A load of events have just gone into our database for the Komische Oper Berlin, or "Berlin Comic Opera", as you might think to translate it.

Except that you'd be wrong. Komische Oper doesn't really mean "comic opera". For that matter, the French term opéra-comique doesn't mean "comic opera" either (although some linguists argue that it should). It's an example of what linguistics scholars call "false friends": a pair of words which appear to mean the same thing in two languages but don't, setting a nasty trap for the unwary. By the way, Komische Oper and opéra-comique are not false friends to each other: it's merely the English that are deceived.

In French, the term comédien refers to a stage actor of any type. In 1680, when Louis XIV founded the nation's most famous theatre company, the "Comédie-Française", it performed both Molière's comedies and the not-comic-at-all-not-even-slightly works of Corneille and Racine: these frequently manage to summon up a body count that leaves Shakespeare standing. The term Opéra-comique ended up referring to a theatre building which performed more populist operas, away from the grand operas of the court. While the Opéra-comique may have started out staging mainly comedies, the term was used to tag anything performed there: in an improbable result, the most famous of all opéra-comique works, Carmen, is a tragedy. The Austrian name for their equivalent building, Vienna's Volksoper (literally "people's opera"), is less confusing.

Looking across the Rhine to Berlin, the "Komische Oper Berlin" uses the marketing tag "We take opera seriously". The programme this year includes the distinctly unfunny Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, Salome and Idomeneo, although (to be fair), there are many comedies such as Le Nozze di Figaro and Don Pasquale to lighten the mood.

Oh well. Who cares about the name, anyway. They have an awesome looking programme - although if you're monoglot English, be aware that it's all sung in German.

8th October 2010