Opera means much more than just lofty theatrical emotions. It is also about grand architecture and a unique cultural heritage – whether it be represented by a modern structure like the Elbphilharmonie Hamburg or a classical building, such as the Deutsche Staatsoper (German State Opera) in Berlin. It’s a building that demands respect. Visitors going to a performance usually wear their finest garb. The building itself contributes to the overall experience, a multi-sensorial pageant of festive atmosphere, magnificent music and elaborate costumes, in combination with dramatic stories. But what happens when the building’s splendour is fading and its former glory is only suggested by dwindling remnants of gold leaf?
the start of the renovation
The ‘State Opera beneath the Lime Trees’ (Staatsoper Unter den Linden) in Berlin’s historical centre is the city’s very first opera house, and back in the day – the 1740s – it was the largest in Europe. Friedrich II (Frederick the Great) had it built as the ‘Königliche Hofoper’ (Royal Court Opera) on the Unter den Linden boulevard. It was the first freestanding opera house in Germany. The Court Opera was a place of representation: it reflected the power and wealth of its patron, and its glorious rooms gave a chance to see and be seen, not only for royalty. It was the centre of Berlin’s high society at the time. The opera was built as a symbol of the cultural ideas of the Enlightenment, and this is why it was the theatre where the first ever opera to be performed in the German language was staged – so that at last it could be understood by a wider audience.
The beautiful building includes the Apollosaal (Apollon Hall) as a foyer and banquet hall, the Ballsaal (Ballroom) as an auditorium, and the Korinthischer Saal (Corinthian Hall) as the concert hall. A few years ago, if you glanced upwards, taking your eye off from what was happening on stage for a moment, you would see the magnificent ornate ceilings. But the ravages of time have not been kind to this building of such long traditions, and the acoustics were inadequate when compared to modern standards. This is why in 2010, the most ambitious refurbishment project in the opera’s 250 years of history began. Now at last, the work is approaching completion.
Until restoration work is finished, it is possible to take part in exciting tours of the construction site, where you can explore many of the building’s hidden secrets, beneath the stage floor, on top of the roof and behind the scenes. The tour includes comprehensive explanations on how the historical ceiling has been raised by means of a spectacular operation, so as to improve the reverberation time by as much as 1.6 seconds. Likewise, you will see how, with the help of materials analysis and archive pictures, the historical colour of the façade has been reconstructed and the exterior of the opera house has been repainted. The beautiful Apollon Hall now shines as it did in Friedrich II’s time, with newly-applied gilt ornamentation and a richly embellished floor whose unique marble is the same as that used in Sanssouci castle – the epitome of 18th-century elegance. The courtyard that had previously been enclosed by a roof has been re-opened and now forms the perfect backdrop for open air events, together with the historic façade.
Gradually, the opera is being prepared to return to its original function. In fact, over the last few years, performances have been relocated to the Schiller Theatre in Charlottenburg. First of all, the rehearsal rooms with their new, perfected acoustics re-opened in September 2016. The other facilities will soon also be completed – though the developers have refrained from naming a specific date.