I was lucky enough to see the Sunday December 2nd, 2012, performance of La Boheme by the Staatsoper Berlin. The Staatsoper is one of five opera companies within Berlin. It is one of the many high-culture institutions in Berlin which receive huge subsidies from the German government, which have allowed it to persist into the current day. This has become an object of controversy in Germany, because a significant portion of the money used to subsidize culture in Berlin comes from the Länderfinanzausgleich – or State Financial Equalization Payments. In these equalization payments, states earning more must transfer a given amount to states earning less. Berlin is known to be one of the “poorest” states – its budget routinely runs into the red. Wealthier states such as Bavaria, however, argue that these funds are not used for true equalization, but rather to fund Berlin’s many excesses such as free child-care for all and five opera companies in one city.
My visit to the Staatsoper Berlin was, therefore, more than just a break from the monotony of writing term papers. It was a personal chance for me to see for myself this object of huge controversy.
The performance itself was one of the best opera renditions I have ever seen in my life. I have indeed seen quite a few opera’s in my time – I saw my first opera at the age of six, when my mother took me to see the Vienna Opera‘s Children’s Opera Traumfresserchen (Dream Eater). I then continued to visit the Children’s Opera at least once a year until we moved to Australia. Even there, I managed to catch a performance of Verdi’s Nabucco. Since coming to Seattle, I’ve seen at least two of the Seattle Opera‘s productions each year. The one I enjoyed best was the 2012 presentation of Madame Butterfly, after which I also had the chance to meet the Opera’s visiting conductor. So I hope that it is on good authority when I say that the Staatsoper Berlin put on one of the best shows I have ever seen. I was in tears at the end – to the conundrum of my peers, who had not been dragged by their mothers to their first opera at age six.
It was in the U-Bahn after the show that I first asked myself the question I had initially come to investigate — is the Staatsoper Berlin really a splurge that the German government should not be subsidizing? I admit that, given the fantastic performance that I had just seen, I may be quite biased. But nonetheless, my answer is no. The Staatsoper Berlin put on a show that could compete with the best opera companies around the world. It it does so regularly, then it stands to represent not just Berlin, but Germany as a whole as a nation of culture. Perhaps the Bavarians have it right, and five operas are indeed to much. If any cuts were made, though, I would strongly campaign against cuts to the Staatsoper Berlin’s budget. And, if the other four opera companies are of comparable quality at all, I would say that the equalization payments are still not a waste of money — rather, they have propelled Berlin onto the international scene of high culture.
The day after the opera, I set out to find the best Christmas market in town. I headed first to the Zoologischer Garten S-Bahn stop. I thought that perhaps the biggest market on the Kufurstendamm street would perhaps be the best. I was, however, disappointed. It may have had something to do with the rain and the cold, but I personally think it had more to do with the neon signs of Esprit, H&M, Saturn, and the likes shining down on me as cars sped by on the unclosed road. I was not feeling the Christmas spirit — not in the slightest.
I then decided to talk to the stall vendors in my newly improving, B2-level German. I found out two things: 1) the biggest Christmas market is in Spandau, rather far from downtown Berlin, and 2) the prettiest Christmas market is one of the smallest, and it is located on Gendarmenmarkt. Armed with this new knowledge, I headed to the nearest U-Bahn stop, where I headed to Stadtmitte. I felt like a local — I didn’t even need a map to know how to get where I was going!
The Gendarmenmarkt Christmas Market did not disappoint me. Although I did have to pay a 1 Euro fee to enter, I was later grateful I did. There are a few obnoxiously expensive dining stalls set up right next to the entrance, but as I headed in I quickly found the Craftsman’s Pavillion. There, I saw a carpenter carving a statue, a tanner making a leather bag, a jeweller making a mammoth bone necklace, and many more wonders.
After the Craftsman’s Pavillion, I continued walking around the market. I bought a small bag of roasted nuts, talked to a glass blower in German (he told me I had an Austrian accent), and finally tried some traditional German Glühwein, or mulled wine. It was delicious, and I headed home in happy spirits to continue writing my term papers.
Overall, culture in Berlin does not disappoint! I know that the usual site to visit is the Pergamon — and I did, indeed, visit it. But I feel that the Pergamon has become somewhat too popular and tourist filled (when I visited, the place was packed to the brim with tourists from Italy, Russia, and Spain). When I talk about culture in Berlin, I mean the type that locals, or semi-locals such as myself, might experience. And that, I hope, is what I have shared with you!