Rixdorf on the 1895 Straube-Plan von Berlin (technically, Rixdorf was not part of the city yet) with the old Bohemian village sites marked in yellow. (map in PD via Harvard Map Collection 990107769010203941)

On April 1, 1899 Rixdorf – once the largest village or rural community in Prussia – was at last granted its city right. Twenty one years later, together with six other cities, 59 rural communities and 27 estates, it became incorporated in the new metropolis, Greater Berlin.

But if you look for the name “Rixdorf” in Berlin today you will only find it referred to only indirectly, as in Rixdorfer Schmiede (Rixdorf Smithery on Richardplatz), Rixdorfer Höhe and Rixdorfer Teich (a rubble hill and a pond in Volkspark Hasenheide) or in locally-produced beverages (Rixdorfer Galgen and Rixdorfer Brause, a herbal liqueur and a – highly recommended – fizzy lemonade brand respectively). But what happened to Rixdorf itself?

In 1912 Kaiser Wilhelm II gave his royal consent to the re-branding of a place which suffered ill reputation but wished to improve its ratings along potential sponsors and investors. Rixdorf, (in-)famous for its funfairs, its distilleries and rich entertainment offer as such (especially in and along today’s Hasenheide), wished to shed its colourful old skin and become a serious player on the property market. In short, the city elders wanted to attract “a better sort of people”. In 1912 the Kaiser kindly helped by letting them re-name the place “Neukölln”.

Rixdorf’s coat of arms 1903 (via berlin.de)

Still back in May 1903 Rixdorf, after several years of consideration and debating 25 different designs, the city finally decided on its coat of arms: a shield divided into three fields (each in a different old imperial Reich colour: black, white and red) with a brickwork crown above them. Today’s coat of arms of the borough of Neukölln is the 1956 version of the original design.

Coat of arms of the borough of Neukölln

And as with all city coats of arms, it tells a story of the place itself.

The brickwork crown with three towers stands for the city rights granted to Rixdorf in 1899. Today the middle tower features a small picture of a bear: a clear sign that Neukölln became part of the Greater Berlin – the 1903 coat of arms showed a city gate instead.

The top left shield beneath the brickwork crown – the black field – refers to the part of Neukölln once known as Böhmisch-Rixdorf, whilst the white field stands for its sister-community, for Deutsch-Rixdorf.

Böhmisch-Rixdorf, or Bohemian-Rixdorf, was established by protestant refugees from Bohemia, the Hussites. They arrived in today’s Berlin in the first half of the eighteenth century invited by King Friedrich Wilhelm I (aka the Soldier King). The Hussites were fleeing religious persecution they suffered at home in then re-catholicized Bohemia and the Prussian monarch was happy to welcome new, industrious and thankful residents in his still partly depopulated (hashtag: Thirty Years Wars) realm. The king needed hands to work and the Bohemians a place to stay – it a was a perfect match. What started with eighteen families soon turned into a strong colony of Czech-speaking Prussians.

The silver chalice on the black field symbolises the “common-” or “communion chalice” used to offer wine to members of the Hussite community during the church service. One of the four principal dogmas of the Hussites, described in the “Four Articles of Prague”, was “communion under both kinds”: during the communion, church members received both the host (a thin white wafer representing the body of Christ) and a sip of red wine which stands for Christ’s blood.

This common chalice became the symbol of the Hussites – while the popular name of the movement refers to Jan Hus, the ill-fated forerunner of Protestant Reformation, in Czech (their mother-tongue) his followers were known as Kališníci -“Chalice People”.

Their new settlement outside Berlin was dubbed Böhmisch-Rixdorf to differentiate between them and the other, older Rixdorf, which henceforth was known as Deutsch-Rixdorf. The top right field – the white one – on Neukölln’s coat of arms commemorates this settlement.  The red Brandenburgian eagle was the sign of Brandenburg’s Askanian rulers. The eagle and the golden clover on its wings were already featured on Berlin’s oldest seal. The symbolic of the eagle is quite obvious – the trefoil (three-leaved) clover stands for the holy trinity and is a Christian symbol.

To sum up: so far we have a silver Bohemian chalice for Böhmisch-Rixdorf and the red eagle for its Deutsch counterpart. But what is the meaning of the eight-pointed silver cross in the bottom – red – field?

If you know the history of the Crusades or modern history of charity organisations, you will quickly recognise it as the Maltese Cross, symbol of the Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, also know as the Hospitallers. And what do the Crusaders have to do with Rixdorf? Reader, they created it. Or, rather, developed further. After their Holy Land brothers-in-arms from the Knights Templar (in German Tempelherren) had established it as a farm and settlement on the land they were offered to live on by Brandenburgian rulers upon Tempelherren’s return to Europe (they got it together with, among others, today’s Tempelhof and Marienfelde which owe their names to them). The Hospitallers took it over and turned into a village in 1360 after the Templars met their sad end at the hands of French king, Phillip the Fair. The village was christened Richardsdorp. The said “Richard” was most likely a high-rank knight from the Order of the Cross and and the estate’s, called Richardshof, former administrator.

So there we have it, Rixdorf/Neukölln: the city wall, the bear and the eagle, the silver chalice and the Maltese Cross. Coats of arms are not only aesthetically pleasing and a symbol of status – they also tell often complicated stories, honouring the Past in one elegant snapshot.

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.