German opera is sinking in the Rhine

German opera is sinking in the Rhine


norman lebrecht

November 24, 2014

The Deutsche Oper am Rhein, an unequal alliance of the cities of Düsseldorf and Duisburg, is having to make cuts.

The brunt of the pain is being felt by Duisburg, which has lost 20 performances this season and has taken a 25 percent budget cut.

Some reports that have been sent our way suggest Duisburg may have to close after 2017.

What on earth is going down on the Rhine?

duisburg oper



  • Dominic Stafford Uglow says:

    I do wish they’d start looking at doing the pioneering (in the sense of structure) programming that they did at the beginning of the recession. Instead of a large number of new productions, they revived the public’s favourite productions, and hired artists for 10 days to rehearse and perform two performances. They paid travel and accommodation. I had an artist sing in their Katya. She LOVED it! Lovely house and a fine company.

  • Michael Endres says:

    Duisburg has 500.000 inhabitants and still gets–after the regrettable cuts — 80 opera performances a year incl. 4 premieres.
    I would mildly suggest to put things into perspective here.

  • Simon S. says:

    This has always been a somewhat unlikely couple. The two cities differ not so much in size (Düsseldorf: 600k, Duisburg: 490k) but in their character: Düsseldorf, besides being state capital, is a rather posh city, being known in Germany especially for fashion boutiques, while Duisburg is mainly famous for its (shut down) steel mills and Europe’s largest domestic port. So it should be clear who’s in the stronger position.

  • william osborne says:

    Germany averages one full time opera house for every one million people. By that standard, the USA would have 320 full time opera houses. California would have 38, Texas 26, Pennsylvania 12, and Florida 19, etc. As it is, we have about 6 or 7 genuinely functional houses, and none are full time. The longest season is seven months at the Met.

    See this interesting map of Germany’s opera house landscape. Note how in the densely populated Ruhrgebiet of Germany (where Duisburg is located,) there are 11 fulltime opera houses within a 35 mile radius:

    Will Germany (and Europe as a whole) succumb to US standards, or will Germany stand fast as a model of arts support? Even with just 1/5th the number of houses, we would have full time 64 houses. This would lead to a tenfold increase in opera performances in the USA.

    Even if this will never happen, it is important to look at the truth about where we stand. Shouldn’t we aspire to a much higher standard?

    • Greg Hlatky says:

      Any time any state, city, town, village or crossroads wants to establish publically-funded, full-time opera companies they are free to do so. Nothing is stopping them.

      • william osborne says:

        Except right wing nut job idiocy and an enormous amount of brainwashing.

        • Greg Hlatky says:

          Where? New York? San Francisco? Chicago? “Right-wing nut jobs” hold no sway in those bastions of impeccably progressive governance. Where are their publically-funded, full-time opera companies?

          • william osborne says:

            By international standards, there is no left in the USA. We are essentially a one-party state.

          • Jerome Hoberman says:

            While it’s true that, as Anonymus writes, “The US population by then was mostly made up of people who were once the losers in Europe in hope for a better future in the New World,” his next comment — “These people had no desire for opera” — has little basis in reality. My immigrant grandparents, great- and great-great aunts and uncles from rural Eastern Europe were desperate to become acculturated. After their workdays in furniture and clothing factories they went to night school for English, attended lectures on whatever subjects were available, read copiously and stood whenever they could at the MET. Once they had radios they listened “religiously” to the Saturday-afternoon live opera broadcasts. As a kid I would love to hear their reminiscences of seeing and hearing Caruso, Toscanini et al. And later, when it was founded, they became regular attendees of Stokowski’s American Symphony Orchestra. They were not as unusual as you make it seem. It’s only recently that opera has become a token of the extreme upper slivers of increasingly divided economic strata.

          • william osborne says:

            Opera was once a popular and very common art form in the USA. Just about every city had one or more “opera houses” where a variety of entertainments were presented. These included operas, evenings of opera excerpts or arias, melodramas, vaudeville, and variety shows. With the advent of cinema these houses gradually disappeared. Opera remained stronger in Europe because government funding was used to ameliorate the dominance of commercial entertainment.

  • william osborne says:

    Does anyone know if the protests to keep the Duisburg Opera funded and open have gained traction? I’ve seen local media on the topic, but unlike the SWR Orchestra closing, and the attempts to close conservatories in Baden-Wurttemberg, the Duisburg issue seems to be flying mostly below the radar. If so, why?

  • Thomas Silverboerg says:

    Duisburg suffered greatly from the lost industrial opportunities and a far-left governing body. There ishigh unemployment as well as demographic imbalance there. The Opera as a cultural institution will have problems surviving among those who are struggling just to survive.

    • william osborne says:

      Due to its large industrial base, there are 85,000 Turkish “guest workers” in Duisburg — about 17% of the population. For some people, this is called a “demographic imbalance.” Due to weakened conditions for industry, the city’s population declined from 590,000 in 1972 to 488,000 in 2011 — a loss of 18%. Perhaps Duisburg could be seen as a mild form of Detroitism in Germany.

  • John Borstlap says:

    Under the pressures of the financial crisis, the field is shrinking back to the situation of a couple of deceniia ago, and is not undermined. If Germany would give-up its status and image of a Kulturnation, it would give-up itself.

    • Theodore McGuiver says:

      Germany can’t, nor does it want to. Arts and Ideas are enshrined in their post-war constitution as a bullwark against future totalitarianism.

      If that isn’t fantastic, then what is?

      By the way, this is a brilliant thread; congratulations to all contributors.

  • wwender says:

    Is every performance in Duisberg sold out?

    Is every performance in Duisberg happening at greater than 80% capacity? 60%?

    Honestly curious. Why should the government continue funding this at the same level if demand is not high? Does it not make sense to reduce funding so that there are no longer 80 performances a year in a city of 500,000 people? (Here in San Francisco we have about 900,000 people and the SF Opera doesn’t do nearly the same number of performances annually, and this is one of the artsiest towns there is.)

    Say what you will about the US government’s lack of interest in funding the arts. We still have a lot of arts. And raising all the money to make art happen, rather than accepting it as a benevolent gesture by your government that may or may not reflect the will of the public, gives you some perspective.

    • william osborne says:

      For its children’s operas alone, the Duisburg Opera sells about 30,000 tickets a year. That’s how you keep culture alive. See:

      Its main productions are also well attended. The quality is high and tickets a bargain.

      San Francisco does about 95 performances per year for a metro population of 7 million for which it is the only house. (I’m counting San Jose as outside the Bay Area.) Duisburg used to do 100 performances and now 80 for a city of 488,000. As the map I linked above shows, there are ten other full time houses in a 70 mile radius. By European standards, San Francisco’s claims about its culture thus seem a bit overblown. And given the SF Opera’s ticket prices, it’s “high culture” is often oriented toward a wealthy elite, not average people like in Europe. I hope the DOR will put up a good fight.

      • JAMA11 says:

        I count 70 performances in my SF Opera brochure this season, including kids’ shows. Not sure where you get 95. Also, if you want to call the SF area 7 million people, you must include San Jose as well as a lot of other outlying areas. (In fact, the San Jose area is by far the most populous part of the SF metro region.) The city of SF itself has about 900,000.

        Perhaps the Oper Am Rhein in does sell 30,000 tickets a year to its youth shows. That doesn’t say anything about how well attended its regular performances are; does the website trumpet anything in that regard? In the US, every opera house has a good scheme for getting young people (generally, public school students) to attend, and every foundation and corporate sponsor loves to fund such initiatives, and every teacher and parent loves to send their kids to the opera for free (or nearly). And yet, opera companies in the US continue to face difficulties.