Germany is, for statistical reasons, the most lyrical country in the world. The Bundesrepublik has more than eighty permanent opera houses, which in a typical season put on seven or eight thousand performances, about a third of the world total, according to the Operabase website. On the other hand, Italy, the cradle of art, manages less than two thousand. As opportunities dwindle elsewhere, the German system has become a crucial mechanism through which opera careers are made. Countless young singers around the world have undergone the ritual of a Festvertrag—a fixed-term contract to sing a variety of roles in a single German house. With so many productions, directors feel free to try new ideas, some wacky and some eye-opening. New works surface regularly; forgotten scores get a second chance. Public funding makes this near-utopia possible: before the pandemic, federal, state and local entities spent 2.7 billion euros on theater each year.
For years I had read stories about the German opera industry without really having experienced it first hand. I had visited the famous companies in Berlin, Munich, Hamburg and Dresden, but not the dozens of small houses that filled out the network. So, on a recent trip to Germany, I skipped the metropolitan hubs and took new exits on the autobahn. The range of offers available over a four day period was staggering. Beyond the usual overabundance of Mozart, Verdi, Wagner and Puccini, I could have seen “The Greek Passion” by Martinů in Osnabrück; “La Muette de Portici” by Auber in Cassel; “In the penal colony” of Glass, in Gera; or three different stagings of “Der Rosenkavalier”, in Dessau, Nuremberg and Trier. I opted for an itinerary in central and eastern Germany: “Aida” in Chemnitz, “The Marriage of Figaro” in Erfurt and “Die Walküre” in Coburg. The combined population of the three cities is half a million, less than that of Kansas City.
What is most striking for an American opera tourist is how cheap the tickets are. At the stages of my trip, prices ranged from fifteen to fifty-two euros, with additional discounts for students. In many places, people with limited resources can enter for free. How long these lavish grants can persist is an open question: fears of cuts still circulate and studies indicate a gradual erosion of interest in classical music. For now, however, the system seems safe, with the performing arts widely seen as a form of Lebensmittel— basic food. German Culture Minister Claudia Roth, who was once a playwright in Dortmund and also fronted a rock band, recently announced a 7% increase in arts funding.
The former industrial city of Chemnitz was called Karl-Marx-Stadt during the East German period. A gigantic bust of Marx remains the city’s main monument; The austere architecture of the Warsaw Pact still predominates. Chemnitz’s left is proud of its communist heritage, although the far right has an ominous presence, as the violent anti-immigrant protests of 2018 made clear. The opera branch of the Chemnitz Theater, which also presents ballets, plays and concerts, uses an imposing neo-baroque theater opened in 1909, destroyed in 1945, rebuilt in 1951 and modernized in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The auditorium seats seven hundred and twenty people ; the acoustics are dry but clear.
The Chemnitz Theater is renowned for its adventurous repertoire, having unearthed rarities such as Meyerbeer’s “Vasco da Gama”, Pfitzner’s “Die Rose vom Liebesgarten” and Kienzl’s “Der Evangelimann”. The company also offered a feminist version of Wagner’s “Ring”, with four women in charge. The “Aïda”, born from the production team of Renaud Doucet and André Barbe, combined novelty and familiarity. We are in 1870, and we are in the Parisian villa of the Egyptologist Auguste Mariette, who had the initial idea of ”Aida” and who supervised the sets and costumes for the premiere of the opera, in Cairo, in 1871. Trapped in his home by the Franco-Prussian War, Mariette oversees a rehearsal of the work, along with friends, servants, soldiers and two mischievous children. You get the sense that Mariette – a silent role played by Rolf Germeroth – defies the chaos of war by escaping into an aesthetic sphere. In later acts, the framing device recedes and the central drama takes over. The final tableau is spellbinding and haunting: as Aida and Radamès die in isolation, Mariette and the rest of the villa’s motley company return to view, staring into historical oblivion. Ingeniously, the staging tends towards scenic grandeur without the need for elaborate sets.
A cast of committed singers skilfully negotiated this delicate overlapping of identities. Russian soprano Olga Shurshina, in the role of Aida, showed a large, opulent voice, typically Slavic in its rapid vibrato and chest timbre. Aided by deep breathing support, she created generous legato phrases and structured her major tunes with confidence. Hector Sandoval, as Radamès, lacked ringtones but created a lovely and touching aura in his “Céleste Aida”. Diego Martin-Etxebarria, Chemnitz’s main resident conductor, played a crucial role in the success of the evening. The Met’s monumental, literal “Aida” got me used to not thinking too much about Verdi’s last great opera; the Chemnitz team goes much further.
The lyrical topography of Erfurt is in a way the reverse of that of Chemnitz. Where the Chemnitz Theater is a relic of a largely destroyed pre-war cityscape, the Erfurt Theater resides in a modern, elegant structure surrounded by an exceptionally well-preserved medieval town. From the upper hall, you can see the spiers of Erfurt’s huge Gothic cathedral, which glow at sunset. In this case, newer is better. The theatre, designed by Jörg Friedrich and opened in 2003, is not only a chic place to spend an evening, but a completely satisfactory place to listen to opera. The acoustics are warm and bright; voices project effortlessly; sightlines in the eight-hundred-seat auditorium are good. (In the wake of the German Omicron wave, attendance lagged and I was able to move at will.)
The staging of “Figaro”, a collaboration between director Martina Veh and scenographer Momme Hinrichs, recalls one of those naughty TV series, like “Bridgerton” and “The Great”, which mix period decor and modern mores. . Rococo costumes are made in garish colors; courteous gestures go hand in hand with licentiousness. Everybody sleeps with everybody; at one point, Susanna and the Countess’s paw at Cherubino’s crotch. The promiscuity had the unfortunate effect of lowering the stakes of the drama: the haughty tearing of the Countess’s “Dove sono” has less meaning if it has a horny page. Still, Veh achieves his vision with comedic flair and a distinctly unified style.
Rarely have I seen a “Figaro” cast that had such a spirited sense of ensemble. It helped that, as in so many German houses, the singers really are an ensemble: working together season after season, they develop an acute theatrical relationship. The shenanigans involving hatches and trundle beds unfolded with Lubitschean precision. Vocal stars included Máté Sólyom-Nagy’s robust Figaro, Florence Losseau’s spicy Cherubino and Kakhaber Shavidze’s stentorian Bartolo. Samuel Bächli, who recently retired as General Music Director of Erfurt, propelled the action forward with elegant and dynamic direction. Each act seemed to dance within minutes.
Cobourg, with a population of forty-one thousand, is by far the smallest town I have visited. US municipalities of equivalent size are Manassas, Virginia, and Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. Neither has recently staged Wagner. Cobourg, however, is no ordinary city; the Duchy of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha possessed outsized influence in the 19th century, particularly as the gene pool of the British royal family. Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, and her mother, Princess Victoria, were both born in Cobourg. The Landestheater, a beautiful neoclassical building with four hundred and ninety-one seats, was built at the request of Ernst I, Albert’s father. Schloss Ehrenburg, the ducal residence, is across the square. Previously, I made sure to sample Coburger’s famous bratwurst, which is grilled over a pine cone fire.
Coburg’s “Walküre”, directed by Alexander Müller-Elmau, is the second part of an ongoing “Ring” cycle. The concept mixes mythical and contemporary elements: fur clothes on tank tops, punk Valkyries on swings, a television broadcasting the production of the company “Das Rheingold”. There are a few too many reminiscences of the ‘Ring’ past – the fateful pendulum of Patrice Chéreau’s 1976 staging in Bayreuth makes an unnecessary appearance – but Wagner’s sublime entanglement of politics and emotion shines through.
Because a full-size Wagner orchestra would not fit in the Coburg pit, the company settled for a reduced staff of fifty-eight musicians. The conductor was Daniel Carter, Coburg’s young Australian-born music director. Although the whole thing felt disjointed in places, I found it refreshing to hear Wagner in intimate terms, psychology trumping spectacle. The vocal discovery of the evening was young Swedish soprano Åsa Jäger, who sang Brünnhilde with a bugle tone, crisp diction and infectious zest. This series of performances not only marks Jäger’s German debut, but also his debut in any Wagnerian role. I suspect that later in her career she will fondly remember Cobourg, where her rise began. The ultimate appeal of opera in Germany is to see a venerable art form undergo a continuous revival. ♦