German opera

Until the Fat Lady Sings

Bavarian State Opera DPA
Will it be for eternity? The Bavarian State Opera.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Critics say German opera fails to attract large audiences and is a drain on public resources.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • Mr. Bachler, 64, is a veteran director who has led the Munich-based Bavarian State Opera since 2008.
    • The company was named ‘opera house of the year’ in 2014.
    • It has a budget of about €90 million ($99 million) a year, 40 percent of which comes from ticket sales.
  • Audio

    Audio

  • Pdf

Nikolaus Bachler is the artistic and managing director of the Bavarian State Opera in Munich, which was recently voted ‘opera house of the year’ by critics for “Opernwelt” magazine, which covers opera houses in German speaking countries.

He has had a long and varied career in the theater, including stints at the Burgtheater in Vienna and the Viennese Volksoper. The Munich State Opera is one of the few opera houses in the world to enjoy consistently full houses, a success Mr. Bachler puts down to his hard work, the genre’s enduring appeal and the growing interest in the art form even among younger generations.

Ahead of the finale of the Munich Opera Festival on Friday, he talks to Handelsblatt about elitism, public funding and the theater’s duty to its audiences.

Handelsblatt: Mr. Bachler, what is the current attendance at the Bavarian State Opera?

Nikolaus Bachler: During the Opera Festival, exactly 98.49 percent. But during the normal season, between 97 and 98 percent. We practically always have a full house.

You have devoted a large part of your life to theater and festivals. What’s different about an opera house?

First of all, things are always the same, because as managing director one always has to think in artistic terms. But what creates costs is always art, and thus one can’t separate art and finances. But opera has a much more extensive structure. At a theater, you sometimes have only four actors in a production. But in an opera, 200 to 300 people are always involved. The second consideration is the long run-up times in an international opera house, because the partners are all over the world. That necessitates a different manner of working.

Co-productions are prevalent in the international opera business. You are an exception, however, because you produce independently. Why is that?

It’s a deliberate decision, because I reject co-productions on the content level. I believe that art lives from identity and independence, and above all from recognizability. In addition, I know that the savings through co-productions are marginal. The real reason is that people are less and less willing to take risks. They prefer to purchase successful productions. That’s more reliable.

So you would rather produce at your own risk?

Anything else wouldn’t be satisfying, because in the theater, the creative process lies in production. A theater lives from new productions. An institution that is as healthy and intact as the Bavarian State Opera has the responsibility to produce something of its own and not to turn out a product that is compatible for as many opera houses as possible.

How would you describe your current position?

We have a clear divide in the opera business. On the one hand, there are interesting opera houses with exciting productions. But they are most often the mid-sized houses that can’t work with the very best singers. On the other hand, we have the conventional world-class houses where star singers perform. My goal was to make Munich the place where both aspects can be combined. We have been able to achieve that. At the moment, it makes us unique in the world. Here the audience experiences Jonas Kaufmann and Anja Harteros, but with a high quality of musical theater.

To what extent did you change the repertoire?

After my predecessor had cultivated the Baroque repertoire, I wanted to conquer Munich as a Mediterranean city and expand the repertoire in this direction. This brought an emphasis on the Italians, but also on Strauss and Wagner.

In Munich’s affluent society, isn’t attending the opera simply the backdrop for a social event, or does the audience actually go to watch?

Everyone tells me it is the latter. Because we don’t offer the theater that people expect from us, but the theater we believe in. There is much approval, but also rejection and friction. But the house is incredibly alive. And what is special here: Even if people are against the productions, they don’t abandon the institution. They keep coming back.

The Bavarian State Opera has around 1,000 employees. How much do you have to be manager and how much motivator?

The essence of a theater is that it is as good as its head. A theater must be firmly oriented toward a leadership figure. The managing director establishes the climate, the style, the type of interpersonal contact, the orientation of the repertoire. He also sets limits. I have fantastic colleagues here, a super team. One of my principles is that people should be allowed to work in complete independence, because they then have much more energy. I am the opposite of a control freak.

 

Nikolaus Bachler PA DPA
Nikolaus Bachler believes that humans are wired to tell stories through music and acting. Source: Picture Alliance/DPA

 

How do you choose the repertoire?

A repertoire arises associatively and empirically. On the one hand, there is an urge to shape the contents. This work is shared with the dramatists in response to the question: What operas have something to say to us? The second component has to do with the artists, above all with the musical director. What interests him, what would he like to develop? A further aspect is that with the repertoire, you also have to be a merchant. What you offer has to be coherent and appealing. And of course, the economic factor plays a role. If I plan two incredibly elaborate productions such as “The Woman Without a Shadow” and “The Soldiers,” I have to take care to counterbalance them with works that require less expenditure.

You still have a few old treasures in the repertoire, for instance Otto Schenk’s “Rosenkavalier.”

A house like ours also has a cultural memory. In an era when the repertoire system has been dismantled almost everywhere, we have a responsibility with regard to the cultural mandate of an institution like this one. Here you can still see the entire repertoire in exemplary productions from the last 40 years. We are almost a museum!

Your budget is €86 million ($94.5 million) per year, which is luxurious. Elsewhere one hears about enforced savings and political pressure. Do you also experience that in Munich, or are you cruising along like a luxury liner?

We’re more like €90 million. But disregarding that: In Germany, no one can really talk of pressure if you take a look at what else is going on in the world. We continue to have a unique situation here in Germany — which doesn’t deny that various opera houses have different degrees of difficulties. But most of the pressure I am under comes from me. I have to put myself under that pressure.

Why?

There is no other opera house in Germany that is and must be as successful as we are. It is always said that Munich has the richest opera house. But the only figure of comparison that really says something about public financing has to do with the per-seat financing. And then take a look around. With our budget, we are in the top echelon, but as far as the financing per seat we’re among the lowest, far behind Stuttgart, Düsseldorf, etc.

That means that you contribute more to your own financing than other opera houses do?

My business manager always says: We are condemned to success. Because this large, glamorous house will only continue as long as its columns remain standing. Yes, we have much state financing, but we earn close to 40 percent ourselves. That is unique — and gives me an argument when I get protest letters from viewers who say: “And that was paid for with our tax money?” Each taxpayer in Bavaria pays an average of €9.50 per year for the Bavarian State Opera. In my opinion, that money is well invested. You couldn’t even buy a movie ticket for it …

How great a danger can you afford to run with “risky” directors?

In making a decision, I have never given thought to whether it will turn out well. Instead I’ve always done what interests me and what I believe in. What I do give thought to are the artistic constellations. Will things work out with this director and that soprano? But in my whole life, I’ve never wasted a thought on whether a difficult work might end up being a box-office flop. That doesn’t happen if you produce good theater.

With regard to sponsoring, the Bavarian State Opera has always done well for itself. Is that still a growing segment?

Oh yes, it’s growing. We owe that above all to (former Bavarian State Opera director) Peter Jonas. That was his American background. I was able to build on his legacy.

How important are top stars like Anna Netrebko?

In contrast to the notion of a star on TV today, where being a star is a profession, in opera stardom is still the result of performance — hence exceptional talents are important, because there is a reason why they reached the top. What matters for us is that the star is part of a whole, part of a production.


Video: Christian Gerhaher sings “Possente spirto” from Monteverdi’s L’ORFEO.

Is the Bavarian State Opera a brand?

We are clearly a brand like BMW or the soccer team Bayern Munich. A brand perseveres only if it changes.

Has the appointment of Kirill Petrenko as musical director brought about an artistic concentration at the opera house?

Most certainly. Every opera evening is dependent for good or bad on the podium of the conductor. So an artist as extraordinary as Mr. Petrenko has brought a qualitative surge to the performances. That can’t be valued highly enough.

How do you regard the future?

Like my grandfather used to say: It’s easier to make it to the top than to stay there. Which brings us back to pressure. If someone else puts more pressure on me than I do myself, then actually I’ve already lost.

So you don’t join in the widespread lament that the audience is dying off and the genre of opera is dead?

As long as the human species exists, it will tell its story through singing and acting. All the signs are to the contrary as far as opera dying out, particularly in Germany. The truth is that opera is already kaput in Italy, and it is having great difficulties in America. Only in Germany is it living and thriving. By the way, our share of visitors under 30 is growing.

 

Regine Müller covers arts and culture for Handelsblatt. To contact the author: gastautor@handelsblatt.com

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