Gottfried Semper had not been in the city long before he made his first major career breakthrough. In 1834, at the age of 31, he was appointed Professor of Architecture at the Academy of Fine Arts. Before then, he was mainly known for his work as an art theoretician. It was only when he supervised the construction of the Hoftheater (Royal Court Theatre), as the opera house was officially known, that he gained initial international recognition as an architect.
The spectacular rotunda, which was built between 1838 and 1841 on what is now known as Theaterplatz, was inspired by the style of the early Italian Renaissance. Within a short time, it was lauded around the world as the most beautiful theatre in existence.
Semper was subsequently commissioned with the building of the Dresden Gemäldegalerie, but political events were to intervene. Semper was a supporter of the Dresden Revolution of May 1849, the professed goal of which was the establishment of a Saxon republic and, by implication, the overthrow of King Friedrich August II. Semper had played a key role advising the insurgents on the techniques of barricade construction as the Prussian troops marched on Dresden. He fled Dresden, first seeking refuge in London and then in Zurich.
During this period of exile, he was involved in various projects, including the design of the Burgtheater in Vienna.
In 1869, during his absence from Dresden, a catastrophic fire destroyed the first Semperoper, and because another important theatre, the Great Opera House on the Zwinger, had already burned down during the May Revolution, Dresden suddenly found itself without a venue for the performance of opera.
Less than three months after the fire in the Hoftheater, a replacement had already been erected, the so-called ‘Bretterbude’ (shack). As the name suggests, this could only be an interim solution.
The people of Dresden drew up a petition to King Friedrich August II, humbly beseeching that the expatriate Semper be put in charge of the reconstruction. The monarch assented with the proviso that the ban on him entering the country remained in force. Obliged to revise the plans of the original structure in exile, he assigned management of the construction work to his son Manfred.