Colin Eatock on a City That's Struggling to Cope with an Embarrassment of Operatic Riches

By Eatock, Colin | Opera Canada, March-April 2006 | Go to article overview

Colin Eatock on a City That's Struggling to Cope with an Embarrassment of Operatic Riches


Eatock, Colin, Opera Canada


QUANTITATIVELY, BERLIN IS THE OPERATIC CAPITAL OF THE world, with 560 opera performances over the 2005-06 season--more than anywhere else, including Paris, Vienna, London or New York. To make all this possible, the city government lavishes about $140-million annually on its three major opera houses--the Staatsoper unter den Linden, the Deutsche Oper and the Komische Oper--not to mention subsidies to such smaller companies as the Kammeroper, the Neukollner Oper and the Zeitgenossische Oper. (By comparison, the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto received about $4.5-million in government subsidy for operations in 2005-06.) Production values in Berlin are high, casting is stellar and the orchestras are superb.

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You might think that everyone in Berlin who cares about opera would be delighted with this state of affairs. But on the contrary, a cloud of anxiety hangs over the opera community, a sense that the city's operatic culture is facing an uncertain future.

Berlin's opera bonanza is more an accident of history than the result of any deliberate plan. When the city was divided, in 1945, the Staatsoper lay in ruins in the Eastern Sector, along with the Komische Oper (which opened under that name in 1947); the Deutsche Oper, meanwhile, was in the West. The East and West German governments strove to outdo each other in all ways, and poured millions into their opera companies. But the reunification of Germany in 1990 left Berlin with a surfeit of richly funded cultural institutions. While this is a fine thing for tourists (there are more museums in Berlin than you can shake a stick at), it all costs money. And money is the one thing Berlin does not possess in abundance.

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Two years ago, in an effort to reduce the vast expenses associated with opera, the city government created the Stiftung Oper in Berlin (the Berlin Opera Foundation). Its purpose is to divide up the subsidy the city pays to its opera houses, while at the same time looking for ways to save money. Although the Stiftung was greeted with suspicion, even outrage, the three opera houses have learned to live with it--for now. However, the Stiftung has been instructed by city politicians to reduce opera funding by $20-million by 2009; it will have no choice but to pass these reductions on to the opera companies. They, in turn, will have to cut costs.

According to Alexander Busche, a publicist for the Deutsche Oper, the Stiftung has put an end to public debate on the future of opera in the city. "The Stiftung stops the discussion of how to save all the opera houses," he says. "And all the houses have remained independent, artistically and economically." Certainly, everyone agrees the Stiftung was a better idea than other alternatives: an amalgamation of the companies (as the city did with its ballet troupes) or even the closure of one of the houses. …

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