Column: a visit to the Staatsoper

Vissi d’arte, vissi d’amore!

Our author spent many years quenching her thirst for adventure as a travel blogger, and her adopted home town of Munich was somewhat relegated to a place of relaxation. Her column gives her the chance to catch up on some of the things she missed. This time she takes part in a guided tour of the Nationaltheateer and then attends a performance of the Bayerische Staatsoper for the first time.

Since I have never been to an opera performance even though Munich is home to one of the most renowned opera houses in the world, I made my way to the Nationaltheater on a Sunday afternoon. First I took part in a guided tour and in the evening I attended the sold out performance of "Tosca". My choice quickly fell on Puccini's opera, because I thought I would be more comfortable with the two-hour season to start with than with some other pieces.

I'm standing under the huge stage of the Nationaltheater, which can be lowered three and a half metres and also tilted. It is warm and a bit stuffy down here, I can smell the oil and metal of this impressive underworld. Among other things, it provides space for a bridge with twelve mini elevators, which are used by performers of the opera to appear on stage in no time at all - or to disappear from it all of a sudden. They won't be used for the performance of Puccini's "Tosca" in a few hours. Nevertheless, it is a very special feeling to take a look behind the scenes and then to watch the performance from the auditorium tonight.

During the tour of the Nationaltheater I learn a lot of things I didn't know and what I will fall back on if I become an opera fan after this day and want to shine with insider knowledge in the future: In 1818 the Bayerische Staatsoper (opera) was built by order of the first Bavarian King Max Joseph. A theatre based on the French model, without boxes and thus freely accessible to all, which the people of Munich did not like very much at first. But the king proved to be a mastermind of his time – at the same time, of course, he himself continued to sit in his own box, which today is reserved for state visits. On all other days, however, you can book it, it belongs to category 1 and offers, how could it be otherwise, a fantastic view of the stage.

The Staatsoper provides service instruments. It thus draws from a pool of instruments that composers like Richard Wagner have already seen.

When Ludwig II reigned as Bavarian king, there were a total of 206 performances, which he enjoyed all alone in the middle of the night. The reason for this was his shyness of people, which is why he came to the Nationaltheater via a secret corridor from the Residence. Another curious thing about this is the fact that soldiers often had to be assigned to sit below the royal box during the nightly performances, because the acoustics were not designed for an empty room.

"What do I expect from an opera?" I asked myself beforehand. A corny libretto! Impressive singing, yet one that takes some getting used to. A lavish stage set? A touch of nostalgia and the feeling of time travel. Or perhaps simply an art reserved for the elite of society? Despite some prejudices, I was prepared to get drawn into the opera with all the trimmings.

The Nationaltheater was destroyed twice and twice it was rebuilt. As early as 1823, a fire on the stage reduced everything to rubble, as the iron curtain for protection did not work. Incidentally, this had the consequence that to this day it is checked by the fire brigade before every performance. Then bombed in the Second World War, the house was reconstructed true to the original in 1963. The gold on the ceiling and wall decorations is still real, but the former purple of thousands of sea snails is no longer.

We climb the stairs to the highest gallery, twenty meters above the parquet floor. Intoxicated by the height and the view, we prefer to sit down and ask a few questions: Is the lighting on the stage set up by hand (yes), where do you have the best acoustics (up here, in fact it's the standing areas from which you can't see anything), how many people work in the evening to make a performance possible (between 300 and 500 people).

I feel a bit dizzy as we leave the gallery and walk towards the stage. Although the preparations for "Tosca" are already underway, we are allowed to enter it and look behind the iron curtain. A mighty room opens up, thirty meters high and containing many parts of the scenery and stage sets. Here we find out that the plans for the play are fixed five to six years in advance so that they can be planned logistically. But only very few people know what will be played in a few years.

For the last minutes of the tour we go to the orchestra pit. It's strange how small the whole audience seems from here. It is a completely new and unfamiliar perspective that now pulls together the sides of the large hall, which we were allowed to admire a few minutes earlier from a height of twenty meters. I take a seat on one of the empty chairs and learn that the orchestra control room takes care of the musicians' well-being. They are responsible for the sound insulation and lay out the notes so that the musicians have only one thing left to do: play. And this is something quite magical here at the Nationaltheater, because the Staatsoper provides service instruments. It thus draws from a pool of instruments that composers like Richard Wagner have already seen.

In preparation for this column, I clicked through a few well-known arias on YouTube, landed on channels that cover everything to do with opera, and ended up watching award ceremonies and interviews with opera stars. In short, I was hooked. One of the greats is Jonas Kaufmann, who is asked in an interview about the play "Andrea Chénier" whether he thinks it is corny. Kaufmann actually understands this criticism and also refers to Puccini, to whom the kitsch is also attached. But he also says something exciting that I can't forget: "The moment I seriously believe that and all the emotions we show in the play are real emotions, no one will feel that it's cheesy anymore. It just carries over."

Three hours later. I walk across Max-Joseph-Platz to the Nationaltheater, which is embraced by the falling darkness. Its imposing architecture attracts me. With over two thousand other guests I walk through the foyer and look for my place in the stalls. The performance today is completely sold out. In front of me sits a very elegant version of mother, father, child - by child I mean the teenage daughter – to my left an elderly lady in a chic costume, to my right a young woman with her friend. So the audience is mixed and when I lift my eyes to the galleries, the hall is already darkening and the performance begins.

The Staatsoper provides service instruments. It thus draws from a pool of instruments that composers like Richard Wagner have already seen.

I must admit that I need a few minutes to immerse myself in the spectacle. The singing, the drama of the grand gestures, the slow plot are too unusual. But the force of the orchestra thrills me and I try to let go of the thought that I have to write this text afterwards. I don't want to take notes, I would rather learn to let go and just enjoy. I succeed in this when Floria Tosca enters the stage.

Is the jealousy of the passionate Tosca a reason why her lover Caravadossi has to die in the end? What we know for sure is that he is not cheating on her, but is hiding a fugitive accused of high treason. And it is also certain that Baron Scarpia is using Tosca's distrust of her lover in order to convict him and seduce Tosca at the same time - without respecting her aversion. When Tosca agrees to spend the night with Scarpia, if he lets her lover go in return, she stabs her tormentor shortly afterwards. An act of love – big, passionate and powerful, just like the opera itself.

Whew. What a story. And what an ending: Caravadossi is executed and Tosca throws herself from the Castel Sant'Angelo. For me she is the heroine of the play, even if she is a failed one. Caught in her own emotional vortex, she radiates a power throughout the entire performance that draws me in – which is, of course, mainly due to Anja Hartero's singing, which in her aria "Vissi d'arte" moves me to tears so much that I am glad to be able to hide my throbbing heart in the darkness of the parquet rows.

And so Tosca's singing stays with me long after the last curtain as a light in a dark night.  Just like the brightly lit Nationaltheater I leave that Sunday night. Corny? I suppose so. But on that point I agree with Jonas Kaufmann. And now I know: The opera is something very special. A little pathos is part of it.

Further information about the performances and the regular guided tours can be found here.

 

 

Text: Anika Landsteiner; Photos: Frank Stolle, W. Hösl