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
Love of Three Oranges at the Deutsche 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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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 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. 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
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
The Germans have a great word ‘Vergangenheitsbewältigung’ 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: