Raised from ruins: The revival of Dresden′s Semperoper | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 13.02.2015
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Raised from ruins: The revival of Dresden's Semperoper

Forty years after Dresden was destroyed in World War II, a key landmark was restored and reopened: the Semperoper Opera House. The world watched as the East German triumph was unveiled.

Despite frosty weather, 200,000 Dresden residents rallied on February 13, 1985, for the dedication of the restored Semperoper. Erich Honecker, the then leader of the communist German Democratic Republic, pledged at the ceremony to "secure the peace" - lingo typical of the East German government.

At the height of the Cold War, five years before German reunification, the Semperoper was reopened. The evening's performance, Carl Maria von Weber's opera "Der Freischütz" (The Marksman), was broadcast live on the radio in the US and other countries.

It marked the beginning of the 317th season for Dresden's opera, and the champagne flowed freely. Four decades prior - on August 31, 1944 - the venue had also closed with Weber's "Freischütz." Its employees were sent off to war.

Workers carrying in a massive curtain in Dresden. Copyright: Historisches Archiv, Sächsische Staatstheater/Erwin Döring

Many workers were required to carry in the opera house's ornate curtain

Third time's the charm?

The mid-80s reopening marked the birth of the "third" Semperoper building. It was opened first in 1841 as the Royal Saxon Opera House. Its architect, Gottfried Semper, was a young German revolutionary in terms of both politics and art history.

The original venue burned down in 1869, leading the city's residents to create a petition for commissioning the meanwhile 67-year-old Semper to rebuild the structure. The architect didn't copy his first work, but reconceived it. By 1878, it was enchanting viewers once more - this time with stylistic flourishes from the High Renaissance and the Baroque.

In the night of February 13, 1945, the building was swallowed in flames - like many other parts of Dresden - in an English and US bombing campaign. For the following four decades, the opera house remained a ruin. Only its outer walls stood; little more was left.

Once again, it was Drseden's residents who drove the campaign to rebuild the Semperoper, and they collected 1.5 million East German marks. Restoration work began in 1974.

A still from the stage production of Der Freischütz. Copyright: Historisches Archiv, Sächsische Staatstheater/Erwin Döring

This production of Weber's "Der Freischütz" took place on February 13, 1985

Surpassing its template

Newspapers hailed the result as "Germany's most beautiful opera house." The outer facade was blackened because much of the original material was reused. The interior, on the other hand, dazzled with its colors illuminated by chandeliers. It was a fresh sight even to older residents because the original coloration had been painted over in 1908 in favor of a darker palette.

The most important historical points of reference were letters written by the original architect, who rebuilt his opera house in Dresden remotely - from Vienna and Zurich. Nearly every detail he envisioned is preserved in the letters. Specifications included imagery centering on the antique gods Dionysus and Ariadne, who were revived in opulent artworks by 56 painters and 24 sculptors. In a country in which Soviet-style high rises had come to the fore, these older decorative techniques had to be painstakingly learned once more.

In a local newspaper, head architect Wolfgang Hänsch said on February 14, 1985, that the original idea was to preserve the Semperoper's 19th century exterior aesthetic, but to contrast it with a modern and functional interior space. But this plan was quickly rejected.

"All of the designs conceived along these lines or that tried to achieve compromises in its architectural form repeatedly showed that a 'modern festive style' cannot be put on a par with Semper's classically motivated architecture," Hänsch said.

Rows of viewers in the Semperoper. Copyright: Historisches Archiv, Sächsische Staatstheater/Erwin Döring

Not a bad seat in the house at Dresden's Semperoper

Space and sound in harmony

There was an additional consideration: The legendary acoustics of the venue could only be achieved by staying true to the original interior. Mission accomplished, said conductor Hans Vonk, who oversaw the music making in the 1985 premiere week: "It's one of the most beautiful theaters in the world. I'm familiar with comparable acoustics only at Milan's Scala."

The theater's four tiers, he said, create a close visual proximity to the stage, while the auditorium's design gives listeners the feeling of being "engulfed in sound."

The result was a building fit for Dresden's illustrious operatic tradition. It was there that greats like Carl Maria von Weber, Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss once worked. Three of Wagner's operas and no fewer than 15 of Strauss' operas had their premieres at the Semperoper. At times, the German railway had to introduce special train service to meet the demand of Berlin residents wanting to sample Dresden's musical treats.

In 1990, after German reunification, it was revealed that the Semperoper building had been hardwired to be linked with East Germany's notorious surveillance and security ministry, the Stasi. It's one point of irony in the long history of a structure - or, rather, three structures - bearing the name Semper in Dresden.

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