An Opera House Clock That Has Endured

High above the proscenium at the Semperoper opera house in the historic center of Dresden, Germany, a two-panel clock competes for attention with the lavish sets and powerful voices onstage as well as the ornate interior of the opera house itself.

Depending on an operagoer’s seat and how much neck straining is involved, it might be easy to miss the left panel, with Roman numerals, and the right panel, with Arabic ones, just beneath two cherubs wrapped in gold. But the clock is a reminder of the Saxony region’s rich history of clocks and watches and a testament to the Semperoper, designed by the celebrated German architect Gottfried Semper, which has twice been destroyed and rebuilt. (It opens its 2022-23 season on Sept. 2 with “Die Zauberflöte,” or “The Magic Flute.”)

The clock was designed in the late 1830s by Johann Christian Friedrich Gutkaes, a master watchmaker, for the first opera house. At the time he was training Ferdinand Adolph Lange, his future son-in-law, who in 1845 created A. Lange & Söhne, the luxury German watchmaker now headquartered in the watchmaking hamlet of Glashütte, about 25 miles south of Dresden.

“When the first Semperoper was built,” Wilhelm Schmid, chief executive of A. Lange & Söhne, wrote in an email, “the Saxon king requested a stage clock that could be easily seen in the dark from any distance in the auditorium.

“He wanted a clock that prevented the audience from operating their pocket watches,” he added, “almost like a 19th-century version of the now almost ubiquitous mobile phone light during a performance.”

Gutkaes had numerals printed on fabric and wrapped two drums, which were powered from behind by a wheel train. Visible through two windows above the stage, the Roman numerals I to XII indicated the hours while the Arabic numerals 5 to 55 were the minutes, with a blank space for the top of the hour. (Think of it as the great-grandfather of the flip digital clocks popularized in the 1960s.)

The reason for some of the original clock’s design details, however, are somewhat murky, according to A. Lange & Söhne and historians at the Semperoper. The most plausible explanation behind the number display, they said, was that any analog clock would have had to be enormous to be seen from all the 1,700 seats in the original opera house (there now are about 1,300). The digital display of each number — at about 40 centimeters high, or nearly 16 inches — seems more practical.

“The stage clock was created at a time when opera music and precision watchmaking of clocks and pocket watches were at their peak in Germany, which was also the beginning of A. Lange & Söhne,” Mr. Schmid said. “The Semperoper clock shows the inventive spirit of Dresden watchmakers at the time. The stage clock of the Semperoper is a distinct part of our history.”

The opera house opened in 1841 but was destroyed by fire in 1869. Semper, who was exiled for his involvement in the 1849 May Uprising against the Saxon monarchy, was unable to return to Dresden to help with the reconstruction. His son, however, used his father’s plans and the new house opened in 1878. It became one of Germany’s most important opera houses, with the premieres of such masterpieces as “Tannhäuser” and “Der Fliegende Holländer” by Richard Wagner (a friend of Semper’s) in the mid-1800s and “Der Rosenkavalier,” “Elektra” and “Salome” by Richard Strauss in the early 1900s.

After the 1869 fire, Ludwig Teubner, a student of Gutkaes, reproduced the stage clock in 1879. A model of this second clock was created in 1896 by two of Teubner’s journeymen and now is on permanent display at the Royal Cabinet of Mathematical and Physical Instruments in Dresden.

The Semperoper was destroyed again in February 1945 during the Allied bombing of Dresden. But 40 years later, in February 1985, it reopened, with a new clock over the proscenium. Inspired by the original design, it used the same kind of gear train to move the numbers.

Today, the mechanism is powered by electricity, but otherwise is still a study in the original craftsmanship of Gutkaes and his students.

“It’s basically a digital clock from the 19th century with a big machine inside making it all happen,” said Peter Theiler, artistic director of the Semperoper, in a phone interview from Dresden. “It’s an expression of modernism in the 19th century, and it was also an expression of modernism in Saxony. The first long-distance train line in Germany was from Dresden to Leipzig in the 1830s. It’s all part of the industry boom at the time.”

Opera house clocks are rare. The only other high-profile clock in a European opera house is at La Scala in Milan, which had a similar clock over the proscenium when the house opened in 1778. It survived the Allied bombing of Milan in 1943, but was replaced by an electric clock in 1970.

The modern Semperoper clock is unique, Mr. Theiler said, in that it continues to use much of its original horological technology and has a close association with a major European watchmaker.

For example, in 1989, Walter Lange, the great-grandson of Ferdinand Adolph Lange, unveiled the four inaugural watches of the revived A. Lange & Söhne, reborn as an independent company after decades of operation by the Communist government of East Germany.

The collection included the Lange 1, which has become the design most associated with the brand. And its website description notes that, in homage to the Semperoper clock, the two numbers that tell the date on the dial are larger than date indicators on other watches and, like the opera house clock, are framed in gold. The brand, the history, the opera house — it all ties together in a subtle way.

“In the 19th century, the big cathedrals of mobility were train stations, and they had clocks, which served a logistical purpose but were also an expression of time and technology,” Mr. Theiler said. “The Semperoper is a cathedral of music and culture, so it made sense that it should have a clock, too.”

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