Boffo Box Office in Bavaria: Reflections on a Successful Munich Opera Summer

Classic Arts Features   Boffo Box Office in Bavaria: Reflections on a Successful Munich Opera Summer
While most suffer the effects of the current economic morass, the Munich Fest reported final sales of nearly 99%. Raphael Mostel, who spent a week in the city, details his experience and reflects upon the month-long celebration of Germany's favorite art form.


Talking about a hot ticket: A glittering exception to the ongoing flood of reports of red ink in the arts comes from the Munich's Bavarian State Opera's annual month-long summer Opera Festival, which took place between June 27 and July 31 this year. This year, the BStO reports the final ticket sales tally was an astonishing 98.72 percent for the Festival.

In total, 81,000 tickets were sold. This is not counting attendance at the numerous events which were offered free to the public, most prominently the approximately 14,000 who gathered in the square in front of the National Theater for an "Oper f‹r Alle" open-air public broadcast of the new production which opened the festival: Richard Wagner's Lohengrin. (The BStO's National Theater is of course where five of Wagner's most important operas originally received their first performances.)

The National Theater is the largest of the BStO's three opera houses. Although the National Theater is one of the largest opera houses in Europe, it still is more intimate than New York's Metropolitan Opera, which has nearly double the audience capacity. The BStO's other two opera houses are the Bayreuth-like Prinzregenten Theater and the pocket-sized, over-the-top rococo Cuvillis Theater (where the young Mozart premiered his Idomeneo). The Opera Festival, which runs from the end of June to the end of July each year, presents a rapid-fire alternation of major opera productions, often taking advantage of the multiple opera houses to present more than one at a time, not to mention ballet and numerous concerts large and small as well.

The rapturously-received new Lohengrin was conducted by Kent Nagano, and marked the tenth new BStO production he has conducted since becoming Music Director of the company. It featured the much- anticipated Wagner debut of Jonas Kaufmann in the title role, with a stellar cast including Anja Harteros, Wolfgang Koch, Michaela Shuster, Evgeny Nikitin.

 border= border=
Kent Nagano
photo by Wilfried H‹sl

Speaking in his office, Kent Nagano explained, "Even though this Festival is an international one, at the highest level of international standing, it's primarily a Bavarian festival, our house, our tradition. Since it began, back in 1875, Bavaria has provided our audience. And they do so with passion. I've learned from the experience of being here what a dynamic place Munich‹and Bavaria‹is. Sadly, many people focus on Oktoberfest when they think about Munich. Or conservative tastes. But these are clich_s which are irrelevant in the history of Munich. Ours is among the oldest orchestras in the world. The orchestra was created not just for the royal court, but for the community. People here identify with the opera. It's 'my' or 'our' opera house here, and it provides an unusually intense window on the soul of the city. This is not a recent phenomenon. There's such a rich culture here‹the depth and relevance of its past. Even more, it helps us navigate our contemporary life. As an American to be given the chance to work here is a great honor. It's more than a little humbling to realize that Orlando di Lassus was one of my predecessors."

One can see that local passion on Promenadeplatz where there is a statue of di Lassus. No matter what time of day or night it is never without people paying respects, lighting fresh candles, leaving flowers. This is a city with a long, long sense of tradition and history.

These days Munich has often been selected as one of the most livable cities in the world, and it has consistently been among the most prosperous in Germany. Berliners and other Germans from the north who come to Munich commonly remark how Italian (that is, un-German) the city seems to them. Food and drink are not more expensive here than in New York. Transportation is swift and effortless, by tram or subway. For those accustomed to the noise of public transportation in New York, Munich's transport is shockingly quiet, arriving with only a murmured "whoosh" sound, and constantly updated electronic signs inform you how many minutes' wait it will be until the next train or tram. But all the major destinations in the city center are actually very walkable, and the streets are filled with people strolling, stopping at the cafes, window-shopping, or visiting one of the museums. Munich's art collections rival any in the world.

 border= border=
Eva-Maria Westbroek as Jenufa
photo by Wilfried H‹sl

The other Festival productions I sampled in my week in Munich included Janacek's Jenufa (in Czech), also at the National Theater, conducted by the young newcomer making a good impression here, Kirill Petrenko, and a strong cast which included Eva-Maria Westbroek, Deborah Polaski, Helga Dernesch, Stefan Margita and Pavel Cernoch. The production by Barbara Frey pictures the mill's toxic waste (half- submerged barrels of sludge dot the stage) poisoning the community so much that the chorus, dancers and extras all have green bilious splotches their faces. The green makeup does not affect their performance. The locals informed me Jenufa was new to them in Munich, and the audience's fervent reception indicates it will reappear regularly from now on.

Richard Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos was performed to great acclaim at the Prinzregenten Theater, in a production by Robert Carsen, conducted by Bertrand de Billy, and a cast which included Diana Damrau, Daniela Sindram and Adrianna Pieczonka.

A new production of Leonard Bernstein's Trouble in Tahiti was mounted (in English) in the Cuvillis Theater, with Kent Nagano conducting the guest musicians, the famous Mahler Chamber Orchestra.

 border= border=
Beth Clayton in Trouble in Tahiti
photo by Wilfried H‹sl

A real rarity was Palestrina, a Wagner-length "musical legend" of the machinations of the Council of Trent, written and composed by Munich composer Hans Pfitzner in 1917. Pfitzner today is best known for becoming such a fervent Nazi that even Hitler asked he be kept away from him. Music scholars have proven that Palestrina's true history is misrepresented in this story, and none of the historical Palestrina's own music is heard in this score. Thomas Mann described this opera as "more ethics than art." The minimalist production by Christian St‹ckel‹who also directs the Passion Play at Oberammergau‹was in day-glo pink and green when it wasn't in simple black and white.

Other performances in the Festival included Wozzeck, Macbeth, Luisa Miller, Aida, Nabucco, Otello, Falstaff, Norma, Lucrezia Borgia, Werther and Idomeneo.

The BStO maintains a lively literary and intellectual tradition, producing a lavishly voluminous book (in German) of serious essays, historical texts, photos, art and libretto individually for each opera it presents. During intermissions, philosophical disquisitions on the opera can be found in corners throughout the house, accompanied by champagne, beer or Rote Gr‹tze (a refreshing sauce of red berries, a house specialty).

Next year's BStO Opera Festival will open with Tosca, starring Karita Mattila and Jonas Kaufmann, in a new production directed by Luc Bondy which was co-produced by the Metropolitan Opera and La Scala of Milan. One of the most eagerly anticipated highlights originating with the BStO in its next Festival will be the world premiere of a newly commissioned opera Die Trag‹die des Teufels (The Tragedy of the Devil) by noted Hungarian composer Peter E‹tv‹s ("Three Sisters," "Angels in America," "Love and Other Demons") and German writer Albert Ostermaier.

Visit Bavarian State Opera for further season information.

Raphael Mostel is a composer based in New York City who writes frequently on the arts. He teaches "Architectonics of Music" at the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation of Columbia University.

Today’s Most Popular News: