In 1958 the city of Essen conducted an architects’ competition to design a modern new opera house. The winner was the Finnish architect Alvar Aalto (1898-1976).
Of course just winning a competition is no guarantee that your design will actually be built. The German cities of Leipzig and Kassel both held architects’ competitions for new opera houses in the 1950s, but neither of them actually managed to build the winning design.
For a long time it looked as though Aalto’s design for Essen was going to have the same fate, but then in the 1980s they started getting their act together and began building Aalto’s opera house under the artistic direction of his widow Elissa Aalto.
In 1988, a mere thirty years after the original competition, the building was inaugurated with a performance of Wagner’s opera Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.
Thus far I have seen two operas at the Aalto Theater in Essen. The first was a blatantly anti-war staging of Verdi’s Aida, which I of course liked very much, though some people thought they were overdoing it by having crippled war veterans hobble by to salute the king during the Triumph March.
Later I went to the premiere of a new production of Rossini’s Italian Girl in Algiers, a very funny opera which in this case was set in an ultra-modern airport in an Arab country. The stage set was designed by Hermann Feuchter, who lives near Frankfurt am Main and has designed numerous sets for the Frankfurt Opera. (And yes, he was once a featured guest at my German-language opera appreciation course Opern-Gespräche.)
I keep reminding myself that Aalto designed these abstract wall sculptures in 1958, along with the rest of the building. I don’t know if he had anything particular in mind, perhaps having curved forms that reach up towards the sky, or perhaps organ pipes.
To me, though, they look like those famous photos of the remaining girders that were left over after the World Trade Center in New York was destroyed on 9/11. But since Aalto died in 1976 he couldn’t have known what would happen a quarter century later in 2001.
Right next to the Aalto-Theater there is a state-of-the-art concert hall called the Philharmonie, which is the home of the Essen Philharmonic Orchestra and also a venue for numerous visiting orchestras, chamber music ensembles and choirs.
The current building is the third concert hall on this site. The first one was a wooden building that was built in 1864, at a time when the coal mines were quite new and were starting to bring prosperity to the new city of Essen, or at least to a small upper class of wealthy mine-owners and industrialists. A second, more substantial concert hall was built on the same site in 1904, but was destroyed by bombing during the Second World War.
The Grillo Theater in downtown Essen is now the city’s main venue for spoken drama, but for many years it served as the opera house while city officials were agonizing over whether to build Aalto’s version.
This theater was built from 1890 to 1892 with money bequeathed by a wealthy industrialist named Friedrich Grillo (1825-1888). It was in fact the first City Theater to be built in the Ruhr Valley area. (All the cities in this area are relatively new, since this was all sparsely settled farmland until the first railroads were built and coal mining started here in earnest around the middle of the nineteenth century.)
The Grillo Theater was destroyed by bombings in 1944 and was rebuilt in a simplified form after the war. In 1950 it was reopened under the name “Opera House”, which is what it remained until the opening of the Aalto-Theater in 1988.
My photos in this post are from 2007. I revised the text in 2018.
See also: Sixty opera houses in Germany.