Theater Overview



Recently a long time opera house administrator who is now teaching in Berlin complained that young American singers would audition one day for the theater in Hof, the next for Hamburg and have no idea of the difference. It’s great to be egalitarian and enthusiastic, but you also need some idea of the context of any audition.

German opera houses are generally divided into four categories. It’s fitting that just as so much of opera is about history, power and money, Germans categorize their opera houses along similar lines. They are undergoing change as budgets and funding shrink, but are still tied to which governmental entity supports and funds them. They are part of civic life and as such are supported by and represent the local, regional and even national government. Political parties play a role in shaping programming and there is usually representative responsible for the Arts. Local money, power and prestige is also reflected by the opera house, and historical importance also plays a role in the funding of many theaters. There is a very general correlation between the size of the political entity which supports a theater and it’s importance, but there are exceptions. There is also a rating of orchestra pay which is based on a complicated formula involving orchestra size, the number of seats and size of theater, and other factors, called Orchestraklasse, and goes from A++ to D, which is valuable to understand the importance and financial resources of theaters. From the highest prestige/political grouping to lowest/smallest, theaters are grouped into:

These theaters are supported by one of the 16 Bundesländer (States). Some are also “National” theaters and supported as well by the Federal government. Many Staatstheater are among Germany’s most prominent, but not all. Some represent less wealthy States, and others have gotten this designation fo historical reasons. In these cases it’s useful to look at the Orchestraklasse rating.

The most important Staatstheater are those in
München, Berlin Dresden and Hamburg, followed by Stuttgart, Karlsruhe, and then Nürnberg, Hannover, Wiesbaden, Kassel and Braunschweig. Others, like Weimar and Meiningen represent important cultural heritage. Some Staatstheaters, Cottbus or Darmstadt are not large or wealthy theaters but have more resources because of their status as a Staatstheater.

By far the largest group of theaters, representing a wide variety of theaters and cities. In some ways it’s pretty simple: the bigger and richer the city, the better the theater.. Orchestraklasse is a good starting point to get an idea of quality and it pays to talk to the agents and ask around to find out what the work atmosphere is like and whether big changes are underway. Several Stadttheater have international status and large ensembles, like Frankfurt, Köln, Düsseldorf and Mannheim, which is also designated as a Nationaltheater. Don’t forget, a contract in one of these theaters means you’re a ‘City Employee’. Think of that!

Landesbühne / Landestheater
Usually smaller regional theaters which serve a wider area of small towns. Ensembles will be smaller but that means an opportunity for lots of experience and an intimate work atmosphere. It can also mean many late night bus trips from productions at nearby theaters. Not always easy work but can be very valuable.

Städte/bund)theater Städte is the plural of Stadt, and -bund means a group. These are often small cities or town which have consolidated opera ensembles and orchestras. They often have a ‘home’ theater but regularly perform and rehearse at the nearby theaters.

There are pluses and minuses to all of these situations, and it’s good to have an idea of what suits your personality, talents and situation. Large, high level theaters have high musical and artistic standards and provide entree to other first rate theaters, but experience is initially limited to small roles, and patience is required. Some singers need experience in major roles to develop and will not get those opportunities early on in a large theater. Others, like Yosep Kang at the Deutsche Oper Berlin, sing secondary roles for several seasons and patiently develop their talents and opportunities, and eventually make major careers.

Major careers can also be launched from smaller theaters: soprano Janice Baird, for instance, transformed her career in Kiel when she had a success as Brunhilde in Wagner’s Ring, while Elina Garanca is still remembered in the somewhat isolated theater in Meiningen, where she started, as being very determined, and knowing exactly what she wanted. And many others have been content to have long careers singing a wide variety of repertoire in a single theater (although that is much rarer today), while having a rich and secure personal life. Remember as well, that the bigger the theater, the more complicated the bureaucracy. In a small theater and even many Stadttheater you will get to know and even have access to the Musical Director and Intendant, but in large theaters there will be many layers of bureaucracy between you and these people, and relationships can be very formalized and hierarchical.

Understanding these distinctions is part of being a professional opera singer in Germany but more importantly it’ll help you understand what you’re getting into in an audition or a job. You may or may not have a choice, but the knowledge will help you best shape your actions.

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