In July 2022, after a gap of seventeen years, I returned to Bregenz and took another tour of the festival grounds and the lakefront stage, this time to see the stage that had been built up for Andreas Homoki’s new production of Madame Butterfly by Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924).
Since I was there twelve days before the premiere, they only had one tour per day on offer. Over a hundred people had signed up, so they divided us up into six groups (I used to think five was the limit), each led by a young lady in a bright red festival polo shirt. This was not ideal, since the groups kept getting in each other’s way and the guides seemed to be under pressure to rush us through.
Also, we could not see the indoor festival hall under the grandstand, because of a rehearsal that was going on there. This was a shame, because I knew it had been refurbished since my last visit, and I was curious to see what they had done with it.
One lady in the group spoke to me as we were walking and said “You won’t remember me” (which was true) “but many years ago I took part in one of your opera appreciation courses in Frankfurt. Are you still doing them?” I said no, I had taught them for over twenty years until they were brought to a sudden halt by the coronavirus pandemic. I had successfully avoided catching Covid-19, but now I was simply too old to resume teaching these very demanding courses. (See my posts Opern-Gespräche and Frankfurt OperaTalk.)
As I had recently seen two excellent performances of Madame Butterfly in Frankfurt, I had the music and the text fresh in my mind, which made it hard to imagine how this intimate drama might be adapted for the huge lakefront stage.
(Unfortunately, I didn’t manage to see it in 2022, since all the performances were completely sold out before I got around to booking, but I hope to see it in 2023.)
Underneath the stage, where the orchestra pit used to be, there is now an explanatory sign for visitors. It reads:
- The foundation of the concrete core dates back to 1979.
- The orchestra pit was located here until 2005, since then the orchestra music has been transmitted live from the Festival Hall to the grandstand.
- The lake stage stands on wooden and metal supports, which have been driven up to 6 meters deep into the lake bed.
- Eight special tension and pressure anchors additionally stabilize this stage set.
The third point makes clear that this is not a “floating stage”, as it is sometimes called, but is solidly anchored in the ground at the bottom of the lake.
The first thing I noticed when we got out onto the Butterfly stage was that the surface is very uneven — lots of scope for falls and twisted ankles if performers don’t pay attention to where they are going.
Before anyone even asked, our guide pointed out that the Butterfly stage is much simpler than most of the previous lakefront stages. Essentially it is just a big white surface, like a piece of paper or parchment, with Japanese drawings lightly sketched in, to be used as a screen for videos and lighting effects. At the end of the opera (spoiler alert!), when the heroine commits suicide, a huge fire will be projected onto the stage, and real flames will come out at the top.
She also explained that every two years, when the old stage set is dismantled to make room for the new one, parts of the old set are (usually) sold at a public auction to the highest bidder. She said her husband had actually bought a huge picture postcard of Paris which was part of the La Bohème stage set in 2001-2002, and they still have it in their home. (She referred to her husband using the old-fashioned word Gatte, perhaps to imply that he is much older than she is.)
Because of the simplicity of the Butterfly stage set, there probably will not be an auction when it is dismantled in the autumn of 2023.
Here (above) we are leaving the stage to make room for the next group. Our guide pointed out that the folds and bulges in the stage set conceal multiple hidden staircases, enabling lots of surprise entrances and exits.
In a normal indoor opera house, temporary tables and microphones are usually installed for the final days of rehearsals at about the twelfth row at the orchestra level, but they often have to be removed for performances of other operas in the evenings.
In Bregenz, the tables and microphones (with a roof for protection against the sun) can be left in place for several weeks before the premiere, because the venue is not used for any other productions.
Along with the stage director, there is room at the tables for the set designer, the dramaturge, the stage manager (Inspizent), the choreographer, the costume designer and the orchestra conductor, along with their various assistants. So it can be quite a large group observing the rehearsals, but the singers are accustomed to that, and don’t seem to find it intimidating. (Or do they?)
My photos and text in this post are from 2022.