The original San Carlo theatre was built in 1737 in just eight months, to a design by Giovanni Medrano; after it burned down in 1816, it was rebuilt in less than a year. Second in prestige only to Milan's La Scala, the San Carlo has lavish decor with acres of red velvet and intricate gilded stucco moulding, and an unusual revolving clock in the vault of the proscenium arch. A century and a half ago, foreign tourists complained of the noise during performances; in the boxes, the local aristocracy would chat, eat meals and play cards. Twenty-minute guided tours, organised by Itinera (www.itineranapoli.com), are available by reservation, subject to rehearsals and performances. Alternatively, put on your poshest togs and catch a performance.
Although solidly traditional programming gives San Carlo a rather staid image, the standard is often exceptional, and its reputation as being second only to Milan's La Scala is deserved. Openings here are Neapolitan high-society events (complete with the obligatory anti-fur protesters). Although many go to the opera per farsi vedere (to be seen), chunks of the audience are diehard opera buffs. Traditionalists at heart, San Carlo-goers can give innovative works a rough ride: if it's not a classic, it has to be very good to escape being rubbished. Still, an increasing number of 20th-century works in recent symphonic seasons hasn't driven the public away.
The opera season runs from January to December, but is suspended in late July and August due to the heat. The abbonamenti (subscription) system allows opera-goers to reserve their seats for the whole season, so much of the theatre is often booked up. What is left over tends to be the dregs: high up, or far off to the left of the stage. Don't despair, though, as good stall seats can be found (but bear in mind that sightlines from many parts of the theatre aren't great, so try to secure central places).
The San Carlo also has a ballet and an orchestral season. In summer, performances take place outside - you might watch a ballet in the courtyard at Castel Nuovo, or opera in the Arena Flavio in Pozzuoli. The theatre has its own ballet troupe, school, choir and orchestra. It often has wonderful international soloists and famous visiting conductors and orchestras, although tickets frequently sell out way in advance.