The Bavarian State Opera (Bayerische Staatsoper), in the National Theater in Munich, is one of the best places in Germany to see big-name opera stars. This is the only place I have ever seen Edita Gruberova in a live opera performance. Or Vesselina Kasarova. Or Bryn Terfel. Or Angelika Kirchschlager.
(Actually, I once saw Bryn Terfel in a song recital in Frankfurt, and Angelika Kirchschlager in a concert performance in Berlin, but the Bavarian State Opera was where I saw them in staged operas.)
The problem with hiring big-name opera stars (aside from the cost) is that some spectators are so fixated on particular singers that they bitterly demand their money back if there is a cast change.
In their list of Frequently Asked Questions, the Bavarian State Opera lists six questions on this topic, for instance: “Can I get a refund if a singer cancels? Can I return or exchange my ticket(s)?” And the answer is: “Unfortunately, the issue of refunding, returning and/or exchanging tickets does not rest on one singer alone. Each performance at the Bayerische Staatsoper consists of many talented soloists, along with hundreds of people working behind the scenes on stage, masks, direction, costume design, as well as the evening staff at the theatre who all contribute to the success of the performance. However, if you would still prefer not to attend, you can advertise your ticket(s) on our Forum at the original price.”
Fortunately, I am not fixated on big-name opera stars, so I was not particularly upset when Anna Netrebko had to cancel out in Baden-Baden, or when Leo Nucci lost his voice and had to be replaced after the first act in Milan, or when Edita Gruberova withdrew in a huff in Zürich. On the contrary, in that kind of situation I always root for the replacement singer and hope she or he will rise to the occasion, put on a great performance and have a big career boost.
But in June 2000 in Munich, I did see Edita Gruberova as Elvira in the opera I Puritani (The Puritans) by Vincenzo Bellini (1801-1835). It was a marvelous performance, in which she fully lived up to her reputation, negotiating Bellini’s long melodies with little apparent effort and nonchalantly hitting all the high notes.
The lead tenor was not quite so successful. His role also demands numerous high notes, higher that most tenors can usually reach, and to sing them he switched from chest voice to falsetto and back again. Apparently this was standard procedure in Bellini’s time, but I had never heard it before and found it quite jarring, since his full, rich voice suddenly became thin and tinny on the falsetto notes.
In the 1990s, I visited Munich several times a year, because my textbook publisher was located there. On some of these visits I was able to fit in an opera performance. For instance, I recall seeing three Mozart operas at the Bavarian State Opera during that decade.
The first of these was Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute), in a classic production by August Everding, with Kurt Moll as Sarastro. For this production I had an inexpensive seat in the top balcony, so I could only see part of the stage. But I did see that near the end Papageno and Papagena suddenly had several cute little children, all dressed in colorful bird-like costumes. This production has been revived (with cast changes) nearly every year since then — even between the Covid-lockdowns in 2020.
The second was Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro), in a staging by Dieter Dorn that was also revived numerous times, at least until 2016, when Diana Damrau returned for the last two performances.
In 1999, I saw Martin Duncan’s staging of Mozart’s next-to-last opera, La clemenza di Tito (The Clemency of Titus), with Vesselina Kasarova as Sesto and Rebecca Evans as Servilia. This production has not been revived nearly as often as the other two, but it was important to me because it convinced me that La clemenza di Tito is a brilliant work, right up there with Mozart’s better-known operas.
This production was one of the first I saw that made effective use of live video in a staged opera. There was a large screen at the back of the stage. Several video cameras, both stationary and hand-held, were in operation. During the arias, close-ups of the singers’ faces were projected onto the screen — but only until the emotional and musical high-point of the aria was reached. Then the picture was frozen and remained that way until the aria wound its way down and reached its resolution. I found this a strangely effective way of illustrating the structure of the aria.
During the recitatives, the cameras were turned off.
The program book for this production of La clemenza di Tito includes hundreds of little drawings, by the stage-set designer Ultz, showing exactly which view from which camera would appear at exactly which time in the opera.
Later, I was told by several different singers (when they came as featured guests to my opera appreciation courses in Frankfurt) that singing to a camera is a skill that has to be learned, in addition to all the other skills an opera singer needs. Today, apparently, young singers are routinely taught to be “HD-ready”, but this was not at all the case in earlier decades, which is why previous generations of singers sometimes looked grotesque in close-up film shots when they were singing.
My photos in this post are from 2004 and 2006. I revised the text in 2021.