Saturday, 24 August 2019

A stage seven times the size of the Vienna State Opera: I chat to Daniel Serafin, artistic director of Oper im Steinbruch (Opera in the Quarry) in Austria

Mozart: Die Zauberflöte - Oper im Steinbruch, 2019 (Photo  Raimund Bauer Bühnenbild Media Apparat)
Mozart: Die Zauberflöte - Oper im Steinbruch, 2019 (Photo  Raimund Bauer Bühnenbild Media Apparat)
Daniel Serafin (Photo  Lisa Schulcz)
Daniel Serafin (Photo  Lisa Schulcz)
The quarry at St Margarethen im Burgenland (some 50km South-East of Vienna) in Austria has been there since Roman times, and it supplied stone for St Stephen's Cathedral in Vienna and many of the buildings on the Ringstrasse, and the modern part of the quarry continues to do so. Within this fascinating landscape, opera has been presented since the 1990s. The festival, Oper im Steinbruch, is now supported by the Esterházy Foundation, which owns the quarry, and the local authority, das Land Burgenland. There was no opera last year, and this year Daniel Serafin took over as artistic director and Oper im Steinbruch (Opera in the Quarry) presented Mozart's Die Zauberflöte [see my review].

Whilst attending Die Zauberflöte I was able to meet Daniel and chat with him about his ideas for Oper im Steinbruch and his ambitious plans, whilst sampling the hospitality in The Lounge which is one of the catering options on offer at the opera, complete with a wonderful view of the audience arriving down the striking zig-zag corten ramp which leads down from the quarry edge. The opera's audience, as I learn from Daniel, is 96% German-speaking, and one of the festival's raisons d'être is the way it attracts audiences who might not go to an opera house alongside regular opera goers .

Daniel started out as a baritone, studying at the Mozarteum in Salzburg and then the Juilliard School. But he then did a degree in business administration, which gives him a knowledge of both music and of how to run a business, so he understands how the patchwork of music and business comes together. He has stopped performing as a baritone, in order to concentrate on Oper im Steinbruch, and his artistic directorship of the Viennese Opera Ball in New York (now in its 65th year).

Oper im Steinbruch - 2019
Oper im Steinbruch - 2019
So who comes to Oper im Steinbruch?
Daniel names a whole list of people, those interested in opera, those who have never been to the opera, those who enjoy outdoor events, those whose interest is culinary or gastronomic, those who enjoy the fireworks at the end, or because they have never seen anything like it.

Staging opera in a 2000-year-old quarry means that they can provide an atmosphere no opera house can, with the danger rain and the beauty of the sun. The quarry provides the largest natural stage in Europe running to 7000 square metres. Whilst I was there, three huge ravens sat on the edge of the quarry around the stage, all part of the huge set. People come because they want to be fascinated, to see an event in an extraordinary space, but Daniel is keen to ensure that the opera is presented at as high an artistic level possible for an outdoor performance with singers who work at the Vienna State Opera, Berlin, Paris, Frankfurt and London. He wants the extraordinary and the artistic merge into something special.

One key point is the sound. The quarry is not a neutral space, and all the stone surfaces provide a challenge for the acoustics, and the amplification is aimed at providing a good quality sound. The orchestra and conductor are housed in a temporary structure hidden from the audience (and protected from the weather), and the conductor communicates with the singers via a huge video screen at the back of the auditorium. The conductor only hears the singers via ear-phones, and inevitably the audio-relay induces a slight delay. So every night is a new challenge.

The whole theatre structure in the historic quarry is temporary, as a UNESCO World Heritage site no concrete can be used.

Oper im Steinbruch - 2019
Oper im Steinbruch - 2019
The stage is around seven times the size of the stage of the Vienna State Opera House! This means that the production has to work in another dimension to a conventional opera house. The company thus wants to fascinate its audience, whilst working at a high level with a unique atmosphere. In fact there are two stages available, as well as the larger stage there is a smaller one which seats 2,500. Daniel points out that the large theatre has 65 rows, and any production has to carry to the very last row.

For his first opera, Daniel chose Mozart's Die Zauberflote, well-known and popular but a work which would give them the chance to show how something might be staged differently in such a vast space. One aspect of the production was intended by Daniel to take it back to its roots in 1791. Emmanuel Schikaneder, who wrote the libretto, was an actor who took the role of Papageno. So for the 2019 production, Daniel chose the musically trained film actor, Max Simonischek, to play Papageno [ironically, the night I was there was one of Simonischek's nights off, and I saw an operatically trained baritone in the role]. Daniel calls Simonischek the 'black sheep' of the production, and certainly something the audience has not seen before.

Mozart: Die Zauberflöte - Papagena & Papageno - Oper im Steinbruch (Photo Armin Bardel)
Mozart: Die Zauberflöte - Papagena & Papageno
Oper im Steinbruch (Photo Armin Bardel)
Next year the company will be performing Puccini's Turandot in Italian, with surtitles projected onto the sides of the quarry. Daniel feels the surtitles are important because education starts when you understand something. People visit Oper im Steinbruch who are too shy to visit the opera house, or who are put off by the image or the idea of dressing up. So the aim is to be popular, hence fairy tales like Die Zauberflote or Turandot, but throughout our conversation Daniel emphasises the company's high artistic aims too.

With over 4,700 seats to the theatre, tickets sales are extremely important but economics mean that the company is also reliant on support from the local county (the Land Burgenland) as well as other supporters and sponsors. Daniel is thankful for the high level of ticket sales this year because, as there was no opera last year, they were worried that people would not come back. In fact, not only have ticket sales been good but the press coverage has been good too.

The quarry is owned by the Esterházy Foundation, the diversity of whose products includes Esterházy wine which is offered to the audience. In fact, gastronomy is one of the other offerings which makes up the whole Oper im Steinbruch experience.

If you think of large-scale out-door opera in Austria, then you might think of Bregenz where opera is presented on a stage in the lake. Daniel sees the two as complementary. Bregenz is in the West of Austria near Switzerland, where Oper im Steinbruch is in the East near the Hungarian border, one in a lake and one in a quarry. Both are unique.

Looking ahead, Daniel is aware that there are certain operas, such as Puccini's La Boheme and Verdi's La traviata, which would not work on the scale necessary for opera in the quarry. Opera which clearly could work include not only Verdi's Aida and Nabucco but perhaps Otello, and certainly Bizet's Carmen.

Mozart: Die Zauberflöte - Oper im Steinbruch (Photo Andreas Tischler)
Mozart: Die Zauberflöte - Oper im Steinbruch (Photo Andreas Tischler)
Next year's festival runs from 8 July to 15 August 2020, performing Puccini's Turandot with the soprano Martina Serafin performing the title role at nine performances. Martina Serafin is in fact Daniel's sister, and she will also be performing Turandot at San Francisco Opera with Jonas Kaufmann as Calaf.

For more on the Esterházy foundation see my article about its work at Schloss Esterházy in Eisenstadt.

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