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.
The latest results of research into our nightlife behaviour are merciless: around 40% of all Europeans, children included, do not get enough night rest. Living in a world where both light and sound are nearly omnipresent (just think of that glowing little screen you might be reading this on), we are on the best way towards un-learning how to sleep.
Also we tend to forget that night is everything else as just another well-illuminated time of the day. Something we notice very quickly when suddenly located in
a place where the night still is pitch-dark, dead silent and ominously empty of other human beings carrying glowing smartphones in their hands, like Brandenburgian forests or historical villages in Derbyshire (my warmest greetings to Sudbury!).
That is why it might be helpful to remind ourselves what Night is and should be about. And what it used to be for people for a better part of our existence. The latest exhibition at Berlin’s Museum for Communication is a very interesting place to begin.
Called Die Nacht – Alles außer Schlaf (”The Night: Everything But Sleep”) it shows the time between dusk and dawn as a space in which we rest (if capable of resting), work, enjoy various forms of entertainment (and since this is Berlin, clubbing plays a huge role) as well as one where our fears tend to take on particularly acute forms (be ready to face Nosferatu again).
It also presents our weapons against the latter: the exhibition shows how both Science and Art have been used to understand and disarm those fears. Wonderful maps of night sky and night-sky globes, which you will find in the Sternenklar (Clear as Stars) section, were not only meant as scientific tools, they were also supposed to reassure us: “Look, it is all science. Nothing to be afraid of.”
Art, on the other hand, represented by, among others, a beautiful 1822 painting by Adolf Senff, “The Night with Her Children, Sleep and Death”, tried to bring more peace into people’s minds by showing the Night as a gentle mother, someone who would make sure you rest when you need it the most (including its ultimate form when we die).
But what about those who cannot sleep, either because they may not or because they don not wish to? The exhibition sheds light onto their nights, too. Night-shift workers, prostitutes (not without a reason known as the “Ladies of the Night”) or the homeless – whose rest is disrupted and might be the most perilous part of their life. They are an entirely different group from those whose nights are the time of frivolous abandon and fun.
In the 1920s, often referred the as the “Golden Twenties” (although in Berlin they were everything but that), German capital was a place that never slept. The latest TV series, Babylon Berlin, based on Volker Kutcher’s bestselling novel Nasser Fisch, shows that very clearly: nights in the city were filled with cabarets, clubs, dancing, alcohol and drugs. Die Nacht: Alles außer Schlaf exhibition makes an elegant and clever reference to that in its section “Zwilicht. Salon, Bordstein, Club” (Twilight. Salon, Street Curb, Club).
You enter a room appearing to be literally breathing pink plush, fringes, sequins and beads and you do not want to leave it until somebody passed you a dry martini and a cigar. Surrounded by feather fans, perfume bottles and table-telephones from long-forgotten Berlin Etablissements (Museum for Communication has an original table-phone from the legendary “Ballhaus Resi” on display), you do understand the urge to celebrate the night instead of sleeping through it.
However, the next section, devoted to the Night as work time is a clear wake-up call. Not even the exquisite objects displayed in that room – neither a miniature replica of a Junkers F13 aeroplane used to transport mail between German and European cities at night and a machine which flew at night from NYC to Chicago in 1923, nor a map of all Baltic Sea lighthouses along the Pomeranian coast and not even the original 1930s map of night-train lines in Germany – could convince anyone that working when others sleep could be considered a dream job.
Even though the exhibition, arranged as an enfilade leading you slowly through the museum’s rooms, is not particularly large (a blessing in disguise, really, since – considering the topic – anything bigger would run the risk of being too exhausting), by the time you have reached the end, you get a sense of having learnt something. You cannot put your finger on it, describe it in hard, solid terms but you feel that there are some things you might have to sleep on that night.
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.
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 Operin 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!
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.
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