Touring the lakefront stage in Bregenz

You can take a tour of the Bregenz Festival grounds at 10:30, 11:30, 12:30, 13:30, 14:30 or 15:30 any day during the five-week festival season. The cost (as of 2022) is € 7.50 per person and usually includes the inside of the festival building, the grandstand, and of course the big stage out on the lake. For walking on the stage, they “recommend that you wear sturdy shoes and not high-heeled shoes in view of the stage surface.” Currently, the tours are in German only.

If there are more than thirty people signed up, the group will be split, and I have seen them run up to five tour groups at once, but I believe that is the limit, and it can definitely happen that the tours are sold out, particularly the one at 15:30 in the afternoon, so you shouldn’t wait till the last minute to get a ticket.

I took one of these tours in 2002 and another in 2005, and also listened in on several more. The guides tend to be music students (one introduced himself as a trumpet player) who work at Bregenz in the summer. They were all quite knowledgeable, spoke clearly and gave lots of useful information. One of the young women was a brilliant speaker, in fact, but I don’t know her name and since you have no choice of your tour guide anyway, and the guides change from year to year, I won’t try to make any recommendations.

The lakefront stage in 2005

If you look closely at this photo, you can perhaps make out a low black structure, in the middle and off to the right, which is the permanent backstage area. Every two years the stage is stripped down to this core area, which is made of concrete and rests on concrete pillars, and then a new stage is built around and above it for the next opera production that will be shown in the following two summers.

(In English-language publications, the stage is often called a “floating stage”, but in fact it does not float at all; it rests on pilings that are firmly anchored in the ground at the bottom of the lake.)

When I was here in 2002 for the opera La Bohème by Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924), the stage consisted of several gigantic bistro tables and chairs from a Parisian café, with a huge picture postcard stand in the background. In the years 1999 and 2000 the stage was made to look like a gigantic open book with a huge skeleton standing in the water beside it, for Verdi’s opera Un ballo in maschera (A Masked Ball).

A tour group behind the fence on the Troubadour stage in 2005

These tour groups really do get behind the scenes, in this case behind the ‘fence’ that could be lowered or raised to divide the ‘beach’ from the rest of the Troubadour stage set.

The fence from the inside

This ‘fence’ was five meters tall, 48 meters wide and weighed 55 tons. It could be raised or lowered as necessary, and for the entire first act of the opera the audience couldn’t see it at all. Between the first and second acts it was raised silently out of the ground to its full height, and served as a barrier between the castle/refinery and the beach.

The beach

This ‘beach’ is where the gypsies camped out in the second act, and where Leonora came in despair in the fourth act trying to find Manrico, who was imprisoned inside.

The ‘bridge’ on the Troubadour stage

One of the most striking elements of the Troubadour stage set was the “bridge”, a free-standing steel pipe that was two meters in diameter and stretched 33 meters across much of the stage. This ‘bridge’ was the first element of the stage set to be erected here, in the dead of winter in January 2005. Parts of the bridge were accessible to the singers, extra players and technical personnel by means of metal stairways and walkways.

One of the four corner turrets

At the four corners of the stage there were large silos or towers which were 15 meters high and were made out of aluminum siding.

They of course looked like an oil refinery, but because of their shape and position they were also reminiscent of a medieval castle.

Three of the six silos

In the center of the stage there were six silos. They were twelve meters high, and together they were 15 meters long and 10 meters deep. With some imagination you might have thought they were part of a medieval church or monastery, an impression which was reinforced by the lighting in Act 2 Scene 2 of the opera, when the despairing Leonora, thinking Manrico is dead, very nearly takes her vows as a nun, until both Count Luna and his rival Manrico turn up to stop her.

Inside the silos, various lights and loudspeakers were hidden. The six silos together weighed 36 tons.

Chimneys in the Troubadour stage

The six ‘chimneys’ were at the back part of the stage. The highest one was 27 meters, and the others were between 19 and 26 meters tall.

The widest chimney had a diameter of 2.6 meters. The heaviest weighed eight tons. (I later looked up all these numbers to confirm, since there was no way I could have remembered them all just from hearing them on the tour.)

During the performance, fire came out of some of the chimneys at various dramatic times in the opera. See my post Verdi’s Troubadour in Bregenz for examples.

Verdi’s Troubadour was performed on the lakefront stage in the summers of 2005 and 2006. After that, the stage set was dismantled to make room for the next one, for the opera Tosca by Giacomo Puccini (1828-1924), in a spectacular stage set by the Frankfurt set designer Johannes Leiacker. His set was dominated by a huge 12-meter-wide eye with a blue iris (blue like the Marchesa Attavanti’s eyes, not black like Tosca’s). The eye was painted on 1000 square meters of canvas and set into a back wall measuring 50 by 25 meters. The effect was so spectacular that the same set was used in the spring of 2008 for the filming of several scenes and stunts for a new James Bond film, Quantum of Solace. The Bregenz sequences in this film run for about nine minutes, with Puccini’s Tosca playing for almost half of that time.

Another Verdi opera, Rigoletto, was scheduled for the summers of 2019 and 2020, but in 2020 it had to be cancelled because of the coronavirus pandemic. So the planning was pushed back a year, and Rigoletto was again performed in 2021.

For 2022 and 2023, the scheduled opera for the lakefront stage is Puccini’s Madame Butterfly in a new staging by Andreas Homoki. This is an intimate drama which in my opinion did not work very well when I saw it in the huge outdoor venue of the Arena di Verona in Italy, so I’ll be curious to see if they can make it work in Bregenz.

My photos in this post are from 2005. I revised the text in 2022.

See more posts on Bregenz, Austria.
See more posts on backstage tours of European opera venues.
See also: Building the Aida stage set in Verona, Italy.

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