The Berlin Kroll Opera House: The Middle Of Germany
A film by Jörg Moser-Metius
Music by Michael Rodach
Directed by Jörg Moser-Metius
Produced in 1990
TV format: NTSC 16:9
Sound: PCM stereo
Language: German, with English subtitles
Region code: 0 (worldwide)
Before you open the case to take out the DVD, there is an issue to be
As emblazoned on its front cover, the disc’s main title appears to be
The Berlin Kroll Opera House. Below that, in much smaller type,
is an apparent sub-heading - The Middle of Germany. But when,
in fact, you watch the original film's opening credits, you discover
that matters are reversed: the main title is Die Deutsche Mitte
(The Middle of Germany) and the subheading is Kroll und der Platz
der Republik (Kroll and Republic Square).
This is not merely a point of semantics. The film was made in 1990,
just a few months after the fall of the Berlin Wall and, after watching
it, I am convinced that, as its original title suggests, its director
Jörg Moser-Metius intended not a specifically musical theme but, rather,
a historical/political one - to remind viewers of the importance of
a particular city location, Republic Square. The square had been significant
in earlier German history and the 1990 reunification of Berlin’s two
halves had made it once again geographically central to the united Germanies’
putative capital. In fact, this film comes across as something of a
rallying call to citizens of the new state to restore Republic Square
as a central focus of Berlin’s public life. Thus, quite contrary to
the implication of the disc’s packaging, it is not primarily the focused,
detailed examination of the Kroll Opera House and its musical history
and significance that might reasonably have been anticipated.
Even so, the story of Republic Square ("King's Square"
before 1926) is interesting in itself and is generally well told on
this DVD. In 1844, restaurateur and impresario Joseph Kroll's
entertainments “establishment”- not, at that stage, exclusively an opera
house - became the first large-scale development on the square, hitherto
an open space so barren as to be known colloquially as "the Sahara".
Over the following decades, with the establishment of the Second German
Reich, the Kroll theatre was joined around the perimeter of the square
by a range of grandiose vanity projects: aristocratic palaces, government
buildings and monuments, usually in a fashionable neo-classical style
and all on the largest scale. Before the First World War, conductors
at the Neues Königliches Operntheater, as the Kroll had become
after 1896, included Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler; Caruso sang
on its stage and Pavlova and Nijinsky danced there.
The period accepted as that witnessing the greatest artistic achievement
at the Kroll – or the Staatsoper am Platz der Republik as it
became after 1926 - was, in fact, a very brief one. From 1927 until
1931, under the direction of Otto Klemperer and a like-minded team of
musicians and designers, the house presented a mixture of standard fare
and new works that utilised modern-day stories, often imbued with an
air of satire, to illuminate the social and political issues of the
day – of which the troubled Weimar Republic had plenty. At the Kroll
The Marriage of Figaro, Fidelio, The Flying Dutchman
and The Bartered Bride rubbed shoulders happily with the likes
of Hindemith's Cardillac and News of the Day.
While Klemperer’s eclectic programming was quite enough on its own to
offend conservative critics, including adherents of the increasingly
influential Nazi party's reactionary cultural line, the Kroll’s
typically avant-garde productions were striking enough to send
them into apoplectic fits. Moser-Metius’s film usefully shows us designer
sketches of some of the starkly bare sets characteristic of the opera-house’s
output, though, given the often grotesquely inappropriate concepts that
appear on 21st century opera stages, most viewers will find them nothing
like as objectionable as did many of their 1920s and 1930s forbears.
Unfortunately, sketches - and just a few photographs – of the Klemperer-era
productions are all that the director seems to have had at his disposal.
From its absence here, I can only assume that there is no surviving
film of a Kroll performance and, while we hear some appropriately scratchy-sounding
recordings ofsinging on the soundtrack, we are not given any indication
whether they derive from Kroll performances or even from Kroll singers.
Once the Klemperer era is dispensed with, we hear no more of serious
music at the Kroll. Its subsequent history was rather sad. It was used
as the venue for the few meetings of the Reichstag that were
permitted in the Nazi era, so that if you search YouTube in a bootless
attempt to find film of singers performing on the Kroll stage, you will
turn up instead some rather distasteful recordings of Messrs. Hitler
and Goebbels addressing their deluded followers.
Finally, in 1955, after failing to thrive commercially as a dance hall
and café in the post-war world, a typically mid-20th century piece of
technological "progress" saw what was left of the Kroll Opera
House torn down to make way for a city car park. News of the Day,