Spiritually akin to Eastbourne or Harrogate, Bregenz is a sleepily respectable resort on the Austrian side of Lake Constance, bordering Switzerland and Germany.
With an unusual number of municipal benches and shops selling surgical stockings, it’s a haven for the sedate: not somewhere to go in search of kiss-me-kwik vulgarity or “vibrant” nightlife. In fact, conservatism is so ingrained here that you can still smoke in restaurants.
Bregenz does boast one permanent cultural attraction in a strikingly modernist art gallery designed by the great Swiss architect Peter Zumthor, but its wider celebrity is the result of a unique summer opera festival, founded in 1946 and recently brought to popular attention when it featured in the James Bond movie Quantum of Solace.
Although it also has a conventional indoor theatre, the festival’s heart is a vast platform which floats on the lake. On this stage, thought to be the largest in the world, one piece of familiar operatic repertory is played annually to an open-air auditorium on the shore seating nearly 7,000. Audiences for the month-long season run up to a quarter of a million – a figure exceeded only by the Verona Arena…
… Aida under the shadow of the Statue of Liberty; Il Trovatore on an oil refinery threatened by terrorists; Tosca watched over by a giant eyeball – [David] Pountney has pursued an edgy, splashy populism on the lake, while seeking out more recherché delights indoors (for example, retrospectives of the neglected composers Ernst Krenek and Mieczyslaw Weinberg, or rarities such as Debussy’s fragmentary Fall of the House of Usher).
He has also made a point of selling British operatic riches to this Middle European market. By arranging co-productions with Opera North and Aldeburgh, scheduling new music by composers such as Harrison Birtwistle and Ben Mason, and engaging directors such as Graham Vick and Phyllida Lloyd as well as a host of our best singers, Bregenz has served as a dazzling showcase for our achievements in this sphere.
“It’s pragmatic as much as patriotic. British singers aren’t precious – they’re willing to try anything. And British directors understand that you can look seriously at opera while employing an element of pure showbiz. The Germans can’t really manage that.
“I had very strong foundations to build on, but I feel I’ve made the programming more stringent and coherent, and I’m proud of the amount of contemporary music I’ve managed to programme alongside the lakeside blockbusters.”
read all Rupert Christiansen’s article via Bregenz Festival: the world’s splashiest opera? – Telegraph
Photo: Aida, 2009, by Kerstin Joensson