The flat northern half of the Ruhr conurbation, or Ruhrgebiet, is historically the region’s main centre of heavy industry – steel and coal, in particular – though declining activity in these fields has resulted in widescale post-industrial regeneration in which culture is playing a major role (the area was a European capital of culture in 2010). Five operatic venues lie roughly in a line from Krefeld in the west to Dortmund in the east, passing through Duisburg and Essen, and with Gelsenkirchen just to the north.
Best known for beer and football, unprepossessing Dortmund can hold its own in the operatic field, too. Theater Dortmund is the kind of place where a Strauss opera, Viennese operetta and West End musical can be in repertoire over the same weekend, yet it also recently mounted the German premiere of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Anna Nicole, and has had a strong line in Mozart stagings in the last few seasons. As the Intendant’s motto puts on the company’s website, ‘We make the popular challenging and the challenging popular.’ (Its parallel activities in dance, plays and youth theatre combine to make it one of Germany’s busiest theatre operations.) The company operates a semi-stagione system, with productions in rep over several months.
Theatre: the curved roof of this 1960s building, built on the site of the city’s bombed pre-war opera house, is a striking sight, and makes for a light, airy foyer (the ‘working’ part of the theatre is built into the neighbouring office block that comprises the company’s offices and workshops, and is separate from the Schauspielhaus for spoken theatre next door). The box office is just inside the main entrance, between the two entrance doors, and the foyer includes free, full-height lockers in lieu of cloakrooms. The auditorium is partly shaped by the curvature of the roof and seats 1,170 between Parkett and two Logenrängen (‘vineyard-style’ boxed tiers). Theater Dortmund is a 15-minute walk from the Hauptbahnhof – take the subway under the major ring road to the pedestrian zone and follow the red tourist signs via Hansaplatz.
2016/17 repertoire: Faust, Die Zauberflote, Die Blume von Hawaii (Abraham), Die Fledermaus, Otello, Einstein on the Beach, plus revivals of Don Giovanni & Hansel und Gretel
Tickets: €10–49, bookable online, printable or for collection.
Practicalities: Dortmund is a major fulcrum on the Intercity and ICE networks, as well as a major focus of the local train service, so is a useful base. It also has an international airport (served by EasyJet, among others). As such, hotels are plentiful, though they can fill up when Borussia Dortmund is playing at home.
Daytime: despite being flattened in the war, the city has plenty of history, though its cultural interest today lies more in the 20th-21st-century sphere: a leading contemporary art collection in the ‘U’ complex (the city’s former main brewery) and a sobering but fascinating museum covering the city’s history from 1933 to 1945 in the former Gestapo prison just north of the Hauptbahnhof (free admission). On a lighter note, the city is famous for hosting one of the country’s biggest Christmas markets, based around the world’s largest Christmas tree on Hansaplatz. Dortmund’s train connections make much of the rest of the area accessible for trips out.
Nearby (average journey times by train / per-hour frequency pre-performance / per-hour frequency post-performance): Essen (23/3/3), Hagen (30/5/2).
Theater Duisburg is the junior partner in the dual-theatre operation of the Deutsche Oper am Rhein based in Düsseldorf. Indeed, it is junior to the extent that it is in severe danger of being cut back to minimal operatic activities. But for the moment at least it shares productions and staff with the main house in Düsseldorf, though it has its own orchestra, which means performances run in both theatres concurrently, if somewhat more sparingly in Duisburg. It currently puts on about 100 opera and ballet performances a season, running in semi-stagione pattern.
Theatre: a building from 1912, rebuilt in 1950 after bombing, and seating 1,218 in Parkett and two Ränge (see right). The Abendkasse is easily found just inside the entrance. The theatre is under a ten-minute walk from Duisburg Hbf.
2016/17 repertoire: Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor, Der Graf von Luxembourg, Madama Butterfly, Where the Wild Things Are, plus revivals of Carmen, L'elisir d'amore, Die Zauberflote, Die Entfuhrung, Hansel und Gretel, Aida, Tosca, Lucia di Lammermoor, Turandot, Don Carlos
Tickets: €15–70, bookable online and printable.
Practicalities: Duisburg is well-connected, being halfway between Düsseldorf and Essen on the intercity network and with plenty of local services well into the evening. As such, it would make a good base, if a rather uninspiring one.
Daytime: Duisburg’s claim to fame is in being Germany’s largest inland port, at the point where the Ruhr runs into the Rhine. There’s a small area of surviving/rebuilt Altstadt near the rivers and revitalised dockland areas for eating/entertainment.
Nearby (average journey times by train / per-hour frequency pre-performance / per-hour frequency post-performance): Düsseldorf (20/7/4), Essen (15/7/5), Krefeld (20/3/2).
Essen runs on a semi-stagione system, with long runs of new productions interspersed with short ones – maybe just three performances – of revivals. It’s often possible to catch two operas in a single visit.
Theatre: Essen has what must be the only opera house since Dresden’s Semperoper to be named after its architect, but the city was so proud of the result that it named the building, completed in 1988, as the Aalto Theater, after its creator, the Finnish master Alvar Aalto, who had died during its long journey to fruition. It is indeed an iconic piece of modern architecture, admired as much for its sleek beauty as for its practicality – gleamingly white outside and in the foyers and refreshingly blue in the auditorium itself, which is highly unusual in being semi-circular but asymmetrical, as if an uneven bite has been taken out of a Greek theatre. It seats 1,125 in Parkett and two slender balconies, giving excellent sight-lines from all areas; the box office is in a little ‘pod’ within the outer foyer. The theatre is less than ten minutes’ walk due south of the Hauptbahnhof and even has its own eponymous tram stop outside. It’s also worth noting that the Essen Philharmonie concert hall – the main symphonic venue in this part of Germany – is virtually next door and hosts all the great visiting orchestras.
2015/16 repertoire: The Greek Passion (Martinů), The Love of Three Oranges, Faust, Elektra, Il barbiere di Siviglia, plus revivals of Fidelio, Madama Butterfly, Macbeth, La bohème, Un ballo in maschera, Die Zauberflöte, Der fliegender Holländer, Into the Little Hill (Benjamin), Aida, Tosca, La traviata, Rusalka, Don Giovanni
Practicalities: Essen’s central location in the Ruhr (it is indeed regarded as its capital) makes it the ideal base – apart from Mönchengladbach, all the region’s venues can be reached comfortably from here. A couple of hotels (InterCity and City Hotel) offer Ruhr-wide public transport tickets in the room price, which is always good value, but there’s a reasonable spread of places to stay at all prices, many of them close to the station and thus the opera house. Note that, as with a number of cities in the region, room rates rise markedly when there’s a trade fair/Messe on. Restaurant choices are fairly limited, both near the opera house and in the central shopping area.
Daytime: Essen markets itself as shopping capital of the Ruhr, but the city also offers some of the region’s cultural highlights. Principal among them must be the Folkswang art gallery, a short walk across the park from the Aalto Theater, and home to one of the best collections of 19th- to 21st-century art anywhere, with representative works from all the great artists from the German Romantics onwards. The other draw is the Zollverein Coking Plant in the city’s northern outskirts, a vast former industrial complex built between the wars in modernist Bauhaus style and now housing a fascinating museum on the Ruhr as a whole and on the mining history in particular. Essen city centre is a pleasant enough place for a wander, with several historic buildings surviving, including its Romanesque church.
A highly recommended excursion is to the neighbouring town of Kettwig, a rare surviving example of a historic townscape in the region, full of old half-timbered buildings clad in the distinctive local green slate and with atmospheric lanes tumbling down to the River Ruhr – there’s also a pleasant riverside path. The S-Bahn line between Essen and Düsseldorf, along which Kettwig sits, is a surprisingly rural and scenic ride. The town centre is a 15-minute walk from either Kettwig or Kettwig-Stausee stations.
Nearby (average journey times by train / per-hour frequency pre-performance / per-hour frequency post-performance): Dortmund (23/3/3), Duisburg (15/6/5), Düsseldorf (35/5/4), Gelsenkirchen (8/4/4), Hagen (37/2/1), Krefeld (40/2/2), Wuppertal (46/3/1).
2015/16 repertoire: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Tosca, Norma, La gioconda, Die Fledermaus
Nearby (average journey times by train / per-hour frequency pre-performance / per-hour frequency post-performance): Dortmund (40/4/4), Essen (8/4/4).
Theater Krefeld is the northern arm of the two-city Theater Krefeld-Mönchengladbach operation (see Southern Ruhr for Mönchengladbach) and uses the ‘semi-stagione’ scheduling system. The two theatres share an orchestra, the Lower Rhine (Niederrhein) Symphony, meaning that although seasons run concurrently, individual performances broadly alternate in short batches between the two venues and it is possible to see a couple of different operas in the same theatre on consecutive nights. Although Mönchengladbach and Krefeld are only 25km or a 20-minute train journey apart, the theatres enjoy distinct audiences, as suggested by the fact that a new production given in one venue one season will usually be presented afresh in the other the following year. Repertoire is an eclectic mixture of popular classics with some rarer material – the company was the only one outside the Wagnerian heartland of Leipzig/Berlin to present Rienzi in the composer’s bicentenary year, for example.
Theatre: a modern building situated to the north of the city centre and a good 20-minute walk from Krefeld Hbf, or a five-minute tram ride. Theater Krefeld (right) has an intimate auditorium seating 674 between Parkett and a single balcony.
2015/16 repertoire: Peter Grimes, My Fair Lady, Il barbiere di Siviglia, Die Schone und das Biest (Spohr), Les contes d'Hoffmann
Tickets: €12-38, bookable online and printable.
Practicalities: there’s a convenient Ibis Budget hotel near the station and places to eat in the shopping streets between the Hbf and the theatre, but it’s not the most inspiring place to base oneself for more than a single night.
Daytime: there’s not much else to keep you in this city, but it provides convenient rail links to the historic towns of Kleve and Xanten to the northwest, as well as to Düsseldorf and Cologne.
Nearby (average journey times by train / per-hour frequency pre-performance / per-hour frequency post-performance): Duisburg (20/3/2), Düsseldorf (35/5/3), Essen (40/2/2), Mönchengladbach/Rheydt (22/3/2).
Disclaimer: this guide has been compiled in good faith using facts available at time of writing, but please double-check practical matters – repertoire, prices, train frequency etc – with the appropriate websites and organisations before making any travel or ticketing arrangements.