Brno enjoys an unusually rich cultural life, quite exceptional for a city its size. Exhibitions in museums and galleries, plays, concerts, operas, dance performances – the range of possibilities is extraordinarily wide.
To begin with, the word “theatre” covers a broader range in Czech than in English. When Czechs say they are going to “the theatre”, this can mean anything – a play, an opera, an operetta, a musical, a ballet production, whatever.
The extensive range covered by the word “theatre” is reflected in the activities of Brno’s two leading institutions in the area of the performing arts. The National Theatre in Brno has individual drama, opera and ballet companies, which perform in three spectacular buildings that it has at its disposal. The Municipal Theatre also brings together actors, singers, dancers and of course musicians, and works out of two state-of-the-art buildings of its own. And in the case of both institutions, each individual building serves as a venue for performances by more than one of their ensembles.
Museums and galleries
Brno has six major public museums. Each of them has facilities at more than one location. In addition to their permanent displays they mount numerous temporary exhibitions throughout the year.
The Moravian Museum, founded in 1817, is devoted to the history and natural environment of Moravia. Its two core buildings are the Dietrichstein Palace and Bishop’s Courtyard, off Zelný trh, which house permanent exhibitions dealing with the early history of Moravia, historical coins and medals, and the fauna of Moravia.
The Museum has two other important locations in Brno: the Palace of Noble Ladies (Kobližná 1) and the Anthropos Pavilion (Pisárecká 5). One of the other sites administered by the Moravian Museum is the Leoš Janáček Memorial (Smetanova 14). This is situated in the modest house near the centre of Brno where Janáček, one of the greatest composers of the twentieth century, lived and worked from 1910 until his death in 1928.
The Moravian Gallery is the only museum in the Czech Republic that covers the whole broad spectrum of the visual arts – painting, drawing, graphic art, sculpture, photography, the applied arts, graphic design and architecture. In addition, it recently implemented a unique policy of free admission to its permanent collections (admission is still charged for short-term exhibitions).
In the Museum of Applied Arts (Husova 14), a striking neo-Renaissance structure dating from 1883, you’ll find its collections of furniture, glass, ceramics, metalwork, textiles and other crafts from ancient times to the present. The Pražák Palace (Husova 18) houses an excellent permanent collection of twentieth century Czech art and hosts frequent exhbitions of contemporary Czech art, while the Governor’s Palace (Moravské nám. 1a) is given over to art from the Middle Ages to the nineteenth century, both Czech and foreign.
The Moravian Gallery also administers two outstanding architectural monuments. The Jurkovič House in Brno–Žabovřesky (Jana Nečase 2), designed as his home by the Slovak architect, furniture designer and ethnographer Dušan Jurkovič, is one of the most beautiful early twentieth-century buildings in Brno. It reopened recently after a complete and loving restoration; tours must be booked in advance. About 75 km west of Brno, in the town of Brtnice, there is the Josef Hoffman Museum. Hoffman, one of the twentieth century’s most influential architects and designers, was born in, and later redesigned to his own taste, the house that now houses the museum.
Finally, every two years the Moravian Gallery organizes the Brno Biennial, the oldest exhibition of graphic design in the world.
Fittingly for a city that was at the forefront of the Industrial Revolution in Central Europe, Brno has a fine Technical Museum. In its fairly new building at the north end of Brno-Královo Pole (Purkyňova 105), it offers a wide variety of attractions: vintage cars; working models of steam engines and water-powered engines; mechanical music machines, the luminary panorama (stereovision), a device popular at the turn of the twentieth century for creating three-dimensional images of places of interest round the world; communication devices from tom-toms to the Internet; electron microscopes; old crafts; metal-founding; and many more areas of interest. Most exhibits have interactive elements.
The Technical Museum also has a wonderful public transport deposit in Brno-Líšeň, with around sixty vintage trams, buses and trolley-buses, all fully restored and functional (you’ll see them on the streets of Brno from time to time). In addition, the museum adminsters six sites in the countryside round Brno with protected industrial monuments (a windmill and a watermill, ironworks, a blacksmith’s, etc.) from the distant past.
Museum of the City of Brno
As its name suggests, the Museum of the City of Brno has as its mission recording all aspects of the city’s past. Its offices and main exhibition spaces are found in Špilberk, the castle that has dominated the Brno skyline since its foundation in the thirteenth century. A virtual wreck by the end of the Communist regime, Špilberk Castle is now undergoing the final stage of a complete refurbishment that has turned it into a modern museum with a great many different things to offer – a (recreated) Gothic chapel, Baroque casements for prisoners, an open-air auditorium for summer concerts, and a variety of exhibitions dealing with the historical development of Brno, its art and architecture as well as with the history of fireworks (Brno is the venue of one of the major international fireworks festivals).
The museum also administers the most famous modern building in the Czech Republic – and one of the most famous in the world – Mies van der Rohe’s landmark Villa Tugendhat (Černopolní 45), a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Reopened in 2012 after a complete renovation, this magnificent building is the one historical site in Brno that visitors should not miss.
The most recent addition to the Museum of the City of Brno is its Museum of Toys, located in the Měnín Gate (Měnínská 7), the last of the five gates providing access to Brno in the Middle Ages.
The House of Arts
The House of Arts (Dům umění, Malinovského nám. 2) is a venue for temporary exhibitions. In recent years it has had an enviable record of hosting ground-breaking exhibitions of Czech and foreign works that have attracted national and even international attention. Its second exhibition space is the Renaissance palace known as the House of the Lords of Kunštát (Dominikánská 9), which also includes Gallery G99, focused on the presentation of the work of the youngest generation of artists. At hand is the Trojka art café, one of the liveliest venues of its kind in Brno, with a unique programme of theatre, music, exhibitions and other events.
Museum of Romani Culture
The youngest public museum in Brno, established in 1991, is the Museum of Romani Culture (Bratislavská 67), the only museum in Europe devoted solely to the Roma (Gypsies). In addition to its fascinating permanent and temporary exhibitions, it has an extensive and dynamic cultural programme featuring Romani song, dance and visual creation.
Though not exactly a public museum – it forms part of Masaryk University – the Mendel Museum (Mendlovo náměstí 1) is an essential part of the Brno scene. Celebrating the life and work of Gregor Johann Mendel, the discoverer of the laws of heredity, it is situated in the Augustinian Monastery where Mendel served as Abbot and where he carried out his famous experiments with peas.
In addition to the city’s public institutions, Brno also boasts many private galleries. Their continually changing exhibitions across the spectrum of the visual arts offer a perfect introduction to the richness of the visual art scene in the Czech Republic today.
Undoubtedly most impressive is the Richard Adam Gallery, located beside the Vaňkovka Shopping Centre. For its changing exhibitions it draws on a contemporary Czech art collection that is said to be the best in the country. It also hosts a range of cutting-edge cultural events. The Mitrovský Summer Pavilion (Veletržní 19) is an eighteenth-century gem, worth a visit in itself: it has changing exhibits, usually linked to Brno. Other private galleries can be found scattered throughout the city; some are even situated in cafés and vinothèques. Information on some of these galleries can be found in KAM and the on-line Cliché Brünn; most you will have to ferret out yourself.
Drama has a long and distinguished tradition in Brno – in fact the first recorded performance of a play being performed in Czech in this country comes from Brno (not, as most people assume, Prague), in the eighteenth century. Of course for reasons of language, drama is perhaps the least accessible of the performing arts for foreigners. Nevertheless, even if you’re not at home in Czech, the originality and inventiveness of the local theatre performances may well provide you with more than one memorable experience.
Most productions by the drama company of the National Theatre in Brno take place in the Mahen Theatre (Malinovského nám. 1), an elegant and indeed opulent neo-Baroque building dating from 1882 that’s worth a visit for its own sake. It was the first theatre in Europe to be lit by electricity (Edison himself designed the system). The drama company’s repertoire ranges from the classics to contemporary drama, and includes several productions for children.
The Municipal Theatre has the extraordinary distinction of having had its performances permanently sold out since 1995 – perhaps a world record. Its drama company performs at a beautifully refurbished theatre at Lidická 16 forming part of an urban space that includes the Music Theatre, a restaurant and vine-shaded outdoor café with a burbling waterfall, bars, a theatre club and a playground for kids. The Municipal Theatre’s drama repertoire leans towards old and modern classics, both Czech and international.
By its very nature, experimental theatre can often cross linguistic boundaries more readily than traditional theatre. Brno has the great good fortune to have two outstanding experimental theatres, both of which enjoy international reputations. The Goose on a String Theatre (“Husa na provázku”) is noted for the extravagant productions, visually and aurally stimulating, that it puts on in its multifunctional set of buildings at Zelný trh 9. HaDivadlo is located nearby, in a former cinema at Poštovská 8d; it’s remarkable for its highly expressive acting style. In addition to the productions by these two companies, the National Theatre in Brno has taken to using Reduta as a venue for small-scale experimental productions by all three of its companies as well as by guests from the Czech Republic and abroad.
Students of the Janáček Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts (JAMU) have at their disposal two venues: Studio Marta (Bayerova 5, for dramas) and the recently built Theatre on Orlí (Orlí 19, for musicals). Their inventive and controversial productions are highly popular. JAMU also has an international dimension: each year in the spring it hosts Setkání/Encounter, a week-long international festival of student drama schools from across Europea and overseas.
The Radost Puppet Theatre (Bratislavská 30-32) has a repertoire of around twenty-five productions, their target audience being everyone from pre-school kids to adults. During the week most of their performances are booked by schools; the performances on Sunday are open to the general public. It also boasts a fascinating Puppet Museum, drawing mostly on its material from its own productions over the pst sixty years.
Rather astoundingly, Brno also has another thirty or so professional theatre companies. These are small; many do not have a theatre of their own. Each has its own focus, its own acting and production style, its own specific aims. In many cases, the people involved, though professionally trained, must make ends meet in other ways. Some of their productions are amongst the most powerful and satisfying in the city. Unfortunately, though, it’s not easy to find out where and when they are performing, with the result that even Czechs are woefully ignorant of their existence.
Finally, to round this account of theatre off, mention must be made Theatre World Brno, a major international drama festival established only two years ago that takes place in the city just before summer. In one action-packed week, around seventy different productions are staged. The festival also includes a Jugglers’ Night, with all sorts of entertainers filling the centre of Brno, and a Festival of Masks, each year with a different theme and open to anyone and everyone.
The centrality of music in Czech culture is reflected in an old saying to the effect that “Every Czech is a musician”, something that is doubly true here in Moravia. There’s probably not a single day in the year when there isn’t a generous selection of musical offerings to choose from in Brno, whether at the “high culture” end of the scale or at the “popular” end.
The best way to find out what’s happening musically in Brno is to check out the “Brno – město hudby”(“Brno – music-friendly city”) website. It covers everything, from Classical music and opera through jazz and pop to folk music and the club scene. Unfortunately the English pages are still embryonic, but the important information can be gleaned from the Calendar on the Czech part of the website. And your Czech friends can translate the interesting articles and interviews and reviews for you.
The opera company of the National Theatre in Brno traces its roots back to the 1880s. Its repertoire covers the whole history of operatic creation, from the seventeenth century to the present day, with a focus on classic operas of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. A special place is reserved for the work of Leoš Janáček, all but one of whose operas had their premiere in Brno. Most productions are mounted in Brno’s largest theatre building, the Janáček Theatre (Rooseveltova 17); smaller scale operas (for example, those of Mozart) may appear in the Mahen Theatre (Malinovského nám. 1) or Reduta (Zelný trh 4). The National Theatre opera company also includes operas for children in its repertoire.
Quite a different type of opera comes from Opera Diversa, a zesty company of young professional singers and musicians with a rapidly growing international reputation. Their original mini-operas (a genre they seem to have invented), chamber operas and full-length operas aim to establish close contact with the audience. Many of their works are marked by a quirky humour, evidenced most remarkably in their recent composition The Pumpkin Demon in a Vegetarian Restaurant, which lasts exactly as long as it takes the chorus to actually cook a pumpkin-based dish onstage.
The light and amusing tone of operetta seems especially suited to the Central European mentality. Here in Brno, the main home for operettas is the Municipal Theatre. On rare occasions, operetta classics are also mounted by the opera company at the National Theatre, such as Richard Strauss’s Fledermaus (The Bat).
The Municipal Theatre is perhaps the most dynamic exponent of musical theatre in the Czech Republic, so much so that recently it opened a second stage, the Music Theatre, which boasts the best facilities in the country for the production of musicals. Its repertoire ranges very widely. Besides presenting the most popular works of the international musical stage – in many cases for their Czech premieres – the Municipal theatre is famous for its prize-winning original musicals, some adapted from classic literary texts, others based on completely new librettos.
The premiere ensemble in Brno for classical music is the Brno Philharmonic Orchestra. It structures its concerts according to a series of “cycles” devoted to particular types of music – symphonies, chamber music, and so on – each of which comprises half a dozen or more concerts in the course of the year. The venues for these concerts vary according to the type of music; for large-scale works the Janáček Theatre (Rooseveltova 17) is used, while programmes with more intimate music usually take place in the lovely neo-Renaissance concert hall of Besední dům (Komenského nám. 8, entrance from the courtyard in the rear).
Tickets can be bought for individual concerts, or you can take out a subscription for a whole cycle. Full information on the Brno Philharmonic’s activities can be obtained at its box office in Besední street. If you’re interested in attending a particular cycle, you should enquire when sales for the next season begin: some of the cycles sell out very quickly.
Of course the Brno Philharmonic only accounts for a fraction of the classical music on offer in Brno. There are countless chamber orchestras, smaller groups (quartets, quintets and so on), old music ensembles and so on, each with its own specialized repertoire. All of them also work with distinguished singers. The students of the Music Faculty at the Janáček Academy of Music offer three or four concerts a week, either free of charge or for a token admission charge. Like other cities its size, Brno also hosts a major music festival. The Brno International Music Festival, however, is unusual in that it comprises three components. Early in the year there is the Easter Festival of Sacred Music. The date for the Exposition of New Music varies. And then in October comes the Moravian Autumn. Earlier, in August, the Brno Philharmonic organizes another major musical event, the Špilberk International Music Festival, which takes place outdoors in the courtyard of Špilberk Castle.
Choirs of all kinds enjoy a long tradition in the Czech lands, and this tradition is unusually strong in Moravia and here in Brno. Among the most accomplished and best-known choirs are the Czech Philharmonic Choir of Brno; the Moravian Male Teachers’ Choir; Lumír; the Ars Brunensis Chorus; Gaudeamus; the Masaryk University Choir; and Kantilena, a choir made up of children and young people. What is astonishing is the outstanding quality of these ensembles: only the first is a professional choir, yet all of them perform not only in the Czech Republic but abroad, and all of have won awards at prestigious international festivals.
The ballet ensemble of the National Theatre in Brno has in its repertoire classical, neo-classical and contemporary works by both Czech and foreign choreographers, as well as ballets for children. Most of the ballets are staged in the Janáček Theatre (Rooseveltova 17). The company has a distinguished tradition; for example, the world premiere of one of the key ballets of the twentieth century, Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, had its world pemiere in Brno in 1938.
Unfortunately it must be admitted that, when it comes to cultural activities, modern dance is Brno’s weak point. There are a number of companies, most of them amateur or semi-amateur, but their performances are irregular and they tend to come and go. Besides contemporary dance, Mimi Fortunae Dance Theatre also focuses on historical dances and appears at a wide range of social activities. Maximus Dance Theatre is interested in modern and “jazz” dance. A few companies could perhaps most accurately be described as “semi-active”. They include Filigrán (the organizers of an international modern dance festival called Natřikrát), Oorphane and Bardo. Two Prague-based festival also include appearances in Brno – ProArt and Tanec Praha.
This article was written by BEC’s co-founder and an expat himself, Don Sparling.