Oh, Vienna…

If you asked people to close their eyes and try to picture a typical opera house in their head, I suspect that many would immediately conjure up an image of the Vienna Staatsoper, so iconic is this wonderful old building.

Opened in 1869, and restored after severe damage to the auditorium and backstage areas during World War II, the Wiener Staatsoper (to give it its proper title) has a long and fascinating history. Gustav Mahler, Richard Strauss, Clemens Krauss, Karl Böhm, Herbert von Karajan, and even briefly a singer, the great Eberhard Waechter, to name but a few, were all directors of this illustrious opera house.

The company is very closely tied to the legendary Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, whose membership is selected from the Staatsoper orchestra, so that gives you an indication of just how high the standard of musicianship is here.

The Vienna Staatsoper is what is known as a “repertory” house, which simply means that the company works from a large repertoire of existing productions, which can be staged with minimal rehearsal time. Every year, some of the older or less popular productions will be replaced with new ones, but the majority of productions will run for at least several years, through multiple revivals. This means that the Wiener Staatsoper can put on 50-60 different opera productions and 10 of ballet, getting towards 300 performances, throughout their 10-month year, considerably more than most opera houses. It’s one of the few houses left where you can pretty much see a different opera every night of the week. (In contrast, the “stagione” (season) system, which is employed throughout most British and American houses, involves staging a small number of shows at a time, over an extended rehearsal period with a brief run of performances thereafter.)

It’s opera produced on an industrial scale. For a singer, this means one thing – know your stuff.

When you come to do a gig here, don’t even think about arriving under-prepared. There are normally only a couple days of studio rehearsal before you perform. Forget about little luxuries like music calls, sitzproben (orchestral music rehearsals), and stage time. If you’re lucky, you might occasionally get the first two, but rarely the third.

This is the third time I’ve worked for the company. The first was Peter Grimes in November 2013, in which I sang Balstrode, when we had a staggering two full weeks of rehearsal, with all the trimmings. This was owing to the fact that the piece is full of complicated chorus scenes, and hadn’t been revived for a number of years, so some serious brushing up was needed. But this is far from the norm, as I’ve subsequently discovered.

Contrast that with my second experience, which was one performance of Elektra in November last year. This was a “wiederaufnahme” (revival) of a production which had been new earlier in the year. For this, I enjoyed a full 3 hours of studio rehearsal, with no stage time, and no orchestral rehearsal. It was a case of learn the moves and get on with it!

Luckily, the recognition scene is relatively straightforward, featuring only two characters – Elektra and her long-lost brother Orest – and I was very fortunate to be singing with the fabulous Nina Stemme. She and I have worked together a couple of times before, and it’s always a treat to share the stage with this special lady. Although she is one of the finest singers in the world, at the very top of her game, there’s absolutely nothing of the Diva about her. She is as down to earth as one could hope for. As a newcomer to an existing show, other stars might have abandoned me to rehearse alone with the revival director, but Nina turned up on her evening off to help talk me through it. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – a good colleague is worth their weight in gold.

My current engagement here is for Salome, to sing Jochanaan in a production that is older than I am. It was new in 1972, the year before I was born.

It’s not often, these days, that singers (or audiences, for that matter) get to experience traditional and historical stagings, and this is something that can really only happen now in repertory houses like the Vienna Staatsoper. Some of the stagione houses still have the odd important, long-standing production, and many repertory houses still harbour the odd aging classic or two, but few can rival Vienna. Fidelio, which is running concurrently with our Salome, is from the 1960s. Norbert Ernst, our Narraboth in Salome and Bob Boles in Grimes, who has previously sung in that Fidelio production, told me he nearly had kittens when he went for his costume fitting and saw the name “Wolfgang Windgassen” sewn into the lining of his outfit.

Well, I think I’ve got him beaten. My head – by which I mean the prop of Jochanaan’s decapitated head – in our Salome production is a mould of the original Jochanaan’s head from the 1972 staging, Eberhard Waechter himself. Top that, if you’ll pardon the pun.

On Salome, we had a relatively luxurious 9 hours of studio rehearsal, with one sitzprobe which took place in the breathtaking Goldener Saal (Golden Hall) of the Musikverein, the home of the Vienna Philharmonic. Some of you will no doubt recognise it from the glamourous New Year’s Day concerts which take place there every year. It was a real treat to rehearse with this amazing orchestra in such august surroundings.

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Back in the theatre, there was one thing I would not have a chance to experience before our first performance, and that was Jochanaan’s cistern. Much as that sounds like a personal loo, it’s actually a prison. For much of the role, Jochanaan is unseen, his raving prophecies echoing up from the well into which Herod has cast him. When Strauss first wrote Salome, before the advent of electrical amplification, the singer had to be positioned in such a way that he might be heard, but not seen. Nowadays, you’re normally set a long way backstage, singing into a microphone that’s fed to an in-house PA system, but, I’m delighted to say, in Vienna that’s still not the case. Here, as originally intended by the composer, there is a well sunk into the stage, from which Jochanaan’s unamplified voice can be heard.

Simple. Or not, as the case may be.

The problem for the singer is that you’re rather divorced from proceedings down there, and it takes a little bit of getting used to. You can’t see very much, and the moment you start to sing you completely deafen yourself, Jochanaan’s music being set very high and loud for the voice. Strauss composed it this way anticipating just how tricky it would be for the audience hear Jochanaan, and moment you start to sing those big phrases in the confined space of the well, your ears start ringing painfully. During the first performance, which, as I say, was my first experience of the cistern, the solution I (very quickly) discovered was to stick my fingers in my ears, keep my eyes glued to the conductor to keep in time, and hope like hell my tuning wasn’t off.

Working at the Wiener Staatsoper is a treat that I wish every singer could experience at least once in their career. It’s exciting to perform opera this way, relying wholly on your nerve, instinct and experience to try to deliver a great performance. In many ways it’s a purer, more natural form of making music when compared with the current operatic vogue, where theatre directors rule the roost, demanding endless, mind-numbing weeks of repetitive rehearsal that are simply unnecessary, by the end of which any form of musical spontaneity has been relentlessly ground away to nothing.

That the Staatsoper can produce so many operas to such a high standard in so little time just goes to show how often human resources are being pointlessly and wastefully frittered away elsewhere.


6 thoughts on “Oh, Vienna…

  1. Great stuff, once again. Always entertaining and enlightening.

    Has tuning/pitch standardised in Vienna now?
    I understand it was (is?) about a semitone higher than standard (440).
    Thanks

  2. Great article! One of the few items left on my wish list would be to sing in Vienna! (Staatsoper and Musikverein…) Although I heard from an Austrian colleague that the morale in the ensemble is low due to the stress of the monimental work-load…….

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