Prof. Gerd Uecker: The Semper Opera House – A beacon in the Dresden cultural landscape

Dresden defines itself as a city of culture and art, rich in tradition. The city does this self-confidently and with success. The buzzword of culture as a “soft location factor” does not apply here. For the state capital, culture has always been the medium from which the ap­­peal for and the reputation of the region have developed. Concrete and sust­ain­able connections and relations between culture and city infrastructure, so­­cietal life and the attractiveness of a new transformed attitude towards life have developed into a “strong factor”, which in this region views culture not only as an adornment, beautification or decoration of the otherwise drab mo­­no­tony of everyday life, but rather as something substantial, which gladly defines itself as a specific Dresden sense of well-being.


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This distinct foothold of culture in the tradition of Dresden has strongly influenced its development for approxi­­ma­tely 20 years. An unexpected boom-like economic upswing came about in travel and tourism after 1990. However, also in the effort to create high-quality industrial structures through the settlement of large and distinguished en­­­ter­­­prises, the availability of a dense web of lively culture is a significant factor. Or­­gan­izations such as VW (Trans­­pa­­rent Factory Dresden) or the international chip producer AMD, have made their location choice especially also due to the live­ly art and culture scene in Dres­den. The Dresden University of Tech­no­logy with more than 35,000 students, the Max Planck Institute as well as the Fraun­hofer Institute support this fact and round off the picture.

In comparison to its population figure, Dresden in fact offers an extreme abundance of theatres, museums and a bran­ched concert business, which in its diversity is almost not to be overseen. With a concert organization down to the smallest detail, continuing from historic music up to festivals of ex­­perimental contemporary music. Two distinguished, internationally active and renowned symphony orchestras and the world-famous Kreuzchor (Choir of the Church of the Holy Cross) place focal points in concert life. In addition, there are numerous smaller ensembles performing at a high level of artistic quality. The Dresden State Art Collec­­tions with the Green Vault in the Dresden Castle and the Old Masters Pic­ture Gal­lery in the Zwinger Palace together with the Semper Opera House form the central interest of all art-lov­­ing guests and the people of Dresden themselves.

 

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The Saxon State Opera Dresden counts among the most well-known opera hou­s­es in the world. Annually more than 440,000 visitors come to the opera and ballet performances as well as to concerts in the Semper Opera House, which houses an audience of 1,250. A further 315,000 visitors are lead through the history of the opera house by expert gui­ded tours and admire its exquisite in­­terior design, which was reconstructed according to the original blueprints of Gottfried Semper.
The orchestra of the Saxon State Opera is the internationally famous Saxon State Or­­­­chestra, Dresden, which also performs its about 60 annual symphony concerts at the Semper Opera House as well as additionally dealing with the ongoing opera business. It is one of the oldest orchestras in the world: Since its foundation by Heinrich Schütz in the 16th century, it has existed and given concerts without respite until today.


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The Dresden opera establishment histor­ically dates back to the 17th century. The Dresden Opera House has written opera and music history. Famous composers worked here and gave important impetus to the respective stylistic eras: Johann Adolf Hasse, the baroque opera; Carl Maria von Weber, the Ger­man romanticism; Richard Wagner, who originated from Dresden in Saxony and af­fected the history of opera in the 19th century like no other; and Richard Strauss with his revolutionary debut performan­ce of “Salome” and “Elektra” in the 20th century.
Today the Saxon State Opera has an extremely lively and dense production programme: 45 operas and more than ten ballet performances are on the re­­p­­er­toire, over 400 performances are vis­ited annually in Dresden at a total ca­pacity of approximately 96 per cent. In the offered range, the works of Wolf­gang Amadeus Mozart, Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss play a pro­minent role. However, the greatest Italian operas are also represented by num­erous performances.
Dresden has also always been a place of artistic innovation – so also in the field of opera. What we to­­day view as the fa­­miliar and trusted “classical” opera repertoire, was indisputably modern it its day. This is true as much for the com­­positions of Carl Maria von Weber as also for the works of Richard Wagner and naturally also those of Richard Strauss. Debut perfor­mances at that time, precisely in the era of the legendary conductor Fritz Busch, were seen as a characteristic of the Semper Opera House. Also today, the opera house at­­tempts to continue this tradition in­­cessantly. Herewith the Semper Opera House remains a location of lively de­­bate with contemporary opera, music and aesthetics.
The artistic institutions of Dresden not only stand as representation of a high quality standard – they have fortunately also become a significant economic factor. That is predominantly true with tourism, which constitutes an im­­portant earning sector for the city. Many visitors come to the city primarily due to the cultural offering in this city: They book city tours, cultural and artistic trips, visit the cultural sights and the highlights of Dresden – and that includes a visit to the Semper Opera House. Cheap tourism of the early nineties has passed – a clear trend these days is towards individual travel and group tours that are demanding as regards content, which is also reflected in the offers of the Dresden upper-class hotels.

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In 2007, the Semper Opera House had a survey conducted which investigated the commercial relevance of the opera house. In conclusion, it became visible that at that time about 60 per cent of the Semper Opera House visitors came from outside the region (at an average journey of 340 kilometres) and about 40 per cent from within the region. A profitability factor of 3.9 is reflected in this configuration, which represents the so-called indirect profitability of the opera house. In other words: For every euro the state supporting organization invests in the Saxon State Opera in Dres­den, it “profits” commercially at factor 3.9 as regards a monetary backflow. Also as regards the eco­­nomic effi­ciency, the Sem­per Opera House is within the front ranks of the German opera houses: The re­­venue-to-cost ratio, that is the figure that shows the percentage of total ex­­penditure earned by the opera house itself, currently lies at more than 38 per cent. This is an absolute peak value in view of the national average which lies clearly below 20 per cent.

Dresden and its rich culture are more than a slogan: It is an attitude towards life that liberally combines a past that is rich in tradition with a lively future outlook – “Dresden is special”.

ProfThe author was born in 1946 and studied piano, musical pedagogics and con­ducting at the Munich University of Music. After stints in Cologne and Passau, he switched to the Munich State Opera in 1979 where his last position was as opera director. He has been the general manager of the Semper Opera House in Dresden since 2003. In 2005, he be­­came the chairman of German Opera Conference. ­­­