Wagner at Operaen

Copenhagen’s fantastic new opera house is called “Operaen”, which simply means “The Opera” because the -en ending is the definite article in Danish.

Operaen from across the harbor

Operaen was built in only three years, from 2001 to 2004, on an island in the Holmen district of Copenhagen. The site for Operaen was carefully chosen so it would be on an axis with Frederik’s Church and with Amalienborg Palace, which is the winter residence of the Danish Monarchy. Frederik’s Church, also known as the Marble Church, is the big domed building that you see when you look across the harbor from Operaen.

Amalienborg Palace and Frederik’s Church, from Operaen

The opera house was a gift to the Danish state from a foundation set up by the second richest person in Denmark, Arnold Mærsk Mc-Kinney Møller, who can see it from the headquarters of his shipping company on the other side of the harbor.

The dome of Frederik’s Church, from the fourth balcony level of Operaen

There is a tendency among tourists to moan about the fact that Operaen is not in the traditional city center, but in fact it is very close by and is easily reachable by boat, bus or bicycle. From my hotel it took me exactly nineteen minutes to get to Operaen by bicycle, after I knew the way.

Boats in the Holmen district, behind Operaen

The Holmen district was used for centuries as a military base by the Royal Danish Navy, but has now been opened for civilian use except for one small section which is still a naval base.


Guided tour of Operaen

The guided tours of the new opera house are now (as of 2017) either in Danish or in English, but in 2009 they were only in Danish. The exact dates are listed on their website a few months ahead of time, and you have to book in advance — no tickets at the door.

On the morning of my tour in 2009 about a hundred people had signed up, so they divided us into five or six groups. When I said I didn’t understand a word of Danish they put me in Celeste’s group. She’s a young American woman who grew up in Denmark and speaks fluent English and Danish. She said that when she spoke to the whole group it would be only in Danish, but when we were walking from one place to the next I should go with her and she would give me a summary in English, which I thought was a very good arrangement.

She said at the start that Operaen has over 1100 rooms but we would only see about five of them, including the lobby, the auditorium, the backstage areas and the black box, which is a small experimental stage called the Takkelloftet or rigging loft. I didn’t take any photos of the actual tour, but the backstage areas look very much like the ones in the new Bastille Opera in Paris — huge and very modern, with lots of space to store stage sets so they can be rolled onto the stage when needed. (See my post Guided tour of the Opéra Bastille in Paris.)

In one of the many long hallways of Operaen, Celeste stopped at some posters showing the individual musicians of the opera orchestra in various past decades from the 19th and 20th centuries. At the oldest poster she pointed out the one woman in the orchestra, among nearly a hundred men, and though I didn’t understand a word of what she was saying I of course knew what she was talking about.

When we started walking again I told her I knew the first woman musician ever to be hired by the Frankfurt Opera orchestra — she’s in her nineties now and was once a guest at one of my opera appreciation courses, where she told us how as a young woman she tricked the orchestra into giving her an audition. The audition as always was behind a curtain, so the orchestra members didn’t know who was playing, and they were flabbergasted when they found out that the new violinist they had selected was actually a woman. (Today the orchestra is about half men and half women, and no one thinks anything of it, but it was a scandal at the time.)

At our next stop Celeste told my story to the whole group in Danish.


Photo shooting in Operaen lobby

While I was in the lobby of Operaen there was a small photo shooting going on. One of the opera singers was posing patiently in front of the rich maple-colored outer wall of the auditorium, while the photographer and lighting man took lots of pictures.

Photo shooting in Operaen lobby

The auditorium is sometimes referred to as “the Conch” because of its shape. It has the appearance of floating in the foyer, to which it is connected by bridges.

Bridges from the lobby to the auditorium

Amazingly, the large hall holding the auditorium is not firmly attached to the main building but is somehow suspended from above. I’m not sure exactly how this works, but somehow this arrangement isolates the large hall from the rest of the building, to improve the acoustics and the soundproofing.

I have been to two other opera houses which also have the spectators’ hall suspended from above, rather than having any rigid connection to the rest of the building. These are the new opera house in Erfurt, Germany, which was completed in 2003, and the opera house in Lyon, France, which dates originally from 1831 but was radically redesigned by the French architect Jean Nouvel in the 1990s.

Lobby of Operaen in Copenhagen


Tristan og Isolde by Richard Wagner

The first word I learned in Danish was og, meaning “and”, as in the opera Tristan og Isolde by Richard Wagner (1813-1883). Like most non-Danish people I said it wrong at first, until one of the Scandinavian singers in Frankfurt was kind enough to correct me. (Pronunciation here.)

Introductory talk about Tristan and Isolde

Like most opera houses, Operaen offers a free introductory talk before each performance, so unprepared opera goers will at least have a slight idea of what they are about to see and hear.

The talk was of course in Danish, so I didn’t have a clue about what she was saying, but she sounded totally competent and articulate, like most young Danish women — I think they must teach public speaking in the schools in Denmark.

The setting was casual and seemingly spontaneous. She just turned up with her microphone and started talking, and lots of people gathered around to listen.

Introductory talk about Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde

Despite its molasses-like tempo, Tristan and Isolde is actually a steamy love story, inspired by Wagner’s obsession with Mathilde Wesendonck while he was living in exile in Zürich. In a letter to her he said he thought it would banned, and that a good performance of it would drive people crazy.

Well, I’ve seen several good performances of it in recent years, and I don’t think it has driven me crazy — no crazier than I was before, in any case — but I must admit that the music keeps going around in my head at odd times, such as when I am cycling home at night after seeing some other opera entirely. It contains some of the most advanced music Wagner ever wrote — ‘advanced’ meaning atonal, foreshadowing the ‘modern’ music of the 20th and 21st centuries.

Stage set for Tristan og Isolde

The stage director for the Copenhagen production of Tristan and Isolde was the Danish tenor Stig Andersen, who has sung the role of Tristan many times during his career. He also sang it twice in his own production, but not in the performance I attended. The Tristan I heard was Johnny van Hal, who was also fine, as was Iréne Theorin as Isolde. The only singer I had ever heard before was Randi Stene (as Brangäne), since she has sung at the Frankfurt Opera on several occasions.

The performance at Operaen was in the original German, with Danish surtitles.

What I liked most about Stig Andersen’s staging was the ending. When Tristan dies he simply takes off his cloak, lays it down on the floor and steps off to the side of the stage, as though to show that death means simply shedding his outer shell but leaving his inner self intact. When Isolde comes in she picks up the cloak and sings to it, then lays it back down, then takes off her own cloak and lays it beside Tristan’s to show that she has joined him in death.

So she is already dead when she sings her final aria.

Applause at the end of Tristan and Isolde

My photos in this post are from 2009. I revised the text in 2017.

Next: Rossini at the Old Stage

3 thoughts on “Wagner at Operaen”

  1. The first encounter with Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde” I experienced was in the movie, “Fortunes of War.”  Guy Pringle is an English Prof. teaching in Balkan countries with his new spouse and a motley circle of other Exp-Pats. Guy is an “air-head” while his new bride is pragmatic. They all are moving one step, forward, ahead of WWII, while at one stop Guy decides to offer the town a performance of “Tristan and Isolde.” They performance opened on the same night the Germans marched into town and into the Theatre. Doesn’t sound like it but it was comical, in a Guy Pringle sort of way. Thanks for the memory Don!!

    1. I’ve never seen that film, but your description makes me think of an old Jack Benny film “To Be or Not to Be”, where a Polish theater company keeps performing Hamlet while trying to outwit the Nazis.

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