Cultural Tourist: A fine, upstanding opera tradition
Sunday 16 May 2004
It is always a delight to rediscover how inexpensive it can be to enjoy opera elsewhere in Europe.
It is always a delight to rediscover how inexpensive it can be to enjoy opera elsewhere in Europe. Last month in Vienna I queued at the Staatsoper an hour before the curtain went up on an otherwise sold-out performance of Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier and paid only €3 (£2) for a standing-room place. And this was not some back-of-the-gods, restricted-view position, but a purpose-built enclosure immediately behind the stalls with a full view of the stage, each place with a cushioned bar to lean on and a small screen for the simultaneous translation, just as seated patrons have.
Every night 500 of these stehplätze are available, which shows a powerful commitment by the opera house, city, and government to access for all to the finest products of Western culture. That evening's Rosenkavalier was the best I have seen and heard (Soile Isokoski as the Marschallin, Angelika Kirchschlager as Octavian, and a tremendous performance by Franz Hawlata as Baron Ochs).
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An invaluable resource for anyone interested in attending opera abroad is the Operabase website ( www.operabase.com), a huge database giving details of productions past, current and future, and links for booking online. Complicated itineraries and arrangements involving several places on a tour of Europe are made the work of half an hour online.
Two interesting new operas discovered while browsing the site have their premieres within the next month. One, Shadowtime, is the first opera by the distinguished British composer Brian Ferneyhough, which will have its first performance at the Prinzregententheater in Munich on 25 May. It promises a radical rethinking of opera form, comprising seven scenes, which follow no chronological order, tell no story, and, in some cases, use no words.
The work presents the ideas and final hours of Walter Benjamin, the great German-Jewish cultural thinker who killed himself on the French-Spanish border in despair at not being allowed to flee over the border from the Nazis.
The second new opera premieres in the delightful 18th-century theatre at Drottningholm Slott, the residence of the Swedish royal family near Stockholm. The Hungarian composer Miklos Maros - long resident in Sweden - has chosen a suitably Baroque subject for his new work, Castratos. In it the Swedish king, Gustav III, incognito, meets two of the 18th-century's greatest singers, the castratos Farinelli and Marchesi. It opens on 3 June.
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