Subscribe to History Today

From Prussia with Love

Kenneth Asch on Berlin's opera house, the Deutsche Staatsoper.

War and Communism have come and recently gone from under the patient spreading branches of its double row of trees, but Berlin's Unter den Linden has lost little of the essential magic which for centuries has attracted visitors and pleasure-makers from near and far. Stretching away from the newly renovated Brandenburg Gate, the shaded avenue reveals a more grandiose personality as it nears the River Spree. Here, where once loomed the city's main fortifications, Frederick the Great erected a building which – under his own rubric, 'how a Prince wins fame for himself – was to be central to his concept of a 'German Athens'.

The Deutsche Staatsoper, the opera house of the German state, this December, celebrates its 250th anniversary with a lavish state ceremony.

President of the German Bundesrepublik Richard von Weizsacker will speak. Daniel Barenboim will play and conduct Beethoven's 'Choral Fantasie', and works by Frederick the Great and Carl Heinrich Graun will also be on the programme.

The path to the fulfilment of the King of Prussia's exalted vision has been as notable for its successes as its pitfalls. The opera house opened its doors for the first time on December 7th, 1742, when in a driving snowstorm the king arrived with family, royal entourage, foreign dignitaries, and private guests from among the common folk. The theatre was hardly prepared for such a distinguished occasion. Surrounded entirely by scaffolding, its portico and double staircase still in primitive stages of construction, the house could offer its audience by way of comfort only rough benches in place of the upholstery and plush the king had commanded. A huge tent hung from the roof in a drab attempt to conceal the ceiling's unfinished condition. Light if not comic relief was provided by a performance of court composer Carl Heinrich Graun's specially commissioned work Caesar and Cleopatra.

The evening's truly memorable experience was to be withheld from the public for almost another whole year. Georg Wenzeslaus Knobelsdorff, the king's favourite architect, could properly take his bows only on October 10th, 1743, when the first state ceremony – 'Redoute' – was held after a performance of La clemenza di Tito by Johann Adolph Hasse. This was indeed the same Hasse to whom Mozart, when in England, referred to in a letter to Queen Charlotte January 18th, 1765) as 'immortal'.

Two of the building's features make it remarkable even today. From the purely practical commercial point of view Knobelsdorff was well ahead of his time in conceiving a theatre which nowadays would carry the slightly banal designation as 'multipurpose facility'. Immediately behind the Palladian loggia on Unter den Linden is the Apollosaal, a room designed for banquets and receptions orchestrated for king and nobility.

A more captivating innovation than this, however, was the built-in flexibility of the main auditorium with its adjacent Corinthian Room. This latter Athenian-styled space serves the theatre during performances as a stage, otherwise doubling as a hall for stately functions with columns and fountains. Thanks to a mechanism concealed beneath the main floor, in the early days operated by soldiers of the local garrison (Berlin in the mid-eighteenth century was little more than a barracks town), the stalls could be raised in their entirety to align with the stage so as to create one grand and opulent ceremonial hall.

Costing him at least one million Thaler (one can make only a wild guess at its modern equivalent), Frederick immediately tackled the business of employing one of Europe's most expensive ensembles. 6000 Thaler, for example, was the sum paid annually to keep the gold-plated vocal chords of Italian soprano Giovanna Astrua in Berlin. Considering that in 1713, the year Frederick's father, Friedrich Wilhelm I, inherited the throne, the whole Prussian national debt was 'only' one million Thaler, the scope of the king's operatic venture begins to take on special meaning.

Knobelsdorff s appreciation of luxury ran along simpler lines. His royal patron had sent him abroad to observe architectural practices beyond Prussia*s frontiers. When his opera house was finally and fully revealed after the initial delay – occasioned largely by Frederick's costly military assault upon Habsburg Silesia setting off the Seven Years' War, it was apparent that the royal architect had done his research thoroughly. One example in particular influenced him. This was Andrea Palladio, master of late Italian Renaissance and precursor of Baroque. Palladio's Villa Capra, the so-called Rotonda, at Vicenza, with its distinctive antique loggias and raised foundation, was translated by Knobelsdorff into the building which has somehow survived to this day, an event in Europe's architectural history as much for its size as its classical simplicity.

As a reunited Germany struggles with the fiscal and social benefications of Nazism and Communism, the Deutsche Staatsoper prepares to re-launch itself onto the world stage. Celebrated names of music, dance and theatre have been lured back to the magnificent intimacy of the celebrated house on the Unter den Linden, while the city around it struggles free from a depressingly apparent history. Daniel Barenboim leads the Deutsche Staatsoper in his first appearance as its artistic director on October 25th in the opening performance of a new production of Richard Wagner's Parsifal. The unimaginable cost of the exercise will, despite the artistic recovery, inevitably recall the excesses of Alte Fritz, the Deutsche Staatsoper's first royal patron who rides in stone directly in front of Knobelsdorff s palladian masterpiece.

The History Today Newsletter

Sign up for our free weekly email