Temples of Drama and Music

Temples of Drama and Music

The very word opera conjures up high drama – and no city does it better than Berlin. Over the past century it has experienced lawlessness and decadence, followed by dictatorship, terror, poverty, division and reunification. Berlin is an opera in its own right and has taken this art form to its heart.  In 2020, Berlin has three world-class opera houses, the Staatsoper, the Komische Oper and the Deutsche Oper, staging a total of over 80 productions a season and offering something for everyone – from the traditionally tragic and comic to the contemporary, edgy and satirical.

Tosca at the Staatsoper

Tosca at the Staatsoper

Love of Three Oranges at the Deutsche Oper

Love of Three Oranges at the Deutsche Oper

Spring Storms at the Komische Oper

Spring Storms at the Komische Oper

Each Berlin opera house has a unique history and atmosphere and for almost forty years I have followed their fortunes closely. The Staatsoper, built by Frederick the Great in 1742 in the style of an ancient Greek temple, retains its air of nobility from a commanding position on Unter den Linden.  It has had to be rebuilt several times and was recently reopened after seven years of renovation.

Staatsoper Unter den Linden

Staatsoper Unter den Linden

Staatsoper Unter den Linden

A few hundred metres nearer the Brandenburg Gate is the Komische Oper, founded in 1892 as a theatre. It then became a music hall and was commandeered by the Nazis as a venue for their ‘Kraft durch Freude’ (‘Strength through Joy’) entertainment programme. Largely destroyed in the war, the Komische Oper was rebuilt with a plain modern exterior, although its neo-baroque interior was restored.

Komische Oper

Komische Oper

Komische Oper

In contrast to the Staatsoper and the Komische Oper, the Deutsche Oper building is an icon of post-war modernism, both inside and out. It was completed in 1961 to replace the Deutsches Opernhaus opened in 1911 which was destroyed by bombing in the war. In particular, the interior is a far cry from most traditional opera houses Plain wooden panelling and disc-shaped hanging lights serve to focus the audience’s attention on the stage.

Deutshce Oper 1

Deutsche Oper 2

Deutsche Oper

Having lived in West Berlin in the 1980s when the city was divided by the Berlin Wall, I still think in terms of East and West Berlin. During those years of division, West Berliners were restricted to the Deutsche Oper. But members of the ‘Protecting Powers’, which included American, British and French military and diplomats in West Berlin, had unlimited access  to the eastern half of the city and were able to buy tickets for the two opera houses in East Berlin as well. At about 15 east marks each, converted at a rate of one to one against Deutsch Marks, they were an incredible bargain.  The only disadvantage was having to queue at the box office in person to buy the tickets when they were released for sale to the public. Many were allocated in advance, not to season ticket holders as they were in West Berlin, but to the SED (Communist) Party. I can recall standing in line in the snow on Unter den Linden – which in those GDR days was almost empty of traffic and people as it was so close to the Wall – and being prepared to freeze in the interests of acquiring the maximum number of tickets possible for each of the next batch of performances.

A deserted Unter den Linden in 1984

A deserted Unter den Linden in 1984

I must have seen every opera and ballet in the repertoire.  The Russian ballet ‘Spartacus’ was a favourite with the East German audiences, perhaps because of its socialist theme and Russian music generally was high on the agenda, but there was plenty of Mozart, Wagner and Puccini too and the standard was generally very high. Most performers were either East German or from Eastern Bloc countries and many of them went on to have international careers after the fall of the Berlin Wall. It always felt to me as if the East Berlin audiences found opera and ballet the perfect escape from Real Socialism, even if they rarely seemed to show much emotion.

A deserted Unter den Linden in 1984

Staatsoper programme from March 1984

Komische Oper brochure, 1985

But it wasn’t only the musical drama that made my evening sorties across Checkpoint Charlie into the eastern half of the city so memorable. They offered political drama too. Any Allied military present at the opera (almost exclusively men in those days) would be in dress uniform and most of the East German men had a Communist party badge pinned to their lapels – the contrast couldn’t have been starker. In the interval, when the audience repaired to the bar for a glass of East German Sekt or beer, there was a definite atmosphere of suppression and suspicion; none of the noisy laughter and opulent fashion associated with opera houses in the West. A more prosaic difference was that the ladies’ cloakroom attendants were generally male and although the facilities were kept meticulously clean, the East Berlin sewerage system had a distinctive aroma that lingered in the opera houses as well as in the streets.

Outside the Staatsoper in the 1980s

Outside the Staatsoper in the 1980s

When the curtain came down, we would head off for a meal. The East Germans seemed to disappear into thin air – I learnt afterwards that the majority would have obtained their tickets through their factories or offices and had little money to eat out at restaurants, such as there were. There seemed to be only three in the vicinity of the opera houses that offered good food. These were the Ganymed, now a French Brasserie, next to Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble theatre, the rococo-style Ermeler Haus on the Märkisches Ufer which dates back to 1760 and is now a venue room at the Art’otel Mitte and the restaurant on the top floor of the 37 storey Hotel Stadt on Alexanderplatz, now the Radisson Park Inn Hotel and still the tallest hotel in Germany.  We were never shown a menu, just given suggestions on the best dishes to order. They were probably all that was available. The meat was then usually flambéed at the table. We imagined that most of the waiters who served us were members of the Stasi and that the chandeliers above our tables were bugged. This all turned out to be true.

The historic Ganymed

The historic Ganymed

Hotel Stadt, East Berlin 1980

Hotel Stadt, East Berlin 1980

When we emerged from either the Ganymed or Ermeler Haus, both situated on the River Spree, I would often cross the cobbled dimly-lit street and look down into the dark water, wondering what lurked beneath – perhaps bodies of unknown East Germans who had attempted to swim across to West Berlin. Trains rumbled across iron-girder bridges in the direction of Moscow. I was living through my own John le Carre novel.

The River Spree under Friedrichstrasse railway bridge

The River Spree under Friedrichstrasse railway bridge on the former border between East and West Berlin

What a contrast the West Berlin Deutsche Oper was to the two East Berlin opera houses in those days. During Berlin’s division, the Deutsche Oper building boasted many advantages over its East German counterparts. It had more seats, a much larger stage and superior technical features. Its opera and ballet companies attracted performers from all over the world and were free to include avant-garde productions in the repertoire. Tickets were pricier than in East Berlin, but they were less expensive than for other comparable Western opera houses as the West German government provided subsidies to ensure that West Berlin remained an affordable destination.

A Deutsche Oper programme from 1985.

A Deutsche Oper programme from 1985. The programme design remains the same to this day.

An evening out at the Deutsche Oper in the 1980s was an entirely different experience from one at the Staatsoper or the Komische Oper. The West Berlin audiences enjoyed promenading in the huge, high-ceilinged bars before the performance and during the intervals. No uniforms, no hint of suppression, more a case of comfortable capitalism and self-expression. And when the curtain went down, we spilled out into the bright lights of Bismarckstrasse and into one of the many restaurants nearby, often Don Giovanni, with its autographed gallery of famous opera stars who have dined there, and which is still thriving forty years on.

Don Giovanni today

Don Giovanni today

Since 2004 Berlin’s three opera houses have been all part of the Berlin Opera Foundations and this has assured their long-term future. But they remain three distinct gems. After the fall of the Wall, the Staatsoper and the Komische Oper regained their artistic freedom and are as likely to stage bold, outrageous productions as the Deutsche Oper.  But for me their walls still echo with the racial discrimination and persecution of Nazi rule followed by the censorship of the GDR and the infiltration of the Stasi. And the Deutsche Oper will always be associated with the death of Benno Ohnesorg, a student shot by police in 1967 during a demonstration against the Shah of Persia who was attending a performance of The Magic Flute that evening.

Memorial to Benno Ohnesorg outside the Deutsche Oper

Memorial to Benno Ohnesorg outside the Deutsche Oper

The Germans have a great word ‘Vergangenheitsüberwältigung’ which means ‘overcoming the past’. In Berlin, one way to achieve this is to experience the exhilaration of a great performance at one its three opera houses: Art conquers all.  Find out about this season’s highlights by following the links below All productions have English surtitles and tickets are not as expensive as at comparable opera houses elsewhere.




And for further reading about opera in Berlin, here are three more links:




The Fantastic Futurium

The Fantastic Futurium

And now for something completely different – a museum that looks forward to the future rather than back to the past. Called the ‘Futurium’ or ‘House of Futures’, it opened to the public on 5th September and poses the huge question: “How do we want to live in the future?”

Futurium Berlin

You can always trust Berlin to come up with totally avant-garde ideas and this project has not been without its detractors. There has been some criticism of the building; it cost 60 million euros and is constructed of reinforced concrete, glass and steel which are not ecologically sustainable. But the design, resembling a huge geometric crystalline gem, is certainly eye-catching and the location – between the River Spree and the Hauptbahnhof (main railway station) and facing the new government district and the Reichstag – is spot on.

Futurium Design

Eye-Catching design

Great location by the Spree

I visited the Futurium a couple weeks after its opening. There were four us, from three different generations, and we all loved it. We arrived early on a Saturday morning and timed our entrance well, because by midday there were long queues waiting to get in. Word has spread that the Futurium is a great family outing and it helps that entry is free. There are two entrances to the building, each with sheltered forecourts under the angular cube construction and the paved area outside is patterned with polka dots and scattered with round benches and planters.

Arriving at the Futurium

A family experience

The Futurium’s interior is designed on three levels. ‘The Forum’ on the ground floor is conceived not only as the reception area, with an information desk and a fun museum shop, but also a place to meet and exchange ideas about the future, with a calendar of events advertising regular evening presentations and discussions. Its vast dimensions lend a futuristic feel to the space. A special feature is the ‘Wunschpeicher’ or ‘Database of Hopes’, a hands-on display that sets the scene for this museum’s concept – we can decide what kind of future we wish for.

Experimenting with the Database of Hopes

The ‘Restaurant im Futurium’ is conveniently located on ground level too, with views of the riverfront piazza. But by the time we had finished our visit, there wasn’t a seat free and we didn’t have a chance to sample the “culinary future snacks” served alongside “regional classics”. Run by the well-known entrepreneur and TV chef, Sarah Wiener, this restaurant is bound to be popular with Berliners.

Restaurant in Futurium

Self-service and eco-friendly café

A broad central staircase leads up to the first floor, or you can take the large space-like lift clad in black glass. Here you will find ‘The Cloud’, an exciting exhibition area with futuristic lighting and all-glass picture windows offering panoramic views of the city and the River Spree. The entire interior of the Futurium is almost zero-energy rated and fully accessible.

Staircase at Futurium

Staircase to The Cloud

Panoramic view towards the Reichstag

The fantastic displays in ‘The Cloud’ are designed both to inform and to challenge. How will we live and work in ten or twenty years? How will we feed ourselves and what forms of energy will we use? How do we meet our needs without harming nature? These questions are always a matter of interaction between nature, humans and technology and the exhibition is divided into these three parts or ‘thought spaces’.

Using Nature to shape our future environment

Children’s play area in The Cloud

At the start of your tour of the exhibition area, you are invited to put on a RFID wristband and use it to collect data on any exhibits of interest. In a room above ‘The Cloud’ the wristbands can be handed in and the data is collated on to a card with a unique number. You are given the card and can then enter the code on the Futurium website for more information about the future-related topics which caught your interest. This is a pretty cool thing to do and really extends the value of your visit as it is impossible to take in all the information while you are there.

A robot explains how to use the wristband

My unique card

On the very top of the building is ‘The Skywalk’, a pathway around the Futurium’s solar-panelled roof with fabulous views of Berlin. Follow this link to see a short video of this 360° attraction. https://futurium.de/uploads/vrContent/skywalk/skywalk.html

Finally, we took the lift down to ‘The Cave’ in the basement of the Futurium – a hands-on laboratory and workshop area for trying out futuristic concepts. This is the place to experience new technologies like 3D printers and laser cutters. There is even a test kitchen to see if insects will be part of our future diet.

Inside the Lab

Fun with digital imaging

I am sure that the Futurium will become an enduring Berlin attraction. Its contents will be continually updated to keep up with technological developments and environmental and social issues, and as the global debate on climate change becomes more urgent, it can provide a significant forum for discussion. We have only one present, but so many possibilities for the future.

I left the Futurium with the strong sense that although our technological progress is accelerating at an amazing rate, we are not living in harmony with each other nor with nature. One exhibit, the ‘Throne of Sunset’, by artist and peace activist Gonçalo Mabunda from Mozambique, sums up the abuse of human power. It is made of decommissioned arms, such as cartridge cases, pistols and rifle grips.

The Throne of Sunset (1975)

The Futurium is open from 10am until 6pm six days a week; it is closed on Tuesdays. One-hour bookable tours in English take place on Saturdays at 3.30pm and cost 5 euros. For all further details go to https://futurium.de/en/

Berlin’s Green Heart

Berlin’s Green Heart

The Tiergarten is a splendid park. Spread before the Brandenburg Gate, for Berliners it has long been synonymous with both pleasure and leisure. Its name, literally meaning ‘Animal Garden’, derives from its original 16th Century role as a hunting ground for the Elector of Brandenburg. In the 1740s, Frederick the Great, who did not appreciate the hunt as much as his royal antecedents, instructed his architect, Knobelsdorff, to turn the area into a baroque style public park. There were even ‘salons’ where people could meet and discuss, and tents selling refreshments.

Walking through the Tiergarten today

A century later, landscape designer Lenné drew up new plans for the park, modelling it on the English garden style with wide grass lawns and clusters of trees. He included many more footpaths and bridleways and featured small lakes with islands and streams crossed by bridges. By the end of the 19th Century, a host of nationalistic memorials had been constructed in the Tiergarten, especially on the Siegesallee (‘Victory Avenue’) and the Prachtboulevard (‘Magnificence Boulevard’). The park became covered in statues commemorating famous Prussian royals, as well as German cultural greats.

Beethoven Mozart Haydn Memorial

Statue of Queen Louise of Prussia

The original ‘Prachtallee’

When the Nazi Party came to power, Hitler and Speer planned the complete renovation of Berlin to become the Welthauptstadt Germania (World Capital Germania) and had grand visions for the Tiergarten. The road running through the middle of it (formerly Charlottenburger Chaussee, now Straβe des 17. Juni) was widened to form the east-west axis into the capital and the Siegessäule (Victory Column) was moved to the Grosser Stern (Great Star), the central point of the park, from its original site in front of the Reichstag.

Aerial view of Tiergarten, with the Victory Column at its centre

Then came the Second World War when Allied bombing caused terrible devastation to the Tiergarten. In its aftermath many of its surviving trees were felled for firewood and the empty ground was used for growing vegetables because of food shortages.

The devastated Tiergarten

In 1945, the Tiergarten was initially under the direct control of the British Occupying Forces, but four years later in 1949, when the two cities of East and West Berlin were officially established, the reforestation of the Tiergarten was started by the authorities in West Berlin. 250,000 young trees were flown in from West Germany and the Tiergarten was gradually transformed turned into a park landscape once more. There were fewer statues and formal features with the accent being on rest and relaxation for West Berliners, marooned from their homeland by the Berlin Wall.

Relaxing in the Tiergarten

Since re-unification, all Berliners have access to the Tiergarten and it has truly become the green heart of their city again, providing 520 acres of parkland perfect for walking, jogging, cycling, horseriding and boating. In summer the grass areas are popular for picnics, barbecues and sunbathing and in winter it is sometimes possible to ice-skate on the small lakes. There are two excellent eating establishments as well; the ‘Café am Neuen See’ was featured in my Berlin Unwrapped guidebook and remains a huge favourite.

By the lake at the Café am Neuen See

However, less well-known is the wonderful ‘Teehaus im Englischen Garten’ an enchanting reed-thatched ‘teahouse’ hidden away in the north-west corner of the Tiergarten. As its name suggests, it’s located in the ‘English Garden’ and even serves a typical English afternoon tea. The beer garden seats up to 500 people and has a wide menu of light meals, including German specialities. Sunday breakfast is popular all year round and I went there recently on a summer evening for dinner. We started with a cocktail outside on the terrace, then moved into the elegant interior, looking out on to the pretty gardens at dusk. It was a magical setting and a very good meal.

The Teehaus im Englischen Garten

Inside the Teehaus

Map showing location of the Teehaus in the Tiergarten

Making a Grand Entrance

Making a Grand Entrance

One of this summer’s top Berlin cultural events was the much-anticipated opening of British architect David Chipperfield’s stunning new James-Simon-Galerie on Museum Island. Over the past decade, the serene beauty of this unique and impressive ensemble of museums, built between 1830 and 1930 and originally conceived as ‘Athens on the Spree’, has been scarred by cranes and construction work. Now the key part of the project has been completed and on Friday 12th July Angela Merkel, whose Berlin home is just across the street from the Pergamon Museum, officially opened the James-Simon-Galerie. It is named after one of the city’s most important patrons, 19th Century Jewish philanthropist James Simon (1851-1932).


Angela Merkel at the opening of the James-Simon-Galerie

The 21st century addition to Museum Island has attracted great interest in the media, but opinion seems to be divided about its aesthetic qualities. Personally, I think that the clean lines and generous proportions of its modern design reflect and complement the classical grandeur of Museum Island. However, at a cost of about €150 million and with its endless rows of wall lockers provided for the use of museum visitors, it has been dubbed ‘Berlin’s most expensive cloakroom facility’. cloakroom facility’.

Stunning exterior design

View from the Spree side

For the next few weeks visitors can wander around the James-Simon-Galerie at no cost and get a feel for its concept. The new construction incorporates a soaring central entrance hall with ticket counters, information desks and a museum shop,as well as a space for reading. In addition to the gallery itself, there is a 300-seat auditorium for lectures and concerts. The stylish ‘Cu29’ restaurant, also open outside museum hours,has tall windows which afford good views of Museum Island and the surrounding area. ‘Cu29’ is certain to be a popular venue; it offers interesting breakfast, lunch and dinner menus, not to mention coffee, cakes and cocktails.

Inside Cu29

Four of the five museums on the island in the Spree are now connected by the James-Simon-Galerie so that visitors can move between the different buildings using the new subterranean Archaeological Promenade. Colonnades similar to those of the Neues Museum give a modern classical feel and the wide flight of steps at the entrance creates a suitable sense of awe and expectation. The first temporary exhibition in the gallery opens at the end of August. Currently on display is a model of Museum Island and a few exhibits and information panels explaining how the Berlin State Museums evolved from the ‘cabinets of curiosity’ in aristocratic.

Model of Museum Island and its environs

A ‘mock’ cabinet of curiosities

In the main room are four huge screens showing short films about the life and achievements of James Simon. The soundtracks are in German, but there are large subtitles in English explaining how this wealthy Jewish textile manufacturer became such an important art collector and benefactor. Together with Museum Director Wilhelm Bode and under the patronage of Kaiser Wilhelm II, James Simon founded the Deutsche Orient Gesellschaft which financed the excavations in Egypt and led to the acquisition of the famous coloured bust of Nefertiti on display in the Neues Museum. He presented hundreds of artworks and artefacts to Berlin’s State Museums and assembled a substantial private collection in his mansion at 15a Tiergartenstrasse, most of which was later bequeathed to the State.

Screens showing James Simon’s biography

James Simon had a strong social conscience and funded children’s homes and summer camps, hospitals and public baths. He was a man who wanted to be judged by his deeds not his words. He is buried in the Jewish cemetery on Schönhauser Allee in Prenzlauer Berg and at his funeral Kaiser Wilhelm II sent a wreath from his exile in The Netherlands. Interestingly, James Simon’s descendants include his granddaughter Leni Yahil, an illustrious Israeli historian who specialised in the Holocaust and the Danish Jewry.

Henri James Simon in 1920

Henri James Simon in 1920

Fairy-tale Christmas markets

Fairy-tale Christmas markets

For Christmas markets with authentic atmosphere and fewer tourists, it’s best to escape the city centre and head for the Berlin ‘countryside’. Public transport links are so good that most are easily accessible by train or bus. Last weekend I visited two of my favourites which have a more traditional feel.

Stalls at the Grunewald and the Dahlem markets

There are still two more weekends of Advent to catch the market at Domäne Dahlem, an open-air agricultural and food museum with a focus on ecology. The former manor house there dates back over 800 years and the estate provides the perfect backdrop for a traditional Christmas market. Take the U-Bahn (U3) Dahlem Dorf and the Domäne is practically opposite the station.

Pretty Dahlem Dorf station in the snow

The market stalls offer all manner of handmade products from wooden and straw Christmas decorations to beeswax candles, stationery, clothing and food. Permanent arts and craft workshops specialise in gilding, weaving, pottery and furniture restoration and some have their wares on sale. You can dine on goose or waffles under cover of the large shed and warm up with Glühwein or mead as you stroll around the market to the accompaniment of the brass band quartet playing seasonal music. The entrance fee of €3 also includes the Manor House and the Culinarium exhibition in the newly renovated stables.

A stall selling handmade Berlin souvenirs

An even more fairy-tale destination is the annual Adventmarkt in the courtyard of the Jagdschloss Grunewald – the fabulous 16th Century Royal ‘Hunting Palace’ in the Grunewald forest, Berlin’s oldest surviving palace. This market only takes place over the second weekend of Advent and it’s worth planning a trip to Berlin to visit it; the lake-side forest setting is magical – better than any film set could dream up. The 115 or X10 bus routes take you within a 15 minute walk of the Jagdschloss, on forest paths. Alight at Pückler Straße (115) or Königin-Luise-Straße (X10) and take a torch if you are walking back after dark.

The Jagdschloss courtyard after dark

Apart from dozens of market stalls selling hand-made gifts and toys and a variety of tempting food and drink, the Grunewald market is full of music and drama.  A small brass band plays by the courtyard entrance and characters from fairy-tales mingle with the crowd. There’s also a central stage set up in front of the Renaissance Jagdschloss and families gather round to listen to carol-singing or a performance of Hansel and Gretel.

Wicked Frau Holle introducing the play

If the market gets crowded, there’s plenty of room down by the Grunewaldsee behind the palace. With a glass of ‘Feuerzangenbowle’ (German Fire Punch) in one hand and a Bratwurst in the other, you won’t feel the cold and the views are stunning, especially with sunset over the lake.

A lakeside stall selling traditionally-dyed ‘Blaudruck’ (‘blueprint’) cloth products

As an extra treat, the Berlin ‘Weihnachstmarkt für Hunde’ (Christmas Market for dogs!) is only a five minute walk from the Jagdschloss at the Forsthaus Paulsborn. The Grunewald is a popular destination for dog owners as there are not only miles of walks but in summer dogs are allowed to swim in the Grunewaldsee (see post ‘If you go down in the woods today…’ from 16 August 2014).  The annual Christmas Market for dogs started in 2012 and has proved a great success. It’s worth the entrance fee of €1.80 just to catch the canine festive spirit.

Choosing a doggy Christmas gift

Then finish Grunewald Advent experience at the stately Forsthaus Paulsborn before walking back through the forest to the bright city lights. For full details of all Berlin Christmas markets, the Visit Berlin website has a comprehensive list.

The scene outside and inside Forsthaus Paulsborn after dusk