Nikolaus Bachler: Keeping the soul in opera

AP News
Posted: Aug 01, 2013 6:42 AM
Nikolaus Bachler: Keeping the soul in opera

MUNICH, Germany (AP) — The man who runs Germany's biggest opera house says a chance encounter with an American colleague brought home to him just how fortunate he is.

Nikolaus Bachler, intendant of the Bavarian State Opera, recalled staying at a hotel in Verona, Italy, and finding that the head of a U.S. opera company was also a guest there.

"In the morning I told him I hadn't slept all night because we wanted to put on 'Jenufa' (a beautiful work by Czech composer Leos Janacek but not a guaranteed box-office hit)," Bachler recalled. "I was thinking, How can I do it today, how can we present it in the most meaningful way, and who should do it? This kept me busy all night.

"And my colleague said, 'I couldn't sleep because I want to do 'Jenufa,' and I don't know how to pay for it.'"

The large subsidy that Munich and other German opera houses receive from the government frees Bachler from having to make ticket sales and raising money from wealthy donors his top priorities. But he is in the business of presenting opera that people will come to see, and the company boasts an average annual attendance of 95 percent or higher.

Bachler traces that remarkable figure to his strategy of fostering a strong bond of trust between the company and the opera-going public.

"You actually have to be a bit of a psychologist," he said in an interview this week in his office in the National Theater complex. "You have to be very sensitive, and the better you know the city the more you can do."

Bachler, 52, has run the Munich company since 2008. He was born into a musical family, but started his career as an actor and later ran Vienna's Burgtheater. He said his background in theater helps remind him that he and his colleagues are nothing without their audience.

In Munich, he said, "we have a very open-minded public," but "they come in at different stages of knowledge about opera, so it's important that they have different things to see."

He and his "think tank" of five dramaturgs work to ensure a balance in repertory and directorial approaches among the 42 different operas the company offers each season in nearly 200 performances. (For comparison, the Metropolitan Opera, America's largest company, will offer 26 operas next season, although there will be more total performances.)

Indeed, during the annual Munich Opera Festival, which ran the entire month of July, it was possible to see a dizzying array of works and directorial styles in quick succession.

For instance, this week Juergen Rose's austere, historically faithful staging of Verdi's "Don Carlo" with a dream cast headed by Jonas Kaufmann, Anja Harteros and Rene Pape was followed the next night by Martin Kusej's overwrought vision of the same composer's "Macbeth," with one scene in which a crowd of extras simulate urinating on stage. The evening after that brought Calixto Bieito's revelatory production of Mussorgsky's "Boris Godunov," set in a modern police state with bass Alexander Tsymbalyuk as a young, movie star-handsome ruler who unravels before our eyes.

Bachler said he was especially pleased that when tickets for this year's festival went on sale, a performance of a recent work commissioned by the company — Joerg Widmann's "Babylon" — sold out almost as quickly as reliable favorites like "Don Carlo" and Verdi's "Il Trovatore."

Naturally not every production is going to please everyone, but Bachler said audiences will remain loyal as long as they sense the presence of an intangible quality he likes to call "soul."

"There are two deadly sins in our job," Bachler said. "The one is to be dogmatic and the other is to be lazy and just wanting box-office success. This doesn't work in art. You have to believe in something.

"The basic thing in a house which the public smells is whether it has a soul and a passion for what we do," he said.

One big change coming for the company is the departure of music director Kent Nagano, who is leaving after this season and moving to the Hamburg State Opera in 2015. Nagano was already in his job in Munich when Bachler took over, and the two reportedly had their share of disagreements.

Bachler said only that he's very excited about his choice for incoming music director, Kirill Petrenko, adding that at age 40, he's "the right person to go into the future."