Opera Houses in Germany (Part I)

Erfort, Germany’s opera house

Baden’s opera house

”Without music, life would be an error”, Friedrich Nietzsche

Proof that there is a true passion for music throughout Germany is the fact that there are 90 opera houses and 160 opera companies and only a population of approximately 82,431,000. Many opera houses are majestic, stately buildings, some damaged during WW II, now restored to the original architectural design while others have modern additions. But then there are new wildly contemporary buildings. It’s a country of music lovers and probably the envy of world wide opera administrators since seats sales for each performance are usually 90%.

Conductor, artistic director Daniel Lipton who lives in Berlin and is visiting conductor world-wide, including Opera Hamilton, says that German audiences can be very verbal. “Half cheer, the other half boo. I recall a performance of Aida when the Triumphal March had the Rockette-like women in silk stockings, top hat and cane perform to Verdi’s music. It was hard to distinguish the boos from the cheers. In some German cities, opera lovers come to all the performances so they can compare and many even stand for hours in snow just to get a singer’s autograph.” However, he says it’s mixed emotions with Canadians. “The Canadian audiences are very reserved, as though they don’t want to disturb anyone. But standing ovations are normal even if the performances aren’t particularly good.”


Not until the end of the performance of Bellini’s opera, Norma, from my perch in the Royal Box at the Stuttgart State Theatre, had I ever suspected how opera-crazy Germans are. The curtain fell and then there was the unexpected immense applause, the cheers of bravo, five curtain calls and something I had never experienced before, the stomping of feet, especially for soprano, Catherine Naglestadt.

Stuttgart, the capital of the state of Baden Wurthenberg, is a small big city with a population of 590,000 and with a vibrant cultural element.

Stuttgart’s State Opera House (Staatstheater), opened in 1912, could be the prototype of how grand majestic opera houses should be since it is one of the most important buildings from the Historicism period.

Located in the city centre in a park-like setting facing Eckensee, an artificial lake, diagonally across form the regal New Palace, an extensive stoned walkway leads to the entrance. Sitting on the concrete outdoor steps, are a few young people who are reading and taking advantage of the warm sunny early spring day while waiting for any reduced tickets to be at the box office.

Stuttgart’s monumental opera house

Modern addition of Stuttgart’s opera house

From the grey stone pillared exterior, it seems like a moderately sized building, a deception since it’s one of the largest opera houses in Europe with 1400 seats. It’s also the venue for the renowned Stuttgart Ballet which had performed the night before.

The patrons have reason to be proud since for five of 15 years, Staatsheatre has received the coveted ‘Opera House of the Year’ award which includes best produced operas, staging, artistic directing and conducting, The other countries involved in the formidable competition are Switzerland and Austria.

A sturdy balustrade balcony wraps around the outside and over the entrance. Underneath the highest part of the green copper roof s where the audience is located. I observe all this from a window seat over lunch at the nearby Plenum Cafe where I have the local bratwurst with Sergio Morabita, the maitre en scene of the Stuttgart State Theatre

“ Even though it is large, you don’t have the feeling that you are far from the performers, It’s an intimate space and you really don’t need binoculars,” says the a nattily dressed 42 year old Frankfurt born man. “It really integrates the audience with the stage. Even if you’re seating in the second or third rank (balconies), you still don’t feel distant from what’s happening on stage.” Many of the innovative concepts of the traditional operas now produced are due to Morabita’s inventive ideas.

We stroll through the empty building to the circular foyer of the first balcony. As would be expected, there are the mandatory faux marble columns in front of high arches, floor to ceiling curved windows and hanging crystal chandeliers, all originals from the opening of the opera house designed by Max Littmann. Busts of Mozart, Wagner, Beethoven, Schiller, Goethe and Bach are set on pedestals on one side of the large room. How fortunate that there was no damage during the bombing in the World War II, since the next building, the smaller theatre, was razed.

During the time when there was a Royal family, they would enter the 30 seat loge by a private, small entrance. The circular ante room was for entertaining their guests. These days there are several settees and tables, a very popular room to sit, have a snack and a glass of champagne during intermissions. The great juxtaposition of the newly built ultra modern extension brings all the elements of the audience together…young and old. Here, a glass dome allows the light which play off the pure white walls. Even the marble topped bar is white. And from the original open terrace, I could see a panoramic scene -, the glass façade of the Neues Kunstmuseum (New Museum of Arts) and the old New Palace.

Behind the stage, is a huge area for props and sets. But since this is a repertoire theatre, there is always the possibility of having to set up a different staging every day hence the need for ample space. However, this is not computerized as most opera houses are.

A building across a narrow lane stores all the props, cleverly arranged with labels of back drops on an elevator type contraption allowing easy access for the stage hands.

The evening I was there, I was amazed to see patrons still dressed up although not going far as wearing black tie and gowns. It is a true occasion to spend a night at the Stuttgart Opera Theatre.


I hadn’t heard of Erfurt before my visit. With a population of about 200,000, however this small1250 year old city, the capital of the state of Thuringia, is picture perfect and should be on every tourist’s itinerary. Fisherman’s Square is an encyclopedia of architecture featuring buildings from various eras, Rococo, Renaissance, Baroque. From here, any direction leads into charming, narrow streets. While not Florence Italy’s Ponte Vecchio, there is a smaller, 120 metres, but similar bridge, Tradesman’s Bridge (the Kramerbrucke), which spans a small stream.. Closely built narrow houses, one being the oldest in the city, now are exclusive shops. Erfurt was the intellectual home of young Martin Luther and St. Mary’s Cathedral is a prominent edifice. It’s here that the young, 42 year old, world renowned organist, Silvius von Kessel, has opted to work and teach. And it’s Erfurt where his family moved to live in one of the choice semi circular crescents in a 18th century flat now with contemporary décor.

With my guide, Gudrun, we walk through a large garden to a café run by 7 nuns who bake their pies and cakes daily. Luckily, there is a table available where we snack on cake and coffee before touring the Erfurt opera house.

Unexpected, it a glass block of a building where the frames are burnt orange and grey. This is the rectangular shaped Erfurt Opera House stands alone on a large plaza.

Erfurt Theatre is Germany’s newest opera house which opened in September 2003. Because this was the factory- filled part of the city, there was much controversy when it was announced as the site. However, it is now the pride of the locals.

The theatre accommodates 800 and has a smaller studio with 200 seats.

As expected, its interior is very modern with a suspended spiral staircase leading to the black painted auditorium.


Known mainly for being a society spa town with a grand casino where European aristocracy would come for vacations and some R & R, Baden Baden, with a population of about 54,000, has become serious about music. Located in the lush Oos Valley, it boasts of early springs and long summers and a history that dates back 10,000 years.

Built in 1890, it was unoccupied by the 70s but by mid 90s, the railway station was being transformed to its new persona as an opera and concert hall, Festspielhaus which has 2500 seats, the biggest concert house in Germany and the second largest in Europe. It can boast of state of the art technology and American public relations moxie. Festspielhaus opened in 1998 with a star studded event attracting musical artists and nobility. The conversion which incorporated the neo Renaissance building and modern touches, was designed by Wilhelm Holzbauer. This was Holzbaurer’s experiment. Now, he is considered the master architect for opera houses, his newest is in Shanghai.

Talking to Rudiger Beermann, the director of press and public relations, he speaks about his extended and varied work load.

“I’m also doing musical scientific work because we’re going a new way in Baden Baden. This means we co- produce and collaborate with partners. We are always looking for new and interesting productions,” Beermann tells me as we sit in his neat office overlooking magnificent gardens. “We don’t have a fixed team but we look for experts around the world and bring them here. It’s our way to keep the quality very high. The audience that comes can be quite sure of having high calibre productions.”

It’s a time journey to enter the old station with its fine dining restaurant then be able to enter the new architectural addition with a white glass ceiling, swirling red carpeted staircase and mirrored counter. Another staircase of lime stone leads to the parterre. “It’s very light and pure modern architecture,” says Rudiger Beermann, director of press and public relations.

The original first class waiting hall is now the dining room. While royalty like the Czars from Moscow visited, it was here that they were welcomed by the head of Baden Baden. The elaborate original décor of dark wood, heavy ceiling molding, a stately looking bar, was in keeping for regal guests.

“It was a palace in a way,” Beermann says, explaining that it was the summer capital of Europe. “The idea was to build a festival hall like the one in Bayreuth. Richard Wagner had come in the 19th century to ask for money to build a concert hall. He didn’t get it so he went to Bayreuth. But the idea was born,”

There’s a long musical tradition in Baden Baden. Beermann rattles off a list of famous people who lived in this Bavarian village – Johannes Brahms, Clara Schumann, Hector Berlioz, to name a few.

A rehearsal of contemporary American music is taking place when we enter the auditorium. Today the orchestra pit is lifted. When the pit is lowered, it can accommodate 140 musicians. The acoustics are explained by Beermann. “The theoretical echo for classical music in a hall like this is between 1.5 and 2 seconds and ours is 1.75 which is in the ideal middle.”

With the idea of musical partners, ( Salzburg Festival, La Scala in Milan, to name a few) props are stored with them so there’s no need for storage which helps the bottom line by lowering the cost. The stage is completely computerized up to international standards worked by a team of 10 technicians who can run the complete house.

The seats are all birch coloured playing off against the ox-blood coloured walls. And here’s where some of the true innovative moxie enters. When I asked about the sound absorption, Beermann talks about the material. “Stucco is from Venice and has five layers. There are little holes to absorb the sound and it’s the first opera house to use this material.” It has proved successful since it is a perfectly acoustical hall.

There are two ranks of seating. On the 5th floor there’s a small rehearsal hall with the same acoustic level.

There are no subscribers. “Everyday we start anew,” Beermann tells me. Financially they do well with Club 300 where 300 seats are sold to corporations on an annual basis starting at 10,000 euros per seat.

Always aware of the needs and pampering as an issue of visiting soloists, they’ve integrated a hi-tech kitchen and chef, dedicated only for the performers.

Festspielhaus offers opera, symphony and ballet and also modern and contemporary music. They produce four time-concentrated festivals, one per season. Ticket sales are an amazing high for this large theatre in a small populated area. The radius they draw from is about 150 kilometres. “We look for musical lovers, not the experts, but people who like to travel two hours or more, to have a special evening,” he states. “It’s a musical holiday and a travelling decision to come to Baden Baden.”

Although now privately owned with no subsidies, within the next 20 years it will be bought back by the city.


The small city of Bayreuth in northern Bavaria, population of just over 74,000, is all about Leipzig born composer, Richard Wagner. When he arrived in this city after meeting disappointment in procuring finances for an opera house in Baden Baden, Wagner realized that the existing Baroque opera house here wasn’t suitable for his needs. A piece of real estate was offered him by the mayor. Then he began to raise money to build his independently owned building, now the famous Festival Opera House (Festspielhaus). With the backing of King Ludwig of Bavaria and two affluent and still anonymous Berlin sponsors, he soon had enough finances.

Sitting high above the city, surrounded by flowing garden, the venerable property is now overseen by Wagner’s grandson Wolfgang and his second wife, Gudrun. Gudrun Wagner, much younger than her husband, is probably the most powerful person in Bayreuth and rules with a strong arm. Although an interview and tour had been previously booked and confirmed, Mrs. Wagner felt any stranger’s presence would create difficulty for the rehearsals taking place. Therefore, I was left to walk around the lovely gardens and building, never seeing the interior. Thank goodness for good guides. Heidi filled me in.

Extraordinary Baroque interior of
Bayreuth’s opera house

Gold leaf in the Baroque Bayreuth opera house

The annual 6 weeks of performances starts mid July, principally but not exclusively dedicated to Wagner’s operas and a much looked forward time for devotees of Wagner around the world. Requests are about 500,000 for the 58,000 tickets. Long standing enthusiasts book from one year to the next. Festspielhaus, designed by Gottfried Semper, was supervised by Wagner who included many architectural innovations, For example, the orchestra pit was hidden under the stage away from the view of the audience and able to accommodate a huge orchestra, there were no balconies and it was designed to resemble a classical amphitheater with equal visibility from every steep raked seat and complex equipment for Wagner’s grand scale scenery. Festival Hall opened in 1876 with nobility and accomplished composes – Franz Liszt, Anton Bruchner, Edvard Grieg- in attendance. After Wagner’s death, and under the supervision of his daughter- in –law, Winifred, it became infamous due to her close friendship with Hilter. Although about 1/3 of the city was bombed towards the end of the war, this building which had been turned over to the Nazi, remained undamaged.

The older opera house. The Magravial Opera House, (Markgrafliches Opernhaus, is a fairyland – a rarity of beauty and function and considered the most beautiful preserved baroque opera house in Europe. The star architect at the time, Giuseppe Galli Bibiena designed the masterpiece for Margrave Frederick whose Prussian born wife, Wilhelmine, was a composer although most of her works have been lost. At the time when opened in 1748, it was the largest theatre in the Germany. Also, the acoustics were exceptional.

From the outside the Italian baroque façade has become an symbol for the city. Inside, the lobby is quite basic in off- white, a background for the colourfully gowned audience who would have attended at the time. Once inside and up the circular rose tinted steps, topped with heavy chandeliers, and one dimension balustrade to the auditorium, it’s as though there is a magic doorway, “casting a spell over every visitor” with the uber abundance of gold and blue, the colours of Prussian royalty. Because it is so spectacular, care was taken that it not be bombed. The irony is that almost attached in the rear of the building is a synagogue which also survived. The entirely wood auditorium is the epitome of baroque-style with gilt covered wood vines climbing and circling wood columns. Enchanted looking carved figures and cherubs surround the stage. Two most prominent represent authority and wisdom. Three loges also have their fair share of similar muses as well as carved tassels decorating the fronts.

Bayreuth is an unequivocally musical centre and remains a monument to Richard Wagner.

Opera and opera houses are like wine. One should take time with a great vintage and appreciate its many aspects. Opera too, needs this attention to detail and ebullience.