The current Leipzig Opera House was built during the 1950s after several architectural competitions and considerable uncertainty about what an opera house should look like in the new Socialist State of the Workers and Farmers.
It came out looking quite Spartan and egalitarian, but the acoustics are good and you can see perfectly well from almost every seat in the house. It was the only completely new opera house built in the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) during the nearly forty-one years of that country’s existence.
This building replaced the former “New Theater”, which was built here from 1864 to 1868, and was destroyed by bombing in the night of December 3-4, 1943.
The only seats that do not have a view of the full stage are the ones in the two Logen (boxes) hanging from the sides of the hall. One of these was intended for the director of the opera and the other was for members the State Council, who during GDR times were invariably the leaders of the Communist Party, officially known as the Socialist Unity Party (SED). These two boxes have their own separate entrances and reception rooms.
Today the twelve seats in the two ‘boxes’ can theoretically be booked by anybody, but I have never seen anyone actually sitting there.
In Leipzig I have so far seen seven performances of six different operas. These were:
- A quite traditional production of Germany’s most-often-performed opera, The Magic Flute by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
- A clever modern version of The Bartered Bride by Bedrich Smetana.
- A seductive Orfeo ed Euridice by Christoph Willibald Gluck.
- The Tales of Hoffmann by Jacques Offenbach (with the American tenor Robert Chafin in the title role).
- La Sonnambula by Vincenzo Bellini (twice).
- The premiere of a new production of Les Troyens by Hector Berlioz (with Robert Chafin as Énée).
Although I like the Leipzig Opera House and always feel right at home there when I attend a performance, I can’t help regretting that they didn’t build it the way it was sketched by the architect Hans Scharoun (1893-1972) in his proposal for the first architectural competition in 1950. To get some idea of what his building might have been like, have a look at the Philharmonie concert hall that he built a decade later in Berlin.
Scharoun’s proposal for the Leipzig Opera house was unfortunately way ahead of its time in 1950. Stalin, who hated modern art and architecture, was still alive and ruling with an iron hand. Nobody in Eastern Europe would have dared to risk Stalin’s wrath by building a light, airy, modern opera house, certainly not the sycophantic East German leader at the time, Walter Ulbricht.
A quarter of a century later both Stalin and Ulbricht were dead, so the city of Leipzig was able to get away with building a beautiful modern concert hall, the Gewandhaus, on the same square facing the opera house.
My photos in this post are from 2005. I revised the text in 2020.