The Storyteller of Berlin

The Storyteller of Berlin Guiding tourists in Germany helps former Edmonton Opera artistic director Brian Deedrick find his way. by Omar Mouallem Photography by Darren Jackinsky Kitty corner to a war-ravaged Romanesque church and a glitzy shopping mall, the Berlin walking tour guide frenetically waved a pamphlet until he was encircled…

The Storyteller of Berlin

Guiding tourists in Germany helps former Edmonton Opera artistic director Brian Deedrick find his way.

Photography by Darren Jackinsky

Kitty corner to a war-ravaged Romanesque church and a glitzy shopping mall, the Berlin walking tour guide frenetically waved a pamphlet until he was encircled by two dozen water-bottle-toting tourists. Among them were Danes, Dutch, Israelis, a lone Welsh woman and two Edmontonians – my wife and me. The guide shepherded us into the metro station and onto a train with the command of a theatre director. 

Indeed, it was Brian Deedrick, Edmonton’s best-known operatic artistic director; he was experienced with large casts. But on this day, he was a semi-anonymous backpack- and lanyard-wearing guide, and his stage was the tragic and triumphant German capital.

After 20 minutes, he still hadn’t introduced himself, though the tour had obviously begun. “Look out this window,” said Deedrick as we propelled over a tree-lined street with colourful cottage-style walkups. “You’re going to see an apartment with two rather rotund police officers outside.” Sure enough, we do. “That,” he said grandly, “is the home of Madame President Angela Merkel.” We ooh, we ahh and we hope the Chancellor steps outside on cue (it wouldn’t be the first time on Deedrick’s tour). We scuttle out of the train and follow his crooked gait into Hackescher Markt, a shopping area in Berlin, where he climbs a ledge to finally introduce himself like a town crier. 

“Seventeen years ago, I fell in love with this chaotic, messy, not-always-perfect-but-always-unusual city,” he told us. “I hope that you’ll walk away as in love with it as I am.”

On Deedrick’s first tour of the year, his excitement stood out like a one-woman wail. All but one of his last 13 summers have been spent working for Insider Berlin Walking Tours; the exception being 2011, when he broke his hip within 36 hours of arriving. The next morning, he called the president of Edmonton Opera, where he’d been artistic director for nine years, and resigned. He still splits his time between the two cities, but he keeps a much lower profile in Edmonton.

“I’ll go to my grave convinced that I was in such a dark and unhappy place, that it was the gods who facilitated the breaking of that hip to force me to make that decision,” he told me at his neighbourhood Starbucks on Jasper Avenue a few months later.

During the last two seasons with Edmonton Opera, Deedrick had been so stressed, so run down from being the company’s face – forever exuberant, forever money-minded, forever “on” in case he’d encounter a subscriber or benefactor while enjoying a Sunday-morning omelette – that he’d developed acute insomnia.

“I used to play the radio 24/7, just to have sound going through my head all day long that wasn’t the sound of the office or work that needed to be done. I’d go to bed and turn the radio on.”

Berlin was where he’d catch sleep, sink into the city of 3.5 million and let it wash over him. “It changes everything about me,” he said. “Tour guiding is my passion. Berlin is my passion.”

It was evident throughout the tour. Deedrick pulled stories from unsuspecting plazas and retold the hardships of his East Berlin friends who were estranged from their families by the wall. Repeatedly, he promised us “the most tragic car park in the world” and delivered. In the gravel lot beneath our unassuming feet, he revealed, was the bunker where Adolf Hitler and his advisors killed themselves and their children. His perfected monologue dramatized those final days when Hitler, feeble and shaky, emerged from the bunker to greet and send young boys to their deaths.

Deedrick has some German ancestry, but as a Canadian, he can portray them as victims under the Third Reich in a way few Germans would dare. And, as an artist, he can unspool Berlin’s calamities like a one-man chorus. Opera, after all, is all about grandiosity. “If you kill someone in a play, there’s a trial,” he explained. “If you kill someone in the opera, it’s earth-shattering. The enormity and hugeness of opera drew me into it.” He feels the same about Berlin: The magnitude of  
human suffering here gives the city natural operatic qualities, something he realized in 1995. 

A polyglot who also speaks Swedish and French, he was studying the language in southern Germany and had arrived in Berlin for a weekend getaway. He immediately had the sensation that he’d been there before. “It just started speaking to me,” he recalled, “like – look at this, feel this sense of history, see how this combines with that?” It’s no surprise now when he asks tour groups – some as big as 50 – if they want to do his “quick and dirty” four-hour tour or his “marathon” six-hour tour, they’ve all but once opted for the latter. 

And as it turned out, my wife and I were two of 11 Edmonontians he guided last summer. From city councillor Ben Henderson to actors John Ullyatt and Annie Dugan, word of his tours has caught on. It’s practically an appointment experience for Edmontonians in Berlin.

The only thing more impressive than his ability to lead strangers for 10 kilometres is his ability to walk it. Since the Lacombe native’s near-fatal car accident just 10 days after his 17th birthday, his fragile hip has undergone four operations. On the fifth break, in 2011, he expected another operation, plus a six-month recovery. However, shortly after resigning, the doctor told him it was such a “beautiful break” that it would heal in 10 weeks – no surgeries required. “I had my little moment of Brian on the road to Damascus. I said, no, let it stand. I made a definitive choice.”

He has since recovered physically and artistically. Last season, he directed large-scale productions of La Bohme for Manitoba Opera, Aida for Charlotte’s Carolina Theatre, and this season, he’s working on HMS Pinafore for Knoxville’s Tennessee Theatre. He’ll also close Edmonton Opera’s 51st season with the blood-soaked honeymoon tragedy, Lucia di Lammermoor. He never would have predicted returning to the company three years ago, but he’s overjoyed to be back.

There are downsides to being a freelancer, he said. For one, after resisting a smartphone for years, he finally caved in because contracting demands his availability. And then there are the perks of local fame. “Do I miss the celebrity status? Ninety-nine-point-nine per cent of the time, no. But that other time, the Queen is coming and you’re not on the banquet list.”

But overall, he’s much happier and more relaxed than the hyperactive artistic director people remember. Working from his kitchen table, his head space is free of fiscal matters, allowing him to focus more on the creativity and not the sustainability of opera. He’s getting lots of sleep too, and is able to save his frenetic energy for his true passion. 

At the last stop of the tour, in Marx-Engels Forum – where demonstrators gathered on Nov. 9, 1989, before tearing down the Berlin Wall – that energy practically exploded from inside him. 

Flush-faced and pounding his chest, he breathlessly described a scene that happened a few days before the fall of 500,000 demonstrators until we could practically hear their chants for freiheit – freedom – echoing in the park. “As they bashed and smashed through that wall, holes began appearing,” he said with arms swinging. “Light began to shine through that wall, and you could say that it was on that night this city began to find its way back together.” At times, he had to look away, biting his lip, fighting tears, but nothing could break his trance.