In 1958 the Austrian singer-songwriter Georg Kreisler (1922-2011), author of Lola Blau and the hilarious Opera Boogie, made a lot of enemies in this part of Germany with his song Gelsenkirchen, in which he portrayed this city as the home of “our unique fuel-democracy” where lovely black gases waft gracefully through the putrid air, where alcoholism abounds, the bed sheets are grey and soap advertising is pointless. People who live here a long time get cramps when they breathe, he sang, but most of them don’t live very long anyway. And fulfilling the four-year plan means they see the sun once every four years. When a miner gets trapped in the mine he doesn’t worry, because he knows they will dig him out when they need coal.
♪ ♫ Das gibt es nur bei uns in Gelsenkirchen ♪ ♫
This clever, sarcastic song, which takes a lot of digs against Local Patriotism in general as well as Gelsenkirchen in particular, lasts 8 minutes and 29 seconds. It’s on his album Everblacks, in case you want to hear it. Or you can click here to hear it on YouTube and read the German text at the same time.
I don’t know if I should admit this in public, but for many years all I knew about Gelsenkirchen was what I had learned from this song, and I was sure I would never visit such an awful place. Not being a soccer fan, I didn’t even know that Schalke 04 was based there.
This state of ignorance might have persisted indefinitely except for the fact that in the year 2002 I really wanted to see Rosamund Gilmore’s new staging of Puccini’s opera Turandot, and it turned out she was doing it in Gelsenkirchen, of all places.
Gelsenkirchen?! I never even knew they had an opera house there. With some trepidation I booked my opera and train tickets (after checking that my health insurance was paid up) and set off.
Well, it was fine. They really do have an opera house, the Musiktheater im Revier (MiR), which means more or less “Music Theater in the Mining District”.
Gelsenkirchen turned out to be a pleasant modern town, architecturally somewhat undistinguished, perhaps, but certainly very clean and healthy. This might have to do with the fact that the last lump of coal had been mined in Gelsenkirchen two and a half years before, and since then they have been busy manufacturing and installing solar energy panels.
Turandot was Giacomo Puccini’s last opera, and it wasn’t quite finished when he died in November 1924. Two other composers, Franco Alfano and Luciano Berio, have since tried to finish the third act. Alfano’s ending is the one that has most often been performed up to now, but in Gelsenkirchen they took a different approach and mimed the ending, playing only the music that Puccini himself had sketched (using Alfano’s orchestration). So the singers performed silently for those parts of the ending that had no music by Puccini. I thought this was a strangely effective way to conclude the evening, and to show exactly what Puccini had composed before he died, but I have never seen it done this way anywhere else.
Rosemund Gilmore was a professional dancer for many years (starting at age 11 in a special ballet school in England), so when she later started directing operas she often incorporated dance into her productions. This was certainly true in Gelsenkirchen, and also in other productions of hers that I have seen in Frankfurt and Darmstadt.
Five years later, it happened that premieres of two different versions of the same opera, Simon Boccanegra by Giuseppe Verdi, were on the schedules of the opera houses in Frankfurt am Main and Gelsenkirchen for the same day, May 20, 2007.
The Frankfurt premiere took place as scheduled (a brilliant staging by Christof Loy, with baritone Zeliko Lucic in the title role), but in Gelsenkirchen the city council ordered the postponement of their opera premiere because they thought the local soccer team Schalke 04 might win the national championship. In Frankfurt the news of this got some laughs, because it seemed ludicrous that even an ex-coal-mining city would postpone an opera premiere for such a trivial reason.
Actually it turned out that Schalke 04 didn’t win the championship after all, but by that time the premiere had already been postponed.
When I went to Gelsenkirchen a few days later I found out from one of the singers that the postponement of the premiere was not just a whim of a bunch of soccer-crazy ex-miners, but was necessary because whenever there is a big celebration in Gelsenkirchen it is always held in Kennedyplatz, which is the square right in front of the opera house, and if that had happened nobody could have gotten in to see the opera.
Most opera houses, including Frankfurt am Main, play the second version of Simon Boccanegra, which Verdi completed in 1881 using a revised libretto by Arrigo Boito. But the General Music Director in Gelsenkirchen decided he wanted to do the rarely performed first version of 1857, because he said it was more unified stylistically than the later version, which mixes Verdi’s early and later styles.
I had seen the second version several times before, but never the first, so I went to Gelsenkirchen to see it. The performance was good (the Australian tenor Christopher Lincoln sang the role of Gabriele Adorno), but now that I have seen both versions I think the second is much better. For one thing, the really famous scene in the council chambers where Boccanegra makes an impassioned plea for peace wasn’t even in the first version. Also the character of Boccanegra has been made much more complex and interesting in the second version. In the first he was basically just a schemer among schemers, but in the second he has become more of a visionary.
Also in 2007, there was an exhibition in the Musiktheater im Revier about Werner Ruhnau (1922-2015), who was the chief architect for this opera house when it was built from 1956 to 1959.
He was influenced not only by the Bauhaus movement of the 1920s, but also by the medieval Bauhütte, which was a sort of clandestine builder’s guild with its own laws, courts and secrets. Ruhnau’s conclusion from his study of the Bauhütte was that a team of architects and artists should work together on a large building, and that they should all live together on the construction site.
When I was in Gelsenkirchen in 2007 I happened to be there on a day when they were offering a guided tour of the opera house, including the backstage areas that most of us don’t get to see very often.
Here some people from our tour group are standing on the stage set for Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra. It consisted of about two dozen platforms which could be raised or lowered individually at different times during the performance.
This control board is used during the performance by the stage manager (Inspizient) to call the singers and give instructions to the stagehands.
Our tour also included a look at the make-up department, which is a very busy place in any opera house before a performance, especially if the entire chorus has to be made up in addition to the main singers.
Work in this department gets really challenging when it happens that, for instance, a 28-year-old mezzo-soprano has to be made up to look like the mother of a 45-year-old tenor.
In addition to its opera ensemble, chorus and orchestra, the Musiktheater im Revier (MiR) has its own ballet company, which rehearses here.
One of the highlights of any opera house tour is a visit to the costume department.
Hundreds of costumes are kept here, sometimes for decades (the oldest one I noticed was from the year 1968), and the people in charge can always find individual costumes when they are needed.
At the end of our opera house tour we were taken through the workshops where the stage sets are made.
For another behind-the-scenes opera house tour, please have a look at my post Guided tour of the Opéra Bastille in Paris.
I cycled to Gelsenkirchen from the adjoining city of Essen, where I had rented my bike at the main railway station. Actually it’s rather amazing that these two ex-coal-mining cities both have full-scale opera houses that are less than ten kilometers apart as the crow flies, and still only fifteen kilometers if you cycle by way of the Zollverein as I did. (For more on the Zollverein, please see my post A crash course in coal-mining in Essen.)
Throughout the city of Gelsenkirchen there are well-marked bicycle routes, including several themed routes such as the Industrial Heritage Cycle Route, which also goes through Essen and Oberhausen.
In June 2010 Gelsenkirchen was one of ten cities in the Ruhr District that started Metropolradruhr (“Metropolitan Bicycle Ruhr”), which they say is “the largest bike sharing system in Germany”. The other nine participating cities are Bochum, Bottrop, Dortmund, Duisburg, Essen, Hamm, Herne, Mülheim an der Ruhr and Oberhausen.
One of the Metropolradruhr bike stations, number 7604, is conveniently located by the opera house in Gelsenkirchen.
My photos in this post are from 2007. I revised the text in 2017.
See also: Sixty opera houses in Germany.