: Wikipedia is the source for all the above pictures. Wikipedia and my old high school history book are sources for the text. You, my friends who leave comments, are the source of my inspiration.

Finally, my photo of the front entrance of the Stockholm Opera. When I lived in Stockholm, I spent many wonderful evenings in this opera house, listening to some of the world's greatest singers perform in all my favorite operas. 


  1. based on your summation, he sounds like a leader who was a great proponent of the arts and culture but also willing to cut his own privileges (and those of the elite). sorry he was assassinated because of it.

  2. What a joy it must have been to watch performances there. Really a great post, Inger.

  3. Enjoyed this post, Inger. I knew nothing about Gustav before reading this!

    Court intrigues were the order of the day back then. Everyone plotted. . .

  4. Thanks for the wonderful story. Sad at the end, but fascinating insights into king Gustav. And the Opera.

  5. A fascinating summation of a period of which I was completely ignorant.
    Thank you!!

  6. Hi Inger .. so interesting to read - and in a while ..I must try and get my ahead around the different rulers of the Europe and how they interlinked, particularly in reforming their country via their passions and interests ..

    Loved the photos and interesting post - cheers Hilary

  7. Oh Inger I love your story the history is fascinating. It is so wonderful to know about your country and share with us who had no idea what really goes on in politics back then. That history is very interesting.
    It must have been wonderful to grow up with so much culture with the theater and such. B

  8. i like his comment about America and wow on the clothes he wore, talk about ornate. sad he was killed like that. and you are right, reading and hearing of the past, we know that history does repeat itself over and over and mankind does not learn from others mistakes. interesting, I had heard his name but that was all.

  9. What an interesting post! Good job, Inger!

  10. Very interesting, thank you. How lucky you are to have been able to see performances in such a grand place.

  11. Vilket bra inlägg, vad duktig du är att göra detta. Bra att du informerar om vårt lilla land som många inte vet något om.

  12. Dear Inger, this is a wonderfully written and informative post. I so enjoyed learning about a man I've never heard of. He was in so many ways a man ahead of his times. A true humanist. And all the history that you gave us about his and what he did for Sweden and how he came to be assassinated. I truly also never knew that Verdi's opera was about Gustav III. The photographs so enhanced the story. I wonder what the first opera house--the one the king had built--looked like. Thank you for this wonderful journey into the historical background of Sweden. I missed all the A to Z postings because I took April off for going to MInnesota and company and putting the house on the market. So I can see that I need to go back to your April postings and do some reading. Peace.


Thanks for leaving a comment.. ~~ Inger


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