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.

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