Marvelous Opera: Explore Berlin's Newly Renovated Staatsoper on Unter den Linden

The Staatsoper Unter den Linden is open again after lengthy renovations. Solveig Steinhardt spoke with the new general artistic director, Matthias Schulz, to find out more.

It took seven years, but Berlin's cultural scene has now entered a new era: The renovated Staatsoper on Unter den Linden reopened in October 2017 with a host of performances that were only a prelude to the official inauguration of the main concert hall, scheduled for 7 December. Those who attend the opening that day will also be celebrating the theater's 275th birthday.

The Staatsoper Unter den Linden is the oldest of Berlin's three opera houses, and has always been renowned for the high caliber of its resident orchestra, the Staatskapelle, nowadays conducted by Daniel Barenboim. Before WWII, the Staatsoper was the city's main opera theater, flanked by the nearby Komische Oper, which focused on lighter performances such as operetta, a type of musical comedy. When the Berlin Wall was built, it confined both the Staatsoper and the Komische Oper to the Eastern part of the city, forcing West Berlin to build its own opera house, the Deutsche Oper, erected in Charlottenburg in 1961.

Staatsoper Unter den Linden
(Courtesy Staatsoper Unter den Linden)

Today, there are no more walls to keep the opera houses apart, so the question arises: Does Berlin really need three opera houses? According to the Staatsoper's incoming general artistic director, Matthias Schulz, it does.

"For a city with 3.8 million people like Berlin, having this many opera houses is nearly a necessity," he says.  The three Opernhäuser complement each other in offering the city a diverse opera scene, with performances and sets ranging from the traditional to avant-garde, and Schulz assures there is no competition between the three. "We talk to each other every month. We each aim to offer a very rich opera life, but also coordinate our programs in order not have the same premieres within two years of each other, for example."

According to Matthias Schulz, the Staatsoper's main advantage is that it's right in the middle of what is quickly turning into the city's cultural heart, between Museum Island, the Humboldtforum, and Humboldt University, and near other musical institutions such as the Pierre-Boulez Saal and the Konzerthaus.

Schulz's mandate will begin April 2018, but he is already at work to plan the new season, and new fate, of the Staatsoper. He says the theater's program will go well beyond the Strauss, Verdi, and Wagner operas that have always been the stronghold of the house's tradition. Schulz wants to add more Mozart to the mix, but also give voice to Baroque opera with works by brilliant composers such as the Sicilian Alessandro Scarlatti and French theorist and opera master Jean-Philippe Rameau.

Staatsoper Unter den Linden
(Courtesy Staatsoper Unter den Linden)

But most of all, the 39-year-old Intendant, who has already managed Salzburg's Mozarteum Foundation for five years, wants to make opera as accessible as possible.

"Going to the opera means challenging all your senses without having to have a huge baggage of knowledge. This is why it should be something for everyone, both old and young – and that's something we have to work on."

And it shouldn't be too hard in a culture-thirsty city such as Berlin. Berliners are curious and passionate about all kinds of artistic performances.

"The fascinating thing about the Berlin audience is that it could not be more diverse. It is certainly less formal than in other cities—just look at what they wear—but this doesn't mean that they don’t take on a certain attitude when they go to the opera. It would be boring to try to merely shock the audience—so much has already been done here. If you want to surprise the audience you need to find the right way to do it."

The Staatsoper was built in 1742, but was destroyed by fire in 1843 and struck twice by Allied bombs during WWII. It was rebuilt in the 1950s following the original rococo design combined with GDR elements and materials, but groundwater infiltrations made the recent renovations necessary. The aim of the restoration was to provide a historically appropriate rehabilitation of the building as a whole, renew the stage, update the house's technology, and enhance acoustics.

In order to do that, the ceiling was raised by four meters to add a reverberation gallery, which was then veiled with an acoustically transparent and aesthetically stunning porcelain net that perfectly matches the theater's style and has become the symbol of the new Staatsoper. To increase comfort, the number of seats was cut down from 1398 to 1356. The administration building across the square was renovated too, and an underground tunnel was built between the rehearsal rooms and the stage. It's a great improvement for the musicians, who no longer have to walk outside before a performance.

The Staatsoper's 275th birthday concert on 7 December inaugurated the theater's new life with a program including Mendelssohn, Strauss, and Boulez, all composers who have personally performed and conducted at the Staatsoper in the past. The next day, the opera season began with the premiere of Humperdinck's Hänsel und Gretel, a fairytale often associated with Christmas, followed by a diverse program of opera masterpieces.  According to Schulz, "A society that's developing opera at high levels of quality is a healthy society," and Berlin seems to be doing great.