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.

https://www.staatsoper-berlin.de/en/

https://www.komische-oper-berlin.de/en/

https://www.deutscheoperberlin.de/en_EN/home

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

https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/24/arts/music/berlin-opera.html

https://www.theguardian.com/music/2010/apr/04/berlin-opera-barenboim-fiona-maddocks

https://www.dw.com/en/9-facts-you-need-to-know-about-berlins-new-staatsoper/a-40717667

Saturday NoonSong

Saturday NoonSong

Berlin loves Saturday lunchtime – there’s a sense that the weekend starts here. It wasn’t so long ago that the German school week didn’t finish until Saturday lunchtime and the shops closed for the weekend soon after midday. Some traditions haven’t changed though, and many Berliners still head for their local market to do the weekend shopping, then find a good café for lunch. They might even call into the church on the market square for musical and spiritual refreshment.

Karl-August-Platz Market in Charlottenburg with Trinitatis Church

A notable example is the Kirche am Hohenzollernplatz (Church on Hohenzollern Square) where a choral concert and church service called ‘NoonSong’ takes place every Saturday at noon. ‘NoonSong’ is a play on the name of the Anglican service of Evensong, and its aim is to offer peaceful respite from busy city life.

NoonSong Brochure

Outside the church is a hive of activity around the stalls of the local street market but inside you can escape into ‘thirty minutes of heaven’ provided by the beautiful a cappella singing from centuries of sacred music by the professional vocal ensemble ‘sirventes berlin’. There are organ voluntaries as well and the congregation joins in with the two hymns. Every seat was taken when I went there recently, so it’s worth arriving early.

Kirche am Hohenzollernplatz

The stark 1930s Brick Expressionist church building contributes to the rarefied atmosphere and on a sunny day, the light streams in through the high, stained glass windows turning the whole experience into something quite ethereal.

After feeding the soul at NoonSong, it was time for Saturday lunch and there is no shortage of restaurants and cafés near Hohenzollernplatz. I can highly recommend Tian Fu on Uhlandstrasse, only a two-minute walk from the church and Hohenzollernplatz Underground Station. This very well-reviewed restaurant serves spicy Sichuan-style food and is a favourite with the Berlin Chinese community.

On my last visit, we started with Tian Fu’s excellent Dim Sum, then chose various dishes of lamb, duck and calamari which were all delicious. Despite being very busy, the service was efficient and friendly. I loved the décor too – a Chinese twist to Berlin urban retro charm. A great place to start our multi-cultural Berlin weekend. 

Music for the Thinking Ear

Music for the Thinking Ear

Last week I experienced Berlin’s new concert hall, the Pierre Boulez Saal, and fell in love with this fabulous addition to the city’s music scene. It is the brainchild of pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim, who wanted to create a performance space and a music academy allied to his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, made up of young musicians from Christian, Jewish, and Muslim backgrounds. Barenboim was a great friend and admirer of composer and conductor Pierre Boulez (1925-2016). They enjoyed a close musical collaboration for over forty years; you can read Barenboim’s thoughts on Boulez’s visionary thinking by following this link to an interview he gave in 2005.

The Pierre Boulez Saal

The Pierre Boulez Saal

Daniel Barenboim with Pierre Boulez

Daniel Barenboim with Pierre Boulez

Situated in the cultural heart of the city, just behind the Staatsoper on Unter den Linden and close to the Gendarmenmarkt, the Pierre Boulez Saal brings music to life in a unique way. The elliptical shaped hall is lined with Canadian cedarwood and is built into the ground, just below street level. Its mellow warmth embraces the audience in a full sweep of 360°, so that the listener is never separated from the performers by more than a few metres. This creates a direct connection with the musicians and draws the audience into their concentration. As a result, the music speaks to the mind as well as the heart. 

Concert hall interior

Concert hall interior

The inaugural concert took place on Saturday 4th March 2017. More than 600 invited guests, among them the German president Joachim Gauck, finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble, and Berlin Mayor, Michael Müller, gathered to hear a three-and-half-hour programme which included complex works by Pierre Boulez. Also present, were architect Frank Gehry and acoustician Yasuhisa Toyoto, who donated their services for the new hall’s design. You can still hear this concert in full by following this link or watch Barenboim talking about it on a video on the Deutsche Welle website. 

The inaugural concert

The inaugural concert

Tickets for future concerts are in high demand. Lang Lang, Sir Simon Rattle and Pinchas Zukerman are among the big names who will be performing this season, quite apart from Daniel Barenboim himself. The concert I heard last week was given by students of the Barenboim-Said-Akademie. They performed two string quartets and had the audience spellbound with the intensity of their playing. It was the first afternoon ‘Studentenkonzert’ and tickets cost just 10 euros. The next one takes place on Thursday 1st June. If you subscribe to the Pierre Boulez Saaal Newsletter, you will receive details of all forthcoming concerts, including the student series.

Interior design for the buidling

Interior design for the buidling

Even if you don’t have tickets, it is worth visiting the Pierre Boulez Saal. Apart from the concert hall itself, there is a grand, towering foyer area with two floors of galleried exhibition space. Until 16th July 2017, ‘Klang der Utopie’ (‘The Sound of Utopia’) tells the inspiring story of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. This youth orchestra, founded in 1999 by Barenboim and academic Edward Said, is named after ‘West-östlicher Divan’, an anthology of poems by Goethe. It has become a living symbol of the possibility of peaceful relations in the Middle East and shows how music transcends religious and political borders. Now that Barenboim has established his music academy in Berlin, the scope of further international cooperation among music students has been extended.

Stepping insider the foyer

Stepping insider the foyer

There are café facilities at the Pierre Boulez Saal and tables set out in the foyer. I can recommend both the coffee and the exotic middle-eastern pastries. Today, 21st May 2017, the Pierre Boulez Saal is holding an ‘Open House’ event. There are several performances of string quartets by Elliott Carter, a New York–born composer, who lived to the age of 103 (1908-2012) and short concerts for children as well. Free tickets are available at the box office and the concert hall is open for viewing. Full details can be found on the excellent Pierre Boulez Saal website where you can also subscribe to their newsletter.

Bowie in Berlin

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If you missed the Bowie exhibition on last year at the V&A in London – be sure to see it in Berlin at the Martin-Gropius-Bau from 20th May until 10th August. I loved it in London and will definitely go again in Berlin, a city which made such a lasting impact on Bowie. To find out more about Bowie’s Berlin years follow this link to ‘Ziggy in Berlin’.