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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The vestibule at the Semper Opera House in Dresden ©-Klaus Gigga
The vestibule at the Semper Opera House in Dresden ©Klaus Gigga

Semper Opera in Dresden

Primed for even more opera, I took the Inter-City Express train from Munich to Liepzig and then on to Dresden, where Mozart’s The Magic Flute—a comic fairy-tale opera in two acts—awaited. There, the Neo-Renaissance-style Semper Opera House presides like a queen over the historic town center’s Theaterplatz (Theater Square), where there’s also the Zwinger Palace and several museums, including the Old Masters Picture Gallery.

I was lucky enough to get a room at the nearby Hyperion Hotel Dresden am Schloss, so I was just a 10-minute walk from the object of my operatic affection. I also discovered how convenient it is to dine near the opera house before a performance.

I enjoyed a quiet dinner before the show in the sophisticated Café Alte Meister, which is maybe 50 yards from the Semper Opera. And before taking a daytime tour of the opera house, I ate lunch at the nearby Sophienkeller, a tourist-oriented eatery with 18th-century décor and costumed servers, which, despite the kitsch, served quite satisfying food.

On the English-language tour of the magnificent Semper Opera, named for architect Gottfried Semper, I learned about its three incarnations. Originally built in 1841, the rococo opera house wowed European audiences, but it burned down in 1869 and wasn’t reconstructed until 1878.

Dresden Semper Opera House courtesy Semperoper Dresden
Dresden Semper Opera House. Photo courtesy Semperoper Dresden

Tragedy struck again when the theater was almost entirely destroyed during the Allied bombing of Dresden during WWII. For 40 years it lay in ruins, but in the 1980s, under the East German communist government, restorers painstakingly recreated nearly every detail of the former structure.

The guide pointed out frescoed ceilings from Greek mythology and paintings that depicted scenes and characters from famous German operas. Our group oohed and aahed over the balustrades made of serpentine stone and the green “marble” pillars that are actually built from brick covered with plaster, glue, and paint—then polished so that they gleam like marble.

I also got a preview of the theater, which is dominated by a 1.9-ton chandelier that can be lowered from the ceiling for cleaning and to change its 258 light bulbs. While we watched, stagehands finished preparations for the evening’s production of The Magic Flute.

That night, from my seats in Ring 1, I experienced a creative and beautifully sung production of Mozart’s most famous opera—and this time the supertitles projected above the stage were in both English and German. Set in a cartoonish fantasyland that reminded me of Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands and Pee-wee’s Playhouse, the offbeat style of this version of The Magic Flute contrasted with the stately historic theater, illustrating how a 225-year-old opera can be successfully re-imagined without changing a note of Mozart’s masterwork.

The Magic Flute performed at Semper Opera in Dresden.
The Magic Flute performed at Semper Opera in Dresden. Photo courtesy Semperoper Dresden

A highlight of the vibrant and colorful production was the stratospherically high aria sung by the Queen of the Night, whose performance was breathtaking. When she finished singing, the applause was thunderous. Afterward, as I walked across the cobblestones of the Theaterplatz—along with dozens of other opera patrons—and headed back to my hotel, those notes stayed with me. I hear them still as I await some future trip to Germany, when I know a fresh infusion of operatic inspiration awaits.

Also of interest in Dresden: If heavy, sometimes tragic, operas aren’t your thing, the Dresden State Operetta, which stages a mixture of light operas and popular musicals, might be more to your taste. In late 2016, the operetta company moved into Dresden’s new Kraftwerk Mitte theater complex, built into a retrofitted Soviet-era power plant. Its artsy/industrial atmosphere is as fun as its repertoire.

Dancers at the Dresden State Operetta.
Dancers at the Dresden State Operetta. Photo courtesy Dresden State Operetta

Here you can see everything from Catch Me If You Can and Le Cage aux Folles to The Marriage of Figaro, The Merry Widow and Orpheus in the Underworld. (Be aware that if you see a Broadway musical staged by the Dresden State Operetta, it will be performed in German for its local audience. However, English titles are provided.)

READ Tips for Attending the Opera in Germany

Going to the opera is a little like sampling the food in a different country: it may be hard to read the menu, but if you give it a try, you’re sure to find something you like. Here are some of my tips to help demystify the experience for international travelers. READ How to Attend the Opera in Germany

If You Go to Germany

For further information on travel in Germany, see Germany.Travel