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The Main Event

REBECCA SCHMID raises the curtain on Frankfurt Opera, which has become one of Europe's most exciting theaters — thanks to the savvy of intendant Bernd Loebe.

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Johannes Erath's Frankfurt Opera staging of Otello, 2011, with Elza van den Heever (Desdemona) and Claudia Mahnke (Emilia)
© Monika Rittershaus 2013
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Bernd Loebe, Frankfurt's visionary intendant
© Maik Scharfscheer 2013
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Sebastian Weigle, the company's general music director
© Monika Rittershaus 2013

A little more than a decade ago, one would have been hard pressed to find Frankfurt on the lips of leading agents in the opera world. Following the departure of music director and intendant Sylvain Cambreling in 1996 — amid reported political intrigues and a financial crisis triggered by German reunification, which obliged city artistic directors and theater managers to cut their budgets by a quarter — the opera house was bogged down in a stagione system, with a reduced number of productions mostly inhabited by guest artists. The ensemble consisted of only twelve singers. The artistic stagnation led the press to take note of Frankfurt Opera's downturn after a golden decade (from 1977–87) under Michael Gielen, who championed cutting-edge stagings and mounted productions such as the world premiere of John Cage's Europeras 1 & 2 and the German premiere of Luigi Nono's Al Gran Sole Carico d'Amore

With the introduction in 1996 of a semi-stagione, or hybrid repertory, system (similar to the one at the Metropolitan Opera) and the arrival of the current intendant, Bernd Loebe, in 2002, the Southwest German city began to put itself back on the map. A year after Loebe's arrival, the company won the title of Germany's "Opera House of the Year" in the magazine Opernwelt. The attendance rate has risen steadily to 87 percent last season. Revenue during Loebe's tenure has increased by €2.5 million. The company can count on seven to eight new productions per season in its main house and up to three in a converted train depot, the Bockenheimer, that serves as an off-space, as well as concert performances at the rebuilt nineteenth-century concert hall of the Alte Oper. Perhaps most significantly, the house, now with an ensemble of more than thirty members, has nurtured the careers of young, up-and-coming singers such as Elza van den Heever, Brenda Rae, Christiane Karg and Daniel Behle. It can also boast guest artists such as Christian Gerhaher, Johan Botha, Jonas Kaufmann and Nina Stemme. 

Loebe, sitting in his office across from the glass high-rise banks that have earned Frankfurt the nickname "Mainhattan," admits that he was not sure at first how easy it would be to turn out quality performances in the new system when he returned to his native city after eleven years as artistic director at Brussels's Théâtre de la Monnaie (a stagione house). A repertory system, which rotates performances over several months to years, rather than presenting them in blocks over a given season, requires a strong, flexible ensemble able to fill out a wide range of roles. "I don't expect a lyric tenor to sing Tristan, but it will be a mix of Mozart, Bellini, Handel or Donizetti," Loebe explains. "It is a constant supervision of singers, a constant dialogue about making the right decisions. We create a family-style atmosphere where our artists can feel at home. I enjoy mentoring them not only vocally but as an advisor and friend." The day after our interview, he is scheduled to fly to New York for a brief visit to hear van den Heever's Met debut as Elisabetta in Maria Stuarda  — and to scout other singers.

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Paul Appleby (Tom) and Brenda Rae (Anne) in The Rake's Progress
© Monika Rittershaus 2013

Loebe's hands-on approach to his ensemble has raised the profile of his house while providing singers with opportunities that make even the best young-artist programs pale in comparison. Van den Heever, who joined the ensemble five seasons ago at age twenty-seven, credits Frankfurt Opera for taking a chance on her despite her limited professional experience, allowing her to perform major roles — from Elsa in Lohengrin to the title role of Anna Bolena — that would lay the foundation for her core repertoire. "The prospect of making a Met debut is daunting enough without having the added pressure of its being a role debut as well," she wrote in an e-mail between performances of Maria Stuarda. "Having had the opportunity to sing Elisabetta, even if it was just in concert, was incredibly generous of Mr. Loebe. I really found myself, artistically, on the stage of Frankfurt Opera, surrounded by incredible colleagues, a fantastic orchestra and wonderful conductors. There are hardly the words to express my gratitude." 

American soprano Brenda Rae, also an ensemble member of five seasons, who came to the house fresh out of Juilliard, says that although Loebe's first priority is the quality of Frankfurt Opera, he takes pride in fostering her development. "I hear horror stories from other people in German houses that you have to sing whatever the boss tells you. Bernd has given me a lot of opportunities to grow, but he won't force me to sing anything I don't want to. We really listen to each other, and if one of us believes strongly in something, then that's it." Rae has added twenty roles to her repertory since arriving in Frankfurt, including Maria Stuarda, Violetta and Lucia; the latter provided her with the opportunity to cover last June at the Vienna State Opera, where she stepped in on short notice opposite Piotr Beczala. She will make her Santa Fe Opera debut in La Traviata this summer.

Having a crop of able young singers at a house's disposal is advantageous not only artistically but financially. Frankfurt Opera operates on a budget of approximately €46.5 million, only 15 percent of which is invested in guest artists. When ensemble members find themselves in high demand elsewhere, the administration strives to accommodate them with dream roles or, when possible, a reduction of contractual obligations. The high number of opera performances that the company is currently able to maintain is, paradoxically, also more economically efficient. The expenditure on staff does not change whether the house — which shares its stagecraft and personnel with the city theater — is performing fewer than 100 opera performances a season (as was the case under the stagione system during the crisis of the 1990s) or more than 180. Frankfurt, with a population of 700,000 and limited tourism, does not lend itself to the stagione system as easily as a larger city: after a certain number of runs, the audience for a given opera has expired. Although more than half comes from outside the city of Frankfurt, the steady rise in attendance also stems from the fact that locals who used to travel to Munich, Bayreuth and Salzburg are choosing to frequent their own opera house, where they find the quality to be at least as good.

The response corresponds with Loebe's holistic approach to audience-building, which trusts the inherent curiosity of viewers rather than catering to a commercially popular aesthetic. "An audience member can recognize how a singer like Brenda Rae has developed," he observes. "They have watched her gain in artistic class from production to production. One doesn't have to have Netrebko, who can be a marvelous singer in certain roles. I believe that the Frankfurt audience is interested in the whole package, not in having one to two great artists onstage, or a beautiful set, or a conductor with a big name. One shouldn't demand too little of an audience. One can also pose questions." The company maintains an extensive outreach program that includes in-school workshops; introductions to premiere productions with the stage team; and a post-performance discussion series called Oper Lieben ("love opera"), which Loebe hosts himself. There are more than thirty different kinds of subscriptions, from a package of premieres in the Bockenheimer Depot to admission for five revivals. The number of subscribers has risen from just over 8,000 when Loebe arrived to 12,000-plus as of early this season.

The success can be attributed to the right blend of strategic acumen and artistic risk. Pamela Rosenberg, who worked as an artistic administrator in the Gielen era before going on to become co-intendant of Stuttgart Opera and, from 2001–06, led San Francisco Opera through one of the most economically difficult and artistically daring periods in the company's history, believes that the courage to follow one's instincts is a necessary part of building a wider audience. "The only way to make progress is to try certain things out," she says. "Loebe has put together an exquisite ensemble that he can draw upon in depth. He has been very, very clever about taking chances with unknown names after seeing enough of their work, while sprinkling some established artists into the mix. One of the positive aspects of having an ensemble is that its members increasingly develop antennas for each other onstage. The cohesiveness and ability to react to each other just gets better and better. And the audience identifies with certain members. They start to feel that someone is their singer."

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Charlotta Larsson (Vanessa) and Kurt Streit (Anatol) in Katharina Thoma's staging of Vanessa, 2012
© Barbara Aumüller 2013

Loebe also strives to create continuity with his directors. Christoph Loy, Claus Guth and Richard Jones are regular fixtures, but he is also inclined to offer opportunities to onetime assistants, such as Katharina Thoma, who staged a premiere production of Samuel Barber's Vanessa in September. In keeping with a more repertory-based system, many productions are devised on the house's own means (as opposed to in coproduction, which is more common in stagione). Sebastian Weigle, general musical director, reversing a common scenario in which the conductor and director end up at loggerheads as the opening performance approaches, often attends rehearsals right from the beginning to follow a director's vision. "I am of the opinion that one has to work closely together," he says. "For example, there might be moments in a score that demand total silence. It is better to intervene up front, rather than come in after the singers have rehearsed six weeks and say, 'That doesn't work!' The more logical the theatrical development, the more logical the musical will be." 

For the company's complete Ring cycle this season — for which the individual operas had been given their premieres in 2010–11 and 2011–12, and which was recorded for DVD with partner label Oehms Classics — the entire team gathered two years in advance to discuss their experience with the tetralogy. Neither the director, Vera Nemirova, nor Weigle had led the full cycle before. "We approached it with children's eyes," he says. As they were sitting on the train together, she began drawing a diagram of the four elements that served as the basis for the staging, with a color that corresponded to either water, wind, fire or earth for each installment. Weigle added his musical insight and achieved the effect he envisioned through extensive experimentation and rehearsal, which he admits was quite stressful for everyone involved but led to an incredibly satisfying final product. The conductor describes his relationship with Loebe as one of closely coordinated partnership. He notes that the cast lists he receives for revival productions are often so good he can only nod in agreement. "We see each other eye to eye," he says. "We always find a solution if one of us is not satisfied." 

Despite the tight-knit system, both Weigle and Loebe place tremendous value on having guest conductors to maintain a rich variety in the house. The quality has improved dramatically under Loebe, who has brought in notables such as Bertrand de Billy, Kirill Petrenko and San Francisco Opera's Nicola Luisotti. With everything from baroque to contemporary works on the program, inspiration from the outside keeps the orchestra on its toes. In many German houses, a rotation system can alter the players in the pit from rehearsal to performance; in Frankfurt, however, the company plans everything precisely, which Luisotti notes is an important selling point. "It is a nightmare for conductors when the orchestra members change every night. We, the artists, bring plenty of personal problems as it is. We need intendants like Bernd, who is a friend, a brother and a father all at the same time. The musicians want the best not just for themselves but for the company, the city and their audiences." 

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The Frankfurt Opera House at night
© Wolfgang Runkel 2013

The restored pride in Frankfurt Opera has not subsided, despite a looming international financial crisis that will likely compel the company to seek out more private sponsorship in coming years. Frankfurt's joint entity for producing opera and theater will have to cover approximately one million euros of the cost of a union raise, and more cuts are expected as the business tax revenue on which the city is so reliant decreases. Yet Loebe remains optimistic that the house will retain its importance in the city's social fabric and convinced that a commitment to quality can overcome even trying circumstances. "I have a hard time subscribing to the talk about the crisis in opera — or the end of opera," he says. "If an intendant believes in certain principles, doesn't change his mind and carries them through — if he doesn't follow trends but stands for a certain profile and is in the position to implement his ideas with his team — then the audience comes automatically. Sometimes I say that we have the chance to create a microcosm here. We have all nationalities, over one thousand employees. Opera can create the illusion of an ideal world. I think that is often what the audience takes home." spacer 

REBECCA SCHMID is a classical-music and culture journalist based in Berlin. 

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