Episode 12: Music and Theatre in Berlin

Theater des Westens, Berlin

Last Updated on February 2, 2023 by Hannah Henderson

Berlin has a rich history of music and theatre and adding a visit to a concert or a performance to your itinerary will let you peek into the city’s culture in a way nothing else can. But it’s tricky to find out what’s on that might suit you, especially if you don’t speak German. This post explains what you need to know.

Berlin’s Rich Musical History

Marlene Dietrich waxwork at Madame Tussaud's in Berlin
Marlene Dietrich

Perhaps it’s the Berlin Philharmonic you think of first, or the famous German composers connected to the city: Bach visiting Frederick the Great at his palace in Potsdam, Mozart attending the Konzerthaus to hear the premiere of one of his operas, Beethoven’s 9th symphony ringing out to celebrate the reunification of the city in 1989, when the words to Ode to Joy were changed for this one occasion to Ode to Freedom. Or maybe you think of Marlene Dietrich, who fled Berlin in the 1930s, but whose song – Lili Marlene – became the forces’ favourite throughout the war. Berlin and music have been linked throughout history.

Concert Venues in Berlin

The Konzerthaus on Gendarmenmarkt in Berlin
The Konzerthaus

Consult the Visit Berlin section on concert-halls. to find  programme details for  a huge variety of venues specialising in pop, in jazz and in Indie music and three major classical concert halls.  The Konzerthaus has an illustrious history, having hosted visits from Mozart, Paganini and Liszt and seen Wagner conduct The Flying Dutchman and Leonard Bernstein the 1989 celebration concert after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Today there is a full programme of orchestral and chamber music, piano concerts, quartets and much more.

The Berlin Philharmonic Concert Hall at the Kulturforum in Berlin (detail)
The Berlin Philharmonic Concert Hall (detail)

At the Berlin Philharmonic Concert Hall in the Kulturforum near Potsdamer Platz you can attend concerts by the world-famous orchestra and also, unless the orchestra is on tour, free lunchtime concerts on Tuesdays. The hall is famed for its acoustics; each of the 2,440 seats arranged in the round is said to give its occupant a perfect sonic experience. Then in Charlottenburg you can attend a Berliner Residenz Concert and enjoy 17th or 18th century music – think Mozart, Bach and Handel – played by musicians in costume, with dinner as an optional extra.

Opera in Berlin

Scene from a Strauss opera
Scene from a Strauss opera

The largest venue is the Deutsche Oper in Charlottenburg which presents 19th century classics by composers such as Strauss, Wagner and Verdi, but also modern pieces such as Negar which tells the story of a clandestine lesbian love affair in Teheran, exploring the theme of protest against the regime’s  moral code. There is also a wide programme of opera at the Staatsoper on Unter den Linden, the city’s oldest opera house, built by Frederick the Great in the 18th century.

Singer on stage during a performance by the Neukollner Oper in Berlin
Modern Opera in Berlin

For comic opera and operettas, there’s the Komische Oper, first opened in 1892 and offering both re-interpretations of works from yesteryear and modern pieces such as Intoleranza 1960, a piece about protest movements. And then there is the Neuköllner Oper which stages modern interpretations of everything: baroque opera, operettas, musicals and experimental musical theatre.  For more detail, see the opera section of the Visit Berlin website.

Berlin, A Theatrical City

Bertold Brecht
Bertold Brecht

One name keeps coming up: Bertold Brecht. You can visit his house, now the Brecht-Weigel Museum and learn his history, as a playwright and theatrical reformer. Brecht began writing political plays after World War One but went into exile when his books were publicly burned by the Nazis. Returning to Berlin after the war, he ran his own theatre, the Berliner Ensemble, still operating today and left a legacy of theatrical reform; his ‘alienation technique’ is still influential and plays such as The Caucasian Chalk Circle, with its themes of justice, class war and the misuse of power, or his anti-war play Mother Courage, are theatrical staples to this day.

Going to Theatre in Berlin Today

Berlin's Theater des Westens
Berlin’s Theater des Westens

Can you enjoy theatre in Berlin if you don’t speak German? Yes! Selected theatres stage performances with English surtitles, there is an English Theatre in the Kreuzberg district and there are musicals which are accessible to those who don’t understand every word. Again, check the relevant section of the Visit Berlin website, but here’s a list of the 5 theatres of interest, bearing in mind that the curtain goes up on some 150 stages every night in Berlin!

The Deutsches Theater, built in 1850, offers a traditional repertoire – think Chekhov, Sartre, Shakespeare and Goethe – along with contemporary classics such as Vakuum, a comedy about social media. The Schaubühne, founded in the 1960s, offers ‘cutting edge theatre and new interpretations of classic plays’, with a readiness to experiment and an eye on the social realities of today. At the Berliner Ensemble, the theatre founded by Brecht, his plays often feature, as do classic plays and contemporary pieces, many of which convey a strong political message.

Seeing a Musical in Berlin Today

Berlin's Friedrichspalast
Berlin’s Friedrichspalast

If it is a musical you seek, the big traditional choice is the Theater des Westens, first opened in 1896. Recent productions have included Chicago, Mamma Mia and Ku’damm 56 Das Musical, telling the story of a 1950s dance-school owner and her 3 daughters. The Friedrichspalast is another traditional Berlin venue from the 19th century, where Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong once performed, but which is now the city’s top venue for glitzy musical extravaganzas and seats nearly 1900 people. Think Las Vegas-style costumes, breath-taking stage settings and rumbustious shows where there might be 100 performers on stage. Alongside the famous Palast showgirls you’ll see musicians, acrobats, circus performers and plenty of special effects.

Listen to the podcast

Links for this Post

Berlin Concert Halls (general info)
Berlin Philharmonic Concert Hall
Residenzkonzerte at Charlottenburg 
Opera in Berlin (general info)
Deutsche Oper
Statsoper Unter den Linden 
Komische Oper
Neuköllner Oper

Theatre in Berlin (general info)
Brecht Weigel Museum
Berliner Ensemble Theatre
English Theatre
Deutsches Theater
The Schaubühne
Theater des Westens

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