In the realm of the mad mountain king, a German opera prepares to go over the top

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The Independent Online

Once upon a time there was a king named Ludwig who squandered his realm on fairy-tale castles and lavish productions of a pioneering genre called "German opera". The megalomania of the sovereign and his favoured composer, Richard Wagner, drove Bavaria into bankruptcy. Ludwig was pronounced mad, he walked into a lake and his state vanished with him.

Now, more than a century later, madness has returned to the Bavarian alps. In a purpose-built theatre on the banks of the lake beneath his most famous castle, Neuschwanstein, Ludwig is set to drown again 400 times a year. Last night saw the premiÿre of an expensive new artistic concept that is hoping to take the world by storm: the "German musical".

You may well laugh - so do German critics. Decried as kitsch in much of the domestic media, Ludwig is hitting Germany's cuckoo-clock belt when big imported musicals are closing in the cities because of falling audiences. The theatre and the DM80m (£25m) invested in the production will prove another folly, the experts warn.

But they have been wrong until now. When Stephan Barbarino, a theatre director and Bavarian patriot, came up with the idea of turning the Ludwig tale into a song and dance five years ago, no one gave him a chance. One disaster followed another. Investors were slow to come forward. When they did, environmentalists around Ludwig's alpine Shangri-La tried to thwart the project, mostly on grounds of cultural pollution.Then the designated songwriter was found in possession of a kilogram of cocaine and marched off to jail.

His successor is Franz Hummel, a noted composer of contemporary opera. Instead of catchy songs, the musical now has arias embedded in a score that blends Wagnerian chords with Viennese waltzes and Bavarian oompah. Does it work? To quote Mark Twain's verdict on Wagner: "It's not as bad as it sounds."

And it is German, even if one of the three Ludwigs sings with a Yorkshire accent. Julian Tovey, a graduate of the Royal Northern, got the part by virtue of his rich baritone and because of his resemblance to Bavaria's peacock king. The Ludwigs, an Englishman, an American and a German, take turns, as one cannot sing in all eight performances a week. But there is a pecking order, and Mr Tovey heads the A-team. "I am on the CD and I'm singing in the world premiÿre. I don't like Neuschwanstein, because it's not my taste. For me this whole thing is an adventure. But it beats singing in some small theatre in Stoke-on-Trent."

Ludwig is in great demand as the premiÿre approaches. "I've got to watch somebody kissing for five minutes," the star apologises, interrupting the interview to rush off to the stage. There is an awful lot of smooching: the king is romantically linked to the tragically fated Empress Sissi of Austria, the Princess of Wales of the 19th century. Mr Tovey must also learn how to kiss a man on the lips. In his time Ludwig would have been described as a "confirmed bachelor". Today he is a homosexual icon, with a Munich-based gay travel agency organising package tours to Ludwig's lakeside show.

Not, perhaps, what Japanese pensioners want to be aware of at the end of their long trek to Neuschwanstein. About 40 per cent of the tickets sold have been snapped up by foreign tour organisers, mostly in Japan and the United States. The Japanese are gripped by a Sissi cult, fanned by a recent cartoon series, and come to Bavaria expecting a romantic tear-jerker. They get surtitles in their own language and a Japanese song performed by two women in kimonos in Act Four.

The production took great care to bow to Japanese desires. Focus groups in Tokyo were consulted about the music and the vivid scenery. They wept, the press office reports, with delight.

The Americans come for the castle that was adopted by the Disney corporation as its emblem and rebuilt in its amusement parks. Cinderella, alas, does not make an appearance. The English-speaking audience can also keep up with the dialogue with the help of surtitles.

Nevertheless, they will struggle to follow the intricacies of Bavarian vs Prussian politics on stage, and might be mystified by the tap-dancers kitted out in Lederhosen. But the theatre's director is convinced that they will find his show irresistible."This place, with its view, it's quite astonishing," Mr Barbarino says, making a sweeping movement towards the illuminated turrets of Neuschwanstein. Admittedly, the lake below is something of a disappointment, given that it has been drained of all its contents and that water will not return until next month.

But the snow-capped peaks opposite and the castles nestling in the "Royal Cove" look as fabulous to the naked eye as advertised in the brochures.

More than a million visitors come to Neuschwanstein every year, Mr Barbarino points out. The musical needs to corral only one out of six of this captive audience to make money.

There are elaborate plans to lighten their wallets. Ticket prices range from DM85 to DM230. The tourists will be encouraged to spend a little more in the "romantic restaurant" overlooking the lake, or in the gift shop where authentic replicas of Ludwig's royal china are sold for exorbitant sums. If there is still some cash left over, Ludwig and Sissi umbrellas can be bought for just under DM100 each.

The spectacle inside is something to behold. Two real-life Lipizzaner horses pull the royal sleigh on the giant revolving stage, Ludwig's grotto is exquisitely vulgar, and the final scene is to die for.

As in the film Titanic, the audience is inclined to forgive the previous three hours of tedium at the climactic moment the star disappears beneath the waves. Apart from the horses, the water, all 100 tonnes of it, is probably the only thing that is real.

"Ludwig is a synonym for Germany," Mr Barbarino asserts. If he is right, then may God help Germany.

For not even the director would pretend that something of enduring value has been conjured up on the dried-out bank of the Forggensee. Unlike Wagner's dramas, Ludwig will probably not be drawing audiences a hundred years from now.

No matter. The investors need only five years of good sales to recoup their outlay. So far 400,000 tickets have been sold. In the light of that, this Bavarian enterprise suddenly seems no more insane than some other local ventures. Like a big Munich-based car company pouring billions into factories in Britain. Now that's what Bavarians call mad.