In 1837, the Liceo Filodramático de Montesión was founded in Barcelona to promote musical education and organize scenic representations of opera performed by Liceo students. A theater was built in the convent building — named Teatro de Montesión or Teatro del Liceo de Montesión — and plays and operas performed: the first was Vicenzo Bellini's Norma (3 February 1838). The repertoire was Italian, the most performed composers being Donizetti and Mercadante as well as Bellini and Rossini. The Barcelona premiere of Hérold's Zampa was held here.
In 1838 the society changed its name to Liceo Dramático Filarmónico de S. M. la Reina Isabel II (Dramatic Philharmonic Lyceum of H.M. Queen Elisabeth). Lack of space, as well as pressures brought to bear by a group of nuns (who were the former proprietors of the convent and had recovered rights to return), motivated the Liceu to leave its headquarters in 1844. The last theatre performance was on 8 September.
The Trinitarian convent building located in the centre of the town at la Rambla was purchased. The managers of the Liceu entrusted Joaquim de Gispert d'Anglí with a project to make the construction of the new building viable. Two different societies were created: a "building society" and an "auxiliary building society". Shareholders of the building society obtained the right of use in perpetuity of some theatre boxes and seats in exchange for their economic contributions. Those of the second society contributed the rest of the money necessary in exchange for property of other spaces in the building including some shops and a private club called the Círculo del Liceo.
The Liceu was funded by private shareholders of what would become the Societat del Gran Teatre del Liceu (Great Liceu Theatre Society), organized in a similar way to a trading company or societat. This is reflected in the building's architecture; for example, there is no royal box. The queen did not contribute to the construction, and the name of the society was changed to Liceo Filarmónico Dramático, deleting the queen's name from it.
Miquel Garriga i Roca was the architect contracted; construction began on 11 April 1845. The Theatre was inaugurated on 4 April 1847.
The inauguration presented a mixed program including the premieres of José Melchior Gomis' musical ouverture, a historical play Don Fernando de Antequera by Ventura de la Vega, the ballet La rondeña by Josep Jurch, and a cantata Il regio himene with music by the musical director of the theatre Marià Obiols. The first complete opera, Donizetti's Anna Bolena on 17 April. At this point Liceu was the biggest opera house in Europe with 3,500 seats. Other operas performed in the Liceu during the first year were (in chronological order): I due Foscari (Verdi), Il bravo (Mercadante), Parisina d'Este (Donizetti), Giovanna d'Arco (Verdi), Leonora (Mercadante), Ernani (Verdi), Norma (Bellini), Linda di Chamounix (Donizetti) and Il barbiere di Siviglia (Rossini).
The building was severely damaged by fire on 9 April 1861, but it was rebuilt by the architect Josep Oriol Mestres and opened on 20 April 1862, performing Bellini's I puritani. From the old building only the façade, the entrance hall and the foyer (Mirrors Hall) remained.
On 7 November 1893, on the opening night of the season and during the second act of the opera Guillaume Tell by Rossini, two Orsini bombs were thrown into the stalls of the opera house. Only one of the bombs exploded; some twenty people were killed and many more were injured. The attack deeply shocked Barcelona, becoming a symbol of the turbulent social unrest of the time. The Liceu reopened its doors on 18 January 1894, but the seats occupied by those killed by the bombs were not used for a number of years. The second bomb was put on display in the Van Gogh Museum in 2007 during an exhibit on Barcelona around 1900.
In 1909 the auditorium ornamentation was renewed. Spanish neutrality during World War I allowed the Catalan textile industry to amass enormous wealth through supplying the warring parties. The 1920s were prosperous years and the Liceu became fully established as a leading opera house welcoming better singers, the orchestra leaders of the time.
When the Second Spanish Republic was proclaimed in 1931 political instability meant that the Liceu suffered a severe financial crisis which was only overcome though subsidies from Barcelona City Council and the government of Catalonia. During the Spanish Civil War the Liceu was nationalized and took the name the Teatre del Liceu – Teatre Nacional de Catalunya (Liceu Opera House – the National Theatre of Catalonia). The opera seasons were suspended. After the war it was returned to its original owners in 1939.
From 1940 to the 1960s the seasons were high quality ones. The year 1955, thanks to the creation of a special board, saw a historic event when for the first time since its foundation the Bayreuth Festival was staged away from its normal venue. Performances of Parsifal, Tristan und Isolde and Die Walküre with innovative stage sets by Wieland Wagner were enthusiastically received.
In the 1970s an economic crisis affected the theatre and the privately based organization was not able to afford the increasing budgets of modern opera productions and general quality declined.
The death of Joan Antoni Pàmias (es) in 1980 revealed the need for the intervention of the official bodies if the institution was to remain a leading opera house. In 1981 the Generalitat de Catalunya with Barcelona's City Council and the Societat del Gran Teatre del Liceu created the Consorci del Gran Teatre del Liceu (Consortium of the Great Liceu Theater) responsible for the theater's management.
The Diputation of Barcelona and the Spanish Ministry of Culture joined the Consortium in 1985 and 1986 respectively. The Consortium managed to quickly attract the public back to the Liceu owing to a considerable improvement in its artistic standard. This included a more complete and up-to-date perspective of the very nature of an opera performance, a great improvement in the choir and orchestra, careful casting, and attracting the interest of the public to other aspects of productions. This approach, coupled with the new economic support and a more demanding and discerning public, resulted in a high standard of productions.
On 31 January 1994 the building was destroyed by a fire caused by a spark that accidentally fell on the curtain during a routine repair. At this time Paul Hindemith's Mathis der Maler was performing at the theatre and the following opera to be performed was Puccini's Turandot.
Public and institutional response was unanimous on the need to rebuild a new opera house on the same site with improved facilities. The new Liceu is the result of a series of actions to preserve those parts of the building unaffected by the fire, the same ones as had survived the 1861 fire. The auditorium was rebuilt with the same layout, except for the roof paintings which were replaced by new art works by Perejaume, and state-of-the-art stage technology.
In order to rebuild and improve the theater, the theater became public. The Fundació del Gran Teatre del Liceu (Liceu Great Theater Foundation) was created and the Societat del Gran Teatre del Liceu handed over owners of the building to the Foundation.
The rebuilt, improved and expanded theater opened on 7 October 1999, with Puccini's Turandot as previewed in 1994 before the fire. The new venue had the same traditional horseshoe-shaped auditorium as before but with greatly improved technical, rehearsal, office and educational facilities, a new rehearsal hall, a new chamber opera and small performances hall, and much more public space. Architects for the rebuilding project were Ignasi de Solà-Morales and Xavier Fabré i Lluís Dilmé.