Wilhelm Furtwängler began his career there, and in 1913 Richard Wagner’s Parsifal was given its first performance outside Bayreuth. Ferruccio Busoni, Paul Hindemith, Richard Strauss, Othmar Schoeck, Arthur Honegger, Frank Martin and other famous composers all left their mark on the development of Zurich’s musical theatre. Zurich Opera House has been the setting for numerous world premières, such as Alban Berg’s Lulu, Paul Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler, Arnold Schönberg’s Moses und Aron, and Rudolf Kelterborn's Der Kirschgarten. Works by Heinrich Sutermeister and Giselher Klebe were also performed there for the first time.
From 1975 to 1986, Claus Helmut Drese was artistic director of the company. His artistic standards led the company to gain international recognition, through the presentation of the Monteverdi cycle, with Nikolaus Harnoncourt as conductor and Jean-Pierre Ponnelle as director and set designer.
Since the 1991/92 season, Alexander Pereira has been the company's General Director; his tenure opened with Lohengrin, in a production by Robert Wilson. He has placed great emphasis on promoting promising young artists and new types of performances.
The Zurich Festival has been in existence since the autumn of 1996 with Pereira as Artistic Director; the first Festival was held in the summer of 1997.
Franz Welser-Möst became Chief Conductor as of the 1995-1996 season, and from September 2005 to July 2008, served as Generalmusikdirektor (General Music Director, or GMD). In June 2009, Daniele Gatti was named the next principal conductor of the company, effective in 2010, for three seasons. Also in June 2009, Fabio Luisi was named the next GMD of the company, effective with the 2012-2013 season, with an initial contract of 5 years.
- Martin Cullingford (2009-06-09). "Daniele Gatti moves to Zurich Opera". Gramophone. Retrieved 2009-06-12.[dead link]
- "Fabio Luisi appointed General Music Director at Zurich Opera House as of 2012" (Press release). Zurich Opera. 30 June 2009. Archived from the original on 2010-01-13. Retrieved 2009-10-13.