I first went to the Wiener Staatsoper-Vienna State Opera- when I was rehearsing and performing Florestan at the nearby Klosterneuburg Summer Festival. One of the best features of this great opera house was that Standing Room tickets were €2! This was 2007 and now they cost €10—AN OUTRAGE!! — but pretty cheap all the same. There’s a whole routine and regulars get there early and tie sweaters to the railings to reserve their place. It means that ANYONE can be an opera lover and partake at one of the great theaters of the world. The sound is great and the sight lines ok and you can sit on the floor if you want. Wien, München, London, Paris and Milano are probably Europe’s very top opera houses. This is not to say that they don’t ever do garbage or fall into mediocre periods, but their quality, tradition and infrastructure are unrivaled.
So, it’s interesting to see what their new season and new administration will bring. They’ve been closed to live audiences and live streams are still free, so check it out, but looking at their season and their onstage Gala preview gives a glimpse not only to a new era in a great theater, but how some of the singers have developed and advanced over long careers. It is in sharp contrast to our usual American model where young singers make splashy debuts and unless taken up by the Met ,short singing careers and long teaching ones..
This is why the announcement of a new season under new management is interesting: it shows how singers have developed over the long arc of a career. For instance Camilla Nyland, appears at the Gala to announce the upcoming season. I suspect she is becoming a “Grand Dame” in Vienna (justifiably), beloved not just for her many powerful roles, but also for her festive star turn as Rosalinda in the famous New Year’s Eve Die Fledermaus. Nylund might be the ultimate example of how it can still work in the German system. She worked her way through Hannover and the Semperoper Dresden, for about five years, singing operetta, the Contessa and Pamina and some Händel. She did it by being , treading that line and true to the theater where she worked. She developed and knew when to leave and apparently only left positive feeling behind. Now, almost 25 years down the professional road she has successfully sung Strauss, Verdi, Beethoven and now is a staple in the Wagner repertoire and yet be singing Rosalinda at the New Year’s Eve Gala. No wonder they love her! It may be the perfect way to do a career.
Another singer featured this year, Elina Garanca will sing her signature role, Carmen (I think she tried to give it up, but I suspect she agreed to it so she could move up to Amneris, a big vocal/repertoire leap. Besides being very talented and beautiful she has always known exactly what what who she wanted, at least according to people at the Meiningen, Germany, Staatstheater, where she started professionally. These are both mature singers nearing or at the top of their powers, who are still growing and thriving. It can blow at any seam, as Tom Wolfe said, but it can work gloriously!
A couple of tenors are also interesting examples. The great Jonas Kaufman is singing Radamès, and whether his voice thrills you or not, is also a beloved regular in Wien. Despite the “best” training and grooming in München he ran into vocal difficulties as a young singer in Saarbrücken and had to find his way to the small but tradition rich city of Trier, where the Brooklyn born baritone Michael Rhodes put him on the path he is on. I don’t know if he just smacked Kaufman on the shoulders and tole him to sing with all his voice and drop his larynx,as a retired baritone fan of mine, told me Rhodes had done with him, or if the process was longer and more exacting, but the road is not always simple or straightforward and one of the wonderful things about singing in Germany is that you find extraordinary opera people almost anywhere. Juan Diego Florés, in contrast has wisely chosen to be great at one thing beautiful florid singing and great high notes. Still singing Tonio he has expanded into Alfredo in Verdi’s La Traviata, but thankfully he chooses to be the absolute best at what he does best. You never know but I can’t imagine that his Sänger in Rosenkavalier won’t be a joy. So as the Emperor says in Amadeus “There you have it!”.