Meiningen is a small city in southern Thüringen which advertises itself as “The Theater City.” It has an impressive theater building with six Corinthian columns, dating from the year 1909, and a unique theater tradition going back to the middle of the 19th century.
From 1866 to 1914 Meiningen was ruled by a duke who was a famous theater reformer. For part of his reign he was also the theater director, stage director and costume designer.
Duke George II of Sachsen-Meiningen was also a liberal-minded political reformer, which eventually led to conflicts with the bigoted German emperor Wilhelm II in the 1890s.
These busts of the German dramatists Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805) and Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-1781) are on display in the lobby of the Meiningen State Theater.
For many years in the 19th century, the Meiningen Theater under Duke George II didn’t even have an opera company, but was well known for its drama performances and its excellent orchestra.
Today the Meiningen State Theater has seats for 726 spectators. That might not sound like very many, by international standards, but is certainly a large number considering that the city of Meiningen only has slightly more than 20,000 inhabitants. For comparison, the city of Annaberg-Buchholz, with about the same population, has only 295 seats in its theater, and many larger cities have no theaters at all.
On a weekend in May 2018 I saw an opera and an operetta in Meiningen, and both were excellent productions. The opera was Tosca, by Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924). As the program booklet points out, this is a ‘century opera’, since the story takes place in Rome in the year 1800 and the world premiere of the opera was a century later, in 1900. It took nearly another century before I finally saw it, but not quite, since I went to a performance in Munich in 1999.
In Frankfurt I have been to dozens of Tosca performances with several different casts in two different productions. The first of these was Alfred Kirchner’s production, which had its premiere on September 8, 2001. The premiere was well received by the public and the press, but was overshadowed three days later by the news that a group of young Arab men had highjacked four fully-tanked passenger planes and flown two of them into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York. This news caused much consternation in Germany and especially in Frankfurt, which at that time had more skyscrapers than any other German city, and probably more than all other German cities combined. Many concerts and other public events in Germany were cancelled on September 11, both as a show of solidarity and out of worries about security.
The second Tosca performance in Frankfurt was scheduled for September 12. On that morning an opera official phoned around to all the solo singers, asking if they were willing to perform on that evening. Independently of one another, they all said the show must go on.
I happened to know the American tenor who was singing Cavaradossi in that production, and he told me later that he felt fine until after his big aria E lucevan le stele in the third act. Then the weirdness of his situation began to dawn on him. Here he was, the day after 9/11, an American sitting on a German opera stage being mis-treated by some young Arab men who were playing the roles of guards in the opera. After that he became increasingly upset about the security measures on his trans-Atlantic flights, and he actually cancelled an entire engagement for another Puccini opera in Frankfurt later that same season.
(Currently the Frankfurt Opera has a different production of Tosca in its repertoire, by Andreas Kriegenburg, which was revived in September and October 2018.)
I was quite impressed with the Tosca production in Meiningen, especially when I realized that the three main roles — the opera singer Tosca, the painter Cavaradossi and the police chief Scarpia — were all sung by members of the Meiningen ensemble. Most opera houses have to bring in guest singers for at least one or two of these demanding roles.
The stage director was Ansgar Haag, who is also the general director (Intendant) of the Meiningen Theater. There was nothing particularly innovative about the staging (which was not surprising because he was hired in 2005 for the express purpose of saving the house from controversial productions that were alienating subscribers), but I found the staging to be intelligent and well thought-out.
One new touch (at least new to me) was that in the first act, after complaining to Cavaradossi that the woman in his painting looked like Countess Attavanti and asking him to at least paint her eyes black instead of blue, Tosca picks up a knife (the same knife she will use in the second act to stab Scarpia) and pokes out the eyes of the painting. My first thought was that this was out of character: Tosca, who later sings that she has devoted her whole life to Art, would never destroy a work of art in this way. On the other hand, the scene shows the depth of her jealousy, since she suspects Cavaradossi of having an affair with the countess.
The one part of the staging that did not work for me was at the beginning of the third act, when the song of the shepherd boy was sung by a woman instead of a boy-soprano. I don’t know why they did this; perhaps they just didn’t have a boy-soprano who could sing it. In any case, having a woman sing it made it sound like a quite ordinary aria, without the haunting, naïve quality it always has when sung by a boy. In the program booklet, the soprano who sings this is identified as “Angelotti’s sister”, in other words Countess Attavanti, but I wouldn’t have known this if I hadn’t read the cast list.
At the end of the third act, Tosca commits suicide by jumping off the roof of the fortress as the soldiers are coming to get her; every stage director has a different way of showing this. In the Meiningen production, she climbs up a metal tower until she is out of sight at the top of the stage, and then something that is the same color as her dress falls down and crashes onto the floor.
The next day I saw a very different piece of musical theater, the operetta Gräfin Mariza (Countess Mariza) by Emmerich Kálmán (1882-1953).
The program booklet quotes the German author Stefen Frey as saying that the first act of Gräfin Mariza is “one of the best of the operetta literature.” He explains: “Apart from the effective construction of the libretto and the skillful introduction of the main characters, this is due to a musical dramaturgy in which each number characterizes the one who sings it, and above all, in which each number evolves out of the situation.”
After seeing the operetta, I can certainly agree with this description, but only for the first act. The second act is something of a let-down, by comparison, and the third act is a flop, consisting mainly of spoken dialogue that must have seemed funny at the time (1924), but is now merely embarrassing. The point of the third act is that Tassilo’s rich aunt, who hadn’t even been mentioned before, suddenly turns up and uses her money to solve everyone’s problems.
Nonetheless, I enjoyed the operetta and would gladly see it again sometime.
After the performance there were several buses waiting outside to take groups of spectators back to their home regions, not only in Thüringen but also in Hessen and Bavaria.
During the decades when Germany was divided by an impenetrable border into two countries, Meiningen was in an awkward location because it was close to the border on the east side. The theater seems to have profited greatly from German reunification, because spectators can now come in from all directions, not only from the east.
Meiningen was my 60th German opera house, out of the 63 I have been to so far.
My photos and text in this post are from 2018.
See also: From Bach to Egk, about the theater in Eisenach, Germany.