History of the Bregenz Festival
Origin and genesis
In the wet and cold summer of 2011, the Bregenz Festival presented a little known opera on the lake stage and, for the first time, an opera commissioned by the festival was staged at the Festspielhaus.
From "operatic miracle" to "colossal spectacle", from "Hollywood music theatre" to "staggering production" – such were the accolades showered on the Bregenz production of Umberto Giordano's André Chénier. For the opera, which is set during the French Revolution, director Keith Warner and stage designer David Fielding chose The Death of Marat, an iconic painting by the revolutionary artist Jacques-Louis David, as the inspiration and symbol of their staging of André Chénier. It was the first time that a historical painting had served as the basis for a stage set on Lake Constance. The famous image shows the radical revolutionary leader Jean Paul Marat dead in his bath tub, stabbed by a political opponent in 1793.
Creation was the theme of the festival programme. A central position was taken up by a showcase of music by the contemporary British composer Judith Weir. Highlights included the first ever world premiere of an opera at the Festspielhaus, Weir's latest work Achterbahn, as well as the opera at the Kornmarkt Theatre, Blond Eckbert, also composed by Weir. Besides that there were many orchestral concerts which went down very well with audiences and focused on creative minds such as Byron and Michelangelo, Shakespeare and Goethe.
In the spoken theatre section, guest appearances were made by Deutsches Theater Berlin and Schauspielhaus Wien. While the latter company's production of Orphans by the English playwright Dennis Kelly chiefly explored the betrayal of our basic values, questions of ignorance, powerlessness and responsibility lay at the heart of the Deutsches Theater Berlin productions of Gorky's Children of the Sun and Schimmelpfennig's Peggy Pickit Sees the Face of God.
"Nothing is New" was the response of Art of Our Times to the theme of the 2011 festival. The contemporary arts programme included Home Work, the latest work by the French multimedia specialist François Sarhan, the dance performance As If Stranger by the American Richard Siegal, and Black Tie, the first guest performance in Bregenz by the well known theatre collective Rimini Protokoll.
Crossculture offered traditional fixtures like crossculture night and the Children's Festival as well as another instalment of crossculture week. The family concert entitled The magical sound and the scoundrels showed how, with the help of music, you can overcome your biggest fears and how you can keep your trembling knee under control with a little rhythm.
A cool summer, a very well attended opera on the lake stage, and an acclaimed showcase: that's how the 2010 Bregenz Festival could be summed up. In its two summer seasons, Giuseppe Verdi's Aida – staged without pyramids but with giant blue feet, a copper elephant and towering cranes – drew by far the biggest number of spectators to the Seebühne stage in the festival's history.
In a programme section called "In der Fremde / In Foreign Lands" the Bregenz Festival presented a retrospective of works by the forgotten Polish-Russian composer Mieczysław Weinberg (1919 - 1996). Highlights were the stage premiere of his opera The Passenger in the Festspielhaus, the first performance in Austria of The Portrait at the Kornmarkt Theatre plus a symposium devoted to the composer's life and works. The Passenger – an opera about the unexpected re-encounter between a former SS camp warden and a prisoner at Auschwitz, based on a novella by the Polish author Zofia Posmysz (born 1923), herself an Auschwitz survivor – demonstrated convincingly how a supposedly "difficult" work can be a crowd-puller. In October 2011, The Passenger was named "Rediscovery of the Year" by Opernwelt, the specialist opera magazine published in Berlin.
In addition, films for which Weinberg wrote the music were screened locally during the Bregenz Festival Film Week in June. In the Lake Studio, a programme section called "Musik&Poesie" twinned chamber music by Weinberg with readings of Russian poetry on the theme "In Foreign Lands".
Deutsches Theater Berlin, responsible for so many memorable evenings of theatre at the festival in the 1990s, returned to Bregenz in 2010 under its new artistic director Ulrich Khuon (incidentally the former director of Thalia Theater, another ensemble that's very well known in Bregenz). The Berlin company brought its productions of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness and Lukas Bärfuss's Oil, to Lake Constance.
Parallels to Weinberg could be found in the Art of Our Times section: the opera Jacob's Room by the American electronic music pioneer Morton Subotnick was long neglected like Weinberg's The Passenger. Composed in the 1970s, the multimedia work Jacob's Room simply lay on the shelves until it was rediscovered and given its first stage performance – to great acclaim – at the Bregenz Festival (Werkstattbühne) in August 2010.
The other "festival within the festival" – crossculture – presented a wide-ranging and highly varied programme for young people, featuring the Children's Festival, opera and band workshops, concerts for families and school groups (rocky roccoco and Saiten!) as well as an Aida crossculture night.
For the opera on the lake stage, director Graham Vick and designer Paul Brown decided to set Verdi's monumental desert opera Aida on the water, and their original interpretation earned them the enthusiastic acclaim of audiences and critics alike. Singers and extras performed in a variety of locations not only on, but also in the water. The stage set, consisting of a ruined statue, was assembled every evening before the spectators' eyes by means of two gigantic cranes. In its first summer on Lake Constance, Aida became the most attended opera production on the Seebühne stage, only slightly behind the musical West Side Story from 2003.
The opera King Roger by the Polish composer Karol Szymanowski was staged in the Festspielhaus. Both the production by the artistic director of the festival David Pountney (in sets designed by Raimund Bauer) and the musical interpretation by Sir Mark Elder conducting the Vienna Symphony Orchestra were praised as "marvellous" performances constituting a real festival event.
Thanks to the energetic commitment of Opera North from Leeds there wasn't one operetta at the Festspielhaus in 2009 but three: Shostakovich's zany housing estate comedy Cheryomushki, George Gershwin's presidential satire Of Thee I Sing, and Skin Deep by the English composer David Sawer.
Art of Our Times for the first time fully bore the signature of its new artistic director, Laura Berman. Among the productions were the latest works by British composer Sir Harrison Birtwistle (Semper Dowland & The Corridor) and by the Berlin-based theatre group Nico and the Navigators in collaboration with the Franui orchestra (Anaesthesia). Three international composers were commissioned to explore the sound-world of the region of Vorarlberg in the concert My Musig.
A very special year: James Bond and a TV studio on the Seebühne stage
Not only audiences at Bregenz were enthusiastic about the spectacular staging of Puccini's opera Tosca last summer. In July 2007 a team from EON Productions, the production company responsible for the James Bond movies, visited one of the last rehearsals for Tosca. Producer Barbara Broccoli and director Marc Forster were impressed – by the unique location on the shore of Lake Constance, the imposing stage set with its hi-tech capabilities, and by the modern architecture of the Festspielhaus. As a result a film crew came for ten days in early May to shoot scenes for the Bond movie Quantum of Solace. In the film, Bond first discovers his adversary during a performance of Tosca during a seven-and-a-half-minute, high-action sequence shot inside the Festspielhaus and on the Seebühne stage. Director Marc Forster incorporates the opera into the action of the film in intriguing ways: the chase through the Festspielhaus proceeds like an apocalyptic silent film – interspersed with dramatic scenes from the Bregenz Tosca.
A short time later, in June 2008, the eye that dominated the Tosca stage set changed colour from blue to ZDF orange for that channel's live broadcasts of the European Football Championships, held in Austria and Switzerland. A TV studio was set up on the stage and the auditorium was converted into a public viewing arena. In all, more than 160,000 soccer fans came to watch the live broadcasts – hosted by Johannes B. Kerner with expert commentary by Jürgen Klopp and Urs Meier – during the three-week festival of football.
The Bregenz Festival in 2008
After serving as a location in a Bond movie and as a studio for broadcasting football matches, the striking stage set with its enormous blue eye was able to revert to its original form as an opera set. Visitors came in droves, making Tosca in its second season the most-attended Seebühne revival of the past ten years.
The festival programme of summer 2008 was otherwise given over to a celebration of the Austrian composer Ernst Krenek. The major productions were Krenek's opera Charles V which was staged in the Festspielhaus and Kehraus um St. Stephan, the operetta at the Kornmarkt. The orchestral concerts of the Vienna Symphony Orchestra and the Vorarlberg Symphony Orchestra revolved around the theme of "Power and Music" and featured gods, kings and party chairmen. The Ernst Krenek showcase at the Bregenz Festival was named "Rediscovery of the Year" in September 2009 by the specialist opera magazine Opernwelt.
In its second year at the festival, spoken theatre remained a highlight thanks two sold-out theatre productions – Buddenbrooks at the Kornmarkt, a dramatisation of the Thomas Mann novel by John von Düffel staged by Vienna's Theater in der Josefstadt, and René Pollesch's Die Welt zu Gast bei reichen Eltern in Shed8, a production by Hamburg's Thalia Theater – both of which earned rave reviews.
Three world premieres were staged at the Workshop Theatre as part of the Art of Our Times programme, while the young people's programme crossculture set new records in the number of visitors and participants with its most extensive programme of events since its inception.
Giacomo Puccini's opera thriller Tosca, staged in 2007/2008, turned out to be an ideal choice for the Bregenz lake stage. Not only the exciting production by Philipp Himmelmann and the spectacular set design by Johannes Leiacker, but also the big emotional climaxes of the opera cast a spell over audiences night after night. The new sound system BOA (Bregenz Open Acoustics) was widely praised: "For the first time the sound on the Seebühne is every bit as spectacular as the set," wrote the Münchner Merkur.
Away from the Seebühne, the festival took as its theme "Britten and Britain", focusing on the English composer Benjamin Britten, with both his first and his last work for the stage being performed in addition to several orchestral pieces. The highlight was Yoshi Oida's elegantly austere production of Benjamin Britten’s late work Death in Venice. The second Britten rarity of the season was the operetta Paul Bunyan, staged at the Kornmarkt Theatre.
Spoken theatre took up a more central place in the festival programme this season with guest performances by the Theater in der Josefstadt of Vienna (Dangerous Liaisons) and the Thalia Theater of Hamburg (A Midsummer Night's Dream). Under the motto "Made in Britain" Art of Our Times featured the opera The Shops, receiving its first performance in Austria, and Ben Mason's football opera Playing Away, directed by David Pountney.
A landmark in 2006 was the renovation of the Festspielhaus, which was completed in time for the festival – "the most beautiful present on our 60th anniversary" in the words of festival president Günter Rhomberg. "This summer it was at last possible to present our programme to audiences using an infrastructure that is commensurate with the quality of our performances," Rhomberg said.
The opera on the lake stage in 2005 and 2006, Verdi's Il trovatore, took its place as one of the most successful operas produced there in the past ten years. A total of 301,573 people saw the spectacular production by Robert Carsen and Paul Steinberg in its two-season run.
There was unanimous acclaim among critics and audiences for the Festspielhaus production, The Fall of the House of Usher by Claude Debussy. In what was the first opera production on the stage of the newly refurbished theatre, the recently completed one-act opera The Fall of the House of Usher was staged in a fascinating triple bill with Debussy's ballets Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune and Jeux.
The contemporary programme Art of Our Times and the orchestral concerts also achieved record spectator numbers.
David Pountney's decision to return to epic opera on the Lake after the musical West Side Story was endorsed by the great success of the selected production, Giuseppe Verdi's Il trovatore: the first opera on the Lake under his artistic direction and the most-seen opera since 1998, surpassing even the hugely popular A Masked Ball (1999) and La Bohème (2001). A total of 172,862 people attended a performance of Giuseppe Verdi's masterpiece directed by Robert Carsen in the spectacular refinery-cum-fortress set designed by Paul Steinberg. The Festspielhaus production and the orchestral concerts reflected the Carl Nielsen showcase at the festival in summer 2005. The Danish composer's opera Maskerade was very well received as the Festspielhaus production, confirming Pountney's concept of showcasing a single composer throughout the four weeks of the festival. There was praise not only for the choice of works, but also for David Pountney's spirited staging of Nielsen's humorous opera about a masked ball.
Having got off to such a good start in 2004 with Weill's Der Kuhhandel, the operetta at the Kornmarkt managed to replicate its success in 2005 with Johann Strauss's forgotten operetta Der Lustige Krieg. All performances were completely sold out, showing how enthusiastically the festival audience welcomed artistic director David Pountney's original idea of using the Bregenz Kornmarkt Theatre for the rediscovery of rarely performed operettas.
The contemporary arts programme KAZ was consolidated and expanded in Pountney's second year, and an impressive number of tickets were sold - 3,751. This corresponds to 92 percent of capacity in the Kunsthaus Bregenz and 86 percent at the Workshop Theatre. The KAZ Pass, allowing reductions to all KAZ events, sold like hot cakes. Because of high demand, twice as many had been printed in 2004 as in the previous year, and in 2005 the number available had to be further increased by 40 percent; in July they were already sold out.
'Continuity and renewal' was our credo for the era which began with David Pountney's first season new artistic director. Bernstein's West Side Story a runaway success returned for a second season on the Lake. A wind of change was immediately apparent in the newly designed opening ceremony. "Presenting serious, interesting ideas in a popular format is what has made the Bregenz Festival such a unique festival. Continuing on this path and broadening it was and still is my declared goal," commented artistic director David Pountney about his first season. Among other innovations was the idea of a showcase, which was introduced in 2004: Kurt Weill was the featured composer. Two of the composer's rarely performed, early works for the stage, The Protagonist and Royal Palace, were staged together at the Festspielhaus, while the satirical operetta Der Kuhhandel was the inaugural production in a new programme of operettas at the Kornmarkt Theatre; the director was David Pountney. The number of visitors to events of the contemporary arts programme KAZ (Kunst aus der Zeit) exceeded all expectations in summer 2004. Expanded and enhanced by David Pountney, KAZ presented a number of premieres and first performances, including The Story of Io by the renowned British composer Sir Harrison Birtwistle and Hoffmanniana by a young composer from Vorarlberg, Thomas Dézsy. Hamburg's Thalia Theater had a great success with guest performances of its satirical comedy about pensioners Thalia Vista Social Club.
In what was Alfred Wopmann's final season as artistic director after many years, the Bregenz Festival staged Leonard Bernstein's hit musical West Side Story on the world's largest floating stage. Spectators were captivated by unforgettable songs like 'Maria', 'America' and 'Tonight' coupled with breath-taking dance sequences. The musical was directed by the American Francesca Zambello, choreographed by Richard Wherlock, and the stage set designed by George Tsypin. The Festspielhaus showed Leos Janácek's The Cunning Little Vixen. As in Mozart's Magic Flute, the natural world and its eternal regenerative cycle play an important part in this popular opera, too. It was directed by Daniel Slater with sets and costumes by Robert Innes Hopkins. The festival's contemporary arts programme, KAZ, featured the world premiere of a new opera by Georg Friedrich Haas, Die schöne Wunde. At its guest appearance in summer 2003 the Thalia Theater company of Hamburg presented a premiere for the first time, an adaptation of Samuel Beckett called Nacht und Träume.
2001 und 2002
Following the great success of Giuseppe Verdi’s A Masked Ball on the Lake, the Bregenz Festival engaged the formidable British duo Richard Jones and Antony McDonald for another production. The opera was Giacomo Puccini's La Bohème, which focuses on the lives, emotions and aspirations of a group of young artists in Paris. The work staged in the Festspielhaus, Carlisle Floyd’s Of Mice and Men based on the famous novel by John Steinbeck, is also about dream worlds, the hopes and disillusionment of two outsiders. In summer 2001 the Bregenz Festival also mounted contemporary art events: the programme Art Of Our Times brings contemporary theatre to the Workshop Theatre in a collaboration with Hamburg’s Thalia Theater, while a new collaboration with the Kunsthaus Bregenz was concerned with the theme of "America of the 20th century".
1999 und 2000
Verdi's A Masked Ball was produced in 1999 on the Lake for the first time in the history of the Bregenz Festival. The opera, which unites antitheses like Dance and Death, was staged so spectacularly at Bregenz that pictures of it went round the world in the summer of 1999. Further highlights were provided by the operas staged in the Festspielhaus – in 1999, Bohuslav Martinů’s Greek Passion, in 2000 The Golden Cockerel by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov – as well as Workshop Theatre productions such as the mono-opera Das Tagebuch der Anne Frank (‘The Diary of Anne Frank’) by Grigori Frid, the fringe-festival and in the year 2000 Astor Piazzolla’s ‘Tango Operita’ Maria de Buenos Aires.
1997 und 1998
The Bregenz Festival departed for new shores. This was visible not only in the giant highway jutting out of the lake, scenery for a production of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess; the new departure was also signalled by the opening of the Workshop Theatre (Werkstattbühne), conceived as an experimental theatre. With the Workshop Theatre added to the two existing venues, the Seebühne and the Great Hall of the Festspielhaus, the Festival in 1998 had a total capacity of 12,000 seats at its disposal. 1998 saw the world premiere of Georg Friedrich Haas’s opera Nacht (‘Night’) in the Workshop Theatre. The Bregenz Festival introduced a young people’s programme, cross culture, which in succeeding years managed to attract up to 10,000 young visitors annually. Cross culture was awarded the Austrian State Prize for Public Relations in 1998.
1995 und 1996
The Bregenz Festival celebrated its fiftieth year. With Beethoven’s Fidelio on the Lake (conducted by Ulf Schirmer, directed by David Pountney, with sets by Stefanos Lazaridis) and Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh (conducted by Vladimir Fedoseyev, directed by Harry Kupfer, with sets by Hans Schavernoch) the Festival continued its policy of producing a popular work on the Lake and an unknown work in the Festspielhaus.
In its jubilee year the Bregenz Festival attracted a record number of visitors. Again, additional viewing stands were erected and extra performances scheduled, but the demand for tickets still could not be fully satisfied. With audiences totalling 318,000 Fidelio became the most visited Seebühne production.
1993 und 1994
Public interest in the Seebühne production of Nabucco exceeded all expectations; additional viewing stands were erected and extra performances were scheduled, but still the demand could not be fully satisfied. Over 300,000 people saw Verdi’s Nabucco on the Lake in the summer of '93 and '94. After long discussions, public subsidy bodies approved construction of a rehearsal stage to be docked right next to the Festspielhaus. The stage is intended to make production conditions considerably easier and thus more cost-effective too.
The Bregenz production style also brought about change in the Festspielhaus, whose program of operatic rarities counterbalances the opulent productions on the Lake. Operas that have been unjustly neglected are dusted down and staged in modern productions of high artistic calibre, in the hope that they might be restored to the repertoire. This area of Bregenz Festival dramaturgy, with its distinctive aesthetic style, has come to be highly regarded internationally and has consolidated the festival’s reputation as being innovative.
A new era for the Festival was ushered in by the triumphant success of The Magic Flute on the Lake. From this year on, all productions on the Seebühne run for two seasons. The stage constructions became sturdier because they now had to stay put throughout winter too. The Bregenz directors aimed at a unique production style: namely popular theatre accessible to all and yet with high artistic standards. The Bregenz style stands for the bold visual representation of the themes in the operas on the Lake. This means the operas can be understood on an emotional level and are easier to comprehend, so that even people who rarely go to the opera can follow what is happening in the work. It is this production style, the unique location, and the inimitable atmosphere of open-air theatre which account for the special appeal of the Bregenz Festival.
1979 und 1980
A long-cherished dream of the Festival management came true with the opening of the Festival and Congress Hall in 1980 (and a new Seebühne in 1979). Although, after many discussions, only part of the original project was realized, it still meant that the Festival had new possibilities at its disposal. The Festspielhaus (as it is now known) is connected to the Seebühne, so if the weather suddenly turns bad, about 1,700 of the 4,500 audience members can be accommodated there for an indoor performance. The stage has comparable dimensions to the stages of international opera houses. The new Seebühne has a concrete core in which the most important facilities and amenities are located, along with the orchestra pit. The core is surrounded by wooden piles which support the foundations of the stage set.
While two different music theatre productions were mounted simultaneously on the Lake this year (Der Bettelstudent and Die Feenkönigin), Martinsplatz, a square in the old quarter of Bregenz where occasional serenade concerts had been held in the 1960s, was discovered as a new venue for Festival events. Since 1972, open-air theatre performances have been mounted there in cooperation with the Theater für Vorarlberg. The double bill on the Lake remained a one-off, however: in future only one production would be given on the Lake per year.
Bregenz’s first theatre, the Kornmarkttheater, opened. The building was a converted granary, its former function preserved in the theatre’s name (‘corn market theatre’). With seating for about 700 people, the small theatre was conceived in such a way that opera and ballet could be performed there. As far as spoken theatre is concerned, the Kornmarkttheater became the base of the Vorarlberg Regional Theatre (Vorarlberger Landestheater) and it also hosted the Vienna Burgtheater, the Volkstheater, the Josefstadt Theater and a number of German theatre companies giving guest performances during the Festival. In music theatre, Italian bel canto and light operas were staged here until the 1970s.
The Bregenz Festival acquired its first home: an off-shore stage erected on wooden piles, on which mainly operettas and ballets were performed. The open-air auditorium had a capacity of 6,500 seats; in the event of rain, a sports’ hall seating 1,000 people could be used instead. The previous year, 1949, had seen the foundation of the Patrons of the Bregenz Festival, a Bregenz residents organization which subsequently became the organizer of the annual Festival.
Stage designer Walter von Hoesslin, with director Adolf Rott, took the first steps towards a distinct Bregenz production style, in that he dispensed with the conventional proscenium stage when designing the Seebühne. For him the lake was not just scenery, but a central element of the productions.
One year after the end of the Second World War, the first Bregenz Festival was held: the week-long Bregenz Festwoche. The inaugural performance was staged upon two barges moored on Lake Constance – one carrying the stage structures for Mozart’s early work Bastien et Bastienne, the other the orchestra. In a town that did not even possess a theatre, the idea of mounting a festival seemed eccentric; but the initially makeshift solution of choosing the loveliest part of the town – the lake – as the stage proved to be a hugely successful one. Visitors from Austria, Germany, Switzerland and France made the Festival an international event in its very first year. The Festival orchestra from the outset was the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, which has made a major contribution to the evolution and success of the Festival.