The Mariinsky Theatre is a historic theatre of opera and ballet in Saint Petersburg, Russia. Opened in 1860, it became the preeminent music theatre of late 19th century Russia, where many of the stage masterpieces of Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, and Rimsky-Korsakov received their premieres. Through most of the Soviet era, it was known as the Kirov Theatre. Today, the Mariinsky Theatre is home to the Mariinsky Ballet, Mariinsky Opera and Mariinsky Orchestra.
The theatre is named after Empress Maria Alexandrovna, wife of Tsar Alexander II. There is a bust of the Empress in the main entrance foyer. The theatre's name has changed throughout its history, reflecting the political climate of the time. The theatre building is commonly called the Mari insky Theatre. The companies that operate within it have for brand recognition purposes retained the famous Kirov name, acquired during the Soviet era to commemorate the assassinated Leningrad Communist Party leader Sergey Kirov (1886–1934).
The Imperial drama, opera and ballet troupe in Saint Petersburg was established in 1783, at the behest of Catherine the Great, although an Italian ballet troupe had performed at the Russian court since the early 18th century. Originally, the ballet and opera performances were given in the wooden Karl Knipper Theatre on Tsaritsa Meadow, near the present-day Tripartite Bridge (also known as the Little Theatre or the Maly Theatre). The Hermitage Theatre, next door to the Winter Palace, was used to host performances for an elite audience of aristocratic guests invited by the Empress.
A permanent theatre building for the new company of opera and ballet artists was designed by Antonio Rinaldi and opened in 1783. Known as the Imperial Bolshoi Kamenny Theatre the structure was situated on Carousel Square, which was renamed Theatre Square in honour of the building. Both names - "Kamenny" (Russian word for "stone") and "Bolshoi" (Russian word for "big") - were coined to distinguish it from the wooden Little Theatre. In 1836, the Bolshoi Kamenny Theatre was renovated to a design by Albert Cavos (son of Catterino Cavos, an opera composer), and served as the principal theatre of the Imperial Ballet and opera.
On 29 January 1849, the Equestrian circus (Конный цирк) opened on Theatre Square. This was also the work of the architect Cavos. The building was designed to double as a theatre. It was a wooden structure in the then-fashionable neo-Byzantine style. Ten years later, when this circus burnt down, Albert Cavos rebuilt it as an opera and ballet house with the largest stage in the world. With a seating capacity of 1,625 and a U-shaped Italian-style auditorium, the theatre opened on 2 October 1860 with a performance of A Life for the Tsar. The new theatre was named Mariinsky after its imperial patroness, Empress Maria Alexandrovna.