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Hitting the right notes

It’s a good time to be an opera fan in Berlin. Here’s a look at the revitalised scene. Three operas – "Die schöne Hélèna", "Pelléas et Mélisande" and "Le Prophète" – offer fans and newbies alike something to sing about.

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Die schöne Hélèna. Photo by Iko Frees

It’s a good time to be an opera fan in Berlin. Here’s a look at the revitalised scene.

It wasn’t all that long ago that Berliners were asking themselves the anguished question of whether a city of 3.5 million people really needs to have three opera houses. Some argued, erroneously, that the three houses were a relic of a divided city (all three date back to pre-Wall times). Indisputable, however, were the abysmal attendance numbers. As recently as 2008, both the Komische Oper and Deutsche Oper were only selling about 60 percent of their available seats, compared to almost 85 percent at the Staatsoper.

Today, it’s a dramatically different picture. There is hardly any more talk of merging any of the houses, which this year will receive combined subsidies of an eye-watering €150 million. Last season, Deutsche Oper ticket sales were about 75 percent of capacity, the Komische Oper was up to 85 percent, and the Staatsoper was up to about 90 percent. Since taking over in 2012, Deutsche Oper intendant Dietmar Schwarz has expanded its offerings by adding a second stage, the Tischlerei, featuring “new forms” of opera and musical theatre. The Staatsoper has just finished massive, expensive renovations to improve its acoustics (which have already received mixed reviews, but what else would you expect in Berlin?).

Barrie Kosky, the intendant at the Komische Oper since 2012, probably provides the most remarkable turnaround story of Berlin’s opera scene. A self-described “gay, Jewish kangaroo” (he hails from Australia), Kosky is the gift that keeps on giving, a crowd-pleasing director who offers benignly provocative remarks in countless interviews. But the Komische also does admirable outreach. It was Kosky’s idea to start staging works in languages other than German, and to introduce Turkish surtitling in 2012. “A symbolic gesture,” he admitted to Exberliner, but added, “Symbols are important, especially now.” In 2014, the Komische became the first opera house in Germany to sign the Charta der Vielfalt, a pledge to foster diversity not just in the opera’s audience but within the theatre itself.

Kosky’s latest staging, Debussy’s moody adaptation of Maurice Maeterlinck’s symbolist drama Pelléas et Mélisande, opened in October to near-universal acclaim – a welcome break from the lighter fare he’s best known for. “I’m a chameleon,” Kosky told us with a grin, “The danger here is that you can have one success and then you’re seen as Mr. Operetta.” But given that he’s rehearsing the German version of Fiddler on the Roof (called Anatevka) for an early December premiere, he doesn’t seem particularly cowed by that danger. In the meantime, we can pair Pelléas with his joyously rowdy 2014 staging of Offenbach’s opéra bouffe Die schöne Hélèna.

You don’t have to confine yourself to the Komische in November. The Deutsche Oper provides some respite from an otherwise Wagner-heavy month on November 26, when Olivier Py’s staging of Meyerbeer’s Le Prophète premieres. A dark, grand opera with a character mortality rate that makes Hamlet look tame, Le Prophète is based on the life of German religious insurrectionist John of Leiden. The 52-year-old Py, who also runs the Avignon Festival, has a reputation for extravagant and provocative productions – when he staged another Meyerbeer opera in 2011, it was voted production of the year by Opernwelt magazine – so take this opportunity to enjoy some of the best of what Berlin’s rejuvenated opera scene has to offer.

Die schöne Hélèna Nov 18, 25, 19:30 Komische Oper | Pelléas et Mélisande Nov 17 19:30 Komische Oper | Le Prophète Nov 26, 17:00, Nov 30, 18:00 Deutsche Oper