Posted on Wed, 2013-04-17 10:28 by David Pountney
Last Friday in Linz I had the chance to contribute a new production of a new opera for the opening of a new opera house. Not surprisingly, I have never done that before. The opera was by Philip Glass (Spüren der Verirrten – Traces of the Lost) and was my third premiere of one of his more than 20 operas, but as he pointed out that we seem to come together “roughly once every 20 years” (in fact in 1980 – Satyagraha in Rotterdam, 1992 The Voyage at the Met., 2013 Linz) I am unlikely to achieve a fourth unless I discover the Makropoulos formula.
Linz now has a palatial new theatre after some 30 years of political struggle. Its most infamous son, embarrassingly enough, included his plans for a new opera house in his book, Mein Kampf, and named the exact site where it should be built. By an unhappy chance and the malevolent workings of politics, the new building is indeed exactly there!
In between, there was an ambitious plan to carve the opera house into the cliff overlooking the Danube, which would have been a spectacular solution. This plan was scuppered when the Freiheitlichen – the Austrian equivalent of UKIP under their then charismatic Führer Herr Haider, were taken into a coalition government with the conservatives, and managed to drum up an anti-culture referendum campaign backed by the tabloid press which came up with a resounding “No”. This might all sound very familiar to those who battled for our own Millennium Centre!
The Landeshauptmann (regional Governor) – a diminutive man with a rasping voice is, however, made of stern stuff, and did not give up his mission to transform the cultural infrastructure of Linz. The result is a magnificent new house designed by a British architect, Terry Pawson, twice the price of the previous plan – an eye watering €180 million (£155 million)! The National Government contributed 25 million, the town of Linz (200,000 people!) 36, and the balance of at least 110 million fell to the region of Upper Austria – population 1.3 million! This did not faze Governor Puringer – who adroitly combines the roles of Governor, Minister of Finance and Minister of Culture! At the opening Press Conference, he came up with this sentence, which should be inscribed on the desks of everyone at the DCMS, if not tattooed on their foreheads: “I can look every tax payer in the eye and say with complete confidence that every penny of this investment will be re-paid with interest in the contribution made by culture to the economic prosperity of Upper Austria.”
There is a vast amount of statistical evidence to support his view, including that which relates to the regional economic impact generated by WNO yielding 5 times its Welsh Arts Council investment (I am allergic to the word subsidy) but it is notoriously difficult to get any politician, particularly a British one, to stand up and say as much.
The opera itself is a setting of a typically enigmatic text by Peter Handke, whose ultra-concise poetic subtlety casts a baleful and dystopic light on contemporary society. Rather surprisingly, with the addition of some up-beat choral writing from Philip Glass and some inspired choreography from Amir Husseinpur we have succeeded in transforming this into an exuberant celebration of theatre – a spectacle of possible destinations for a new stage. Even more surprisingly, Handke has embraced this transformation of his normally spare aesthetic: “I find my words enhanced by the mystery of repetition by music”.
Having been launched with admirable daring and panache, the building now belongs to its 600 employees who will provide a continuous diet of opera, operetta, musical, ballet, and theatre, for “at least the next 150 years” – under this enlightened motto:
"Die Wirtschaft für’s Leben, die Kunst für’s Erleben."
"The economy for existence, culture for experience."