This distinguished gentleman casting a skeptical eye at Berlin’s largest opera house is none other than the great English playwright William Shakespeare (1564-1616), whose bust was given to the city of Berlin by the city of London on the occasion of Berlin’s 750th birthday.
Up to now I have only seen four performances at this opera house, and didn’t like any of them particularly, but I will definitely give this house another try the next time I’m in Berlin during the opera season.
When the Berlin Wall was built in 1961, West Berlin found itself without a major opera house, since both the State Opera and the Comic Opera happened to be just behind the wall on the eastern side. So they quickly built a new one here on Friedrichstraße, on the site of the former Charlottenburg Opera, and called it the ‘German Opera Berlin’.
It turned out to be very large and square and monolithic. I personally find it hard to warm up to, but it does have a large and faithful audience (of West Berliners, I suppose) who pay high prices and fill up the house quite regularly.
In 1999 the Frankfurt Opera rented one of their productions, namely Hänsel und Gretel by Engelbert Humperdinck (1854-1921), as staged by Andreas Homoki. I saw it several times in Frankfurt and once here at the Deutsche Oper Berlin, which was spooky because the stage set and the entire staging, down to the smallest gestures by all the singers, were exactly the same in both places. But otherwise the Frankfurt performances were much better (even allowing for the fact that as a Frankfurt resident I might be somewhat biased).
For one thing, the Frankfurt Opera Sound Department used all its considerable ingenuity to create funny sound effects, for instance when the witch’s broom went flying across the stage. In Berlin: silence.
In Frankfurt the orchestra and the singers were also much better. In Berlin they put in their second- and third-string singers, perhaps on the assumption that the kids and their grandmothers in the audience wouldn’t know the difference anyway. In Frankfurt all the best sopranos took turns singing Gretel, which is a beautiful and quite demanding role — even Diana Damrau sang it on Sunday afternoons, and the kids loved her. In Frankfurt the attitude was (and is) that if you can get a new generation to come to the opera you should give them the very best you’ve got, so as to keep them coming.
At the Deutsche Oper Berlin I also saw an antiquated production of Lucia di Lammermoor by Gaetano Donizetti and an equally antiquated production of Siegfried by Richard Wagner.
In the Siegfried performance there was an unfortunate mishap when the tenor twisted his ankle on the slanted stage but kept right on singing while sitting on the floor, though he was obviously in great pain. From the wings, somebody threw him a bag of ice cubes which he pressed against his ankle to ease the pain. In this situation he couldn’t run to the back of the stage to kill the dragon, so he just had to make a vague gesture in that direction. (Does anyone else remember this?) While I certainly admired the tenor’s show-must-go-on attitude, I was not otherwise impressed by the staging, which was over twenty years old by the time I saw it.
My photos in this post are from 2005. I revised the text in 2018.
See also: Komische Oper Berlin.