Opera in Altenburg

Altenburg is a city in the eastern part of Germany which has lost 41 % of its population since 1981. At that time it had 55,827 inhabitants, but by 2015, when the city council voted to disband its statistics department to save money, the population was down to 32,910. Most of this decline has happened since German reunification in the early 1990s, as people started moving west in search of jobs.

Logo of the combined theater Altenburg-Gera

Amazingly, this small city with its shrinking population still has a full-scale theater that does an ambitious program of live opera and drama — though to survive the theater had to merge several years ago with the one in nearby Gera. Now the combined theater and opera company presents the same productions in both cities on different evenings.

Front entrance of the Altenburg Theater

The neo-Renaissance theater building from the year 1871 was originally modeled after the Semper Opera in Dresden. The front entrance, however, was added in 1904/05 and makes this theater look quite different.

It’s not a big theater. There are only 492 seats, but that’s usually enough for such a small town. I once had a look at the backstage area, which is really tiny by present-day standards.

Theater and church in Altenburg

Program booklet from 2003

My first visit to Altenburg was in 2003, when I saw a very good performance by the combined Gera/Altenburg theater company of the opera Die tote Stadt (The Dead City) by Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957).

This is an opera that Korngold completed in 1920, when he was only twenty-three. It had two simultaneous world-premieres in Hamburg and Cologne, and went on to be one of the most successful and often-performed operas in Germany and Austria in the 1920s.

Like other successful operas of the same period, this is a huge opera with a huge orchestra (though somewhat reduced for the small theater in Altenburg) and it has lots of very dramatic music, even in situations that in retrospect don’t seem all that dramatic. The end of the second act of Korngold’s opera, for instance, is a scene between a man and a woman with music so emotional that it sounds like some great existential crisis, which is no doubt what the composer intended, but to us blasé 21st century types the whole scene boils down to the simple question: “Your place or my place?” (She gets her way and they go to his house, where the whole situation gets decidedly out of hand.)

Altenburg Theater from just up the street

Like many other composers of his generation, Korngold later had to leave Germany to escape from the Nazis. He moved to Hollywood just as the film industry was making the transition from silent films to talkies, and he soon became one of the first elite composers of film music. He was awarded two Oscars for his film scores in 1936 and 1938, but he was never really satisfied with his work in Hollywood because the studios kept rushing him on from one film to the next, so he had the feeling he could never really finish a score to his own satisfaction. After the war he had another disappointment when he found that he and his fellow émigrés had been more or less forgotten in Europe. It took several decades before their works began to reappear in the opera repertoire. (See my Zürich post on The lost generation of opera composers.)

Subscription poster, female version (ABO = Subscription)

When I was in Altenburg in 2009 the whole town was full of posters advertising theater subscriptions for the combined theaters of Altenburg and Gera. The posters came in pairs. On one side of the cylindrical advertising column (known in Germany as a Litfaßsäule) there is a back view of a young woman wearing jeans and nothing else, with two slips of paper marked “ABO Season 2009/2010” protruding from her back pocket.

The two male versions

On the other side of the column is one of the male versions, either a back view of a guy wearing jeans and a T-shirt or the same guy from the front with the word ABO (= subscription) tattooed on his bicep.

This was all part of a campaign to get more young people into the theaters. I would have been interested to hear some reactions to this campaign from people in the target group, adults in their twenties and thirties, but unfortunately the streets of Altenburg were deserted and there was no one to talk to.

(It turns out there are two more female versions that I didn’t see on the streets. In one she is wearing a double-stranded pearl necklace with an ABO slip pinned onto it, and in the other she is again just wearing jeans and has the word ABO tattooed on her bare back.)

Flatrate offer in 2009

Flatrate is an English word that has very quickly become a part of the German language, so much so that most Germans couldn’t spontaneously tell you any other word for it. (There is a German word Pauschalangebot which has a similar meaning but doesn’t sound nearly as suave.)

This poster on the Altenburg Theater from the year 2009 says:

Be a flatrater!
88.88 Euros
for about 200 performances per year
= 44 cents per performance
Save 96%
Absolute freedom of choice!
For that spontaneous theater-urge!
Great theater right close by!
Small venues in Altenburg and Gera!
Don’t miss a single performance!

If I had lived in Altenburg or Gera I would surely have bought one of these, even though like most people I wouldn’t really attend two hundred performances a year. (I need a few evenings for teaching, after all, and for writing blog posts.)

As of 2018 they no longer offer the flatrate, but they do have a special youth and student subscription with the clever English name Give me five, consisting of five performances for € 25. Younger people presumably know the English expression Give me five (from films or wherever), but older people probably don’t.

Heizhaus = heating house

One of the new things I noticed in Altenburg when I was there in 2009 was the Heizhaus (= heating house), a small building next to the theater.

Actually it had been there all the time, but it used to be just a nondescript old building with a furnace and boiler in it. Now they have transformed it into a small theater with 110 seats for alternative, experimental productions. They have even put on small operas there, such as The Rape of Lucretia by Benjamin Britten (1913–1976).

My photos in this post are from 2003 and 2009. I revised the text in 2018.

See also: the original Dead City of Brugge/Bruges, Belgium,
and The Dead City in Hagen, Germany.

3 thoughts on “Opera in Altenburg”

  1. It never ceases to amaze me that Germany, and other of our European neighbours, can sustain such a vibrant music and opera world. It must be related to the many philistines holding the reins of power and finance here plus serious gaps in our education system. The thought of any small UK towns outside the capital building and supporting opera houses and music theatres is a distant dream. Meanwhile those striving to keep music live in the provinces have to spend too much time with a begging cup in hand and submitting long business plans to the diminishing number of charitable funding bodies.

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