Hamburg was the location of the first public opera house in Germany, which opened on January 2, 1678. The great composer Georg Friedrich Händel (1685-1759) came to Hamburg at age eighteen and got a job playing the violin, cello and cembalo in the orchestra of the Hamburg opera house. He spent three years in Hamburg before moving to Italy and finally settling in London, where he wrote most of his forty operas, thirty oratorios and hundreds of other musical works.
When Händel was playing in the orchestra in Hamburg, his boss was a man named Reinhard Keiser (1674-1739), who at the time was the General Manager and Chief Conductor of the Hamburg Opera.
Keiser was one of the leading German composers of the baroque period. He composed at least sixty-five operas, most of which were premiered in Hamburg. His operas are now seldom performed. The only one I have ever seen was a comic opera called Der lächerliche Prinz Jodelet (The ridiculous Prince Jodelet), which was based on a play by the French dramatist Pierre Corneille (1606–1684).
Jodelet in this opera was not a prince at all, but simply an idler or loafer (sort of like Heinrich Heine’s Schnabelewopski, come to think of it) who dressed up as a prince when the occasion arose. This led to a series of misunderstandings which I must admit were still quite funny when I saw the opera in Hamburg two hundred and seventy-eight years after its first performance.
Not surprisingly, the Hamburg Opera has changed considerably since Keiser’s time. A large and substantial new opera house was built in 1827 and was used for 116 years, although a pompous new façade was added in 1873 and the backstage areas were renovated and modernized in 1926.
The auditorium and the front end of the building were destroyed by wartime fire-bombing in August 1943, but the stage and backstage areas were saved by the iron curtain which all modern theaters are required to have. Ten years later the ruins were cleared away and this new opera house was built on the same site, in a style that was considered modern at the time. The new building — actually only the new front end — was completed in 1955.
They could have rebuilt the bombastic façade from the year 1873, but chose not to, opting instead for an inconspicuous glass front that could have been mistaken for an office building or a furniture store. Evidently they were in no mood for bombast in the 1950s. They just wanted to clear away the rubble, put up a functional building and get on with it.
This plaque on the opera house reads: “Gustav Mahler, Head Conductor of the Hamburg Opera 1891-1897, in the then City-Theater which stood here.” Mahler, who lived from 1860 to 1911, went on to be the director of the Court Opera in Vienna. His music was banned during the Nazi dictatorship, but he is now recognized as one of the leading symphonic composers of his generation. He composed nine complete symphonies and left extensive sketches for a tenth.
The opera ticket office is just down the street, in a newer building in the next block. The reason it is now called the State Opera is that Hamburg (like Berlin and Bremen) is not only a city but also a state of the Federal Republic of Germany, on the same level with Hessen or Bavaria.
Several business trips took me to or through Hamburg between 1996 and 2004. On most of these trips I was able to fit in at least one evening at the Hamburg State Opera, for instance to see Lucia di Lammermoor by Gaetano Donizetti (1797–1848) with Giusy Devinu in the title role. What I thought was unfair about this production was that they made her lie around on the floor of the stage for nearly twenty minutes (while people built a castle around her with building blocks) before she had to get up and start singing. I personally thought Giusy Devinu was a fine singer, but she got bad reviews in Hamburg and was never invited back to Germany.
The conductor of this production was Frédéric Chaslin, whom I had never heard of at the time. Later he was General Music Director of the opera in Mannheim for several years, and he has also been Chief Conductor of the Santa Fe Opera in New Mexico. He has composed three operas and written several books, including a novel based on the life of Gustav Mahler, which is scheduled for publication in October 2017 together with his own orchestration of Mahler’s unfinished tenth symphony.
Up to now I have seen two operas in Hamburg by Giuseppe Verdi. The first was a quite conventional staging of La traviata, which I saw while I was on a business trip in 1996 and again on another business trip in 1998. I love La traviata and didn’t mind seeing it a second time, though the staging was a bit bland compared to other productions I have seen in Bonn, Hannover, Braunschweig, Darmstadt and Weikersheim, among other places. My favorite is still the classic Axel Corti staging at the Frankfurt Opera, in which Violetta dies not in her bed but on the floor of the second class waiting room in the railroad station in Orléans while she is trying to flee from the Nazis.
The other Verdi opera I saw in Hamburg was Il trovatore (The Troubadour), in a rather abstract staging by Tilman Knabe. This is another opera that I have seen in several other places including the open-air lakeside stage in Bregenz and the State Opera in Kassel.
In Hamburg I have also seen one Mozart opera, Die Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Serail), in a staging by Johannes Schaaf.
This production, like many others of the same opera, must have puzzled a lot of people because of the cuts in the spoken dialogues that made it rather hard to understand the motivation of the characters, unless you knew the story already. (The Frankfurt staging by Christoph Loy is much better in this respect.)
My photos in this post are from 2011. I revised the text in 2017.