Travel logs
2016 Great Opera Houses of Germany
May 10 and 11 - Berlin

Glorious sunshine greeted us as we stepped off the plane in Berlin, and accompanied us for the next several days. Since the fall of its world-renowned Wall in 1989, Berlin has become one of the most stimulating creative and cultural centers in Europe. Our first walking tour with our guide, a Houston native now living in Berlin, introduced us to some of the most famous landmarks, including the Brandenburg Gate, Reichstag, the Holocaust memorial designed by Peter Eisenman, Humboldt University, and the Museum Island. A surprising find was a district in East Berlin where courtyards were tidied up and residential buildings converted into showcases for art. We walked through the Hackesche Höfe, a courtyard ensemble with cafes, galleries, boutiques, admiring Art Nouveau or Art Nouveau-inspired facades, and turned in to a little alleyway to find a very unusual space filled every inch with street art on the walls, housing artists’ studios and contemporary art galleries. Lunch followed at a refined French restaurant near Checkpoint Charlie. Tonight we attended a performance of Simon Boccanegra at the Staatsoper, with a cast like no other, under the baton of Daniel Barenboim: the venerable Placido Domingo in the title role, supported by Ferruccio Furlanetto, and Gaston Rivero.
May 12 - Berlin

This morning, a vivacious PhD archeologist led us through the Pergamon Museum, giving us an insightful talk on the most famous exhibits – with the notable exception of the eponymous Pergamon Altar, since that entire wing is closed for extensive renovations and expansion. We started at the 6th c. BC. Ishtar Gate, the 8th gate to the inner city of Babylon, which impressed us in its sheer size and the labor that went into not only excavating it (20 years), but putting it all together, every piece of the beautifully glazed brick tile precisely in its right position. Of the animal imagery, the snake dragon, symbolizing the god Marduk was the most interesting: a phantasmagorical animal with scaly body of a dragon, head of a snake, claws of a bird of prey, and the tail of a deadly scorpion. Next was the Miletus room, housing excavations from Western Turkey in the period of the Roman Empire (1st-3rd centuries). The imposing market gate was financed by wealthy Miletian merchants, who made their fortune from purple dye extracted from snails. In the Islamic art section, we admired a desert castle, a fortified sandstone structure with intricate floral and zoomorphic imagery, originating from Amman, Jordan.  The rest of the afternoon was free for everyone explore following their own interests.
May 13 - Berlin

Our second walking tour focused on the city’s recent tumultuous history prior to the 1989 reunification. The Palace of Tears, at the Friedrichstraße station, the border crossing between East and West from 1962 to 1989, served as the meeting point for Berliners separated by the wall. Now a museum, the building houses a permanent exhibition of original artifacts, documents, photographs, and audio and video recordings, showing the experiences at the checkpoint, and telling individual stories of people who escaped to the West. Then we took the underground to the site of the largest piece of the Berlin Wall still standing as a memorial – with pictures of the 150 people who were killed trying to get past it. Next was a monumental socialist boulevard, Karl Marx (formerly Stalin) Allee, a housing project with spacious apartments, shops, cafes, etc., symbolizing the glorious “workers’ paradise.” At Alexanderplatz we turned our gaze upward to take in the TV tower, the tallest structure in Germany – and of course a symbol of the city.  As the sun shone on the stainless steel sphere, we saw its cross-like reflection, ironically nicknamed "the Pope's Revenge." A refreshing stop before lunch took us into St. Nicholas Church, the oldest church in Berlin, rebuilt in the 1980s. We feasted on traditional German specialties – pearl barley soup with prunes, spicy roast pork with red cabbage and leek dumpling, and Berlin style berry porridge with vanilla sauce.
May 14 - Potsdam

On our way to Potsdam, we drove through Berlin, along a grand boulevard passing by the Tiergarten, the President’s House and the Victory Column. Our first stop was architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s Glienicker Brücke, once the border between West Berlin and East Germany, known as the Bridge of Spies – for having been used for prisoner exchanges during the Cold War (1962 to 1986). Cecilienhof Palace, on the outskirts of Potsdam, was the site of the famous Potsdam Conference in 1945, where Churchill, Stalin, and Truman made important decisions shaping post World War II Europe and Asia. Most interesting was the palace grounds – a lovely English garden on the shores of the Heiliger Lake, designed by the “fat and useless king” Frederick Wilhelm II of Prussia to compete with that of his uncle, none other than Frederick the Great. A short walk in the Dutch Quarter with many red brick Dutch-style houses revealed to us that Frederick the Great’s father, the so-called “soldier king” had these houses built for Dutch craftsmen employed in the service of the king. The craftsmen left after building the garrison town of the “soldier king”, but the beautiful buildings serve as a reminder of that period. An indelible lunch followed, with tasty asparagus soup, coq au vin, and molten chocolate cake with ice cream. We finished the in Potsdam tour at the Rococo Sans Souci Palace of Frederick the Great, learning about this great statesman of the 18th century and his very secluded life.  Highlights were the Concert Chamber with its spider web ceiling and intricate gold leaf decorations; the Marble Hall, imitating the Pantheon in Rome, with 5 tons of exquisite Carrara marble; and the Voltaire room with its colored linden wood decorations. Tonight we went to the Berlin Staatsoper to see an important, early German-romantic opera, rarely performed outside Germany, Weber’s Freischütz. The singing, both solo and choral, was stunning and the orchestra impressive. The staging of the famous “wolf-glen” scene was especially effective.
May 15 - Dresden

After arrival in Dresden, some of us took a taxi out to the Pilnitz village church to hear the world famous Dresdner Kreuzchor, the boys’ choir of the Kreuzkirche in Dresden. In the evening, we attended something a good bit more substantial: Paul Hindemith’s Mathis der Mahler. Rarely performed anywhere, this production made the focus on the artist’s dilemma in times of political and social turmoil very clear and, in the final scene, brought into sharp relief the composer’s own situation, in 1930s Germany.
May 16-17 - Dresden

On an unusually cold, windy, damp, morning for mid-May, we strolled through the center of Dresden, learning, among other things, about Saxony and the 800-year rule of the Wettin dynasty, Augustus II known as Augustus the Strong, the 1945 fire bombings, and the fascinating rebuilding of the Frauenkirche. We were exactly at the right time at the right place at the Zwinger (a baroque party palace) to hear Spring from Vivaldi’s The Seasons played on the carillion of porcelain bells; Winter might have seemed more appropriate! Lunch was at Weber’s birth house, now a fancy restaurant, where we celebrated Lisa’s birthday in grand style: beetroot crepe stuffed with cottage cheese, Jerusalem artichokes, and apples; pike perch with herbs on a bed of pasta with spinach; and lemon sweet cheese mousse with raspberries. The Old and New Green Vaults, housing the Treasury of the Electors and Kings of Saxony, introduced us to the works of the royal goldsmith Dinglinger and other 16th to 18th century masterpieces in ivory, gold, silver, amber, mother-of-pearl and other precious stones, unequaled in the world. We were all stunned by a 41-carat Green Diamond (the biggest of that color in the world), 16th century earrings made of cherry pits displaying intricate micro-carvings of biblical scenes and portraits, and the “Royal Household at Delhi on the Occasion of the Birthday of the Grand Mogul Aureng-Zeb," which cost as much as a full-scale castle of stone.

This evening, some of the group went again to the Semperoper to see Tchaikovskly's Sleeping Beauty" while others went to the Palace in the Park to hear Leonidas Kavakos play the first of two concerts (part of the Dresden Festival) dedicated to the complete sonatas by Beethoven.

Tuesday was free for everone to follow their own pursuits, which ran the gamut from prolonged viewings of the amazingly rich collection of the Painting Gallery to a trip to nearby Meissen to visit the eponymous porcelain works, to shopping. The evening brought the second installment of the the Kavakos/Beethoven cycle and a program of mixed chamber music by Beethoven and Schubert featuring members of the Staatskapelle Orchestra; some attended each.
May 18 - Frauenstein and Freiberg

On our way to the spa-town, Karlovy Vary, we explored sights associated with Gottfried Silbermann, a famous organ builder of the German Baroque and Saxony's favorite son. In Frauenstein, we visited the Silbermann Organ Museum, where, in addition to information about Silberman's life and work, we were given a short demonstration of how an organ works; in Freiberg, we got to hear one of Silbermann’s finest instruments, which Bach loved to play and Albert Schweitzer considered the most beautiful in Germany. The church cantor (organist/music director) Albrect Koch first gave us a “guided tour” of the organ itself and the marvelous variety of tone colors its 42 stops offer; then he played two works for us, filling the great church to overflowing with glorious music.
May 19 - Karlovy Vary

A leisurely walking tour around the historic center of Karlovy Vary (also known by its German name, Carlsbad) gave us a comprehensive insight into the history of the town and of certain buildings in particular. The spa owes its existence and fame to the hot springs that gush forth at various spots in the valley where the town was first established and up into the surrounding hills. The architectural structures covering the thermal spring waters aka “colonnades” stunned us in their variety: from the neo-Renaissance Mill Colonnade, the cast iron Park Colonnade, and the richly carved wooden Market Colonnade, all constructed in the golden age of the town at the end of the 19th century, to the glass and reinforced concrete Hot Springs Colonnade, built in the 1970s. Luck also struck us, happenstance – we managed to take a peek into the magnificent neo-Rococo theater designed by the famous Viennese architects Fellner and Helmer, which boasts interior decorations by Klimt and Franz Matsch (a hand-painted curtain and paintings on the ceilings). We ended the tour in the Dvorak park, facing the composer’s statue, where our guided played a theme from Dvorak’s New-World Symphony, the European premiere of which took place here in 1894.
May 21 and 22, Munich
We started our Munich sightseeing where Munich began in the 12th century as a Benedictine monastery: Marienplatz, site of the neo-Gothic New Town Hall. We strolled through the center, passing by Lions’ Tower, the New Synagogue, Viktualienmarkt, and Alter Hof, residence of the Wittelsbach dukes from the 13th to the 15th centuries. We peeked into the world famous Hofbrauhaus, where we admired the porcelain beer mugs kept by returning guests in old times, and the hall upstairs, where Hitler founded the Nazi party in 1920. Then we made our way to Maximilianstrasse and the Franciscan Church of Italian Baroque, and the modernFünf Höfe shopping mall with its “Sphere” – a famous modern sculpture by Danish artist Eliasson, enchanting the onlookers with a webbed lattice of light and shadow, in a superb geometrical form.  After lunch at Alter Hof, we visited the grandiose complex of the Residenz, which overwhelmed us with its sheer size and pomp – a testimony to the wealth of dukes and electors of Bavaria.

Our last day in Munich was highlighted by the most difficult ticket of all the opera offerings of this tour, thanks in part to the participation of superstar tenor Jonas Kaufmann. As one has come to expect in Munich, the production was not set in medieval Nuremberg, but something akin postwar Germany. Interestingly, as well as Kaufman sang, it was Wolfgang Koch’s Hans Sachs that dominated, both vocally and dramatically.  Kirill Petrenko conducted.