A night at the Berlin opera with an unusual VIP - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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A night at the Berlin opera with an unusual VIP

Before I enlisted in the RAF in 1953 my life's ambition had been to become a professional musician until I was thwarted for reasons beyond my control. Concerts at the Philharmonie (Philharmonic Hall) by the resident Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, often under the baton of the ageing but still charismatic Maestro Herbert von Karajan, were always sold out within minutes of the Box Office opening. The only way to get a seat was either by joining a very long queue on the day they first went on sale, or by means of a season ticket which were virtually impossible to buy on the open market. Those German citizens who had season tickets invariably had them for life and left them in their wills to other favoured members of their family.

Above: This was all that remained after the Allies bombed the Berlin main railway station during the war. It was left like this to provide a signpost for Berliners to orientate themselves in the early years after the war when this area was largely flattened - but was still like this in 1980 when I took this pic.

A few so-called Protocol Tickets had originally been allocated to the British, French and American HQs for the use of senior diplomats and they were usually handed on from one incumbent to another. Early in my tour in Berlin I acquired one from a British Army officer, a very fine flautist and a great fan of James Galway who had been the leading flute player with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra between 1969-75. My benefactor had reached the end of his tour and was returning to UK. The season ticket itself was free but that merely reserved a particular seat; I had to pay the full amount (about £75 at the 1979 exchange rate) for each of the many concerts I went to, but it was worth it.

One day in 1980 I was asked to escort a high-ranking civilian, supposedly from GCHQ, to the Berlin Opera House for a performance of Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg and I was delighted: I had never been to a live performance of that opera. The Deutsche Oper Berlin was one of two opera houses in Greater Berlin (the other was in East Berlin and so out of bounds to me). I didn't have a season ticket for the Berlin Opera but on this occasion the visitor was sufficiently important for me to be provided with two free tickets which had a face value the equivalent of over £100 each.

The Mastersingers has three very long acts so there was an early curtain-up at 5.30pm and two lengthy intervals during the performance. I met my visitor for the first time when I collected him from his hotel and we then went on by taxi. We were dressed formally in dinner jackets, de rigueur for the Opera House. It was, my visitor told me, his first ever visit to Berlin but that was all I knew about him. He called me Tony once or twice but he was too senior for me to call him anything other than "Sir".

In the first 30-minute interval my guest and I had some refreshments in one of the several bar lounges. In keeping with typical German fashion, we had pre-ordered in advance and the drinks and snacks were waiting on our designated table when we got to it through the crowds. I could tell from our conversation that my guest had little or no knowledge of opera. That was not unusual in itself; many people went to the Opera not to satisfy their love of the music but just to be seen, or to say they had been. At one point he said to me in a rather louder voice than was wise, because the tables were very close together, "It's great fun trying to pick out the spies amongst this lot, isn't it?" I made a sort of non-committal grunt.

At the second interval, 45 minutes long, instead of going to another of the bar lounges my guest suggested we went for a gentle stroll around the Opera House's magnificent corridors and balconies, watching and being watched at what was then West Berlin's most prestigious venue. Eventually, after looking at his watch, my guest murmured that he needed to go to the toilet. Without asking me where they were, he disappeared at high speed towards an area where I knew there were no toilets. About 15 minutes later, when everyone else was already streaming back into the auditorium for the final act of the opera, he returned to where I was waiting, contentedly watching the crowds from a balcony  and getting anxious for my guest’s safety. He looked flustered and muttered, "Sorry about that, I had to meet someone."

During the final act it was obvious to me that my guest was distracted; he kept sneakily looking at his watch and was not concentrating on the action on stage. I got the clear impression that he would have preferred to have given the final act a miss. However, in Berlin during the Cold War one did not ask senior officials what they were there for, where they had been, or to whom they had been talking. It was not done.

It was a virtually silent taxi ride back to his hotel where I dropped him off just before midnight. I had to pay off the taxi driver when I got back to RAF Gatow.

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