Full House at the Staatsoper

New director Dominique Meyer is attracting top talent and big crowds, but still has to deal with “the powers that be”

The Vienna State Opera will perform 52 different operas and nine different ballets in its 2011/2012 season that begins in September and runs until June 30. With very few exceptions, the house rotates these productions so that a different opera or ballet appears each and every evening. These facts alone make the Vienna State Opera unique among music theaters of the world. It has no equivalent.

Therefore the director of this, one of Vienna’s and Austria’s most revered institutions, has a unique status. As of September past, the State Opera has had a new director, Dominique Meyer, who succeeded arguably one of the opera house’s most successful directors ever, Ioan Holender.

On the face of it, Meyer is off to a good start; the percentage of seats sold for opera performances so far is nearly 100%, and he already managed to get two of the world’s most prominent prima donnas, Anna Netrebko and Elena Garanča to perform together for the premiere of Donizetti’s Anna Bolena. There are rumors that scalpers were raking in upwards of $5,000 for a ticket to see the show (regular prices were close to $400 for the best seats). And Placido Domingo will sing Simon Boccanegra to open the fall season. Christian Thielemann, the world’s leading interpreter of romantic German opera, will conduct the Ring — with musical director Welser-Möst’s blessing. The rest of the season is replete with the names of most of the stars in the world of the opera today.

However, critical voices can already be heard, voices that ominously reference “our opera,” the one that belongs to us, the fans. Franz Welser-Möst, the musical director (equivalent to James Levine’s position at the Metropolitan Opera in New York) is off to a bad start. Conventional wisdom is that he is an uninspiring conductor of Mozart, which in Vienna is tantamount to saying that he is just plain uninspiring. The criticism is compounded by Welser-Möst canceling his agreement to conduct THREE operas of the most recent revival of the four operas of Wagner’s monumental Ring. The official explanation was that he was in the hospital suffering from a “virus.”

And while the Anna Bolena premiere was a success, it was expensive to produce, and as it enters the repertory as a little known work, it will have to be cast with singers of lesser stature than those who sang the premiere. It is hardly likely that the investment will redeem itself. Meyer also had to cancel one of his planned premieres for the 2011/2012 season because of irreconcilable differences between Welser-Möst and the producer/director.  So far those aficionados referring to “our opera” blame Meyer for the problem: “He should have known better.”

But there are others, most notably the great composer Gustav Mahler and the renowned maestro Herbert von Karajan, who have also had their troubles. Most, in fact, have served short tenures. As one German actor observed there seems to be a trap door through which Viennese theater directors suddenly and mysteriously fall — and disappear, Holender, the notable exception, the longest serving in the long history of the venerable institution. His ability to persevere was due to a mix of political acumen and an insider’s extraordinary knowledge of the ins and outs of the opera business — gleaned from having been the manager of choice for many of the world’s greatest opera stars. The opera world will long debate Holender’s record-breaking success, a full decade longer than any other director in the history of the Vienna State Opera.

For one of the greatest singers of the 20th century, Christa Ludwig, the Vienna State Opera is the best opera house in the world. This is a woman who is in a position to compare: She has appeared regularly with the best. She sensed the stature of the State Opera, she said, the moment she passed the doorman and headed for her dressing room. Her reverence is easy to understand: No opera singer’s career is complete without performing at the Staatsoper. Take as evidence the premiere of Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera in 1986, with Luciano Pavarotti singing the lead; when the production returned a few months later, Pavarotti’s “replacement” was — Placido Domingo.

Perhaps Holender’s secret was in his political instincts. Until 1999, the State Opera was, in fact, a federal institution with most of its employees civil servants enjoying all of the attendant privileges. This, and the fact that the very existence of this remarkable institution is owed in large part to the status bestowed upon it by the Viennese people, makes the appointment a political one, similar to that of a federal cabinet secretary.

In Vienna, the director of the State Opera is in fact in the news as much as many prominent politicians; certainly the political jockeying surrounding the appointment of Meyer dominated the news as much as a nomination to the Supreme Court in the United States. It came down to a power struggle between former Austrian Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer, who preferred Neil Shicoff (because they were good friends), and the secretary for Education, the Arts and Culture, Claudia Schmied. Schmied won the battle using a heretofore unheard of selection procedure: She did it professionally. She consulted experts, made long lists, shortened them, interviewed the candidates and reached a decision. That the powers that be accepted this decision planted Schmied immediately on the front pages – an achievement that still overshadows all the other thorny issues with which Schmied has wrestled in her pivotal cabinet position.

The Vienna State Opera is extremely resistant to change. It has its own inertia, its own dynamics, which have thwarted any number of would be reformers. Lorin Maazel, who was appointed director of the Staatsoper with great fanfare and great expectations in 1982, threw in the towel — with much unflattering press — after only two seasons. His principal failing? He attempted to radically reduce the repertory by some twenty operas a season — from the customary 50 or so — and promised a “gala performance” every evening. (The Metropolitan Opera in New York, by comparison, performs around 26-27 operas each year, in a season shorter than the Staatsoper’s. Ballet is performed in a separate season by a separate company, the American Ballet).

The great von Karajan left the State Opera in a mighty huff in 1964, ostensibly because the musicians’ union would not let him hire native speakers of Italian as prompters. Others say that he left because Leonard Bernstein had been chosen to conduct a centerpiece of the opera’s repertory, Tristan und Isolde. Von Karajan never returned to the Staatsoper except for a short but wildly popular series of three operas in 1977.  Still, the Vienna State Opera did quite well without him, thank you very much.

The stature and reputation of the Vienna State Opera results from the same inertia and dynamics that have defeated so many directors who, in the mind of the self-appointed custodians of the house, have violated basic shared principles — or were simply unable to negotiate their way through the bewildering thicket of tradition and politics. When the venerable Karl Böhm, whose tenure as director of the State Opera was also very short for inscrutable reasons, celebrated his final departure as conductor from the Staatsoper, he ended his final remarks with an admonition to the assembled prominence to temper its enthusiasm for the “intrigues” that have plagued the house almost since it was founded in the middle of the 19th century.

It is those very wardens who jealously — and zealously — talk about “OUR opera” who released the hinge on the trap door through which so many Viennese theater directors have fallen.

Stanley Hale was a member of the Vienna State Opera as a violist for more than 30 years. Also a literary scholar and linguist, he now works as an editor and translator in German, English and Russian and as Media Contact for Democrats Abroad Austria.

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