Austria: Operatic Spectacles Rise from the Lake at the Bregenz Festival


The Seebühne, a floating opera stage of bewildering proportions rises every summer from Austria’s Lake Constance, the centerpiece of the annual Bregenzer Festspiele (Bregenz Festival). Across from both Germany and Switzerland, the stage morphs into elaborate dramatic musical productions famous for extraordinary set designs, entertaining audiences of up to 7,000 per night for a month.

opera on Lake Constance, Austria

“A Masked Ball,” an opera by Giuseppe Verde in 1999, featured a giant book being read by a skeleton. Photo via AP/Rudi Blaha.

Bewildering Set Design, A Serene Austrian Lake in Summer, Classic Opera Sound and Scene

Giuseppe Verdi’s opera A Masked Ball was produced for Bregenz’s Festival Lake Opera in 1999.

The libretto of the opera is based on a political conspiracy of the assassination of the King Gustav III, the King of Sweden. In 1792, the king was shot while he attended a masked ball and died 13 days later from his wounds. Because of the political sensitivity around the murder the Opera was censored and couldn’t be historically accurate. Verdi’s masked ball is much more of a romantic fantasy, captured well in this opera set with a skeleton watching the dance around a fateful death.

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Austrian opera Umberto Giordano

The floating set designed by David Fielding for the performance of Umberto Giordano’s “André Chénier.” Image © Bregenz Festival / Karl Forster

Under the artistic direction of David Pountney, stage designer David Fielding brought the opera André Chénier to life in 2011. Written by Italian composer Umberto Giordano, the opera retells a story of love and death during the French Revolution. One of its heroes, André Marie Chénier (1762 – 1794) the poet of sensual emotive works, an early voice of the Romantic movement. His career was brought to an abrupt end when he was guillotined for alleged “crimes against the state,” three days before the end of the Reign of Terror.

Giordano: Andrea Chenier from Bregenz Festival

Massive Constructions at the Bregenz Festival

The waterproofed set was constructed into Lake Constance, mounted upon a concrete core anchored into the base of the lake, while wooden poles support accessory structures of the stage. Fielding’s design for “André Chénier” was dominated by an oversized face and torso — modeled after the revolutionary Jean-Paul Marat (from the painting by Jaques-Louis David) — from whose left eye streams a series of stairways. An open book to stage right of the figure is frequently highlighted throughout the performance with special lighting effects, ranging from sculptural installations to elaborate gobos that cast shadow scenes along its pages. At water level, a floating platform, ‘carried’ by what appears to be the hand of the statue, moves in response to plot action. Other mobile set pieces rise in and out of the water over the course of the performance.

opera on the lake

“West Side Story” by Leonard Bernstein, staged in 2003-2004. Photograph by BENNO HAGLEITNER / VISION fotografie.

In 2003, what was Alfred Wopmann’s final season as artistic director, the Bregenz Festival staged Leonard Bernstein’s hit musical West Side Story. The musical was directed by Francesca Zambello (US), choreographed by Richard Wherlock, and the stage set designed by George Tsypin.

opera on the lake 1985-1986

Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” was performed in 1985 to 1986. Photograph by KARL FORSTER.

Performed in 1985-1986 and again for 2013, The Magic Flute (German: Die Zauberflöte) is a 1791 opera in two acts by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart to a German libretto by Emanuel Schikaneder. The work is in the form of a Singspiel, a popular form that included both singing and spoken dialogue.

The Magic Flute is noted for its prominent Masonic elements, as Schikaneder and Mozart were Masons and lodge brothers. The opera is also influenced by Enlightenment philosophy, and can be regarded as an allegory advocating enlightened absolutism. The Queen of the Night represents a dangerous form of obscurantism or, according to some, the anti-Masonic Empress Maria Theresa. Her antagonist Sarastro (who had abducted her daughter Pamina) symbolises the enlightened sovereign who rules according to principles based on reason, wisdom, and nature. The story itself portrays the education of mankind, progressing from chaos through religious superstition to rationalistic enlightenment, by means of trial (Prince Tamino endeavoring to rescue Pamina) and error (his side-kick the bird-catcher, Papageno), ultimately to make “the Earth a heavenly kingdom, and mortals like the gods.” (“Dann ist die Erd’ ein Himmelreich, und Sterbliche den Göttern gleich.” This couplet is sung in the finales to both acts.)

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Bregenz Festival: Carmen / time lapse of building the stage on the lake

via Laughing Squid and Twisted Sifter

Updated 30 November 2022

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