Opera in Berlin: A Staat of Flux

Deutsche Oper Berlin, one of the city's three companies, was created to be an opera of the people, offering affordable seats for Germans.
Deutsche Oper Berlin, one of the city's three companies, was created to be an opera of the people, offering affordable seats for Germans. (By Andreas Rentz -- Getty Images)
By Daniel Ginsberg
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, January 8, 2006


Kirsten Harms is in a fighting mood.

Her city has perhaps the richest opera scene in the world -- three major companies, something that's almost unheard of.

But Harms, general manager of the Deutsche Oper Berlin, believes the Berlin state government is starving its opera houses.

"If they cut all the arts, they could pay their debts for two days," says Harms during an interview in her spacious Deutsche Oper office in the western suburb of Charlottenburg. "We are a small fraction of the budget, around 1.7 percent. The cut to the arts helps no one."

Five years ago, the Deutsche Oper was put on the chopping block after the Berlin government announced plans to merge the house with Berlin's flagship house, Staatsoper Unter den Linden. The threat sparked a ferocious public funding battle that pitted art against politics. What the politicians saw as a cost-cutting measure was seen by the artists as governmental intervention in creative matters. The bitter debate that ensued came to be known as the "Berlin Opera Wars."

The Berlin government eventually caved in to public pressure, and the existence of three opera houses was solidified in law. A new government eventually established the Berlin Opera Foundation to encourage the houses to cooperate with each other, but reduced the subsidies.

Relations between the opera and political worlds remain bitter. What might be an embarrassment of riches -- a city with three independent and artistically distinct opera companies -- may become a lose-lose-lose situation for all, reflecting the city's larger financial woes. Worse, the crisis could undermine the ability of any of the three houses to deliver the cutting-edge productions that audiences expect.

Different Personalities

On a typical evening, the city's opera lovers enjoy an abundance of choices. "Here, opera is much more interesting," says the Deutsche Oper's Harms. She says the city's companies emphasize staging and acting, which gives German opera greater dramatic impact.

Harms points out the unique contribution of the Deutsche Oper, which was founded in 1912 as a kind of people's house, where everyone gets a good seat for a reasonable price. During much of the Cold War, the house was the sole source of opera for encircled West Berliners.

Along Unter den Linden, the historic boulevard in East Berlin, the centuries-old aristocratic origins of the Staatsoper still echo in lavish productions that feature some of the most renowned international artists, including longtime musical director Daniel Barenboim.

A few blocks down Unter den Linden, the Comic Opera puts on lighter, more popular fare, working to bring new people to the genre. On one recent Saturday evening performance, a good chunk of the audience fled director Calixto Beito's controversial staging of Mozart's "The Abduction From the Seraglio," which underscored misogyny in the opera and still sparks controversy more than a year and a half after its premiere. The production featured extreme violence, cruelty, frontal nudity and rape.

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