Dresden’s Semper Opera House

Dresden’s Semper Opera House is one of Europe’s most important treasures. If you travel in Germany, I suggest you include the historic old city of Dresden in your plans and visit the Semper Opera House. Dominating the Theaterplatz on the river Elbe, this grand old building was beautifully restored in the 1980s.

Semperoper, as reconstructed in 1985

Semperoper, as reconstructed in 1985

The original opera house that stood on this spot was completed in 1841 and called Hoftheater (court theater). Designed by the architect Gottfried Semper in Early Renaissance and Baroque styles with Corinthian-style pillars, the original building burnt down in 1869. When Dresden’s citizens demanded that none other than Semper himself reconstruct their beloved opera house, King John of Saxony agreed to commission the professor of architecture. But Gottfried Semper was already otherwise engaged. He had been hired to construct Vienna’s Museum of Art History and Museum of Natural History. Gottfried Semper’s son, Manfred, stepped in and rebuilt the opera house according to his father’s plans. This second Hoftheater, was constructed in Neo-Renaissance style and renamed Semperoper after its architect. The reconstruction was completed in 1878.

Dresden's Semper Opera House, stucco columns in vestibule, Photo © J. Elke Ertle 2013

Dresden’s Semper Opera House, stucco columns in vestibule, Photo © J. Elke Ertle 2013

In 1945, during the Allied bombing of Dresden in the final months of World War II, the Semper Opera House was largely destroyed again. Only the exterior shell of the building was left standing. The people of Dresden decided to rebuild the exterior as it had looked before the war and to recreate the interior as Semper had originally designed it. The reconstruction was based on over 3,000 letters between Semper and his son concerning the rebuilding of the Hoftheater following the fire of 1869. It took over eight years to rebuild, but in 1985, Dresden’s Semper Opera House finally regained its former glory. As our theater guide pointed out, the wood-clad walls of the opera house are in reality nothing other than stucco. The same is true of the marble columns in the vestibule on the third floor. Six thin coats of plaster and lots of delicate brushing and sponging were required to achieve the marble look. Local craftsmen had to relearn the skill that turned plaster into works of art in the 1800s. They found that each column required over three hundred hours of painstaking work.

Although the interior and exterior of Dresden’s Semper Opera House were reconstructed to look like the original, its stage was upgraded to the state of the art. The Semperoper reopened in 1985 with the same opera that was performed just prior to the building’s destruction in 1945: Carl Maria von Weber’s Der Freischuetz. During the flood of the river Elbe in 2002 the Semper Opera House suffered heavy water damage. With substantial help from around the world, it reopened in December 2002.


For a sneak peek at the first 20+ pages of my memoir, Walled-In: A West Berlin Girl’s Journey to Freedom, click “Download a free excerpt” on the home page of http://www.walled-in-berlin.com. Walled-In is a story of growing up in Berlin during the Cold War.



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