Frankfurt reopens opera house -- 'the most beautiful ruin in Germany'

The invited guests came. The uninvited ones did not. And so the reopening of Frankfurt's 19th- and 21st-century opera house of Goethe's birthday was a sufficiently glittering affair to evoke comparisons with Kaiser Wilhelm's dedication of the original opera in 1880.

West German President Karl Carstens congratulated the city's citizens on their decisive refutation of the charge that Frankfurt "deals more with money than with the intellect and art." Mayor Walter Wallmann proclaimed that the opera house, finally restored after its bombing 37 years ago, would now give an "answer to the question of the sense and value of bourgeois culture in an age of mass civilization."

This disgruntled young people of the city's counterculture refrained from mounting their threatened demonstration for a public youth center outside the opera.

Actually, opera manager Ulrich Schwab is determined to cater to the avant garde (if not the full subculture) as well as to the business tycoons of West Germany's financial center. There will be an annual gala opera ball -- but there will also be rock and pop concerts.

The opening night presented Paul Hindemith (Mathis der Maler, of course) -- but there will also be world premiers of chamber works by contemporary composers like Manfred Torjahn and Kurt Hessenberg as well as poetry readings, jazz improvisation, and multimedia experiments.

The inaugural month's other celebrations during the first of a planned annual Frankfurt festival will also include performances by the venerable Chicago Symphony, Vienna Philharmonic, and Concertgebouw orchestras.

The 150-188 million deutsche mark ($60 million to $80 million) opera house will adjust to all the various uses through a stage manager's dream complex of machinery, electronics, and moveable walls. The most flexible space, for example, the Grosser Saal, can be altered to provide for a level auditorium, a raked auditorium, various size orchestra pits (or no orchestra pit), stages at either end of the hall, and even division into two independent theatres. It has a row seating capacity of 2,500 or parliamentary seating for 1,100 or round-table banquet seating for 740. It is supplemented by three other halls and six conference rooms.

Die Alte Oper -- the Old Opera -- begins an era of What Frankfurt residents hope will be an arts renaissance in their city that will challenge the cultural preeminence of West Berlin, Munich, and Hamburg. In this spirit the city will shortly be reproducing period townhouses opposite the Medieval Romer town hall, where once the emperors of the Holy Roman Empire were crowned. The city is also building a complex of new museums -- for film, architecture, arts and crafts, music, and archaeology -- to join the existing museums of sculpture, ethnology, post, and the traditional Stadel art gallery.

A returning Wilhelm I would no doubt be surprised by today's congress halls with their anterooms awaiting installation of bring-it-yourself computers to be hooked up as needed by each convening organization. The Kaiser would find the opera's faithfully restored neoclassical facade and foyer utterly familiar, however. And in the typical postwar German soul-searching about the guilt of an elite culture he would hear echoes of those freedom-loving Frankfurt burghers who in 1880 considered it shameful to condone the city's new subjection to Prussia in joy over a Berlin-style art form in Berlin-style architecture.

Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose.

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