by Irene Aurora Paci
Maybe it’s because of the tragic events that have taken place in that Berlin institution, maybe it’s just because of the sober façade which seems to not leave room for joking: maybe there are simply no reasons for this feeling, but the Deutsche Oper of Berlin is a strong, serious and, without doubts, powerful piece of architecture.
Nonetheless, it is difficult to find one potential explanation, since we know that places always keep their memories, but very often they’re hidden, faked, adulterated. Often, the steps and the degrees are so invisible, that only a very careful analysis can unveil the past passages.
The history of this building has nothing particular special for the city in which it lives: changes, reconstructions, renovations, due to the War and to the Wall, and – obviously – to the normal power plays and the compromises of the cultural field.
This story begins in 1912, when the institution is founded under the name of Deutsches Opernhaus and celebrated by the representation of the Fidelio by Beethoven. The name is then turned into Städtische Oper in 1925, and then modified again into the original one by Joseph Goebbels. Destroyed during the war, the opera house restarted its performances in the seat of the Theater des Westens until 1961.
The work of art that we know today saw the light of the day on 24th September 1961, thanks to the commitment of the architect Fritz Bornemann (1912-2007). He renovated what remained of the Deutsches Opernhaus that had been destroyed during the War, and wanted to give back to (West) Berlin its unavoidable “house of the opera”. The construction lasted 5 years.
Bornemann was a Berliner architect, who studied at the Technische Universität and had been very active in the city, especially for places dedicated to art (Museen Dahlem, Museum für Indische Kunst and also the Museum für Islamische Kunst, among others) and to culture and knowledge (the Amerika-Gedenkenbibliothek with Willy Kreuer); he never built dwellings.
The Deutsche Oper Berlin is located in Bismarckstrasse in the neighbourhood of Charlottenburg.
Its aspect and its consistency are decisively stony, it’s undeniable. But I have to admit that the first time I went there I didn’t notice anything of that seriousness. I was thinking of the opera itself – of the great occasion to be there at such an incredible price (€13 if you feel like going to the Abendskasse at 18.00, even a little later, and queuing until all the people in front of you have found their tickets), of La Bohème that was waiting for us. It was a Thursday evening of a surprisingly warm Berliner December and an excited audience was waiting for the beginning of the performance. It was dark outside. Young people in expectation were meeting their friends and relatives, a suffused light was in opposition inside.
From the Straße at night you can’t easily distinguish the architecture. You can smoke a cigarette under this unusual and low ceiling that looms right at the entrance, but it doesn’t annoy you, it’s just there, like a sort of protection to the cold and to the traffic, and the speed and the noise next to you.
Bornemann had designed something of a modernist style with its huge façade on the front side but a likely huge glass wall on the side, which allows ample views during the pauses and an appreciable sense of openness despite the dark colours of the wood and the soundproofing – this sort of isolation is for the spectator in the scene.
Great acoustic and good visibility characterise the inner hall of concerts. That still remains sober and serious. The theatre can hold today up to 1885 people. Every spectator can see and hear well from each seat in the auditorium.
The Deutsche Oper is a very clear example of modernism: it knows how to perfectly join functionality, and simple, balanced and austere elegance.
The dark wood underlines the solemnity of the figures and makes clear that what you are going to attend is something important, well-recognised, and esteemed.
The style is pure and essential, and could look almost aseptic. But it isn’t: for a passion, it is like the theater itself was open to welcome the audience and the artists, music and the tinkling of champagne flutes. For sure, the Deutsche Oper is not a léger place for essence, but you – as its user – can live it as you can and want to. It is dour, but not prohibitive; demanding, but never rejecting.
It’s solemn and imposing, fascinating and brilliant; but rigour is never opposed to openness and great disposition of mind. Modernism hits and wins another time: you admire it because of its force, you enjoy it thanks to its perfectness.