The lake stage, Bregenz Festival, Austria
Staging an opera can be hard enough at the best of times. There are complicated musical scores and difficult notes, trying to interpret an old text for a modern audience, and staging it in a way that does the original meaning justice.
Well, all of that is taken to a new level for the lake stage at the annual Bregenz Festival on the edge of Lake Constance in the Austrian city of Bregenz.
The enormous set is more than just a background for an opera – it is as much a character as any of the people standing on it. It is a work of art and the design is one of the highlights of the festival. It takes months to construct and every little part has a role.
You can read my story about the Bregenz Festival in Austria here. But right now I want to tell you about a special backstage tour of the set used for this year’s performances of The Magic Flute. Each opera is performed for two festivals so this stage was built in 2013 and is being used again this year. The design is based around three large dragon-like animals that rise up out of the lake with a green hill in the shape of a turtle in the centre.
Nothing is as it seems, though. Everything moves and when the sun sets and the lights come on for the evening performance, it will transform.
I’m inside the hill, where only the actors and technicians normally come. Above me is a complicated system of pipes that are used to blow air into large inflatable tubes that will resemble green tree-like figures above. The highest of these tubes is about eight metres tall and, for the audience, it looks like a forest. Down here, though, it looks like a futuristic air-conditioning system.
The whole hill will also rotate at various points of the evening, revealing a new part of the set. Changes are made to the half that is hidden by the inflatable trees while the performance takes place on the other side. It needs to be quick and quiet because there are no curtains to drop during a set change. A small crane is nearby to help with the most difficult adjustments.
During the performance, characters and objects arrive by boat, floating from behind the stage to the front. It’s all possible with an underwater track upon which different items are attached behind the scenes. As I walk around to the rear of the stage, I see two divers in the water making adjustments to the system because recent rain has meant a slight rise in the water level.
Large puppets are in their shed. These three will be controlled on stage by people but the voices will come from singers in the main opera house. It’s a special effect that will make these characters stand out and give another layer of depth to the visual component of the show.
The three tall dragons that make the stage so impressive from a distance have also been integrated into the actual performance. Bridges run between them all and acrobats will use the whole structure to run and jump and slide down ropes. Smoke will come from the dragons’ mouths as they roar.
As I walk through the backstage area, you can see the parts that aren’t visible from the audience’s seats – the bare wooden walls, the piles of props, the safety warnings. But there’s still something quite special about turning a corner and almost walking into a vivid red mask on the wall as though the characters never really leave, even if the actors go home at night. This is the world of The Magic Flute and this is their home.
Over the years there have been some magnificent sets – each one special in its own way. You may remember the one with the enormous eye which was used in the James Bond film, Quantum of Solace. But there has also been a skeleton coming out of the water to open a book, a submerged body with just the shoulders and head showing, and a large dining table.
Next year means a new set and not much detail has been released yet. But I had a chat to Susanne Schmidt, the festival’s Director of Opera, to ask for a bit of preview. I’ll leave you with what she told me is in store for 2015.
“Well, it’s Turandot, it’s oriental. We will have, I think I can give that away, we will have a Chinese Wall which in part will also collapse, which should be quite sensational. We probably will have terracotta armies, so certain symbols that everybody connects with China will be there.”
“We are hoping to get some Shaolin dancer circus elements and then we have costumes that pick up the oriental theme but also go a bit contemporary. So it won’t be old ancient China only but I hope it will be colourful and lots of silks and all of that.”
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Time Travel Turtle was a guest of Bodensee-Vorarlberg Tourism but the opinions, over-written descriptions and bad jokes are his own.