Hesse is one of the few modern Länder based on one of the historic dukedoms that characterised Germany before unification in the 19th century. As such it feels rather amorphous as a region, being characterised in the south by the metropolitan area of Frankfurt and its satellites and in the rest by rural backwater – Kassel is the only city of any size away from Frankfurt and feels a long way from anywhere. As such, apart from Kassel, all the region’s operatic activity is concentrated in the south, where there’s a convenient cluster of four companies, as well as Mainz, which is literally across the river from Wiesbaden but in neighbouring Rheinland-Pfalz and hence not covered here.
In musical terms, Darmstadt is probably best known as home of the summer schools that became the crucible of the postwar avant-garde in the 1950s – Boulez, Stockhausen et al. But the city had long fostered cultural innovation: it was once the seat of the southern arm of the Dukes of Hesse (the other was based in Kassel) who, in the late 19th- and early 20th centuries, fostered an artists’ community that led to the place becoming a centre for Jugendstil (art nouveau) architecture and design, as still witnessed by its flamboyant ‘Wedding Tower’ and collection of buildings surrounding its art gallery. Nowadays, Darmstadt is regarded as Germany’s centre for scientific research, through its university and housing of the headquarters of the European Space Agency.
The city’s opera company is known for its innovatory productions and adventurous approach to repertoire, and operates a semi-stagione schedule with several works on the go at any one time. It shares some productions with Wiesbaden, though not usually in the same season.
Theatre: the opera house forms part of the gleaming, white, concrete Staatstheater built next to a vast public square just to the south of the city’s commercial centre and which also features a smaller venue for plays and dance. The foyers and outdoor areas give it a spacious feeling, though the Grosse Haus’s auditorium, seating 956 between Parkett and a single Rang (tier), is comfortably sized. The Staatstheater is about 25 minutes’ walk, by a somewhat circuitous route, from Darmstadt Hbf, or five minutes from the main tram stops in the centre.
2015/16 repertoire: Il barbiere di Siviglia, The Cunning Little Vixen, Rigoletto, La calisto, Angst (Jost), Carmen, plus revivals of Hansel und Gretel, Der Freischutz.
Tickets: €10-43, bookable online and printable.
Practicalities: Darmstadt Hauptbahnhof is a main stop on the rail lines between Mainz/Frankfurt and the south, but note that some destinations require a change at Darmstadt Nord, and confusingly sometimes only in one direction. There are hotels near the station and in the centre but there’s a dearth of places to eat out in central Darmstadt, surprisingly so in a place so full of students.
Daytime: Darmstadt’s main draw is the area of the artists’ colony, presided over by the stunning confection of its Hochzeitsturm (Wedding Tower, pictured right), and there’s also a park, museums and streets full of Jugendstil villas. The ducal Schloss is also worth a visit, as is the line of parks leading from the Grosser Woog lake to the botanical gardens and zoo. It’s easy to take a train or tram out to the edge of the Odenwald for some good walking in the forests where Siegfried is said to dwelt. Just to the northeast of the city is the World Heritage Site of the Messel tar pits, where important fossil finds have been made (there’s a visitor centre). Mainz, Frankfurt, Aschaffenburg, Worms and Heidelberg can all be reached for day trips, making Darmstadt a good, central base for visiting the opera venues in the area if staying in Frankfurt doesn’t appeal.
Nearby (average journey times by train / per-hour frequency pre-performance / per-hour frequency post-performance): Frankfurt (Main) Hbf (30/5/3), Mainz (33/2/1), Mannheim (60/2/1), Wiesbaden (45/2/1)
FRANKFURT AM MAIN
The financial capital of Germany and the Eurozone brings with it one of the country’s leading opera houses – maybe not as high-powered as those in Berlin and Munich in terms of the singers and conductors it can attract, but arguably more adventurous as a result. Over recent seasons, Oper Frankfurt must have explored more byways of the repertoire than almost any other house of its stature (which makes the 2015/16 season just a tad disappointing compared with previous years) and the generous number of works presented, in semi-stagione pattern, makes for a rewarding visit at any time of the year.
Theatre: Oper Frankfurt sits in a modern building housing the Städtische Bühnen Frankfurt, across Willy-Brandt-Platz from the offices of the European Central Bank and about ten minutes’ walk east from Frankfurt Hbf or a couple of minutes from the Willy-Brandt-Platz U-Bahn station. (The old, pre-war opera house on Opernplatz was rebuilt in the 1970s as the Alte Oper concert hall – don’t head there by mistake.) The theatre seats 1,347 in Parkett and three Ränge (tiers). Tickets are among Germany’s more expensive, and note that the company adds a swingeing 12.5% on tickets bought from external agencies. Note also that some productions are staged in the Bockenheimer Depot near Bockenheimer Warte U-Bahn station and that tickets bought direct from the box office (ie not print-at-home tickets) include public transport.
2015/16 repertoire: Das Mädchen mit den Schwefelhölzern (Lachenmann), Ivan Sussanin (Glinka), Der fliegender Holländer, Der Graf von Luxembourg, Le cantatrici villane (Fioravanti), Stiffelio, Oberto, Messiah, Radamisto, The Cunning Little Vixen, Carmen, Wozzeck, Pierrot lunaire/Anna Toll (Langemann), plus revivals of Le nozze di Figaro, Die tote Stadt, Hänsel und Gretel, Don Carlo, Lucia di Lammermoor, The Thieving Magpie, Der Rosenkavalier, The Makropulos Case, Giulio Cesare, Il trittico, Der Ring des Nibelungen.
Reviews of performances in Frankfurt: A Village Romeo and Juliet (Delius)
Tickets: €15–115, bookable online and printable.
Practicalities: Frankfurt has more hotels than anyone will ever need, many of them in the convenient but somewhat insalubrious streets to the east and south of the Hauptbahnhof, where most of the chains are represented. Room prices can rocket when there’s a trade fair on (and Frankfurt is one of the country’s leading hosts in that respect), but on the other hand, bargains can often be had at weekends when the largely business-oriented hotels are keen to fill empty rooms. With Germany’s main hub airport nearby and one of its busiest stations at the Hbf, Frankfurt is as well-connected as anywhere in Europe. Note that some long-distance trains bypass the Hbf terminus, calling at the airport (Flughafen) instead. The network of underground, S-Bahn and regional rail services is understandably pretty comprehensive and makes this the most practical if uninspiring base for visiting the region’s opera houses.
Daytime: to be honest, Frankfurt is not the most obvious of tourist destinations since little survives of its historic centre, but there are museums aplenty and easy access to the more attractive cityscapes of Mainz and Aschaffenburg, as well as the exquisite medieval towns of Wetzlar, Weilburg and Limburg and on the River Lahn, an hour to the north. The Taunus hills provide fresh-air activities and the Rhine Gorge begins at Bingen, less than an hour to the west.
Nearby (average journey times by train / per-hour frequency pre-performance / per-hour frequency post-performance): Darmstadt (30/5/3), Gießen (43/3/1), Mainz (33/6/3), Wiesbaden (42/6/5).
2015/16 repertoire: t/c
Tickets: €6–30, bookable online and printable. Tickets only go on sale on the 1st of the month before the month of performance (eg from 1 May for, say, 23 June).
Kassel must rank as one of the most remote of operatic destinations in Germany – it sits in the very heart of the country and is extremely well-connected by road and rail, but there’s nowhere else within easy striking distance between Hannover to the north and Gießen/Frankfurt to the south or Bonn/Cologne to the west and Nordhausen/Erfurt to the east (the nearby university city of Göttingen – surprisingly for a city of its size – has no opera company, instead concentrating on spoken theatre). But it’s definitely worth the trip for its own sake: as the former base of the northern branch of the Dukes of Hesse it as culturally rich as anywhere in Germany. Admittedly the city centre is a bit drab today, but it is saved by its parks and museums, especially the extravagant Willhelmshöhe out to the west, a vast ducal parkland of gardens and massive water features crowned by an enormous statue of Hercules. Kassel was home to both Louis Spohr and the Brothers Grimm.
Kassel’s opera company also has a distinguished history – Gustav Mahler held one of his first professional conducting positions here in the 1880s (the Gustav-Mahler-Treppen, or steps, today lead down from the opera house to the park below). And the theatre has the reputation for innovative productions and for staging an often ambitious range of repertoire to a high standard.
Theatre: Kassel’s Staatstheater is a modern, functional building of the 1950s situated in a spacious square between the city centre and the River Fulda and mixes opera performances with musicals, spoken theatre and dance in its two auditoria. The larger used for opera seats 947 in Parkett and terrace-style Logen. The area is well-served by Kassel’s comprehensive tram network and the theatre is roughly 15 minutes’ walk from the Hauptbahnhof; eateries aplenty can be found in the pedestrianised area across Frankfurterstrasse.
2015/16 repertoire: Norma, Kiss Me, Kate, Artaserse (Vinci), Die Herzogin von Chicago (Kálmán), The Love of Three Oranges, Die tote Stadt, Der Mond (Orff), Die entführung aus dem Serail, plus revivals of La bohème, Eugene Onegin, Hänsel und Gretel, Saul, Rigoletto
Reviews of performances in Kassel: Die Frau ohne Schatten
Tickets: €9-39, bookable online and printable.
Practicalities: geography will almost definitely entail an overnight stay to catch a performance in Kassel and hotels fortunately abound. Kassel has two main rail stations: the central terminus of the Hauptbahnhof is mainly used by local services, while nearly all long-distance trains and most regional services stop only at Kassel-Wilhelmshöhe on the city’s western fringe and a lengthy walk, or short tram-ride, from the centre.
Daytime: Wilhelmshöhe (pictured right, the view from the city) is the obvious draw and makes a pleasant half-day outing, climbing up to the top of the park and down again from the end of the tramline. The Karlswiese park near the river, overlooked by a grand Baroque orangery, makes for another enjoyable ramble and is right next to the Staatstheater. There’s a nearby museum devoted to the Brothers Grimm and a major exhibition of contemporary art, Documenta, is staged every five years (the next is due in 2017). Away from Kassel, the half-timbered gem of Hann. Munden, at the point where the Werra and Fulda meet to form the River Weser, is a few minutes away by train; and the beautiful university city of Marburg is an hour to the southeast.
2015/16 repertoire: Otello, Der fliegende Holländer, Der Graf von Luxembourg, Gli equivoci nel sembiante (A. Scarlatti), Così fan tutti, Hänsel und Gretel, Katya Kabanova, Elektra, Madama Butterfly, Boris Godunov, Alcina, Die Soldaten, Agota (WP: Oehring), La forza del destino, L’elisir d’amore, Falstaff
Nearby (average journey times by train / per-hour frequency pre-performance / per-hour frequency post-performance): Darmstadt (45/2/1), Mainz (12/4/3), Frankfurt (42/6/5).