House Party in Linz

Voted a "European Capital of Culture" in 2009, Linz continues its dramatic reinvention with the opening of the Musiktheater am Volksgarten. SYLVIA L'ÉCUYER raises the curtain on the Austrian theater.

House Party in Linz hdl 813
The exterior of the new theater, designed by Terry Pawson
© Sigrid Rauchdobler 2013
House Party in Linz sm 813
© Sigrid Rauchdobler 2013

visited Linz for the first time in 1990, on a drive from Salzburg to Prague, my curiosity piqued by two landmarks of the city's cultural life. First, I wanted to visit the famed St. Florian monastery, where Anton Bruckner had lived, taught and served as organist, a place where his memory is religiously honored. Second, I wanted to savor an authentic Linzertorte, the city's trademark confection, made with nuts and jam. I found both, but I discovered as well a city still frozen in the bleak shadows of the Iron Curtain. It is astonishing to rediscover it now, more than twenty years later, with its new opera house the lead news item in its rebranding as a center of culture for the people.

Today, Linz — Austria's third largest city — is determined to live up to its motto Kultur für Alle (Culture for All). That is the message that came through clearly at the gala opening ceremonies of Linz's new opera house, the Musiktheater am Volksgarten. As the capital of Upper Austria, a major industrial region known for steel production, Linz has long aspired to find its proper place next to the country's two great cultural powerhouses, Vienna and Salzburg. Previously, its one brief moment of fame in the opera world had occurred in 1958, when Decca producer John Culshaw commissioned from the city a six-meter (twenty-foot) sheet of steel to provide the thunder in Scene 4 of Rheingold for the recording of Solti's Ring cycle in Vienna.

It was common knowledge that the Landestheater, an elegant classical building dating from 1803, needed to be replaced. Although still adequate for staging plays, the building could no longer satisfy the requirements of modern opera as far as acoustics, staging comfort and economics were concerned. 

Even so, the new Musiktheater, first proposed in 1984, got off to a bumpy start. Despite intensive lobbying by the 6,000-strong Freunde des Linzer Musik­theaters society, the proposal was voted down by referendum in the year 2000. But Upper Austrian governor Josef Pühringer persisted in his enthusiasm for the project, and four years later it was finally approved. Still in office today, Pühringer takes pride in pointing out that governments at various levels contributed 95 percent of the €180-million ($236-million) cost of the building and will provide 85 percent of its €40-million ($52-million) annual budget. In one of the opening night's cleverly staged speech breaks between musical numbers, Austrian finance minister Maria Fekter put it this way: "Kultur kostet, aber Unkultur kostet viel, viel mehr" (Culture is expensive, but lack of culture costs much, much more). Executive director Thomas Königstorfer and artistic director Rainer Mennicken both insisted, in their respective statements, that this venue was an opera house, not a multi-purpose facility. "This is a theater for the people of Linz," said Königstorfer. "This is the living room of the city." 

In 2004, an international competition began, which ultimately evaluated more than 200 anonymous designs. Königstorfer, a native of Linz, was on the jury that established the guidelines for the project. "We had four goals," he said when we met backstage in one of the theater's modern dressing rooms, bathed in natural sunlight. "First, we asked for the house to be as welcoming as possible for our audience, with spacious foyers, comfortable seats, good sightlines and the best possible acoustics. Our second goal was to create a theater that wasn't just a classic opera house. We wanted it to have some extra features, not so that it could double as a convention center or a sports arena, but so as to give artists in decades to come the flexibility to create new uses for ituses that we can't even think of nowand not be limited by the design of the building itself. 

"We also wanted to create a facility that could function with maximal efficiency as a repertory theater. The daily routine of dismantling the sets of yesterday's performance, setting up for an afternoon rehearsal of the coming production, then setting up again for the evening presentation — all that is extremely exhausting, especially for the technical crew. So we have a backstage area with lots of space, to keep all this moving around to an absolute minimum. In terms of city planning, our fourth goal was to create a building that would be a new landmark for Linz."

London architect Terry Pawson met all of these requirements. Looking from the outside, the scale, elevation and color of stone connect organically with the surrounding architectural structures, but in a contemporary style. As for the interior, up to twenty-four complete sets can be stored in containers on site. The sets for the next production can easily be moved into a sound-proof backstage area for rehearsals, and with two overlapping revolving transport stages, the larger thirty-two meters (105 ft.) in diameter, set changes are fluid and rapid. 

The first works performed in the new opera house were carefully chosen to demonstrate both the remarkable features of the building itself and the philosophy of itsmanagement team. On April 12, the world premiere of Philip Glass's opera Spuren der Verirrten (The Lost) was conducted by Linz Opera's American-born music director, Dennis Russell Davies. The libretto, by Mennicken, is based on a play by Austrian writer Peter Handke, a controversial figure because of his pro-Serbian position on the war in Yugoslavia. The play deals with the absurdity of life through the narration of a "Spectator," the distress of the "Protagonist," and a stream of couples wandering across the constantly moving stage, some anonymous, some cultural icons such as Salome and Herod, Abraham and Isaac, Oedipus and Medea, even Octavian and the Marschallin. Director David Pountney, whose numerous world premieres include three works by Glass, left no switch unflipped in demonstrating the flexibility of the stage. And the high-octane choreography of Amir Hosseinpour, reminiscent of the jagged style of Édouard Lock's La La La Human Steps,was brilliantly executed by the company. While the restrained opening of Act I evoked the plays of Samuel Beckett, the opera concluded in total chaos and anarchy, with the cast sitting in the orchestra's chairs, the musicians playing onstage, and everyone asking "Where are we?"

I was curious about the choice of Philip Glass, and the answer appears to be Dennis Russell Davies. Named music director of Stuttgart Opera in 1980, he conducted a performance of Glass's Satyagraha there and three years later led the world premiere of Akhnaten. His working relationship with the composer developed further when he became music director and chief conductor of the Bruckner Orchester Linz and the Linz Opera in 2002; with the latter, he recorded The Voyage in 2006, Kepler in 2009 (released on DVD in 2011) and led the premiere of Glass's Ninth Symphony with the Bruckner Orchester in 2012. In January 2013, he conducted Glass's Perfect American in Madrid. 

Davies describes their collaboration in these terms: "Philip has the last word, of course, but he sends me scenes when they are finished, and we have an interesting dialogue. I also work with him on the vocal setting, and he is very open to suggestions. He has done a lot of theater music, and he is used to making the kinds of changes that a production requires. Here, when we worked on this piece, there were many instances when that happened, and very essential musical elements were changed as recently as ten days before the premiere." One of these was David Pountney's request for three alpenhorns and two zithers played onstage. 

Dana Rowe's musical adaptation of John Updike's Witches of Eastwick marked a definite change of pace on the main stage the next day, with a show band in the pit, flying witches and other special effects onstage, and imaginative lighting by Fabrice Kebour. Seven of the very gifted soloists featured in this wicked comedy, created for London's West End, appeared again the next day in a late-night cabaret performance at the BlackBox Lounge, a 270-seat performance and rehearsal space. This was the first show of the newly formed Linz Musical Ensemble. Director Matthias Davids staged both events with flair, and his disciplined, youthful and energetic cast responded with an enthusiasm shared by the audience crowding the small venue. 

Campo Amor — a ballet by Jochen Ulrich, late choreographer and ballet director of Landestheater Linz — showed the technical and acrobatic strength of the resident ballet company. They performed in a shallow pool of water, next to the Bruckner Or­chester Linz and pianist Maki Namekawa playing Monteverdi, Philip Glass and Purcell — protected by a plexigas panel. To complete this celebration, the iconoclastic Catalan theater company La Fura dels Baus was invited to present a free public event in the Volksgarten. A one-hour version of Parsifal, with dozens of aerial acrobats, inflatable props, giant screens, a six-meter-high translucent Parsifal puppet and spectacular fireworks, was offered twice during the first week, with a soundtrack comprised of fragments from Wag­ner's original score.

The grand finale of the five-day festival featured Richard Strauss's Rosenkavalier performed by the permanent members of the company and guest artists — bass Kurt Rydl, a famous Baron Ochs who made his debut in Linz almost forty years ago, and German soprano Anne Schwanewilms, an elegant, warm-voiced Marschallin. Ninety-five of the 120 members of the Bruckner Orchester Linz sat in the pit, performing in the excellent acoustics of the thousand-seat main hall. The Musiktheater am Volksgarten is the orchestra's home, where it rehearses in a well-appointed studio, which also serves as a concert venue, complete with audio and video recording facilities.

The five-day celebration in April was a lavish and warm-hearted affair, with a scrumptious buffet for the whole audience offered in the spacious upper lobby after each evening performance. Families milled around at the open house on Sunday, enjoying the interactive listening stations in their new "living room." Next season includes Die Fledermaus;the premiere of Fadinger, by Austrian composer Ernst Ludwig Leitner; Cage Stage, a performance inspired by John Cage's music; Die Zauberflöte; Rheingold; Walküre;and Carmen, as well as two operas for children and events in the foyer. spacer

SYLVIA L'ÉCUYER is a musicologist and broadcaster. She is an associate professor at Université de Montréal and host and producer of Saturday Opera Broadcasts for Espace Musique, Radio-Canada's music network.

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