Sarah Hale is impressed by a back-stage tour of Berlin’s historic Deutsche Oper…
Spend enough time in Berlin and soon enough you will hear about its three opera houses – something of an indulgence given that most modern cities struggle to maintain an audience base for one opera house. Certainly there is a population here that can sustain such an endeavour, but like most Berlin stories this one is grounded in the city’s unique history…
It is Friedrich I of Prussia’s wife Sophie Charlotte who is credited with bringing opera to Berlin in the 1690s. She died at the age of 36, but was so enamoured of opera that she had an Italian opera theatre built for her enjoyment, and inspired one of the most substantial solo violin sonatas in Western music history, composed by Corelli in 1700 (Opus 5).
Fredrick the Great is credited with picking up where she left off, and commissioned the original Staatsoper, known then as the Hofoper – Berlin’s oldest opera house. Years later, the performances and repertoire of the Staatsoper, which were largely traditional and standard in nature, inspired a counter-Staatsoper movement in the form of the Deutsche Oper Verein in the early 20th century.
The Verein’s leaders included Hänsel und Gretel composer Engelbert Humperdinck. Charlottenburg was not part of the city of Berlin at the time, and the wealthy area, termed the richest town in Prussia as it happens, opened a new opera house in 1912 with a performance of Fidelio, Beethoven’s only opera.
The Third Reich challenged the Berlin opera community in ways that seem decidedly odd today, given the period’s brutal nature. It was no doubt critical to the goals of Adolf Hitler’s regime that the German population have access to affordable, quality entertainment, so that it paid less attention to the dark deeds that were going on in its midst.
To that end, the operas were funded generously by the state, but this naturally came with strings attached. Both Joseph Goebbels, one of Hitler’s closest associates and the Reich Minister of Propaganda, and Hermann Goering, who eventually was the highest-ranking Nazi to be tried in Nuremberg, were not only rivals within Hitler’s administration but also avowed opera lovers.
Goering and Goebbels assumed personal oversight of the artistic content and personnel at the two opera houses. The Staatsoper was under Goering’s direct supervision, while Goebbels supervised the Deutsche Oper. Goebbels also ran the Berlin Philharmonie. At the time, the Staatsoper was the more highly regarded of the two opera houses. The two men used these positions of artistic control and propaganda potential to jockey for Hitler’s favour. Goebbels’ memoirs include detailed criticism of the sets, performers and the musical director at the Staatsoper, for example.
World War II bombings destroyed both opera houses, and the division of Berlin during the Cold War saw the redevelopment of both. When the Berlin Wall, largely composed of barbed wire and armed guards at first, went up overnight in 1961, it separated the two operas, their artists and employees. Many of those affiliated with the Deutsche Oper were trapped in East Germany, and later hired by the Staatsoper, which in turn lost employees to the West side. Thus they developed independently during the Cold War.
Post-unification, with two standard-repertoire opera houses, the Komische Operhaus, and other Kiez opera companies such as the Neuköllner Oper (among others), Berlin boasts the most opera of any city in the world.
The largest is the Deutsche Oper. The second-largest music hall in Germany, its scope, size and repertoire make it something of a wonder. Unassuming from the outside, the large blocky venue – built in 1961 in classic Bauhaus style – lies on the busy Bismarckstraβe in Charlottenburg, looking for all the world like it contains a university lecture hall or a government ministry rather than an opera company.
Architect Fritz Bornemann deliberately chose the building’s simple lines and unfussy construction so that the operas themselves would receive all of an audience’s attention. Grand entryways, elaborate foyers and luxurious ornamentation have no place here. The establishment was never intended to be like the grandiloquent opera houses of the past, where attendees came to socialize, display their wealth, and use an artsy outing as a means to bask in elegance settings. Like Berlin itself, the Deutsche Oper is understated, limited in its visual grandeur, bowing to the substance rather than the presentation.
The minimalist architecture continues well into the Deutsche Oper’s interior, of which I was able to take a comprehensive, 90-minute back-stage tour for a highly reasonable 5 euros. The sheer fact that the Deutsche Oper changes the operas performed on a daily basis is an impressive feat – and an anomaly when compared with many other opera houses across the globe. I counted thirty-six fully staged operas among the Deutsche Oper’s 2013/2014 repertoire (and considerably more when one includes those staged in venues outside the main opera house, or those performed in concert-style). New York City’s renowned Metropolitan Opera weighed in with twenty-eight. Our guide confirmed that the Deutsche Oper’s impressive stage system is equipped for a repertoire of as many as 70 operas in a season.
Audience seating is a priority in the Deutsche Oper’s design, and a considerable amount of the “democratic” layout of its more than 1,900 seats was apparently designed with Richard Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk vision in mind. For Wagner and the Late Romantic composers who followed him, the fusion of music, poetry and painting is the ideal and should form the primary focus of its audience.
The design of the large orchestra pit is somewhat similar to that in the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, in that it’s possible to move the orchestra practically out of sight (for Wagner, Verdi or Strauss works or example), slightly higher perhaps for Mozart, and all the way up into full view for concert performances. I’ve rarely considered, as a member of the audience, just how much space is behind the action on stage, and here it’s simply cavernous. Stagehands and technicians mill about our tour group dutifully, preparing for the evening’s production of Otello.
The Deutsche Oper is able to flexibly stage so many operas in a season as a result of an efficient system of huge turn tables installed in the floor, trap doors that raise and lower whole sets, and an organized storehouse and staff. Sets are built like the sails of ships, in that they open to look expansive and significant, and fold, ideally like cloth, to be light and compact.
Among the sets we see are various pieces held in the stage wings for the Deutsche Oper’s Tosca performances, including those designed to mimic Rome’s Castel St. Angelo. Incidentally, these pieces are the Deutsche Oper’s oldest, originally used on stage in 1968. The massive moon used for The Magic Flute, and pieces used in the staging of Rigoletto and Carmen are among many others that pepper the storehouse tour.
The backstage walk through culminates with an artist’s view from the stage out onto the audience. From here I can envision, albeit briefly, what this theatre looks like from Otello’s perspective, with a view of the conductor’s perch in the orchestra pit, and the various prompters that signal my cues from various angles, depending on where the stage blocking leads me in my dramatic journey. I snap a picture but linger in the limelight. Thankfully for the other visitors, the hard-working stage technicians who are impatient to get on with their duties keep me from bursting into song. This time…
For those who are new to opera and for veterans, the tour is a great way to gain an appreciation of the inner workings of the Deutsche Oper. English language tours are a recent addition, and backstage tours are more frequent early in the opera season. Be sure to check the Deutsche Oper site for additional information.
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