More than 325 years of opera in Hamburg
Germany’s first Bürgeroper, or People’s Opera
More than 325 years have now gone by since culture-loving Hanseatic merchants founded an opera house in Hamburg. On 2nd January 1678 the new music theatre, located between the Jungfernstieg and the Colonnaden, opened its doors with the biblical Singspiel “Adam and Eve” by Johann Theile. The theatre, a plain half-timbered building from the outside, furnished with boxes, stalls and gallery within, was Germany’s very first public opera house – pay the entrance fee and in you went, whoever you were, whilst elsewhere, this newborn art form was the exclusive province of nobility.
And even back in those days the theatre already featured impressive stage equipment – lighting effects achieved through transparent pieces of scenery based on the "Laterna Magica" principle delighted the audience, as did colourful fireworks. The Bürgeroper quickly became the leading music venue of the baroque age. Georg Friedrich Händel, Johann Mattheson, Georg Philipp Telemann and Reinhard Keiser all featured here.
Almost a century later, in 1765, on the Gänsemarkt, the "Ackermannsche Comödiantenhaus", or comedy theatre, opened. As well as music theatre and ballet, drama was also part of its programme. It is primarily thanks to Gotthold Ephraim Lessing that the Comödiantenhaus soon became the "Deutsche Nationaltheater" and that the works of Schiller, Goethe, Shakespeare and Lessing featured in the repertoire. At the end of the 18th century spoken drama and opera fought a bitter battle, with the favour of the public swinging from one to the other. But, as time passed, the ardent music-lover gained more and more ground, demanding “opera or death”.
Opera stars and prima ballerinas at the "Stadt-Theater"
In 1827 a new opera house was inaugurated on the site of today’s State Opera, on Dammtorstrasse. The "Stadt-Theater”, with more than 2500 seats, was built to plans from Carl Friedrich Schinkel. Initially, as well as being home to operatic productions the theatre also staged performances by magicians and other exotic entertainers. But its progress towards a music-only theatre was relentless, as more and more big names became associated with it. In 1830, Niccolo Paganini (known as the “Devil’s own fiddler”) gave his first Hamburg concert, Richard Wagner directed his "Rienzi" in 1844, and the Stadt-Theatre production of “Nabucco” was the first Verdi opera ever to be staged in Germany. Famous singers such as Jenny Lind caused a stir – her enthusiastic fans even going to the lengths of organising her a torchlight procession round the Alster. Prima ballerinas such as Fanny Elssler and Danish star Lucile Grahn were very well received by the Hamburg public, as well as by the critics. “The costumes of Elssler, Grahn etc. are by no means immoral”, stated one critic. And a Hamburg newspaper poetically wrote of the frenetic applause received by Fanny Elssler at every performance “Fanny Elssler can always count on true emotional affection. The garlands one throws to her will always remain fresh, drenched in the dew of the joyous tears of the invigorated”.
In 1854 the Stadt-Theater encountered a crisis, losing a third of its public, and requiring state subsidy for the first time. Its saviour was Bernhard Pollini, the man who leased it in 1873. He renovated the building to reflect the opulence of the day, and also put in the first electric lights. In 1891 Gustav Mahler began a six-year reign as Principal Musical Director in Hamburg. His artistic endeavours frequently foundered on everyday opera house operations, but he earned wide acclaim nonetheless. His interpretations of Mozart were commendable, and he consolidated his reputation as one of the foremost conductors of Wagner. In 1910 Otto Klemperer directed an opera production at the Stadt-Theatre for the very first time. His “Lohengrin” was a triumph. Two years later, however, he was obliged to leave town in a hurry following a flirtation with singer Elisabeth Schumann, a married woman. The affair became a full-blown scandal when the singer’s angry husband struck Klemperer in the face with a riding whip before a performance, in front of a packed house.
From Stadt-Theater to State Opera
In 1925/26 the theatre acquired a new stage house with state-of-the-art equipment, the building that still stands today. During a bombing raid in 1943 the auditorium of what had now become the "Hamburgische Staatsoper" was completely destroyed, but the theatre was able to be saved. However, the show went on only two months after this destruction when the State Opera transferred its performances to other venues – the Thalia Theater and the Musikhalle. After the war, temporary remedies were the order of the day – in 1946 a new venue with 606 seats, increased to 1230 seats three years later. In 1955 the city then at long last acquired a true opera house again, the citizens of Hamburg having once more contributed donations. A lottery was even held to raise money for the new theatre on Dammtorstrasse, which was inaugurated in October of that year with a performance of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute”. Manager and Artistic Director Günter Rennert promoted the opera house’s own ensemble and began directing contemporary works. This is the direction the Hamburg State Opera is still consistently pursuing. Rolf Liebermann, whose 14-year term began in 1959 and who also believed in keeping music theatre up-to-date, also brought contemporary opera forward. A total of 21 first performances of new works took place during his time at the helm. His discerning, ambitious programme meant the theatre was able to attract promising artists. In this way, many a star launched his or her world career in Hamburg in the fifties and sixties, including Anneliese Rothenberger, Martha Mödl, Plácido Domingo, Kurt Moll and Franz Grundheber.
Dance between tradition and vision
Dance also looks back on a long, lively tradition in Hamburg. During the past century, performances of the works of Helga Swedlund, choreography from George Balanchines, interpretations of many a Stravinsky ballet and Peter van Dyks’ reign from 1962 to 1970, all caused a stir. Then, in 1973, Hamburg became a true “ballet town” when dancer and choreographer John Neumeier – as imaginative as he was restless – created a new company, settling it in a new ballet centre with its own integrated school of dance. The programme features numerous tours abroad and special events, such as ballet workshops open to the public and “Hamburg Ballet Week” with its concluding Nijinsky Gala.
John Neumeier has been Manager and Artistic Director of Hamburg Ballet since 1997.
Back to the future – opera in the 21st century
Today, more than 325 years after its foundation, the Hamburg State Opera is one of Europe’s leading opera houses. Opera Manager and Artistic Director Simone Young and Ballet Manager and Artistic Director John Neumeier create the kind of artistic ambience that underscores this position and shows that the opera house is still as open, modern and alive as it has traditionally been. The theatre management intends taking the artistic traditions of the Hamburg State Opera forward into the coming years, crowning more than 325 years of musical history and dance tradition with even more success. Reflecting current music theatre, combining the works of old with a modern point of view whilst still maintaining the classics of the repertoire, are all-important aspects of the programme. “325 Years of Hamburg State Opera” also provides opportunity to reflect on the theatre’s own history. The fact that engagement with history can, at the same time, bring box-office success, is shown by hits such as “Alcina", "L'Incoronazione di Poppea" and "Giulio Cesare in Egitto", part of the baroque cycle. The management of Hamburg State Opera is also laying the foundations for a successful future – the young singers of the International Opera Studio and the students of the Hamburg Ballet School are a guarantee that artistic standards are set to remain high. And with the children’s opera series entitled "Opera piccola", a new generation of opera lovers will grow.