Overview: Understanding the German Theater System & Rankings

Recently a long time opera house administrator who is now teaching in Berlin complained to our founder Larry Bakst, that young American singers would audition one day for the theater in Hof, the next for Hamburg and have no idea of the difference. It’s great to be egalitarian and enthusiastic, but you also need some idea of the context of any audition.

German opera houses are generally divided into four categories. It’s fitting that just as so much of opera is about history, power and money, Germans categorize their opera houses along similar lines. They are undergoing change as budgets and funding shrink, but are still tied to which governmental entity supports and funds them. They are part of civic life and as such are supported by and represent the local, regional and even national government. Political parties play a role in shaping programming and there is usually representative responsible for the arts. Local money, power and prestige is also reflected by the opera house, and historical importance also plays a role in the funding of many theaters. There is a very general correlation between the size of the political entity which supports a theater and it’s importance, but there are exceptions. There is also a rating of orchestra pay which is based on a complicated formula involving orchestra size, the number of seats and size of theater, and other factors, called Orchestraklasse, and goes from A++ to D, which is valuable to understand the importance and financial resources of theaters. From the highest prestige/political grouping to lowest/smallest, theaters are grouped into:

Staatstheater / Staatsoper / Nationaltheater: These theaters are supported by one of the 16 Bundesländer (States). Some are also “National” theaters and supported as well by the Federal government. Many Staatstheater are among Germany’s most prominent, but not all. Some represent less wealthy States, and others have gotten this designation fo historical reasons. In these cases it’s useful to look at the Orchestraklasse rating.

The most important Staatstheater are those in München, Berlin Dresden and Hamburg, followed by Stuttgart, Karlsruhe, and then Nürnberg, Hannover, Wiesbaden, Kassel and Braunschweig. Others, like Weimar and Meiningen represent important cultural heritage. Some Staatstheaters, Cottbus or Darmstadt are not large or wealthy theaters but have more resources because of their status as a Staatstheater.

Stadttheater: By far the largest group of theaters, representing a wide variety of theaters and cities. In some ways it’s pretty simple: the bigger and richer the city, the better the theater.. Orchestraklasse is a good starting point to get an idea of quality and it pays to talk to the agents and ask around to find out what the work atmosphere is like and whether big changes are underway. Several Stadttheater have international status and large ensembles, like Frankfurt, Köln, Düsseldorf and Mannheim, which is also designated as a Nationaltheater. Don’t forget, a contract in one of these theaters means you’re a ‘City Employee’. Think of that!

Landesbühne / Landestheater: Usually smaller regional theaters which serve a wider area of small towns. Ensembles will be smaller but that means an opportunity for lots of experience and an intimate work atmosphere. It can also mean many late night bus trips from productions at nearby theaters. Not always easy work but can be very valuable.

Städte/bund theater Städte is the plural of Stadt, and -bund means a group. These are often small cities or town which have consolidated opera ensembles and orchestras. They often have a ‘home’ theater but regularly perform and rehearse at the nearby theaters.

There are pluses and minuses to all of these situations, and it’s good to have an idea of what suits your personality, talents and situation. Large, high level theaters have high musical and artistic standards and provide entree to other first rate theaters, but experience is initially limited to small roles, and patience is required. Some singers need experience in major roles to develop and will not get those opportunities early on in a large theater. 

Major careers can also be launched from smaller theaters: soprano Janice Baird, for instance, transformed her career in Kiel when she had a success as Brunhilde in Wagner’s Ring, while Elina Garanca is still remembered in the somewhat isolated theater in Meiningen, where she started, as being very determined, and knowing exactly what she wanted. And many others have been content to have long careers singing a wide variety of repertoire in a single theater (although that is much rarer today), while having a rich and secure personal life. Remember as well, that the bigger the theater, the more complicated the bureaucracy. In a small theater and even many Stadttheater you will get to know and even have access to the Musical Director and Intendant, but in large theaters there will be many layers of bureaucracy between you and these people, and relationships can be very formalized and hierarchical.

Understanding these distinctions is part of being a professional opera singer in Germany but more importantly it’ll help you understand what you’re getting into in an audition or a job. You may or may not have a choice, but the knowledge will help you best shape your actions.

Theater Terminology

Gaining knowledge of the Germany language before going to Germany for auditions, will be a huge asset to you. Familiarize yourself with our list of Theater Terminology by visit the link to our post here.


Finding the “Opernfort” or “Stage door”

So you arrive at your theater destination…what door do you enter? Most theater stage doors are NEVER at the front of the theater, and usually when auditions are being held, the doors front at the front of theater are locked. The stage doors are usually either on the back left side or back right side of the theater. Some stage doors are at the backside of the theatre, but mostly they are on the back left or right side. In some instances where it isn’t obvious you’ll have to just circle the theater and look for the signs that say “Opernfort” or “Bühneneingang”. Another clue as to where the stage door entrance is, is to look for a door near bike racks. Many European employees ride their bikes to work, and oftentimes where the bikes are parked, the stage door is not far.

Auf die Bühne / On The Stage

After you’ve entered the building, let the desk attendant know (auf Deutsch!) that you are here for the auditions. They will likely call an administrator who will come and get you and show you to a warm up space where you can reside before the audition. (German theaters are very good at providing warm-up spaces prior to auditions)

  • The audition: The Inspiziert has told you to go! AUFTRITT!!! YOU’RE ON! You walk out to a good spot in the center of the stage. Find the light, or go to where the last person was told to sing. You may be auditioning on a raked set, so be sure to wear sensible shoes.
  • BE PREPARED TO LISTEN HARD AND RESPOND: It can be tricky to understand a foreign language when you’re onstage and they’re in an empty auditorium, so here are some of the things they will be likely to say…
  • THE DIALOGUE: It may never be precisely the same but generally you’ll hear something like this:
    •  Guten Tag, Herr/Frau (your name). / Hello Mr. Ms. ———
    • Was möchten Sie singen /  What would you like to sing?
    • Ich möchte singen… (usually YOUR choice). These are theater professionals, so you don’t have to name the opera, composer and character.
    • Ex: “Ich möchte Despina’s aria aus Don Giovanni singen.”
      • RECHTS – to YOUR Left
      • LINKS – to YOUR right
      • EXCEPT when they say BÜHNEN RECHTS, or BÜHNEN LINKS (then move to YOUR right or Your Left)
      • The phrase might be: Bitte treten Sie nach Recths or Bühnen Rechts.
      • Be aware as well that the orchestra pit may be up or down. If down, you of course won’t fall in, but if it’s up be aware that they’ll probably not want you to sing there, and more importantly, that it may be a little higher or lower than the stage and and could cause you to trip. Keep your eyes out for other lines on the stage floor.
      • They usually will want you to sing in the centre of the stage, BEHIND the proscenium (as you would in a performance)
  • ENDLICH! GEHT’S LOS! Finally! It time to sing!
    • Make a performance out of it, but be aware that not all parts of the set will be secured, so caution is advised when tearing up the scenery.
    • WHEN THE ARIA’S OVER: They may consult awhile, so calm down and wait. They may just say “DANKE”, in which case you smile and say “Bitte”. 
      They may say “Was haben Sie noch zu Singen” or “Was haben Sie sonst” OR They may ask you for another one of your arias. If your first piece was difficult they may ask if you want a short break while the next auditioner sings an aria. Möchten Sie eine PAUSE (pa:u ze) machen? It’s YOUR choice. If you’re feeling good and want to go on, just say “Nein, Danke”. If you feel the need for a short break, you can always ask if you might get a quick drink. “Darf ich ein Schluck Wasser haben?” Responses after your audition is finished can range from a simple “Danke” to “Wir sprchen mit deine Agent’ to “Bitte warten Sie hinter die Bühne.” In the last case they want you to wait backstage and talk to you, but in any case you should always ask the KBB person running the audition if you should wait or not. There’s always the Kantine and you never know what nice people and interesting things you’ll encounter. Of course if you have to catch a train, also let the KBB know. You might want to split a taxi to the Bahnhof with a colleague or two. 

Theater Listings

With over 90 opera theaters in Germany, there are many opportunities to audition and perform.

Get to know the German theaters by visiting operabase.com and sifting through their opera company lists.