Bregenz Festival, Austria
When you think of opera, what do you think of? Long performances in a stuffy building, high-class music that doesn’t speak to you, maybe even a gentle nodding of your head as you drift off? If that’s the case, you’re certainly not thinking of Austria’s Bregenz Festival.
Welcome to the lake stage where a high energy, colourful show is bringing opera to the masses. Forget all the preconceptions you had because opera has never been so entertaining.
“We basically have a dual approach,” the festival’s Director of Opera, Susanne Schmidt, tells me.
“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 – a chorus or lots of extras – and we have acrobats or stunts or aerial artists or some elements that fascinate a person who’s not necessarily an opera aficionado.”
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Sounding a bit different already? We haven’t even scratched the surface!
The first thing that strikes you about the main performance at the Bregenz Festival is the setting. On the edge of Lake Constance, an enormous stage has been constructed surrounded by water. This time the set is for The Magic Flute and three huge dragon-like creatures rise up from the lake. In the middle of them is a large green hill made in the shape of a turtle’s shell.
The outdoor performance begins as the sun is setting. A boat appears, floating from behind the stage to the front. It’s a moment of focus and poise. It doesn’t take long till the quiet is broken, though. More than a dozen characters, with vivid red and black costumes and masks, break down from the hill amongst explosions and acrobatics.
For the two and a half hours of the show, I’m mesmerised. The sets change as the large turtle-shell hill rotates to reveal other worlds; performers leap from the top of dragons and sail across the stage on ropes; processions appear from nowhere with extravagant costumes; and objects float through the water to deliver another character to the set.
It’s a visual spectacular full of surprises. But it’s just the exterior. Inside, at the core of the performance, are the singers – and they are some of the best in Europe.
Susanne Schmidt takes months to find the right performers for the operas at the Bregenz Festival each year. And it’s a special type that is needed for the main lake stage.
“On the one hand, acoustically speaking,” she says, “you need voices that are rather calm and don’t have too wide a vibrato because they all sing with microphones. So you carry the voice across the lake with the amplification but you also carry all the defects and the vibrato does become annoying over an entire evening.”
“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.”
There are about 30 performances of The Magic Flute during the festival, which runs through July and August, and it’s certainly the main attraction. There is more to the Bregenz Festival, though.
In the opera house’s main internal theatre, there are several performances of a modern Austrian opera called Tales from the Vienna Woods. It’s a different experience to the grand outdoor show on the lake and, although the subject matter is a social satire, it is a much more traditional opera style aimed more at those who appreciate the genre. There are also orchestral concerts, family opera and art exhibitions.
All of it, of course, is set in the beautiful city of Bregenz on Lake Constance, which has spent years styling itself as a cultural hub of western Austria. Even in the months without the festival, the art and architecture of this region draws thousands of visitors.
It is the sort of place that makes a perfect weekend getaway or a relaxing summer holiday. The festival is a good enough reason to come but it’s also an excuse to spend some time in a stunning part of the world.
“People tend to travel here,” Susanne Schmidt explains.
“It’s a bit 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 some other performances in the house or concerts.”
“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 one can go into opera and 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.”
Like I said, when you think of opera, this is not what you normally think of. That’s what makes the Bregenz Festival such a pleasant surprise.
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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.