Friday, August 26, 2011

The German Opera Project: the Bregenz Festival

Much can be said of stripped-down theatrical productions that do not diminish the power of the work. I once saw a production of The Laramie Project presented in the small theatre at the back of a Cuban restaurant, staged by Fighting Chance Productions. It in no way minimized the work’s message and reduced me and my companions to blubbering, quivering, weeping masses. It’s times like that when I love intimate theatre.

And then there’s the Bregenz Festival

What is the Bregenz Festival?

Think of opera. Now think of the phrase “go big or go home”, apply it to the staging, then multiply that to an absurd scale. You have the Bregenz Festival. Or just look at the picture to the left. That, folks, is a big-ass stage.

A competitor to the popular Bayreuth Festival in Germany, this uniquely Austrian opera company takes place every summer on the shores of Lake Constanza, located at the northern foot of the Rhine River. The first Bregenz Festival took place in 1946, a year after the war. Although the town itself did not even contain a theatre or outdoor performance space, the troupe still put together a production on two adjoining bridges and were backed by the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, who have been supporting and playing at the festival ever since. The Festival contains a number of concurrent performances including outdoor ballet, giving you the option of seeing Swan Lake not only in an outdoor theatre, but on an actual lake.

Over the years, permanent structures were put into place to house the orchestra pit as well as concurrent productions on different stages. Should the weather suddenly turn bad, the performances can move from the Festival Hall to the adjoining Seebuehne hall and house approximately 1,700 attendees, meaning that the performance would not be cancelled that evening and with only part of the audience members being furnished refunds in the event of rain. Now that is some outdoor planning. By 1985, some operas would run at least two seasons and stage structures were solidified so that the formerly outdoor festival would be able to run almost year-round.

What distinguishes the Bregenz Festival’s productions from your usual opera is the sheer audacity of the scale. The dazzling Lake productions are the ones that take place on mammoth outdoor stages that dwarfs the performers, reducing them to the size of ants. The concept of the staging is daring on a literally epic scale, with the floating stage by the lake towering several stories into the sky. Take for instance the picture to the left of the skeleton reading an oversized book the size of a small arena for the 1999/2000 production of A Masked Ball. Also observe the beheaded Statue of Liberty floating above the stage in a modernized version of Aida. You may recognize the giant “Tosca eye” from the James Bond film Quantum of Solace: that’s the opera Bond attends where there’s a chase sequence through the opera hall edifice. 

The Bregenz Festival’s organizers understand that they are staging something incredibly special, and that attendees expect a unique experience. They have an “Experience” tourist package that includes a guided tour of the grounds and the stages, aperitif and post-performance drinks, four-course dinner and Swarovski opera glasses on loan while you watch the performance from covered seating with an all-encompassing view of the Lake stage, all this for €272 per group. For more economical tourists, the Festival also offers more basic guided tours at starting just €6. And if you want to make it a whole-day affair, the Gourmet Tent features elaborate cuisine and more traditional local offerings both a la carte and buffet-style, with set menus for those who can’t decide.

For more information on the Festival and its current Lake production Andre Chenier, click here.  Also, to give you an idea of the scale of the operas, have a look at the videos below.