Opera Is Awaiting A Green Light On The Blue Danube

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Anna Netrebko sang as part of a televised feature on the Vienna State Opera 2020-21 season. (Photos: Michael Poehn)

VIENNA – The seats in Vienna’s theaters may still be empty during the coronavirus pandemic, but that hasn’t brought the gears of the city’s culture machine to a grinding halt.

On April 26, the national television station ORF III presented the second in a series of live concerts from the Radio Kulturhaus featuring local opera singers accompanied by piano and a string quartet of players from the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra. The evening – a collaboration with the Volksoper Wien comprising numbers from operettas and musicals – was followed by a televised feature around the new season of incoming Vienna State Opera director Bogdan Roščić (both programs were also available live in Germany and Switzerland via the platform myfidelio.at).

The extent to which theaters can restart operations is currently the subject of hot debate in Austria. Through a combination of strict surveillance and border control, the country has kept the pandemic under better control than any Western European country. Individual rehearsals will be allowed starting May 18; on June 1, group rehearsals permitted as long as every person is allotted a space of 20 square meters (approximately 66 square feet).

Some artistic directors have protested, however, that it is not realistic to put theater onstage under such restrictions: Even in scenes not involving direct physical contact, the distance between actors or singers would simply be too large. Nonetheless, as discussions between politicians and administrators continue, Vienna’s opera houses count on reopening this fall more or less as planned.

Director Bogdan Roščić, left, with moderator Peter Fasslächer

Some guest artists may not be able to travel from their home countries, and tourism – which accounts for 30% of seats at the State Opera – will take months to recover. If the televised concert by Volksoper Wien is any indication, theaters may be obliged to turn to their own ensemble members, at least for a certain period of time, although that would not mean a reduction in artistic quality.

ORF moderator Christoph Wagner-Trenkwitz called the live evening a “vital sign” as house singers presented audience favorites, largely from works that they were scheduled to sing this season. All numbers brought forth a natural sense of phrasing and timing, and the mostly young artists deftly sang to the camera while owning the stage with the right dose of dramatic gesture.

Oliver Liebl hammed up the Ralf Benatsky number “Mein Mädel ist nur eine Verkäuferin,” about the love for a shoe saleswoman, convincing with a touch of sarcasm and mastery of text. Vincent Schirrmacher appeared in two numbers from Franz Lehár’s Das Land des Lächelns, bringing excellent breath support but also warm nostalgia to the well-known number “Dein is mein ganzes Herz.”

Martina Mikelić was a sassy Prince Orlofsky in “Ich lade gern mir Gäste ein” from Johann Strauss II’s Die Fledermaus, Kristiane Kaiser a hot-blooded Rosalinde (disguised as a Hungarian noblewoman) in “Klänge der Heimat” from the same operetta. The program also featured a pre-recorded performance of Strauss’ “An der schönen blauen Donau” (the “Donauwalzer”), in which musicians of the Volksoper Orchestra played remotely from their homes under the virtual conducting of Alfred Eschwé. The interlude included a refreshing dose of humor, with a flutist playing on a rocking chair, a triangle player from inside his bathroom, and a dancer dusting as she glided around her apartment.

Alexandre Beuchat and Rebecca Nelsen closed the evening in a first-class performance of the duet “Lippen Schweigen” from Lehár’s Die lustige Witwe, waltzing at a distance while conveying a sense of gentle longing. The duos Carsten Süss and Ursula Pfitzner and Ben Connor and Johanna Arrouas also delivered memorable numbers from works by Emmerich Kálmán.

Soprano Rebecca Nelsen waltzed at a distance in a duet from Franz Lehár’s ‘Die lustige Witwe.’

The repertoire was in fact better tailored to the singers than ORF’s opening program with the Vienna State Opera on April 19. International soloist Juan Diego Flórez was more in his element in Verdi than Schubert, and the ensemble member Valentina Nafornița more convincing in Rachmaninoff than Gounod – sublime as her high notes  may have been in “Oh Dieu, que de bijoux….” It is nonetheless a feat that the presenters gathered such an impressive line-up of singers, culminating with Anna Netrebko and her husband, Yusif Eyvazov, in the Neapolitan song “Non ti scordar di me.”

Netrebko again sang on the occasion of Roščić’s season announcement – with “In quelle trine morbide” from Puccini’s Manon Lescaut – a remnant of the original plan to present his first program as State Opera director before an in-person audience. That he managed to secure a slot on national television as a last-minute solution makes for just as dramatic an entrance.

In conversation with ORF moderator Peter Fasslächer, Roščić said the house intends to open Sept. 7 with the late Anthony Minghella’s 2006 production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly starring Asmik Grigorian in the title role. But it is preparing for different scenarios, since no one can be sure what the situation will be by that time. He added that the pandemic may have far-reaching repercussions on the cultural scene.

Philippe Jordan will conduct ‘Madama Butterfly.’ (JF Leclercq)

The upcoming season includes a total of 10 stagings that are new to the house; all of them, however, are co-productions. The directors he has chosen — Barrie Kosky (who has also been engaged for a Mozart-Da Ponte cycle to start in 2021-22), Calixto Bieito, Hans Neuenfels, Kirill Serebrennikov, Jan Lauwers, Frank Castorf – are guaranteed to re-define the house’s traditional profile.

Incoming music director Philippe Jordan presides over Butterfly as well as works by Wagner, Strauss, and Mozart. He and Roščić have created a new young ensemble of 12 singers who were chosen from a pool of some 1,000 applicants. Giving a taste of what is to come, the Austrian mezzo-soprano Patrizia Nolz performed the Richard Strauss song “Morgen” from the chorus’ rehearsal space.

House debuts will include Lisette Oropesa, Nicole Car, Michael Fabiano, Pretty Yende, Sara Jakubiak, Brian Jagde, and more. Elīna Garanča will sing in her first Wagner opera, as Kundry in Parsifal, alongside Jonas Kaufmann in the title role.

Despite the paralyzing effects of the coronavirus, dynamic changes are under way on Vienna’s opera scene. May the Austrian capital continue to adapt and set a precedent for other cities that are struggling to allow inhabitants to even leave their homes – and may opera presenters emerge with an even clearer vision of how to grow their audiences.

Rebecca Schmid is a music writer based in Berlin, contributing to publications such as the Financial Times and International New York Times. As a doctoral candidate at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, she is writing about the compositional legacy of Kurt Weill.