Bavarian State Opera

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 National Theater in Munich, from a nearby church tower

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.”

Stage door of the National Theater in Munich

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.

Program book for I puritani by Vincenzo Bellini, with Edita Gruberova as Elvira

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.

Balconies / Orchestra pit in the National Theater in Munich

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.

Program book for Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito

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.

This is my 888th blog post here on Nemorino’s travels.

See more posts on Munich, Germany.
See also: Seventy-one opera houses in Germany and my list of Mozart’s operas.

13 thoughts on “Bavarian State Opera”

  1. Did you keep a detailed record of what your guest singers said about singing to camera? It’s an endlessly fascinating subject, where there would seem to be at least three sub-disciplines, e.g. (1) cinematic – Losey, Don Giovanni – shot in “locations”; (2) staged (Bergman, Flute, or the opera scenes in Forman’s Amadeus) where a stage is the “location” and the film director calls the shots; (3) staged (any recorded live performance) where the cameraman and his director are third-party onlookers with minimal, or at least severely limited, input into how their efforts will come across. Presumably most singers faced with the challenges of (3) will make a close study of (1) and (2). There is a long history, probably longer than we think. How about DeMille’s “silent” version of Carmen, 1915, with Geraldine Farrar!

    1. No, I decided early on not to take notes during my opera appreciation courses, since I was busy leading the discussions and keeping everyone in the room actively involved.
      My introduction to Bergman’s Magic Flute film was in Massy, France, in a talk by the composer and musicologist Ricardo Nillni (https://operasandcycling.com/opera-in-massy/). It certainly is a brilliant film, and the only time I have ever heard the Magic Flute sung in Swedish.

      1. Bergman on how he chose the players: “Since we were not performing The Magic Flute on a stage but in front of a microphone and camera, we did not need large voices. What we needed were warm, sensuous voices that had personality. To me it was also absolutely essential that the play be performed by young actors, naturally close to dizzy, emotional shifts between joy and sorrow, between thinking and feeling. Tamino must be a handsome young man. Pamina must be a beautiful young woman. Not to speak of Papageno and Papagena.” And on how he fell in love with Flute in the first place: “As a boy I loved to roam around. One October day I set out for Drottningholm (in Stockholm) to see its unique court theaterfrom the eighteenth century. For some reason the stage door was unlocked. I walked inside and saw for the first time the carefully restored baroque theater. I remember distinctly what a bewitching experience it was: the effect of chiaroscuro, the silence, the stage. In my imagination I have always seen The Magic Flute living inside that old theater, in that keenly acoustical wooden box, with its slanted stage floor, its backdrops and wings. Here lies the noble, magical illusion of theater. Nothing is; everything represents. The moment the curtain is raised, an agreement between stage and audience manifests itself. And now, together, we’ll create! In other words, it is obvious that the drama of The Magic Flute should unfold in a baroque theater”.

  2. I very much liked Damrau in David McVicar’s production of Flute at Covent Garden. It was very well filmed, not sure by whom. Her Der Hölle Rache in this production illustrates very well the problem of the close-up filming of arias in which a huge amount of punishing physical exertion is demanded of the singer.

    1. Diana Damrau was an ensemble member at the Frankfurt Opera for several years at the beginning of her career. When she came as the featured guest to my German-language opera appreciation course, she arrived dripping wet because her cola had tipped over in her car. Later she told me she was still embarrassed by that; “I’m afraid I confirmed all their preconceptions about opera divas.”
      She learned a lot of her repertoire here, including of course the Queen of the Night and also Gilda, which she sang here many times with Želiko Lučić as Rigoletto. Later, the two of them often sang the same roles together at the Met and elsewhere.
      Some of her Frankfurt performances were filmed for television, most notably her Constanza in the Abduction from the Serail. She was worried about that because she had a cold that whole week, but I don’t think that is noticeable in the film. It was once shown on a huge screen in the middle of the Main River, viewable from both sides, on a night during the football championships where there was no match to be shown.

      1. Damrau sounds thoroughly charming to me – your story confirms what one instinctively feels about her being a good-humoured and “accessible” diva. If you haven’t read it, you might enjoy this article by Martin Kettle about how bad things can get. He starts with Alagna and Georghiu then goes on to compare the down-to-earth (Sutherland quietly knitting) with the high-octane temperamental (Callas clobbering people).

  3. Nice to read about your opera visits. Live performances are difficult & back in old days maintaining stage presence was equally a tough skill. The current generation is smart in all of these.

  4. We didn’t study singing to camera in the UK but I believe it is now part of the course since covid. I did hire a wonderful coach to help me when I first started to make a video I just wish I could have more sessions.
    This was a very interesting read I enjoyed reading it.

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