A Night at the Opera in Germany

Attending a live performance in the opulent opera houses of Munich and Dresden is an unforgettable cultural experience. Here are tips for planning and enjoying a night at the opera.

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Opera in Germany - The National Theater in Munich ©Felix Löchner
The National Theater in Munich ©Felix Löchner

My spine tingled as I walked up the steps and between the Greek-style columns of Munich’s National Theater, home of the world-renowned Bavarian State Opera. I’m an orchestra musician, and entering this opera house was an almost spiritual experience akin to going into a cathedral. However, like many world travelers, this was the first time I had attended a live performance in one of Europe’s historic venues.

In the foyer, people surged around me. I wanted to gaze at the sculpted bust of composer Richard Strauss—I’d come to see his famous opera, Der Rosenkavalier—but I was in a hurry. In 25 minutes, I needed to find the Ring II level where my seat was located, change out of my sightseeing clothes, leave my coat and day-pack at the coat check, and then settle into my seat before the lights dimmed and the conductor gave the downbeat.

The gorgeous interior at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich. ©Wilfried Hösl
The gorgeous interior at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich ©Wilfried Hösl

Opera in Germany

Germany has one of the richest musical traditions in Europe, and it’s home to some of the world’s most magnificent opera houses, many of them architectural treasures that are at least 150 years old. So, I decided to plan my trip to Germany around opera. I chose Munich and Dresden—just two of Germany’s many cities where opera thrives and is enthusiastically attended by both locals and international visitors.

As a bassoon player, I’m biased toward classical music, but I want everyone to love it as much as I do. Some people are put off by opera’s high-art reputation, but the truth is that operas were written to entertain everyone, and most of them have simple, melodramatic stories—usually involving forbidden love, or murder, or both!—that hook you. And opera has universal appeal: Although it’s sung in Italian, French, German, Russian, Czech, and English, it transcends borders. And that’s why we travel in the first place.

Munich’s Bavarian State Opera

An English-speaking usher showed me to my seat in the front row of Ring II, which was beside the Royal Box where Bavarian kings once sat. My heart fluttered as I gazed up at a massive crystal chandelier and an ornately decorated ceiling. The theater walls were covered in red silk; lighting sconces were ornamented in floral and leaf motifs. To my right was a giant, sculpted Greek goddess whose figure embellished an architectural column.

Opera in Munich, Der Rosenkavalier at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich. ©Wilfried Hösl
Der Rosenkavalier at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich ©Wilfried Hösl

Feeling rather royal myself, I looked down at the seats below as they rapidly filled with people; the performance was sold out. I also assessed the orchestra as the huge assemblage of instrumentalists required to play Strauss’ soaring score warmed up.

As the lights dimmed, I glanced through the program: the synopsis was in German, which I couldn’t read. After the overture, the red-velvet curtain opened to reveal an opulent palace set, and Der Rosenkavalier began. The three-act romantic comedy is about a love triangle between an aging noblewoman, her young lover Octavian (a “trouser” role, in which a woman with a mezzo-soprano voice sings the part of a boy/man), and the girl Octavian eventually falls in love with.

Act 2 in Der Rosenkavalier at the Bavarian State Opera.
Act 2 in Der Rosenkavalier at the Bavarian State Opera.

The singing was divine; the costumes were lavish; the orchestra sounded superb. My only disappointment was that the supertitles—the translations of the lyrics projected above the stage—were in German only. No English as I had hoped.

Luckily I had prepared by watching a DVD version of Rosenkavalier the week before I left home, so I was familiar with the story and the basic content of the lyrics. (If you’re attending any live opera, even one with English translations, I highly recommend watching at least the first act in advance. And if your program is in German only, you can easily find the opera’s synopsis online. I prefer the Metropolitan Opera’s accounts of characters and plots.)

Before I knew it, the first act was over, and during the first 40-minute intermission, I queued up at the bar for canapés and a glass of wine because I hadn’t had time for dinner beforehand—and the whole production, including two intermissions, clocked in at 4.5 hours.

As I nibbled and sipped, I meandered the King’s Halls: high-ceiling rooms connected by marble staircases and illuminated by more crystal chandeliers. I spied a few women in sparkly gowns, although most people were more casually dressed. A few wore jeans, which made my easy-to-pack black skirt and sweater feel just right: not overdressed but not shabby. I even had time to view portraits of the famous sopranos and baritones who have sung at the theater during its 200-year history.

The second and third acts each had brand-new sets and costumes but always the same exquisite singing. I confess that because of jetlag, I had trouble keeping my eyes open a couple of times, but I always perked up when the music’s tempo changed. At the end of the evening, I opted to take a taxi back to my hotel, which was outside the city center, despite the convenience of not one but two different U-Bahn stops just a five-minute walk from the theater.

Opera in Munich, The King's Hall in at the Bavarian State Opera ©Wilfried Hösl
The King’s Hall at the Bavarian State Opera ©Wilfried Hösl

The next day, I was still humming arias from Der Rosenkavalier when I returned for a tour of the National Theater. It included a backstage peek at the frenetic behind-the-scenes workings. Crews were positioning sets for an upcoming world premiere, and techies strode around checking light positions.

The guide told stories about the Bavarian State Opera: My favorite was about “Mad” King Ludwig II, who long ago sat just yards from the seat I occupied. Though he loved opera, Ludwig couldn’t bear for the audience to stare at him. His solution was to close the Royal Box drapes and peek through—but from behind the curtains, the music was muffled. So, he arranged for a private performance in the middle of the night with no audience in attendance, but the sound echoed through the hall.

Ludwig finally achieved perfect acoustics by filling the theater seats at midnight with soldiers; as their commander, the king ordered them not to turn around or look up at him before, during or after the performance! Such are the lengths that opera lovers will go to.

Also of Interest in Munich: Adjacent to the National Theater is the Munich Residenz, the former royal palace of the Bavarian monarchs, which is now a museum. Inside the Residenz is the 18th-century, rococo-style Cuvilliés Theater, a small jewel once used only by royalty. Today you can view the interior while you’re in the museum or attend a chamber concert or small-scale opera.

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