Far back in 1843, Alberto Ognjan Striga persuaded the dramatist Janko Car to write a libretto after which Vatroslav Lisinski would compose the first Croatian opera. D. Demeter later on edited Car's idea and Juraj Wiesner Morgenstern, a professor at the Zagreb music school, assisted Lisinski with the instrumentation of the work. Striga and Lisinski began to look for singers and rehearse the choir. A German ensemble was entrusted with the performance and the Croatian singers were all trained amateurs – Sidonija Rubido, Ljudevit Pichler, Kamilo Wiesner Livadic, Alberto Ognjan Stiga and Franjo Störger Stazic. This first 'original Croatian opera in two acts' Love and Malice by Vatroslav Lisinski was premiered on March 28, 1846 and was a burst of flame in the rich tradition of Italian seasonal theatres, German and Croatian plays with singing. After the establishment of the language and artistic autonomy of the Drama, it was through the genre of folk plays with singing that a core of a theatre orchestra was created and drama actors with singing potential enabled the appearance of the operetta.
It was Freudenreich's merit that on November 8, 1863 the first operetta in the Croatian language was performed – Offenbach's Le Mariage aux Lanternes and in 1868 the Croatian operetta Sailors and pupils by Ivan Reyschil. Since then, the core of a future opera ensemble has been created (soloists – choir – orchestra). In his short mandate A. Senoa was dedicated to arrange the arrival of the established operetta composer and conductor Ivan noble Zajc from Vienna, in order to organise the work of a permanent Croatian opera, which really commenced under his leadership with the opening night of his work Mislav on October 2, 1870. As the director, Zajc put on the repertoire around fifty operas and ten operettas, mostly composed by famous authors (G. Verdi, V. Bellini, G. Donizetti, C. M. Weber, F. Suppé, W. A. Mozart, V. Lisinski and B. Smetana) and also several works from his huge opus were performed (Ban Leget, Nikola Subic Zrinjski in 1876, Lizinka, Zlatka...). Zajc created the musical-stage artistic branch of the Opera, creating the basis for its professionalism. Our first world renowned singers appeared and the ensemble was complemented with foreign artists, which until today has been one of the most distinctive constitutional characteristics of the Opera. In this initial phase, there were great individuals with international careers: Josip Kasman, Milka Trnina, Franjo Störger Stazic, Ilma Murska-Puksec, Matilda Mallinger-Schimmelpfenig and Irma Terputec-Terée. Ivan noble Zajc was at the head of the Opera until 1889, when it was annulled for the first time in history, despite its great popularity. The music-stage continuity was maintained with stagione seasons and tours: there were two stagione seasons during the mandate of the general manager Ivo Hreljanovic, in 1891 and 1893 and the third one was during the mandate of Nikola Faller in 1894.
The Opera was re-established by Stjepan Miletic and for one year the director was Franjo Rumpel, but the flourishing commenced with the conductor Nikola Faller (1896 – 1901) who significantly expanded the repertoire with works by L. van Beethoven, R. Wagner, P. I. Tchaikovsky, G. Bizet, G. Puccini, J. Massenet and Porin by V. Lisinski in 1897, as well as works by Croatian (and Slovenian) composers like B. Bersa, V. Parma, F. Vilhar Kalski, S. Albini.
For the second time in its history the Opera was annulled in 1902, but its uninterrupted continuity, finally established in 1909, has been present all until today and this can be credited to the general manager Vladimir Trescec. During the period of this second break, operettas have been performed the most, but the repertoire had significantly been expanded with works by Beethoven, Wagner, Tchaikovsky, Bizet and Puccini. From 1909, when the third period of the Zagreb Opera began, led by the composer Srecko Albini (1909 – 1918), the path of its final recognition had begun in the national and international frameworks. A break with the romantic opera tradition was brought around in 1911 with modern works of Croatian opera music – Fire by Blagoje Bersa and The Return by Josip Hatze. Along Srecko Albini, Nikola Faller and Milan Zuna, Milan Sachs, Kresimir Baranovic and Friderik Rukavina also won recognition as conductors. The aspect of direction in an opera performance gained more significance, as well as the work of set designers (Branimir Senoa, Tomislav Krizman, Ljubo Babic and Marijan Trepse), so Ivo Raic was the first in a series of our directors who simultaneously directed both dramas and operas (also Branko Gavella and Tito Strozzi). The ensemble had great singers: Maja Strozzi Pecic, Vera Schwarz, Irma Polak and Josip Krizaj.
During WWI works composed by B. Sirola, F. Lhotka and P. Konjovic were on the repertoire and Marta Pospisil Ivanov (later on Griff), Ljubica Oblak Strozzi and Josip Rijavec joined the ensemble. During the era of Benesic, under the leadership of the composer and conductor Petar Konjovic, the national and Slavic repertoire was dominant – world opening nights of works by A. Dobronic and Lujo Safranek Kavic and operas by M. P. Musorgsky, A. P. Borodin, N. A. Rimski-Korsakov and B. Smetana took place. The period between the two wars, from 1929 to 1940, when the artistic leadership of the Opera was continually held by the composer Kresimir Baranovic is considered as a separate period that achieved an exceptionally diverse repertoire with high European levels of interpretation. A series of contemporary modern operas were performed, as well as the first three parts of Wagner's The Ring of the Nibelung. The Croatian repertoire was also expanded, so after Konjovic, Dobronic, Safranek Kavic, Odak and operas by Zajc, operettas The Split Aquarelle and Little Floramye composed by Tijardovic were also performed. In 1935, Ero the Joker by Jakov Gotovac, the highlight of the national direction of Croatian music, had its world opening night. Works of Jakov Gotovac, K. Baranovic, Krsto Odak and Boris Papandopulo were crucial in the development of the Croatian opera and music in general. Many ensemble members continued their careers even after the war – Aleksandar Griff, Ancica Mitrovic, Nada Toncic, Vilma Nozinic, Zlata Gjungjenac-Gavella, Marija Podvinec, Mario Simenc, Josip Gostic, Drago noble Hrzic, Dragica Martinis, Dragutin Bernardic, Gregor Radev, Bianka Dezman and Marijana Radev. Many of them achieved international careers. Our greatest international opera star Zinka Kunc (Milanov) was also a member of the Zagreb Opera and two other singers, Tomislav Neralic and Srebrenka-Sena Jurinac achieved exceptional international acclaim. At the time Lovro noble Matacic, our most significant world conductor, began his career. Operetta was performed in the theatre in Tuskanac and in the Small Theatre, with singing stars like Ruza Cvjeticanin, Erika Druzovic, Vera Misita, Zlatko Sir, Vladimir Majhenic and Milan Sepec. The opera life did not cease even during the war years. New Croatian works were performed, operas by Ivo Parac, B. Papandopulo and I. Lhotka Kalinski.
In 1945 after WWII, the head of the Opera was conductor Milan Sachs (1945 –1955) whose mandate was one of the most brilliant eras of the Opera. He had an excellent ensemble and an opera studio and maintained very high artistic performing criteria. New conductors like Mladen Basic and Berislav Klobucar appeared along a series of singers like Janja Hanzek, Ratimir Delorko, Noni Zunec, Rudolf Francl, Franjo Paulik, Frano Lovric, Nada Puttar Gold and the most popular Zagreb baritone Vladimir Ruzdjak.
At the beginning of the 1950s new works by J. Gotovac, I. Tijardovic and I. Brkanovic had their world premieres, as well as modern contemporary works (B. Britten, M. Ravel and I. Stravinsky). In the late 1950s, there was a significant shift in the artistic-aesthetic-directing stage scene. Vlado Habunek won recognition as a director, especially in the contemporary repertoire and Kosta Spaic demonstrated a new interpretational approach to opera, equally in the 'iron' and the contemporary repertoire. Stanko Gasparovic, a long-term house theatre director, also emerged. With its guest performances in London in 1955, the Opera began a series of international tours which confirmed the high performing level of the national opera opus. Besides having hosted guest performances of large Opera houses and individual appearances of conductors and singers throughout its history (e.g. Feodor Chaliapin), since the arrival of the tenor Jussi Björling in 1954, a continuous series of guest appearances of great singers on the stage of the CNT in Zagreb began and lasts until today. Between 1955 and 1958 when Mladen Basic was at the head of the Opera, world opening nights of Croatian and contemporary works continued and the ensemble was complemented by Mica Glavacevic, Mirka Klaric and Branka Stilinovic and the repertoire was carried by Badema Sokolovic, Milka Bertapelle, Josip Sutej, Piero Filippi, Tugomir Alaupović and Dusko Kukovec.
The Opera achieved great success abroad under the leadership of Ivo Vuljevic (1959 - 1965). Some of the anthological performances were Prokofiev's Betrothal in a Monastery and Katerina Izmailova by D. Shostakovich, both directed by Spaic and Boris Godunov by M. P. Musorgsky, directed by Habunek, as well as great tours (Paris, Berlin, Bologna, Naples, Netherlands). Milan Horvat conducted a huge number of performances. That was a time when the Music Biennale was founded, Sulek's Coriolanus had its world premiere, as well as Gotovac's Dalmaro and Stanac, works of Britten and Prokofiev's War and Peace were performed and the world famous singer Ruza Pospis Baldani had her debut. Niksa Bareza came after Vuljevic (1965–73). He was a student of Milan Sachs and maintained a high artistic level in the Opera. Later on as a conductor, he achieved a great international career. His repertoire included anthological productions of Wagner's The Mastersingers of Nuremberg directed by Peter Lehmann and Prokofiev's Love For Three Oranges directed by Spaic. From that time on, Miro Belamaric, Karlo Kraus and Jovan Sajnovic appeared as conductors and new soloists were Nada Ruzdjak, Majda Radic, Bozena Ruk Focic, Franjo Petrusanec and later on Krunoslav Cigoj. In 1965, the Opera achieved great success on its Japanese tour and during the mandate of Bareza, there were many European tours as well.
From the 1970s until today, throughout the various repertoire concepts of the Zagreb Opera directors, many of our internationally acclaimed artists appeared in numerous performances and roles. In the 1980s, Norma sung by the world famous Ljiljana Molnar Talajic and Adalgisa of Dunja Vejzovicć kept thrilling the CNT stage. Performances of Walküre and Das Rheingold conducted by Belamaric were of significance and in the late 1980s there was a series of significant tours (Brno, Berlin, Salzburg, St. Petersburg, Moscow, Kiev and Luxembourg). The repertoire of the 1970s and the 1980s was carried out by a numerous soloist ensemble of different generations: Branka Beretovac, Ante Mijac, Mila Kirincic, Mirjana Bohanec Vidovic, Blazenka Milic, Ferdinand Radovan, Stojan Stojanov, Zlatko Foglar, Boris Vajda, Marijan Jurisic, Gordana Marić Sir, Jasna Podolsak, Veneta Janeva Iveljic, Ivanka Boljkovac, Josip Lesaja, Hrid Matic and Neven Belamaric.
During the Patriotic war the accent was put on Croatian works conducted by Niksa Bareza, Mladen Basic, Vjekoslav Sutej and Vladimir Kranjcevic, that were mostly directed by Petar Selem and the young Kresimir Dolencic. The repertoire was carried out by singers like Cecilija Car, Vitomir Marof, Damir Fatovic, Zrinko Soco, Sotir Spasevski, Ivica Trubic... and all until today the ensemble has been constantly refreshed by new generations of singers.
Throughout the history of the Opera, the features of the 'iron', Croatian and foreign repertoire, as well as of the contemporary repertoire were being modified by different rhythms and proportions, depending on the artistic concepts of the opera director. As a respectable ensemble that had been building itself on prominent soloist and conductor names for decades, the Opera gave guest performances on many foreign stages and in return, numerous foreign singers and conductors continually take part in its productions.