[The following article was published in “The Arts” section of the New York Times on 15 April 2013. I’m rerunning it on ROT because it’s such a wonderful report on what public support of the arts can do for a community, especially when the community itself embraces it wholeheartedly. I can only wish that we in the United States could see this value and benefit, though I know that a project like the Linzer Musiktheater am Volksgarten will never happen here in my lifetime. (The very fact that “People’s Garden” is part of the theater’s name would be anathema to some elements of our society.) Readers of ROT will know that support for the arts is a special interest of mine and I have published articles in defense of that cause on several occasions in the past (“Degrading the Arts,” 13 August 2009; “The First Amendment & The Arts,” 8 May 2010; "The Arts Are Under Attack (Again!)" by Paul Molloy (from Allegro), 22 May 2011, “Are the Arts a Luxury?” by K. C. Boyle (Allegro again), 29 January 2012). I post this article as a sort of sad dream. ~Rick]
LINZ, Austria — This industrial city of almost 200,000 midway between Vienna and Salzburg, and the capital of the state of Upper Austria, has long had a bit of an inferiority complex when it comes to culture. So it seemed, at least, in a series of slightly defensive speeches by government and arts figures on Thursday evening at the opening of the new Linz Opera House, formally known as the Musiktheater am Volksgarten, referring to the public park it adjoins.
True, Linz can claim the composer Anton Bruckner, who was born in nearby Ansfelden and spent more than half his life in the region. But Salzburg can, and loudly does, claim Mozart, who was born there and stayed for more than two-thirds of his 35 years, however unhappily toward the end. And whom can’t Vienna claim? Myriad composers great and small ended up there, ultimately including Mozart and Bruckner.
Linz took a step forward in 2009, when it was named a European Capital of Culture. And now it is making a stronger bid to put itself on the international cultural map with its handsome new house, some 30 years in the planning and 4 in the building, at a cost of $236 million. Its centerpiece is a 1,000-seat jewel box of a theater for opera, orchestra, musicals and ballet, lavishly equipped with the latest technology and featuring, by early indications, excellent acoustics. It also contains a black-box theater, a rehearsal hall that can double for chamber concerts, a top-flight restaurant and grand, welcoming public spaces.
Public being the operative word. Amazing for Americans to hear, the financing was 95 percent public, with 20 percent coming from the Republic of Austria, 50 percent from the state of Upper Austria and 25 percent from the city of Linz. That left a mere 5 percent to be raised from private corporations and individuals.
And public spirit carries into the design. The site chosen (after a first location was explored and rejected) was an isolated plot in a down-at-heel part of town. But the design competition was won by the London firm of the architect Terry Pawson with a plan founded on the quixotic notion of displacing part of a major thoroughfare to allow the main entrance to open onto the park and draw the citizenry into those public spaces, providing what Mr. Pawson has called “a new, common living-room for the whole city.”
The complex poses a counterbalance to the old city and the Brucknerhaus, the former home of the Bruckner Orchestra Linz, on the Danube River at the other end of the Landstrasse, the main street. It has already stirred development in the neighborhood and, by all accounts, has begun to change the nature of the city itself.
So there was reason to celebrate on Thursday. In addition to speeches by the project’s prime movers—notably Josef Pühringer, the governor of Upper Austria; Thomas Königstorfer, the executive director of the Landestheater Linz, the agglomeration of musical, theater and dance companies that runs the Musiktheater; Rainer Mennicken, the intendant, or artistic and administrative director, of the Landestheater; and Dennis Russell Davies, its American chief conductor—the program offered performances calculated to show off the Musiktheater’s versatility and the Landestheater’s constituent elements.
The speeches were music to American ears (if not always fully understood) and seemingly justified in their self-congratulation. In addition to the one-time building costs, public financing covers 85 percent of the Landestheater’s $52 million annual budget.
“Culture costs,” said Maria Fekter, the Austrian minister of finance, “but a lack of culture”—Un-Kultur—“costs much, much more.”
Between speeches, with the Bruckner Orchestra in the pit, Mr. Davies conducted excerpts from Philip Glass’s 1992 opera, “The Voyage”; from operas by Mozart, Rossini and Strauss, and an operetta by Lehar; and from Prokofiev’s ballet “Romeo and Juliet.” The program also included a moving dedication of the house by the the Austrian writer Thomas Arzt, in a choral recitation by the actors of the Landestheater, and ended with a rousing version of “The Rhythm of Life” from Cy Coleman’s musical “Sweet Charity,” with, eventually, the entire company on stage.
But it was the next two productions—“Ein Parzifal,” by the experimental Spanish company La Fura Dels Baus, late Thursday night, and Mr. Glass’s opera “Spuren der Verirrten” (“Footprints of the Lost,” or, as it was referred to here in English, simply “The Lost”), in its premiere on Friday, each a spectacle in its way—that really put a stamp on the weekend and spoke to an adventurous artistic vision at the Landestheater. (What the choice of “Die Hexen von Eastwick”—the John Dempsey-Dana P. Rowe musical “The Witches of Eastwick,” in its Austrian premiere—spoke to, I hesitate to speculate.)
“Ein Parzifal,” presented in front of the Musiktheater for an audience of 12,000 in the park, by police estimates, is indeed “A Parsifal,” certainly not the “Parsifal.” To recorded excerpts from Wagner’s “Parsifal” (and, for some reason, “Walküre”), booming through the neighborhood, acrobats dangled from huge cranes or perched atop the building, acting out themes and gestures from the opera, which the uninitiated could only have found mystifying.
But it did not lack for entertainment and even edification. The group patterns were often beautiful and captivating, and some of the effects were breathtaking.
The depiction of Parsifal himself was less successful, seen through the eyes of a New Yorker. A huge puppet lifted by a crane and manipulated by handlers on the ground, he resembled nothing so much as a balloon in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. And that was before he started turning colors.
Heavy with pyrotechnics, the production ended, as it almost had to, with fireworks. Given their proximity to the building, they may have struck fear in the hearts of those financiers. But for anyone who could stand a little humor in this most humorless of operas, La Fura’s fanciful take was welcome and occasionally revealing.
Mr. Glass’s new opera, based on a play by the Austrian writer Peter Handke, was scarcely less outlandish in its elaboration of an elliptical text. The libretto, by Mr. Mennicken, the intendant, carries an epigraph from Einstein: “The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious.” And the work circles back—in both its imaginative beauty and in its utter incomprehensibility at times—to Mr. Glass’s early collaboration with Robert Wilson, “Einstein on the Beach,” of 1976.
But more on that another day.
[When I lived in Koblenz, a small city in central Germany with no great claim to cultural prominence—well, Beethoven’s mother was born in a suburb across the river—I was mightily impressed with the Stadttheater, the city theater company, and even the small Stadtoper, though I’m not an opera fan. (I’ve written before on ROT about my years in Germany, most recently in “An American Teen In Germany,” 9 and 12 March.) Nearly every German town has at least an orchestra or an opera troupe, and larger towns, like Koblenz, had both, plus a ballet company and a municipal theater. American artists come to these small companies to work when their careers are just beginning because the U.S. doesn’t have this cultural commitment so it’s not easy to find places to get started in those professions here. It’s shameful to me that we can’t nurture our home-grown performing artists—and even welcome foreign artists to our own shores the way ours have to go abroad to hone their skills.]