When I first moved to Frankfurt in 1970 we lived in a fourth-floor apartment not far from the city center. From our bathroom window we could see the ruins of the old opera house (Alte Oper) with trees growing out of the upper floors. The trees were quite tall by that time because they had been growing undisturbed for twenty-six years, ever since the old opera house was devastated by bombs in the Second World War.
There was a lot of controversy in the early seventies about what to do with the old opera house. The mayor at that time, Rudi Arndt, suggested blowing up the ruins to get them out of the way — for the rest of his life he had the nickname “Dynamite Rudi” because of this idea — but he was outvoted on this issue and eventually the old opera house was reconstructed.
By that time, however, Frankfurt had already built a modern new opera house and didn’t need another one, so they turned the Alte Oper into a concert hall instead.
Not everyone in Frankfurt knows this. Several years ago a visiting American soprano overslept and feared she would be late for her first rehearsal, so she phoned for a taxi and asked to be taken to the opera house. The driver unhesitatingly drove her to the Alte Oper instead. Fortunately she realized something was wrong (“it didn’t look like the place where I did my audition six months ago”) so after a bit of negotiation she managed to get to the real opera house after all.
Some of the world’s best orchestras give concerts in the Old Opera, which also has a full program of recitals, pop concerts and musicals. I don’t really go there very often, however, because it’s a bit out of my price range. In most cases I prefer to go to the real Frankfurt Opera on Willy-Brandt-Platz, where I can see fully-staged opera productions for about a third of what I would pay for a concert ticket at the Old Opera.
The only operas you can see in the Old Opera are concert versions, in which the singers stand in front of the orchestra and sing, with no acting, no costumes, no stage sets, no lighting effects, nobody disappearing through a hole in the floor or flying in from the ceiling.
The musicals you can see here are touring productions which can be shown anywhere because they have no need for curtains or stage machinery.
The only inexpensive seats in the large hall are way up at the back in the “Olymp”. I personally find them much too far away from the stage to be of any use, but apparently some people are willing to sit up there.
Because of the shape of the original 19th century building, they were not able to place the orchestra in the middle of the hall, as in the modern philharmonic concert halls in Berlin, Paris and Copenhagen.
My photos in this post are from 2004, 2005 and 2011. I revised the text in 2018.
See also: Frankfurt’s fabulous opera company.