Tour of the Semper Opera in Dresden

The Semper Opera House is named after Gottfried Semper (1803-1879), the architect who designed it once and built it twice.

His original opera house was completed in 1841. The composer Richard Wagner was musical director of the Dresden Opera at the time, and three of his operas had their world premieres here.

In 1869 the building was destroyed by fire, and Semper was asked to come back and rebuild it. The only problem was that he was living in exile, having been convicted by a Dresden court for his part in organizing the short-lived revolution of 1848. But he was pardoned so he could return and rebuild the opera house from 1871 to 1878, which he did, though in fact he delegated most of the day-by-day supervision to his son Manfred Semper this time around.

Like everything else in Dresden, the opera house was destroyed by bombs in the night of February 13, 1945. From 1977 to 1985 it was again rebuilt in a form very much like the original.

In the summer of 2002 the Elbe River overflowed its banks and flooded most of the city of Dresden, including the stage and technical sections of the opera house, so that again a huge rebuilding effort was necessary. Fortunately the flood waters stopped just centimeters short of the front end of the opera house, so the elaborate interior decoration (which is mostly made of plaster) was not seriously damaged.

On the tour

The best way to see the Semper Opera House is to attend a performance, but in addition it is interesting to take a guided tour. As of 2020, the tours cost € 11.00 (full price) and last 45 minutes. They can be booked online at https://www.semperoper-erleben.de/. Most of the tours are in German, but they also offer occasional tours in English or Chinese.

Unlike most opera tours in Germany, the tour of the Semper Opera does not take you backstage, presumably because there is so much to be seen in the front end of the house.

The architect Gottfried Semper believed in using local materials and artisans whenever possible. So what looks like marble in the Semper Opera usually isn’t. It’s plaster, carefully molded, painted and polished by skilled craftsmen who passed their professional secrets down from father to son, or took the secrets with them to their graves.

Some of them mixed honey with the final layer of plaster to give it a particular mute shimmer, and then painted and polished it carefully.

Even a lot of the apparent wood paneling isn’t made of wood at all, but is plaster carefully painted to look like wood.

When I took the tour in 2004, the tour guide was one of the artisans who had been directly involved in rebuilding the Semper Opera from 1977 to 1985, so he could explain it all in great detail.

Paintings in the Semper Opera

On the walls in all the various foyers of the Semper Opera there are elaborate decorations and paintings in honor of composers, dramatists and librettists who were well known at the time.

Some of them are still well known today, but most have been forgotten.

Richard Brinsley Sheridan, for instance, was a London playwright and politician who lived from 1751 to 1816. He rates a painting in the foyer on the first floor (one flight up) of the Semper Opera because one of his plays, The Duenna, was made into an opera, composed by his father-in-law Thomas Finley, which was very popular at the time.

Looking up at the ceiling

Not only the walls, also the ceilings in the Semper Opera foyers are elaborately decorated with designs and paintings.

Another painting and decorations on the ceiling

Since these were painted directly onto the final smooth coat of plaster, the artists had to spend days, weeks, months or probably years lying on their backs on scaffolding to paint all these pictures — not only the original 19th century artists, but also the ones who recreated these paintings in the 1970s and 80s.

Looking up through the gap from the ground floor

In some places in the Semper Opera House there are square gaps in the floor and ceiling so you can look up from the ground floor and see the painting on the ceiling of the next higher floor.

My photos in this post are from 2004. I revised the text in 2020.

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