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9 facts about Berlin's new Staatsoper

September 29, 2017

After closing for renovations in 2010, the new and improved Staatsoper is finally re-opening. Here are some things about this historic venue you may not have known.

Berlin Wiedereröffnung Staatsoper Unter den Linden
Image: Gordon Welters

1. It was once the largest opera house in Europe

The Staatsoper was commissioned by no other than Frederick the Great, a fan of the arts and sciences.

Completed in 1742 by Frederick's pal, architect Georg Wenzeslaus von Knobelsdorff, the court opera was part of the large-scale urban development project, the Fridericanium complex, which consisted of a library, cathedral and palace.

Frederick the Great
Frederick the Great, King of Prussia from 1740 until 1786Image: picture-alliance/akg-images

The neo-classical theater was modeled in the style of an ancient temple and was the largest opera house in Europe back then.

2. It's been rebuilt several times

They say a cat has nine lives: How many does the Staatsoper have? 

The theater burned almost entirely to the ground during a fire in 1843 and was then rebuilt in the original style.

During the Second World War, it was severely damaged twice then reconstructed.

After the 1945 bombing, architect Richard Paulink was tasked with restoring it to match the original 1742 version. The result was an unusually opulent building by socialist standards.

For both the 1942 and 1955 premieres, the Staatsoper selected Wagner's "Die Meistersinger von Nuremberg" – a fitting musical ode to the venue.

3. It's competing with other major Berlin opera houses

Unusual even for a major metropolis, Berlin is home to three major state-subsidized opera houses: There's the Deutsche Oper of former West Berlin, the smaller Komische Oper and the Staatsoper. That's more than Paris, New York or London can claim.

The Staatsoper was once the main opera house of East Germany during the GDR period, and was then passed on to the city of Berlin after German reunification in 1990. Interestingly, this year's operatic premiere will take place on German reunification day.

While some have questioned the need for so many operatic venues, the city's culture vultures consider themselves lucky.

Read more: Where does it play? Germany's temples of culture

Construction site of the Staatsoper unter den Linden
The Staatsoper was a construction site for seven yearsImage: picture alliance/Arco Images/Schoening Berlin

4. It spent a few years in former West Berlin

Since 2010, the original building on Unter den Linden has been closed to the public, while undergoing extensive renovations. Aside from occasional avant-garde performances in the construction site, the bulk of the season's offerings over the reconstruction period have taken place in the Schiller Theater in West Berlin, only a block away from its main competitor, the Deutsche Oper Berlin.

Although renovations finished four years behind schedule, audiences in the new and improved building will enjoy greatly improved acoustics.

Conductor Otto Klemperer
Conductor Otto Klemperer left Germany in 1933Image: picture-alliance/dpa

5. Its top musicians left during the Third Reich

When Adolf Hitler came into power, all Jews were expelled from the ensemble. Many of the house's top soloists, including conductor Otto Klemperer and others went into exile.

In 1934, Alban Berg's atonal opera, "Lulu" saw its premiere, conducted by music director Erich Kleiber. Despite public success, the Nazis banned the avant-garde work, labeling it "degenerate art" and prompting the legendary composer to leave his post out of protest.

6. It featured a long-lost work of a Holocaust victim

On stage, the tragedy of the Holocaust has been remembered through the opera "The Kaiser von Atlantis," which was performed at the Staatsoper in 2013.

The cast of the "The Kaiser von Atlantis" in 2013
The cast of the "The Kaiser von Atlantis" in 2013Image: Barbara Braun

The work was written while its Jewish composer, Viktor Ullmann, was interned in the Theresienstadt concentration camp. With a plot featuring an insufferable tyrant, it has obvious parallels to the terrors of the Nazi era, and tells of humankind's desire to survive, no matter how dismal the circumstances.

Ullmann was killed in Auschwitz and his work was lost for decades until the score eventually resurfaced. In 1976, it was premiered in Amsterdam and has since come to major stages around the world the world.

Read more: Berlin stages Viktor Ullmann's Holocaust opera

7. It used to be a stage for spies

During the GDR period, the Berlin State Ballet, which still performs part of its season at the Staatsoper, was teeming with spies for the East German secret police, according to historian Ralf Stabel.

In his book on the topic, Stabel says many dancers spied on their colleagues as part of a coordinated effort to keep qualified dancers from fleeing to the West. But the performers themselves weren't the only ones involved – some of the box office staff and management were also doubling as undercover agents. 

Berlin Fotoprobe Wim Wenders «Die Perlenfischer»
"The Pearl Fishers," staged by Wim Wenders, premiered in June 2017Image: picture-alliance/dpa/S. Kembowski

8. It's renowned for its avant-garde works

This year's season opens with a new production of Schumann's "Szenen aus Goethes Faust," a more traditional piece.

However, Berlin's opera houses – Staatsoper included – have a reputation for putting on cutting-edge productions. Violence and nudity are mainstays, as are productions that push the envelope by merging the opera, film and contemporary art worlds.

Earlier this year, German film director Wim Wenders premiered his first opera, "The Pearl Fishers," by French composer Georges Bizet.

Daniel Barenboim conducting an open-air concert in 2016
Daniel Barenboim conducting an open-air concert in 2016Image: picture-alliance/Geisler-Fotopress/B. Kriemann

9. It is led by a contemporary great

In recent years, the opera house and its orchestra, the Staatskapelle (the third-oldest in the world), have flourished under the baton of Argentine-Israeli conductor Daniel Barenboim.

Barenboim has been the General Music Director since 1992 and was awarded the prestigious title of "conductor for life" in 2000.

Seemingly tireless at age 74, Barenboim continues to lead the orchestra in an ambitious program of concerts, operas, and occasional open air performances for the public, such as the opening concert on September 30.