Gigantomania was a common feature of all the Nazi building projects, and the Anhaltisches Theater in Dessau was no exception. With over a thousand seats, it was one of the largest theaters in Germany when it was built in the 1930s on orders of the local Nazi ruler. The grand opening in 1938, with Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels in attendance, was a performance of Weber’s Freischütz, which at the time was advertised as “the most German of all operas”.
In May 1944 and in March 1945 the building was badly damaged by bombings, but it was re-built after the war with the help of the Soviet military administration, and was re-opened in August 1949 — this time with a performance of Mozart’s Magic Flute.
Besides this one, the Nazis built only one other theater during the twelve years of their dictatorship. The other one was in Saarbrücken and was also inaugurated in 1938.
My first visit to Dessau was in March 1994, in the fourth year of German reunification. The streets were deserted and dimly lit after sundown, lots of people were still driving their old Trabbis and the town still smelled of brown coal dust. The Adult Education Center was still in its old building from the era of the German Democratic Republic (abbreviated GDR in English, DDR in German).
The theater was still reasonably full thanks to the old GDR system of bringing in busloads of organized groups from all over the countryside to see popular light operas and operettas such as the one I saw, which was Der Vogelhändler (The Bird Dealer) by Carl Zeller (1842-1898), played by an enthusiastic and largely intact ensemble that was also left over from GDR times.
For many years in Frankfurt I used to have a colleague named Christel, and as a foreigner I was vaguely puzzled by the tendency among some of the older people to refer to her as “Christel von der Post” (she had never worked for the post office, as far as I knew) — but I was never puzzled enough to ask anybody about it.
In Dessau this minor mystery was cleared up when it turned out that Adam, the Tirolean bird dealer in Zeller’s operetta Der Vogelhändler, had a girl friend called “Christel von der Post”. In the first act she really does work for the post office. In the third act, after all the complications and misunderstandings are cleared up, she and Adam are reconciled and presumably live happily ever after.
Since I had ordered my theater ticket in 1994 by mail (not e-mail, in those days), I remained on their mailing list and read with great interest that they were doing all sorts of interesting-sounding projects such as a cycle of Giuseppe Verdi’s four Schiller operas in German re-translation: Johanna d’Arc, Die Räuber, Louise Miller and Don Karlos, all based (loosely) on classic plays by the German dramatist, poet and historian Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805).
In November 2005 I was again sent to Dessau, and it turned out that the theater had scheduled Don Karlos (with a K because it was in German) on the weekend I would be there. So I ordered a ticket — and was highly disappointed. For one thing, seven-eighths of the seats in the theater were empty; there was exactly one bus out front, which had brought in a dozen or so people from out of town.
Perhaps the empty house had a demotivating effect on the singers and musicians; in any case, the performance was not up to the normal high standards of German city and regional theaters. I’ve seen much better performances of Don Carlo in Strasbourg, Geneva, Braunschweig, Dresden, Wiesbaden and Frankfurt am Main.
My photos in this post are from 2005. I revised the text in 2018.
See also: Opera Houses in Germany