Berlin of the 1980s was a magnet attracting new people, new bands, new artists. The city’s imperfection, its messiness, its open ends juxtaposed against the ultimate barrier, the Wall, running through it, created a perfect breeding ground for all those who thought precious little of elegant white fences and “norms and regulations”.

One of the then new arrivals was a British band, Depeche Mode.  They found here both perfect music-making and recording conditions (at the legendary Hansa Studios in Köthener Straße in Kreuzberg) as well as an enthusiastic, devoted audience.

Not only in West Berlin or West Germany – Depeche Mode won the hearts of many, many East Berlin and East German fans. The same happened in Poland – something to which the author was herself a witness and active participant: I discovered Depeche Mode as a 14-year-old in the People’s Republic of Poland and remain one until today, as a citizen of the German Federal Republic.

Depeche Mode are frequent guests in Berlin and their concerts are sold out every single time. But what was it like back in the 1980s, in the DDR? It wasn’t, in fact, any different: the band were worshipped on both sides of the divide. But for those on its eastern side March 7th 1988 was what many still describe as “the most beautiful day of their life”. This short video – an extract from a longer documentary which is absolutely worth watching if found online – explains why. So does the book by Sascha Lange and Dennis Burmeister, two long-time Depeche Mode devotees.

You will also enjoy the author’s favourite early Depeche Mode video recorded in Berlin in the early 1980s and featuring among others, the U1 viaduct along Gitschiner Straße and Wassertorplatz in Kreuzberg, the Wannsee lido and Hansaviertel in Tiergarten: “Everything Counts”.

According to Karl Scheffler – and what must be the most often used Berlin quotation ever – Germany’s capital is “dazu verdammt, immerfort zu werden und niemals zu sein” (cursed never to be and forever to become).
Scheffler famously voiced this opinion in his 1910 book “Berlin- ein Stadtschicksal” and it was by no means meant as praise. Like the rest of the book, it reflected the paradox of the author’s relationship with the city. He loved it and he hated it at once. One could say, a conundrum faced by every Berliner before or after Scheffler.
Probably never before was Berlin’s typically unfinished, unready condition more visible than today. Modern digital technologies allow people like us to follow its permanent state of flux almost in real time broadcast. And never are those changes as striking as when you compare images from only a short while ago with its today’s look.
The ‘Berliner Zeitung’ has just published several Google Street-View images from only ten years ago juxtaposing them against photos of the same Berlin vistas today. The pace at which this city has been changing truly matches that of our time. Which might not be as much of a blessing as it is Scheffler’s curse.
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Famously, Berlin has three renowned opera houses: the newly re-opened Staatsoper, the Deutsche Oper and the Komische Oper (there is also a wonderful vagabond phenomenon known of as the Kiez Oper but about it another time). Did you know, however, that at least two more Berlin venues offer high quality opera performances? One of them might be the Smallest Opera House in Germany while the other is about to celebrate its 40th birthday this weekend.

At its regular address in Landsberger Allee 61, Friedrichshain´s Hauptstadtoper (Capital City Opera House) – established in 2009 by a soprano Kirstin Hasselmann – seats maximum 60. When performing at the “Alte Feuerwache” in Marchlewskistraße 6, with whom they have been co-operating for a while, that number grows to 120. But obviously it is not the number of square metres or chairs that decides whether a show is of merit or failed. Judging by the popularity of Hauptstadtopera´s performances, their plan to bring opera to the people (as opposed to bringing people to the opera and that at 50 Euros per ticket) has taken off.

Image via Hauptstadtoper´s own webpage.

Thanks to the Hauptstadtoper´s troupe of kind professionals and devoted amateurs you can see works of Purcell, Mozart, Gluck and, yes, Richard Wagner, staged in a way that none of the latter would have thought possible. However, it is not to say that they would not have appreciated it. On the contrary: the mini-opera performances are very professional yet charming and approachable (something that, now and then, might be lacking in the perhaps slightly more elitist “big-opera” world).

In order to finance their productions, next to performances the Hauptstadtoper also offers singing lessons and opera projects for schools.

Speaking about schools, or rather universities: the other of the two perhaps lesser-known Berlin opera houses, the Neuköllner Oper in Karl-Marx-Straße 131/133 in (unsurprisingly) Neukölln, is where future artists and virtuosos can perform their stage test-flights. The Neuköllner Oper works closely together with Berlin´s Universität der Künste, or Univeristy of the Arts. New pieces by the school´s students are regularly staged and presented to curious, adventurous audiences. And the latter keep returning for more: the Neuköllner Oper, whose venue is a 1909 Art Deco shopping and entertainment arcade designed by Reinhold Kiehl (yes, the one of the nearby Kiehlufer) and Paul Hoppe, is about to celebrate its 40th anniversary this weekend!

(Image by kreuzberged)

Established in 1977 by a group of opera aficionados who did not mind practising or performing in the Neukölln courtyards and private living-rooms, moved into the historical ensemble in 1988. Today it offers performances in two halls: a larger one, old ballroom, seating 220 and a smaller Studiobühne for 60 guests. Their repertoire is an eclectic mix ranging from the classics to what can be described as “world music” (the building also houses the first German-Turkish Musical Theatre opened in Germany).

In the past 40 years the Neuköllner Oper has produced a staggering 220 world premieres. Surely, with its 10 productions per year and a total of 250 performances in twelve months, it must be the most prolific music theatre in Europe.

If you would like to get to know it, what better moment than now? The current programme includes two completely different musical pieces: a chamber version of the first-ever Japanese opera, the 1940 “Kurofune” (Black Ships) by Kosaku Yamada, entitled “Rette uns, Okichi!” (Save us, Okichi!) and a real treat to all “Dreigroschenoper” fans, “La BETTLEROPERa”.

The latter, shown on November 9-16 at 8PM, is a tribute to the original eighteenth-century English opera which inspired Brecht´s production of the 1928 “Threepenny Opera” (its co-author Elisabeth Hoffmann translated the English libretto to German and – an often forgotten fact – wrote the new one together with Brecht). After its premiere in 1728 The Beggar´s Opera, a ballad opera by John Gay and Johann Pepusch, became the longest running stage show of the whole century (62 consecutive performances!) In the 1920s it beat that record again after the London “Lyric Theatre” adaptation of what the “New York Times” described later as the “anti-opera” lasted a full 1,463 performances.

Today, Brecht´s, Hoffmann´s and Kurt Weil´s version of the story (in their production the plot remained basically unchanged, while the libretto and the music were produced anew) is one of the most popular musicals in history. The Neuköllner Oper show, featuring the excellent German-Italian Balletto Civile, is a tribute to the original piece.

Should you, however, have no time to go and see the performance this week, despair not:  it will be running throughout the rest of the month. You might, however, want to attend the 40th birthday celebrations at the Neuköllner Oper this Sunday at 11AM. Come and join the crowd. And it won´t matter in the least if your own rendering of “Happy birthday” song is slightly out of tune.

Spittelmarkt seen from Leipziger Straße in 1904.

Spittelmarkt, once a central Berlin plaza in the borough of Mitte and today one of the most non-descript places in the city centre.

A 1900 traffic census carried out there rendered following results: between 6 AM and 10 PM the plaza was crossed by 144,223 pedestrians and 21,237 vehicles. At the time, Berlin had 1,888,848 registered residents.

By the end of nineteenth century Spittelmarkt, named after a small hospital (Sankt Gertrauden Hospital) and a chapel built there in early fifteenth century, became one of Berlin’s busiest traffic knots. This was only possible after the 17th-century Gertraudenkirche – built after the old chapel and the “Spittal” burnt down in 1641- was demolished in 1881 and the area underwent a significant re-design.

Gertraudenkirche in 1880, a year before its demolition (photo by Hermann Rückwardt).

In the 1920s another refurbishment followed and approximately a quarter of the century later, after May 1945, Spittelmarkt lay in ruins. Built anew by the East Berlin authorities in the 1970s, it reflected the then “modern” approach to architecture and urban planning. It virtually vanished again, overridden by the expanded traffic lanes as well as overwhelmed by the monstrous concrete high-rises erected around and partly on it.

Spittelmarkt in the 1920s (photographer unknown, PD).

The two map images – sections of a 1910 and a current Google-Map – featured below strongly reflect that change. The western entrance to the 1908 U-Bhf “Spittelmarkt” marked on both of them will help you locate the former within the latter.