The fact that Fidelio is the great Beethoven’s only opera is unique enough. How do you make it even more fresh and meaningful? By setting it behind the Berlin Wall in the days leading up to its ultimate fall in 1989. Fidelio is a rousing tale of undying love, a love that not only glimmers through the darkness of oppression, but one that radiates once liberated.


East Berlin. November 8, 1989. (Note: November 7 was the day of official holiday of the Russian Revolution and observed throughout the Soviet empire). In a Stasi prison, Leonore Wismach has disguised herself as a man and gained employment as an assistant to the head of security, Rocco. She uses her position to discern if her husband, Kurt Wismach is imprisoned there. When Wismach disappeared two years earlier following protests against the East German regime, it was rumored that he had died. He had, in fact been imprisoned by the warden, Ulbricht for his dissident political views, and for publicly criticizing Ulbricht. Memorable moments in the opera include the “Prisoners’ Chorus”: an ode to freedom, and the prisoner Kurt Wismach (Florestan) vision of Leonore come as an angel to rescue him. The finale celebrates Leonore’s bravery with the ultimate liberation of the people.

Fidelio is a German opera with spoken dialogue by Ludwig van Beethoven. After a difficult gestation and several rewrites, the final version of Fidelio premiered in Vienna, Kärntnertor Theater in 1814.


Marzelline, Rocco’s daughter, rejects the attentions of one of the guards, Chris Geuffroy, who hopes to marry her.  Her heart is now set on her father’s new assistant, Fidelio, who is distressed by Marzelline’s interest, particularly because it has the blessing of Rocco.  When Rocco mentions a man lying near death in solitary confinement, Leonore, suspecting it might be Wismach, begs him to take her on his rounds.  He agrees, though the warden Ulbricht has left strict instructions that only Rocco is to see the prisoner in solitary confinement.

Head of Stasi Security, Ulbricht learns that the Minister is on his way to inspect the prison.  He has been holding Wismach in secret, and at this news he resolves to kill Wismach without delay.  He orders Rocco to dig a grave for the victim in the lowest part of the prison.  Leonore, overhearing his plan, realizes the imminent danger.  She again begs Rocco to let her accompany him to the condemned man’s cell – and also to allow the prisoners a few moments of air in the courtyard.  He agrees.  The prisoners relish their glimpse of freedom but are ordered back by Ulbricht, who hurries Rocco off to dig Wismach’s grave.  Leonore follows him into the lower sections of the prison.


In solitary confinement, Kurt Wismach dreams his wife Leonore has been sent as an angel, to free him.  Rocco and Leonore arrive and begin digging the grave.  Wismach awakens, not recognizing his wife, and Leonore almost loses her composure at the familiar sound of his voice.  Wismach begs Rocco to give him a drink, and Leonore gives him a bit of bread, urging him not to lose faith.  Rocco then blows on his whistle to signal Ulbricht that all is ready.  Ulbricht advances with dagger drawn to strike, but Leonore stops him.  Just then, a signal is heard which announces the arrival of the Minister.  Ulbricht’s attempt to cover up the death of Wismach have failed, and he and Rocco leave to meet the Minister, leaving Leonore and Wismach to rejoice in each other’s arms.

In the prison courtyard, the Minister is indeed Walter Momper, Mayor of West Germany and soon to be Mayor of a united Berlin, who proclaims the Wall separating West from East is falling, and justice will be given the prisoners.  He is amazed when Rocco brings his boyhood friend Wismach before him and relates the details of Leonore’s heroism.  Ulbricht is arrested, and Leonore herself removes her husband’s chains. The other prisoners are freed as the Berlin Wall falls.

Meet the Characters

For the Opera Carolina production, we are adapting character names to those of personages involved with the Berlin Wall or the GDR. No attempt is made at a direct correlation between these people and the characters in Fidelio. We encourage the audience to use the references to these historical characters and research this pivotal time in Western history.


Walter Ulbricht (30 June 1893 – 1 August 1973) was a German communist politician. He played a leading role in the creation of the Weimar-era Communist Party of Germany (KPD) and later (spending the years of Nazi rule in exile in the Soviet Union) in the early development and establishment of East Germany (the German Democratic Republic). He was first secretary of the Socialist Unity Party and as such the actual leader of East Germany, from 1950 to 1971. From President Wilhelm Pieck’s death in 1960, he was also the East German head of state until his own death in 1973.


Chris Gueffroy.  Chris Gueffroy moved with his mother to Berlin when he was five years old. When he was in the third grade, he was sent to the youth sports school SC Dynamo Berlin, based on his gymnastic talent. After he finished school he refused to pursue an officer’s career track in the National People’s Army and was consequently denied the right to study at the university, ending his dream of becoming an actor or a pilot. In September 1985 he began an apprenticeship in the Schönefeld airport restaurant near Berlin after which he worked in a number of different restaurants. As a waiter, his income was better than average, and he had a strong degree of freedom, but he was disgusted by the widespread corruption in the restaurant business.

His friend Christian Gaudian, whom he had met at gastronomy school, shared his feelings. At twenty, he found it increasingly unbearable to think that he would remain locked up with the knowledge that it would always be this way and that he would never have the freedom to decide for himself where he wanted to live. In mid-January 1989, upon learning that he was to be conscripted into the National Peoples Army the following May, he and Gaudian decided to leave East Germany.

Gueffroy and Gaudian based their decision to try to flee over the wall on mistaken beliefs that the Schiessbefehl, the standing order to shoot anyone who attempted to cross the wall, had been lifted (which it had not), and that the Swedish prime minister was to pay a state visit to East Berlin (he had already left when they attempted their escape). Their attempted escape from East Berlin to West Berlin, along the Britz district canal would take place on the night of February 5–6, 1989.

Climbing the last metal lattice fence, the two were discovered and came under fire from the border troops. Gueffroy was hit in the chest by two shots and died in the border strip. Gaudian, badly but not fatally injured, was arrested and was sentenced on May 24, 1989, to an imprisonment of three years by the Pankow district court for attempted illegal border-crossing of the first degree (“versuchten ungesetzlichen Grenzübertritts im schweren Fall”). In September 1989, Gaudian was freed on bail by the East German government and on October 17, 1989, he was transferred to West Berlin.

Chris Gueffroy is often erroneously named as the last person to die in the attempt to cross the wall, but he was in fact only the last to be killed through the use of weapons, and the second-last to die in an escape attempt. Winifried Freudenberg died in the crash of an improvised balloon aircraft by which he crossed the border into West Berlin on March 8, 1989.


Kurt Wismach was an East German laborer at the Oberspree Cable Works. He is famous for heckling East German leader Walter Ulbricht during a speech Ulbricht gave to the firm on August 10, 1961. Speaking three days before the Berlin border closure, Ulbricht extolled the purported virtues of East German socialism and denounced the growing numbers of refugees fleeing to West Germany.

Seated above Ulbricht on a roll of cables, Wismach applauded sarcastically after each of Ulbricht’s main points and yelled: “Even if I am the only one to say it: Free elections!” He then added to Ulbricht’s embarrassment by shouting: “Have you the slightest idea what the people really think?”

Infuriated, Ulbricht responded by denouncing Wismach as an imperialist and a fascist. Most of the other workers present remained quiet, ensuring that Wismach’s sentiments, though perhaps shared by many in the crowd (and East Germany) would remain muted.

East German party officials interrogated Wismach the next day and tried to smear him as a West German spy. They then forced him to write a statement retracting his comments, cut his pay, and demoted him. Wismach and his wife and child subsequently escaped as refugees right before the Berlin Wall went up.


Walter Momper (21 February 1945) is a German politician, and former Governing Mayor of West Berlin (1989-1990), and the reunited Berlin (1990-1991). While Governing Mayor, he served as President of the Bundesrat in 1989 and 1990.   Alongside Chanellor Helmut Kohl and East German Premier Hans Modrow, he opened the Brandenburg Gate on 22 December 1989, signifying the unification of Berlin.  On October 3, 1990 became the first mayor of a reunited Berlin.

He was born in Sulingen (near Bremen) and is today a member of the Social Democrat Party (SPD).  The SPD currently governs at the federal level in a coalition government with the Christian Democratic Union, led by Chancellor Angela Merkel, the Christian Democratic Union and the Christian Social Union.  The SPD is a member of the Party of European Socialists and the Socialist International, and was a founding member of the Progressive Alliance.  Established in 1863, the SPD is the oldest extant political party represented in German Parliament.  It was also one of the first Marxist-influenced parties in the world.

About the Composer

Ludwig van Beethoven


Ludwig van Beethoven was a German composer and pianist. A crucial figure in the transition between the Classical and Romantic eras in Western art music, he remains one of the most famous and influential of all composers. His best-known compositions include 9 symphonies, 5 concertos for piano, 1 violin concerto, 32 piano sonatas, and 16 string quartets. He also composed chamber music, choral works (including the celebrated Missa solemnis), and Lieder.

Born in Bonn, then the capital of the Electorate of Cologne and part of the Holy Roman Empire, Beethoven displayed his musical talents at an early age and was taught by his father Johann van Beethoven and by Christian Gottlob Neefe.  During his first 22 years in Bonn, Beethoven intended to study with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and befriended Joseph Haydn. Beethoven moved to Vienna in 1792 and began studying with Haydn, quickly gaining a reputation as a virtuoso pianist. He lived in Vienna until his death. In about 1800 his hearing began to deteriorate, and by the last decade of his life he was almost totally deaf. He gave up performing as pianist and conductor in public, but continued to compose; many of his most admired works come from this period.


James Meena


Tom Diamond


Michael Baumgarten