The Bad Hersfeld Festival is held in the Stiftsruine (abbey ruins), the remains of a large church that was originally built between 831 and 850. This church was part of a Catholic monastery for the first several centuries of its existence, but on May 1, 1521, Martin Luther came to Bad Hersfeld and preached here, with the result that two years later the city became Protestant.
The church has been open to the sky since 1761, when the roof was destroyed by a withdrawing French army.
To protect the Festival audiences and performers from the elements, the church can be covered by a retractable textile roof, known locally as “the umbrella” because it is suspended from a single large pole and can be folded or unfolded as the need arises.
On the two days I spent in Bad Hersfeld it didn’t actually rain, but it was somewhat overcast part of the time, and they left the umbrella open the entire time. In fact, someone told me that for opera performances they always leave it open for acoustical reasons, so the sound doesn’t disperse into the atmosphere. So it really wasn’t an open-air performance, more a performance in a ruin covered by a grey plastic tent.
I personally found the ‘umbrella’ rather unnerving, because it was the same color as the sky but hung much lower over our heads. Still, if it had rained, the umbrella would have kept the performance from being interrupted. In real open-air performances, the orchestra musicians tend — understandably — to pack up when they feel the first few raindrops, because they don’t want their instruments to be damaged.
In August 2005 I spent two evenings in Bad Hersfeld and saw two operas: Cosi fan tutte by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Carmen by Georges Bizet. They were sung in German, not in the original Italian or French, and both were enjoyable but not particularly memorable.
Mind you, they didn’t do anything drastically wrong. The singers were competent but not outstanding, the orchestra was all right, the staging was perfunctory but not intrusive. I did think the chorus was quite good — but I knew someone who sang in that chorus, so I might possibly have been a trifle biased about that.
Except for the Covid year 2020, the Bad Hersfeld Festival has been held here every summer since 1951. Originally it was just for spoken theater, but from 1980 to 2015 they also presented operas in August, usually two operas on alternating nights. Since 2016, following a change in the directorship, the festival has included musicals such as My Fair Lady, Hair or Funny Girl, but no more operas.
My photos in this post are from 2005. I revised the text in 2021.
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