What's been happening in Behrenstrasse over the years
1764 – 1786
Singspiele and Nathan the Wise
The Theater in der Behrenstraße, a half-timbered building with 700 seats, augments its repertoire of plays by Schiller, Goethe (1774 premiere of Götz von Berlichingen), Lessing (1783 premiere of Nathan the Wise) and Shakespeare with a new genre, German Singspiel, which is influenced by the French Opéra comique and constitutes an alternative to courtly (Italian) Opera. In this context “comique” is purely intended to contrast with tragic court opera: Opéra comique, and the form of Singspiel, is not necessarily comic but primarily accessible to popular tastes.
1892 – 1898
Operettas and The Bartered Bride
On the site of the old theatre, which had been demolished many years earlier, the Theater Unter den Linden is opened, designed by the well-known Viennese architects Ferdinand Fellner and Hermann Helmer (who have previously designed theatres in many cities including Prague, Budapest, Vienna, Zurich and Hamburg). It is a magnificent amusement palace in neo-Baroque style, with tables in the rear section of the stalls, boxes along the sides of the circles and a balcony-terrace in the middle of the first circle. Operettas are performed predominantly, though occasionally also operas such as The Bartered Bride and Cavalleria rusticana, Der Bajazzo.
“The latest, the very latest”
The theatre is reconstructed and reopened with the new name Metropol Theatre. The lavish political and satirical Annual Reviews become famous: “One of the events that one must experience in Berlin,” as a contemporary report insists. “Automobiles, private carriages, etc, draw up outside the main door in huge numbers. The most elegant and beautiful personages of Berlin emerge.” Alongside the singer and comedian Josef Giampietro, the main star of these reviews is Fritzi Massary from Vienna.
Kálmán, Lehár and Abraham
After the First World War the Metropol Theatre becomes one of the most important operetta houses in Germany. Works by leading operetta composers of the day are played here, including Lehár’s The Merry Widow and The Land of Smiles (premiere 1929), Oscar Straus’s Marietta, Emmerich Kálmán’s The Csárdás Princess and Paul Abraham’s Victoria and her Husar,The Flower from Hawai and Ball at the Savoy.
Audiences enjoy performances by stars like Käthe Dorsch, Gitta Alpár, Adele Sandrock, Richard Tauber, Leo Slezak and Max Hansen, as well as Fritzi Massary.
“Kraft durch Freude”
When the Nazis seize power, many Jewish artists (such as Fritzi Massary, Richard Tauber and Gitta Alpár) are forced to leave Germany. Most of the new operettas can no longer be performed, because they were written by Jewish composers (like Kálmán and Abraham). The Metropol Theatre comes under the control of the Reich Ministry for Education and Propaganda, with mass entertainment under the slogan Kraft durch Freude (Strength through Joy). In 1944 all theatres in Germany are closed, including the Metropol Theatre.
“Art without conventions, prejudices or artistic vanity”
The theatre was destroyed in 1945, and when it reopens after reconstruction it is with a performance of Johann Strauss’s Die Fledermaus under the General Director Walter Felsenstein, from Austria, who renames it the Komische Oper. In the years to come his principles are extremely influential on attitudes towards musical theatre, and they are copied throughout Europe. His successors at the Komischen Oper – Joachim Herz, Werner Rackwitz / Harry Kupfer, Albert Kost / Harry Kupfer, Andreas Homoki – also remain committed to the idea of contemporary, accessible musical theatre.
“Sense and sensuality”
When he is appointed Artistic Director Barrie Kosky maintains the tradition of his predecessors but also recalls the history of the theatre in Behrenstrasse before 1945. Works which had been suppressed or forgotten are once more on the programme, pieces which have seldom or never been heard – especially by composers who vanished from sight under the Nazis and are in many cases unjustly forgotten even today. Under Kosky the Berlin jazz operetta demonstrates its biting wit, while some works reveal themselves in a completely different light when liberated from 1950s kitsch. The Komische Oper Berlin re-emerges as the legitimate heir to the Metropol Theatre.
Since the construction of the venue in the Behrenstraße (which opened as the “Theater Unter den Linden” in 1892), the Komische Oper Berlin has at various times been a consistent international trend-setter in the world of musical theatre. As the leading theatre for operettas and revues in the 1920s, it fundamentally shaped the Berlin, and hence international, entertainment scene. Following the Second World War, Walter Felsenstein’s concept of musical theatre revolutionised European opera, and to this day remains an important point of reference for the great majority of musical theatre directors seeking to be contemporary in their work. This inspirational international influence as a trend-setter in innovative musical theatre is reflected in the many artistic careers which began at the Komische Oper Berlin – including those of the directors Götz Friedrich and Harry Kupfer as well as the conductors Otto Klemperer, Kurt Masur, Yakov Kreizberg, and Kirill Petrenko.
In 2012, Barrie Kosky took over from Andreas Homoki as the Artistic Director of the Komische Oper Berlin. He was joined by Henrik Nánási, the new General Music Director. The Komische Oper Berlin is versatile and flexible to a degree which is unusual for an opera house. This and the fixed ensemble of singer-performers are key characteristics of the Komische Oper Berlin under Kosky’s directorship. Kosky’s conceptual approach draws not only on the tradition set by Felsenstein, but also on the venue’s pre-war traditions, which were strongly shaped by Jewish actors and have hitherto received less attention. Felsenstein’s vision of opera as a form of musical theatre in which music and action are equally important components of a production is combined by Kosky with the demand that musical theatre should provide an experience which appeals to all the senses and which encompasses musical drama in all its forms, from the classic Mozart repertoire through to genre-defying projects.
When he chose the name Komische Oper (“Comic Opera”), Walter Felsenstein was making a reference not only to the immediacy and popularity of the French Opéra comique but also to the old Komische Oper in Berlin, at Weidendammer Bridge on Friedrichstrasse, which had been destroyed during the war. Hans Gregor, who was General Director there from 1905 to 1911, had been inspired by similar ideas and demanded “art without conventions, prejudices or artistic vanity”.
Felsenstein noted in the programme for the opening premiere of the Komische Oper: »Although Komische Oper is the literal translation of Opéra comique, if it is taken literally it is misleading, suggesting a meaning which is not completely appropriate for the genre of musical theatre so unmistakably described by the French term. What is generally known in Germany as Singspiel, Opera Buffo, Operetta or Spieloper does in part fit into the category that is meant here, but it is largely lacking in terms of both musical and intellectual aspiration.
The Komische Oper has set itself the task of cultivating the most artistically exquisite and at the same time popular works of international musical theatre from the past, present and future in a varied repertoire. And in doing so, equal emphasis will be placed on both parts of the term musical theatre. For music which does not grow out of a process of performance has nothing to do with theatre, while at the same time a performance which does not identify with the music precisely, in terms of artistic validity, would be better off without music.«