The Staatsoper Baustelle

Jesse Simon goes on an unconventional tour through the past and future of Unter den Linden’s Opera House… 

Image by Jesse Simon
Image by Jesse Simon

There is a giant pit, some 10-12 meters deep, next to Unter den Linden – but most people don’t even notice it. Casual passers-by on the tourist trail from Museum Island to the Brandenburger Tor see only the fence and, behind it, some Corinthian columns and a pediment peering over the top.

This neo-classical temple with its gold inscription from King Friedrich to Apollo and the Muses was once an opera house; today it is a shell, surrounded by cranes and made inaccessible by plywood and wire. Yet another piece of Berlin caught in the space between an unrecoverable past and an unknowable future.

The story of this building should be familiar to anyone who knows Berlin; a tale of destruction and renewal that can be told about so many of the city’s most prominent structures. Constructed in 1742 under Friedrich II (the Great), the opera house was gutted by fire just over a century later in 1843. A year later the opera had returned and performances continued with few interruptions for another hundred years until Joseph Goebbels ordered the closure of all theatres and concert halls in 1944.

Only a few months later, an Allied bomb would transform this mighty temple into a lamentable ruin. But even this disaster was only temporary. Ten years later the opera returned to a fully restored building, and subsequent seasons would witness both the division and reunification of the city that had always been its home.

Opera House in 1850
Opera House in 1850

Back To The Future 

Now the opera house is a building site once more. The company who once performed here – the world-renowned Staatsoper Berlin – packed up in 2010 and moved several miles down the road to the Schiller Theatre, mere blocks away from their cross-town rivals on Bismarckstraße. The building they left behind contains only the faintest traces of the ornate decoration that once greeted Berlin’s opera-goers.

From the bottom of that giant pit on Unter den Linden, where one stands surrounded by a strange landscape of re-bar, scaffolding and recently poured concrete, the house looks especially precarious, perched right on the edge of an empty space that could easily contain its remains.

Of course the opera will return, just as it always has. Although aficionados will have to continue heading west to Charlottenburg for performances of Don Giovanni or Tannhäuser, a collaborative venture between the Staatsoper and the Senatsverwaltung für Stadtentwicklung und Umwelt has allowed the construction site on Unter den Linden to open for guided tours.

Lasting around two hours, the tours can be booked through the Staatsoper website and offer a fascinating and unconventional way for a visitor or local to experience the city, as well as ponder the cycle of destruction and regeneration that has come to define Berlin. Perhaps more importantly, building sites are inherently awesome, and this is one of the few in Berlin that is possible to enjoy in a completely legal fashion.

The tours begin in a series of nondescript offices across a small side-street from St. Hedwig’s (a striking cathedral that was the first such Catholic structure in Prussia). In what appears to be a makeshift boardroom, with complex architectural drawings hanging on the walls, one is asked to don a hard hat and exchange their regular shoes for bright-yellow steel-toed wellies.

Even a casual examination of the drawings on the wall reveal that the extent of the construction work is far greater than a simple refurbishment of the opera house itself. When construction is finished, the house will be part of a much larger complex extending into the two adjacent buildings and featuring rehearsal rooms, a Frank-Gehry-designed chamber music hall and an academy for young musicians supervised by the Staatsoper’s music director Daniel Barenboim.

It may be the most significant new development in Berlin’s classical music scene since the opening of the Philharmonie in 1963 – though once the group leaves the offices and enters the site through a small gate, it becomes quickly clear that this noble future is still a few years off.

Photo by Jesse Simon
Photo by Jesse Simon

As the tour winds through vast concrete rooms and makeshift wooden stairways, the emphasis is very much on the future. The guide goes into considerable detail about what the empty spaces will eventually contain, and how everything will fit together. It is fascinating in its way – especially for those who look forward to the return of the opera – but the present and future together account for only half the story.

The fact is that one day there will be a neo-classical opera house facing onto Unter den Linden and people walking by will assume that it has been there forever. This, of course, fits perfectly with the larger aims of Berlin. If the modern visitor can maintain the illusion of an eighteenth-century city centre on the short walk from Museum Island to Bebelplatz, it is due largely to the heroic building efforts of the past fifty years.

The desire to recreate Berlin as it might have existed before the war has guided the city to some of its greatest architectural triumphs, as well as some of its most baffling lapses. Across the street from the opera, one may visit clever approximations of Karl Schinkel’s Neue Wache, now re-purposed as a memorial, and Andreas Schlüter’s baroque armoury which now houses the German History Museum.

Yet only a few hundred meters to the east, the Palast der Republik – that unlikely monument to a time and place in living memory – has been removed without a trace; in place of where it once stood, a replica of the old Prussian royal palace will one day contribute to this illusion of a continuous city in which the architectural ‘mistakes’ of the twentieth century have been quietly swept aside.

The opera house, too, is part of that plan, where modern interiors lurk behind neo-classical facades; and while most of the people on the tour seemed content to see the future amidst the majestic labyrinths of scaffolding, the new home of the Staatsoper is perhaps best understood in the context of Berlin’s complex relationship with it’s own past.

A History of The Staatsoper

The neo-classical shell of the opera house faces Unter den Linden and its western wall delineates one side of Bebelplatz, the public square that remains most well-known as the site of the infamous book-burnings in the 1930s. The platz – formerly known as Platz am Opernhaus or, simply, Opernplatz – and the building itself were part of a second wave of developments designed to transform Berlin from a provincial electoral residence into a modern European capital, a process that (some would argue) continues to this day.

Drawing of the Opera House facade
Drawing of the Opera House facade

When Friedrich II commissioned the opera house, the city of Berlin – and its now-forgotten sister city of Cölln – had existed for some five centuries, but they had only started to expand beyond their fortified medieval walls during the previous half-century. After the elector Friedrich III of Brandenburg was crowned Friedrich I of Prussia in 1701, the city was forced to re-fashion itself into a royal residence.

The Elector’s castle on what is now Museum Island was transformed into a palace by the architect and sculptor Andreas Schlüter – currently the subject of a fascinating exhibition at the Bode Museum – and the old Lindenallee, which led from the city to the hunting grounds of the Tiergarten, became the baseline for a rational new urban plan.

Any king who has read his ancient history can tell you that the best remembered rulers are the ones who left a legacy of buildings. Thus, when Friedrich II became king of Prussia, his desire to follow in the footsteps of Augustus, Hadrian, Justinian and even his grandfather Friedrich I – for whom he otherwise had little respect – resulted in new plans for the capital.

In 1740, Friedrich’s court architect, the fabulously named Georg Wenzeslaus von Knobelsdorff, was commissioned to design a series of buildings around a public square that would include a catholic church as a symbol of the king’s religious tolerance, a library as a symbol of his erudition and an opera house as a symbol of his devotion to the arts. (In addition to being an extraordinary military tactician, Friedrich was also a mean talent on the flute).

Although Friedrich was occupied with the first of his Silesian campaigns, construction on the opera house began in 1741 and the first opera – the now largely forgotten Cesare e Cleopatra by Carl Heinrich Graun – was performed there little more than a year later, in a building that was not yet quite finished. When the building first opened, opera had been in existence for almost a hundred and fifty years and, in that time, had developed a series of guidelines and conventions that wouldn’t be challenged and dismantled until decades later ( by, among others, Gluck and Mozart).

However the principal battlefields of operatic reform were Vienna and Paris; in the world of opera, Berlin was still very much on the periphery. Yet, while Berlin was not necessarily the place to which an aspiring composer of the eighteenth or nineteenth century might naturally gravitate, the opera became an integral and increasingly important part of the city’s cultural life.

The building, as designed by Knobelsdorff, existed in its original form for just over forty years, until 1786, when the plan of the interior was revised and expanded by the architect Carl Gotthard Langhans, whose other notable contribution to Berlin – the Brandenburger Tor – would be completed five years later.

Drawing of the side of the Opera House
Drawing of the side of the Opera House

When the opera house was gutted by fire in 1843, it was Langhans’ son Carl Ferdinand who was charged with the task of rebuilding it. Langhans the younger was involved in the construction of several theatres during his life: only two years earlier he had designed the opera house in Wrocław (Breslau) and, some twenty years later, his drawings would be used to construct the Neues Theater in Leipzig.

Despite the intervention of these later hands, the opera house on Unter den Linden retained the basic neo-classical character it had possessed since the very beginning. It survived in this form into the twentieth century, during which time its prominence in the world of opera began to grow. During the nineteenth century, it could boast association with the composers Giacomo Meyerbeer and Otto Nicolai (who, although now remembered mostly by opera connoisseurs, were well-known in their day); at the beginning of the twentieth century, its musical director was no less distinguished a figure than Richard Strauss.

Despite the opening of a rival opera house in Charlottenburg in 1912 (now the Deutsche Oper), the opera continued to build its reputation for exceptional performances. But by the early 1930s, the spirit of the times had started to undermine even Berlin’s most august institutions. In 1934, only a year after the book burnings in the adjacent Bebelplatz, the Reichsmusikkammer’s increasingly intolerant attitude to modernist composers – including Alban Berg, whose opera Wozzeck had premièred to great acclaim at the opera house only a decade earlier – caused Erich Kleiber to resign his post as musical director.

Kleiber was quickly replaced by Wilhelm Furtwängler, who was also director of the Berlin Philharmonic; however Furtwängler’s vocal pro-Jewish and anti-Nazi sympathies caused him to be relieved of this position within twelve months. As Berlin moved steadily in the direction of war, the opera continued under a variety of conductors, including Clemens Krauss and Herbert von Karajan.

Indeed, the opera was considered so important to the city that, when a bomb struck the opera house in 1941 causing an extensive fire, orders were issued to restore it immediately. The opera reopened a year later, and performances continued for another two years until Goebbels ordered the closure of all theatres in Berlin. But even if Goebbels hadn’t taken such a drastic step, the Allied forces would have done the job for him.

One by one the great theatres of Berlin began to fall: the Deutsche Oper in Charlottenburg had already been destroyed in 1943, and the National-Theater in Gendarmenmarkt (now the Konzerthaus)  in 1944. Then, in the early days of 1945, the Philharmonie on Bernbergerstraße and the opera house on Unter den Linden followed. By the end of the war, there were few theatres or concert halls remaining.

The Staatsoper in the GDR era.
The Staatsoper in the GDR era.

It was at this moment that the history of the opera house could have come to a decisive end; yet the same communist forces that sought to remove from Berlin all traces of the city’s Prussian imperial past allowed the opera house to stay. The reconstruction was entrusted to Richard Paulick, an architect who had worked with Walter Gropius in Dessau and whose other great contribution to Berlin was the design of Karl Marx Allee.

Paulick could have easily torn the whole thing down and started again, building a modernist opera house that reflected both the functionalism of his Bauhaus training and the ostentatious maximalism that he had brought to Stalin’s ceremonial axis. Instead, he transformed the opera house into something that resembled its former self; when the opera returned in 1955, it was in a building that – from the outside at least – might not have gone unrecognised by its original architect.

Only six years later, the city would be divided into two isolated urban entities; yet music continued to flourish on both sides of the Berlin wall. The west had the Berlin Philharmonic, the RIAS Orchestra, and the Deutsche Oper, while the east could boast the Berliner Sinfonie-Orchester (now the Konzerthaus Orchestra), the Radio Symphony Orchestra and the Staatsoper.

It is a tribute to Berlin’s inexhaustible love of music that, even after reunification, none of those organisations were forced to merge or fold. Today, Berlin is one of the few cities in the world that can claim more than a single repertory opera company.

Towards A New Era

The story isn’t over yet. Indeed, the next chapters are currently being written, and on the tour of the building site one can get some sense of what the future will hold. The new building will, in some senses, be state-of-the-art; certainly the stage machinery and hidden facilities will meet the demands of a twenty-first century opera company.

But those advances will be presented to the public in a modern version of its original neo-classical wrapper. Despite the numerous revisions and reconstructions, Knobelsdorff’s design has survived for long enough that it is now difficult to imagine the opera without it.

ConcreteRoom

The tour ends – as all tours should – with a memorable image. Those who wish can climb a set of temporary stairs leading to the roof where, among the cranes, a magnificent vista awaits across the centre of the city. Rising up just behind is the dome of St. Hedwig’s and, further south, one can see the twin domes of Gendarmenmarkt.

Across Bebelplatz is the old library and, on the other side of the street, the Humboldt Universität, the Neue Wache, and the Zeughaus. Not so long ago, all of these buildings stood in ruins. At the beginning of the twentieth century, an unpredictable confluence of progressive spirit and new building technologies led to the eventual abandonment of the classical influence in architecture.

Then, the unprecedented destruction of World War II gave those architects reared on modernism, minimalism and futurism the opportunity to put their theories into practice, fundamentally changing the character of the built environment in the western world. It was a strange time, with more failures than successes. However, in our attempts to rebuild the cities of Europe, we learned that ripping it up and starting again isn’t always the best way forward, and that the advances of the present should never cause us to reject the past.

Berlin has learned these lessons well, and while the destruction of the past cannot be undone, it can for the most part be hidden. By the time the opera re-opens, the building will contain almost nothing from the eighteenth century, except for the vague spirit of history. Yet most visitors, walking among the gilt and columns, and watching the masterpieces of Mozart, Wagner and Strauss through an ornate proscenium arch, may never discover how many times the life of this building has almost come to an end.

The opera house may be representative of larger architectural trends in Berlin, but the survival of the building carries with it a more fundamental lesson: in the two and a half centuries since the house was built, all the destruction in the world has been unable to silence the music. While buildings may fall victim to fires and bombs, the opera itself has not merely survived, but has offered an unending contribution to the greatness of the city.

And so, when we stand among the disorder of the building site, we can be sure of one thing: sooner or later, the opera will return, as it has done so many times before.

Tours of the Staatsoper Baustelle run twice every Sunday throughout July and August; tickets are €15 and must be reserved in advance through www.staatsoper-berlin.de. Highly recommended for anyone with an interest in opera, architecture, or the history of Berlin. Not recommended for anyone with an aversion to stairs or unfashionable footwear.