Opera in Germany – a traveller’s guide

IF YOU'RE A FAN OF OPERA, there’s no better travel destination than Germany. Italy, and the famous opera houses of New York, Vienna, Paris and London may have the reputation for being the biggest international draws, but nowhere else has the sheer density of operatic activity. It is estimated that between a third and half of the world’s opera performances happen in Germany alone, so whatever one’s favoured area of repertoire there’s always bound to be something to suit. Despite post re-unification and credit-crunch squeezes, there are still over 60 theatres and companies in the country staging opera on a daily or at least weekly basis.

Compare that with the five or so full-time companies in the UK, for instance (plus seasonal and part-time touring outfits), or the limited repertoire and short seasons of the US companies and the difference is stark. A resident living in the most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia, as an example, has over 15 theatres from which to choose, from Aachen to Detmold, Bonn to Münster, and the Ruhr/Lower Rhine region alone has nine of them, all within commuting distance of one another thanks to the extensive public transport infrastructure. And density of activity such as this seems to engender a healthy level of competition between companies and cities, both in the often adventurous way pieces are presented on stage (the notorious Regietheater, or director’s theatre, that divides audiences in Germany as much as elsewhere) and in the approach to repertoire, with its emphasis on being the first to rediscover forgotten operas of all periods or give the world or national premiere of new works.

For the average resident of the UK, by comparison, living away from the national capitals and maybe receiving a single week of touring opera a year in their local town, this will seem like another world. The difference is in the history: Germany unified in the 19th century from a plethora of former states and duchies large and small, each of which had its own court or municipal theatre and vied with its neighbour for artistic superiority. Coupled with a cultural sense that makes theatre- and opera-going a far more ‘normal’ activity – not least because of this generosity of provision – means that there’s a vast audience for the medium of opera and a willingness on the part of local, regional and national government – to varying but generally lessening degrees – to subsidise it from public funds. This also means that in general ticket prices, away from the biggest cities, are ridiculously cheap – in spring 2015, a top seat for Parsifal in Wuppertal, for instance, cost €41 (£30), or about a fifth of the equivalent at ENO’s concurrent Mastersingers.

Repertoire, naturally, has a bias towards the Germanic, but on the whole it’s probably broader than anywhere, and the widespread adoption of surtitles has more-or-less done away with the performance of non-German operas in the vernacular – most German-language performances are surtitled, too (which is a boon for those whose German comprehension tends to be greater in the written than sung/spoken medium), and a tiny few even offer English translation as well.

I have been regularly visiting Germany from the UK to see and review operatic performances for more than two decades, so this guide is very much a documentation based on my own experiences, and holes are there where I have yet to visit. In line with my own preferences, it will concentrate more on regional theatres than the metropolitan offerings of Berlin or Munich, which are more widely documented elsewhere. I’ll attempt to convey the character of each individual house and company and also give some more practical pointers for the traveller. It is of course easy for the opera-goer to travel wide distances between performances in different cities, thanks to Germany’s high-speed rail network, but it is also just as feasible to base oneself in one of the main hubs and see a variety of different operas in a small area and space of time. I should also point out that much of what follows also applies to seeing opera in Austria and German-speaking Switzerland, though the density of performance is not on the same level.

First, though, some general pointers.

Venues range from ‘proper’ opera houses (where some ballet may be included), such as Frankfurt or Hamburg, to municipal theatres where opera is just one art form interspersed with musicals, dance and spoken theatre. Very few companies perform regularly on a Monday, though Sunday performances (often a matinée) are common, as are events on public holidays. Most seasons run continuously from September to June or July.

Performance schedules usually operate in one of three ways:
  • in the so-called ‘stagione’ system, each opera is given in a self-contained run, with nothing else operatically in between performances. This is now relatively rare in Germany, though more common in France, Belgium and Italy.
  • in the ‘repertoire’ system, a given opera, especially a revival, may be shown just a few times, but often with performances spread across weeks or even months through the season.
  • a combination of the two above, a ‘semi-stagione’, in which an opera is given in a shorter or longer run but interspersed with other works in the day-to-day schedule. This is now the most commonly found schedule, and is of the kind that is familiar to London audiences at the ROH or ENO, for example.
To find out what is on when and where, company websites are an obvious resource, but the best starting point is operabase.com, an invaluable site that lists the vast majority of performances and is searchable by date, country, composer and title.

Nearly all companies sell tickets online through their websites, with either collection available before the performance or the ability to print tickets at home. Be aware that first nights of new productions (premieres) are quite big occasions, artistically and socially, usually charge a premium ticket price and are the performances most likely to sell out. Some theatres still put tickets on sale (apart from subscription packages) a mere couple of months before performances and similarly may not release all the dates of a production earlier, though most nowadays make their full season available to book from the start. If you choose not to book a ticket in advance, evening box offices usually open an hour before curtain-up. One useful bonus is that tickets quite often give a free ride on local transport to and from the performance.

Some German terms you might encounter around the theatre or on seat plans and websites:

Kasse = Box office
Abendkasse = Evening box office (ie for that performance only; no advance sales)
Parkett = Stalls
Orchestersessel = Orchestra seats (usually the very front rows – not in the pit!)
Rang = Tier/Circle (often numbered 1. or 2.)
Balkon = Balcony
Bühne = Stage
Spielplan = Performance schedule
Spielzeit = Season
Stücke = Works/repertoire
Musiktheater = Opera, operetta, musicals
Schauspiel = Play
Besetzung = Cast list

And while on the subject of language differences, there's a handful of well-known operas that are habitually known by different titles in Germany (ie beyond those that are simple translations, such as Figaros Hochzeit or Die schlaue Fuchslein): Gounod's Faust, for instance, often appears as Marguerite, Mozart's La clemenza di Tito as Titus, Leoncavallo's Pagliacci as Der Bajazzo and Fiddler on the Roof as Anatevka.

For the detailed guide, I have divided the country by region – either a single Land or combination of more than one – and in the case of the NW of the country further divided into subregions of the Ruhr and beyond. Bear in mind, though, that places in neighbouring states may be closer and more accessible than others in the same group, so I give general pointers to travel times between adjacent cities in the text. For each venue I also provide an introduction, give an indication of its character and typical repertoire (including the specific works of the current/next season as and when known), average ticket price ranges (excluding first nights/premieres), practicalities for visiting and staying, and some ideas on how to spend the daytime in the area, with an emphasis on cultural and outdoor attractions. The train connections given under 'Nearby' are specifically frequencies between 17:00 and 18:00 out and 22:00 and 23:00 back, to give an idea only.

I will add links to each entry in the guide as I include it.

Northern Ruhr

  • Dortmund
  • Duisburg
  • Essen
  • Krefeld

Southern Ruhr
  • Hagen
  • Mönchengladbach
  • Wuppertal


  1. Amazing! Doing a dissertation on opera in France vs Germany and this is great. Do you plan to update it with comments on Deutsche Oper am Rhein (Duesseldorf, really - I see you've covered Dortmund)?

    1. Düsseldorf finally added to Southern Ruhr page!

  2. Glad it's of use! Duesseldorf has eluded me so far, but I'll add it once I've been to see something there, maybe next season. In the meantime, I'll begin to add other places that I have been to as soon as I can.