The artistic history of the Liceu mirrors the history of opera in the Western World. Initially opera occupied a relatively small place on the bill, alongside numerous plays, concerts and variety shows. Later, however, the Liceu gradually evolved into a prestigious opera house. The first opera to be staged there – Donizetti’s Anna Bolena – was a sign of the taste for bel canto and contemporary Italian Romantic drama, including works by Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini, Verdi and others which have remained in the repertoire ever since (Verdi is the most frequently staged composer). French opera was also popular, both the now-forgotten composers of grand opera (Auber, Meyerbeer and Halévy) and later French composers (such as Gounod, Bizet, Massenet and Saint-Saëns), whose works are still performed.
The first performance of an opera by Wagner, one of the Liceu audience's best-loved and admired composers, took place in 1883. His works have given the Liceu many unforgettable moments. Other much-appreciated schools are late 19th-century Verism – especially Puccini – and Russian opera Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and Tchaikovsky which reached the Liceu in 1915. The impresario Mestres Calvet enhanced the artistic quality of the bill with his stagings of works by composers including Mozart, Strauss, Falla and Stravinsky and shows by Diaghilev’s Russian Ballets. Gradually the repertoire came to encompass the most widely performed titles from all over the world. The second half of the 20th century saw the premieres of works by practically all the century's great composers (Bartók, Honegger, Gershwin, Berg, Janácek, Weill, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Britten, Schönberg, Hindemith, etc.) and revivals of Baroque and classical composers such as Monteverdi, Händel and Gluck.
Works by Catalan composers such as Pedrell, Granados, Morera, Pahissa, Vives, Toldrà, Montsalvatge and Gerhard have been staged at the Liceu. Some of the best voices of all time – foremost among them the Catalan singers Victoria de los Ángeles, Montserrat Caballé, Jaume Aragall and Josep Carreras – have been heard there too, and the finest conductors and operatic stage directors have worked there.
Sets by traditional Catalan designers -Soler i Rovirosa, Vilomara, Junyent, Alarma, Mestres Cabanes and others- and by avant-garde artists including Bakst, Picasso, Cocteau and Miró have adorned the Liceu's stage.
Ballet has been a feature of all the Liceu's seasons. Over the years the most prestigious dance companies in the world have performed there.
In addition, the Liceu’s permanent dance troupe, under the leadership of its director and dancer Joan Magriñà, gave regular performances there from 1950 to 1980.