Prof. Siegfried Matthus: Inspirations from Rheinsberg – Fascination by the Prussian place of muses

It is officially said that Rheinsberg is the culture capital in the north of Branden­­burg. How do you become that with just 5,000 inhabitants? Well, the chamber opera castle Rheinsberg surely has a significant share in this. I founded it in 1990, helped by the newly created “Kunst- und Kulturverein” (association for art and culture). It was meant to be an international festival for young opera singers. There is the famous palace of the Prussian princes Frederick and Henry. It is a museum. Here is also the only Kurt Tucholsky literary museum in Germany. Today’s “Bundes- und Landes­musik­akademie” (state and national music academy) has moved into the former “Kavalierhaus” on the palace grounds – a separate building for staff and guests – next to the chamber opera. The palace theatre has been reconstructed since the turn of the millennium 1999/2000 and in the St. Laurence’s Church there are also regular concerts. The town lives off and with the culture.

And it all has its historic background. When he was still a crown prince, Frederick II spent the four happiest years of his life here. His father gave him the palace and Frederick altered it in such a way that he could devote himself to the muses there. He played music with Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, František Benda, the brothers Graun as well as with Johann Joachim Quantz. The crown prince’s residence in Rheinsberg had become a court of muses. By the way, immediately after accession to power, Frederick had the opera house named “Unter den Linden” von Knobelsdorff built for his court or­­ches­­tra from Rheinsberg. So, today’s Staats­­kapelle Berlin was founded in Rheinsberg.


In 1744 Frederick II gave the palace to his brother, prince Henry, who lived there from 1753 on. In spite of all the differences separating the brothers rather than uniting them, they were both equally fond of the muses. Frederick played the flute, Henry the violin. This way the musical life of Rheinsberg grew. In the beginning Henry used the palace’s concert hall, which had been designed by Frederick, as a theatre. In 1758 the prince built the “Hecken­theater” (open air theatre) in the park. The “Kavalierhaus” was extended and completed as a hostel for guests and staff. In 1774 finally, the palace theatre was built. Both the stage area and the stage technique lived up to their time’s most modern requirements. There was a regular theatre programme: twice every month a big opera, in addition they showed regular plays and comedies. Being the theatre manager, prince Henry decided on the repertoire, the cast and he wrote some libretti himself. Henry died in 1802. The muses retired.
With their works, Theodor Fontane and Kurt Tucholsky later created a literary monument to the little town on the Lake Grienerick. In 1949 the palace became a convalescent home and later it was turned into the first diabetic sanatorium of the German Democratic Republic. This use had at least the advantage that the buildings didn’t go to ruin. To a small extend even some preserving measures were taken. At least the hall of mirrors in the palace was given back its original use as a concert and banquet hall.


In 1948, I came to Rheinsberg to attend grammar school (Oberschule) there and to take my “Abitur” (diploma from German grammar school, qualifying for university admission or matriculation) exams. Coming from a small village in East Prussia, my stay in this culturally rich town was a defining experience for me. The palace theatre was still preserved in its basic substance. Only a big hole in the roof finally led to a fast dilapidation. In the hall of mirrors I heard Hans Stein, then choirmaster, play all Beethoven’s symphonies on the piano. In first performances of the choirmaster’s religious compositions in St. Laurentius church I played the trumpet. During a class trip to Berlin on my 17th birthday I heard my first opera: “The Magic Flute” by Mozart. This crucial experience marked the beginning of my career as an artist. In the Heckentheater I experienced “Così fan tutte” and other operas as guest per­­for­m­­ances of the Hans Otto Theatre Potsdam. Due to the early death of a young teacher, I was allowed to take over the school choir which he had founded. I wrote my first compositions, which were often performed in the palace’s hall of mirrors. The choir even won the first price in a state competition in Potsdam. From Rheins­berg I moved to Berlin to study music. My relationship to Rheinsberg and my friends there never broke off in the following years.

For many years it was “just” a vision that there could ever be an opera festival in this place. In 1989, at last, there was reason to hope that the diabetic sanatorium could be moved to the nearby health clinic. The opening of the Wall in October 1989 prevented these plans. The sanatorium of Rheinsberg was closed shortly after. Now everything was possible and I could realize my idea regarding the festival.


In 2010 we are now celebrating our 20th anniversary. As usual, an international singing contest precedes the festival. Every year 400 to 500 young opera singers from all over the world participate in these contests. We then present the 40 best of them in Rheinsberg, where they sing opera parts, they sing in gala nights and in concerts. Over the two decades this has resulted in more than 600 singers who started their careers with us and who are now singing, in the grand opera houses – all to Covent Garden, London, La Scala, Milan and the Metropolitan Opera New York.

Until now our audience – that is about 20,000 opera lovers every year – has been able to see more than 350 unique opera performances in the ambience of the new court of muses in Rheinsberg. Guests, who provide the hotel and restaurant industry with significant turnover. In addition, we make temporary work contracts with about 50 young people in the region every year. They work in the technical crew and in the visitor service. For many of them the holiday job was a help to find their profession. This way the chamber opera has developed into an important economic factor for the region.


Matthus-aktuellThe author was born in the East Prussian town of Mallenuppen in 1934. He studied at the Academy of Music in Berlin. Hanns Eisler’s best student has been working as a composer since 1960 and he has been the art director of the chamber opera Schloss Rheinsberg since 1990. Among others, he composed the “Te Deum” for the consecration of the rebuilt Frauen­­kirche Dresden, which received worldwide attention.