Bregenz Festival: Interview with Susanne Schmidt

An interview with the Director of Opera for Austria’s Bregenz Festival. Susanne Schmidt explains how the performances come together and gives a sneak peek at next year!

Written by Michael Turtle

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle. A journalist for more than 20 years, he's been travelling the world since 2011.

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle and has been travelling full time for a decade.


Susanne Schmidt
Bregenz Festival Director of Opera

It takes a special type of opera singer to be able to perform on the lake stage at the annual Bregenz Festival in Austria. The large stage built on the edge of Lake Constance is always an enormous and spectacular set.

Not only do the performers need to be able to cope with the outdoor environment, they also need to be big and dramatic enough to fill that stage.

The woman in charge of choosing the singers is the festival’s Director of Opera, Susanne Schmidt. She also has a critical role in the style of the shows and the overall makeup of the festival each year.

Behind the scenes, lake stage, bregenz festival, austria

To find out a bit more about the whole event, you can read my post about the Bregenz Festival in Austria here.

If you are interested in a bit more detail, Susanne explains it all so well in this interview I did with her. There’s also a very special sneak peek at next year’s show and what you can expect from the famous stage.

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If someone hadn’t heard of the festival before and you were telling them about it, how would you describe it?

What people will most remember us for is the big open air show which is what we also started with. We are in our 69th year and next year we have 70 years. It’s quite interesting, it was a group of citizens really who, after the war when people were hungry and a lot of things were broken and there were not many jobs and it was all grey, they thought they wanted to give themselves something nice in the summer. So this was 1946, right after the war, and this group of citizens just got two barges and they put a tiny orchestra on the one barge and another little set of Bastien und Bastienne, a very young opera of Mozart’s, and they did this very early Mozart opera. They put beer benches up – it was all voluntary work. But I think from the beginning they had a lot of audience, not 7000 but I think they talked about 2000, and it was so successful that they kept going and fairly quickly they had a mobile auditorium that they rolled in in summer and rolled out so now more beer benches but still a lot of voluntary work. And so this festival was very much owned by the citizens and you still feel that now a bit. And what I like about it is it’s very democratic in its approach. We try to do a real spectacle that appeals to lots of different people who are not necessarily knowledgeable opera or theatregoers, not people who hear every difference in note or something. A bit like Verona, people tend to travel here, this is sort of a crossroad to the south, if they want to hiking in Switzerland or swimming in Lake Como, they come through Bregenz and they stop here on the way and watch a performance at the lake and if we’re lucky they also watch other performances in the house or concerts. But they are bit more challenging but the lake performance really tries to appeal to an audience that is not preinformed but then they are caught and they find that actually one can go into opera and one can like it and don’t necessarily need to know a lot beforehand and some of them then go to their local opera houses during the year which is of course the ultimate goal, to win people over for the genre.

Bregenz Opera Festival

Because I noticed that the operas you choose are very mainstream ones – it’s Turandot and Aida and The Magic Flute this time. And the stage itself is also just so magnificent looking. How do you go about making the operas more mainstream than maybe other show or festivals might?

We basically have a dual approach where one the one hand we want serious theatre where there is some quite intellectual stuff going on in the background. So we don’t so simple postcard theatre where only the images are fascinating. But on the other hand we usually try to have elements of circus. So we have masses – chorus or lots of extras – and we like to have acrobats or stunts or aerial artists or some elements that fascinate a person who’s not necessarily an opera aficionado. And we try to make that meld with the artform and that’s usually the challenge for each new creative team because very often they haven’t done that beforehand. But I think that’s a bit what people know us for and why they come. They come out of curiosity, they know they’re always being entertained as well.

And you really do get people from all around the world coming here, don’t you, for those who are into opera and classical music, they know about this and you also get the passers by you were talking about.

Yes, the passers by tend to be mainly but not only from the near-lying German-speaking countries so 75 per cent of our audience at the lake is German and a good percentage is from this federal state of Austria, Vorarlberg, and a good number is from Switzerland but much much smaller than Germany, though they are more near, but they protect their tourism more strongly, also the rail connection is not so good from Switzerland- neither is it from Germany but Germans tend to come by ship or by car and the Swiss like to come by train. We have a few foreigners but that’s a negligible number but the German-speaking countries are very well represented.

Behind the scenes, lake stage, bregenz festival, austria

One of your main roles is as the casting director. In terms of both the circus and mainstream things we were talking about but also the artistic side, do you have to look a bit differently at this job as a casting director as you might other ones?

At the lake, definitely you look for a certain breed of singers. On the one hand, acoustically speaking, you need voices that are rather calm and don’t have too wide a vibrato because they all sing with microphones – not because they don’t have strong voices, they do, they would sing the same role in a big opera house – but the microphone doesn’t allow for the vibrato to mix back with the orchestra sounds as it does in a natural acoustic. So you carry the voice across the lake by amplification but you also carry all the defects and the vibrato does become annoying over an entire evening, so that’s a sound issue. And on the other hand you want singers that are a bit sturdy, both mentally and physically. You have to run a lot and sing so you need to be fit, they also have to sing in rain or wind. Every night the climate is a bit different and you have to readjust and there are people who take that in their stride or, to the contrary, who even love the challenge and the adrenaline really pumps and the wilder the evening, the better for them. And then there are the other ones who think they’ll immediately get a cough and can’t sing and then they get a cough and can’t sing and so those I try to avoid and you ask a bit around amongst colleagues, ‘How is this singer? Is he often calling in sick? Is he also fragile?” because there are three singers to each role and you sit in the auditorium and watch the others rehearse and watch the comments of the director and you have to be mentally able to bear that or, even better, to enjoy that and talk with your colleagues in the same role and say ‘Oh, you’re doing that that way, I think I’ll try that’ and those are the best. And the way to find out is if I go and hear them sing in opera houses I also try to talk with them and find out a bit how they tick basically. And if it feels as though they are a bit fragile or they need to be carried on a silver tray then, for the lake, they aren’t quite right. So we rarely have the existing superstars – we have born superstars like Villazon, started here his European career but once they’re big and they only want to come for the dress rehearsal and then for performances and they don’t want to rehearse much, that’s not the right breed for us. And then the stunts and acrobats that’s for each production very specific. So we hire them anew, we put that on Facebook, we put that on Twitter, we put that on our website that we’re looking for such and such person and then they come for castings and they’re being picked usually in cooperation with somebody from the leading team.

You have half-answered a question I wanted to ask but I think there’s probably a bit more to it. For people who don’t know what a casting director does, is it glamorous? Are you flying around the world to operas and watching them and saying ‘They’re good, I want them!’ or is it all behind the scenes networking? How does it work in a practical sense?

It’s a bit of both. From between November and May, I travel quite a bit. I try to travel nearby. A lot of singers sing in different opera houses so I try to catch them when they’re not too far away but if I’m tight for time, as sometimes happens, I may have to go to Finland to hear somebody. We try not to do Russia, USA – that just becomes very expensive and very elaborate. So it’s the nearer European towns and usually you can catch them there if you’re early enough. And then, yes, you go there, you listen to them, you maybe speak to your counterpart there and ask ‘How that singer behave and how are they developing, is he a fast learner? Is he a good colleague? Can he take criticism or is he rather defensive?’ Things like that. Then I usually try to meet the artist. Very often that has to be after the performance which means for a late night. Sometimes when there’s a bit more time you can say you’ll meet the next morning for breakfast or for lunch or so. But we use increasingly Youtube, which is very helpful. It’s only for first impression, I wouldn’t try to hire someone only based on the internet because you never know how much is patched, whether the recording technology was good or not. But as a first impression, it’s a good tool then if that seems positive then you go and travel and see the person. You certainly talk to other colleagues in the industry or to other contractors, stage directors who work with them, to get their feedback, so there’s also that.

Bregenz Festival, opera, Bregenz, Austria

Would you say that opera singers are technically better or stronger than other types of singers? It’s a very niche way of performing, so how does it compare to a pop star or a musical theatre kind of person?

Well, I think the difference is, not to all rock and pop, but opera singers definitely have to have learnt their meter. They have learnt a technique that hopefully also carries them through the difficult phase when your body changes and your voice changes with it. Whereas certain pop and rock singers, they are what they are because they maybe have a very individual voice or also strong charisma but in the end they can only do what they do with microphones whereas our singers usually can fill a rather large hall just on the strength of their two little tiny chords which aren’t even two centimetres. So I find it’s more a learnt meter whereas in pop music it feels as though they are much more dependent on trends. So you hit the trend and you are up there you no longer find the zeitgeist you also drop as quickly whereas in opera, the operas have been played for a long time, they are favourites here for certain times and then they go away again but that doesn’t affect the opera singers so that’s the difference.

It’s The Magic Flute I’m going to see tonight but you change operas next year. Can you give me a bit of a sneak peek of what we’re going to expect, what the opera is going to be and how the stage might look?

As soon as the last tone here has finished, which is on the evening of the 25th of August, we start derigging this set. The sensitive parts like the electronic and audio and video stuff goes out first because autumn comes quickly and then the bigger parts are torn down and recycled after that and around Christmas we start setting up the new set, which we have already the model for about a year. So we have already gone to the construction companies, we do this publicly, we write this out and any company can apply to do certain bits of the set and we don’t necessarily take the cheapest, we take the one where we think they know what they’re offering because we can’t be in May 2015 and all of a sudden they say they can’t deliver because the curtain has to go up. And, 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. It should be a feast for the eyes as well and it certainly will be feast for the ears because Puccini’s Turandot is composed with a very broad brush which sounds super in our sound system. We have about triple the strength of The Rolling Stones and Mozart is very fine and has a lot of fast – we say a lot of black notes – but Turandot is bigger, has long arches, it actually sits better in this large auditorium. I think Turandot will be ideal, there are a lot of big choruses and the chorus is almost like it’s own solo, it has a very important role in the opera which is good for our large stage.

I look forward to it. Thank you and good luck


Bregenz is not cheap by Austrian standards because of its location, but there are some good quality hotels here.


There aren’t really any hostels in Bregenz but you’ll get a good value room at Bed & Breakfast Sonne.


With a great location at a good price, Hotel Central is probably your best budget option.


Although it’s in a historic building, Hotel Gasthof Lamm has lovely modern touches.


For something a bit upmarket, Grand Hotel Bregenz has cool design and comfortable colourful rooms.

Time Travel Turtle was a guest of Bodensee-Vorarlberg Tourism but the opinions, over-written descriptions and bad jokes are his own.

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