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Ralph Bollmann is a German journalist based in Berlin, known for his reportage and books on political élites, including Angela Merkel. Yet Bollmann was born far from the national centre of influence, in the remote spa town of Bad Durkheim in Rhineland-Palatinate.

Nostalgia, or Sehnsucht, for the provinces may have inspired him to doggedly investigate Germany’s love affair with opera. Over 12 years, Bollmann visited 81 opera houses in almost as many German cities, reflecting not just an authorial obsession, but his fellow citizens’ abiding appetite for direct contact with the art form.

Opera-loving tourists from abroad have visited the Semperoper, Dresden; Munich National Theatre; Festspielhaus Baden-Baden; and the Cologne Opera. How many have sought opera as far afield as Flensburg in Schleswig-Holstein or Cottbus in Brandenburg? ‘The journey to opera is a journey into an unknown Germany,’ Bollmann explains, adding: ‘The special thing about Germany is not that it has several important centres; it is unusual in that important things happen in very unimportant locations.’

Among the important things was a performance cited in the book’s title, leading Bollmann to wonder why bother staging Die Walküre in Detmold with an orchestra of 60 musicians, when any local resident may simply play a recording from Bayreuth at home? The local opera house director Kay Metzger, who is leaving the Detmolder Landestheater in 2018, responds: ‘Until the 1950s and ’60s [such provincial performances were] quite normal in Germany. We deliberately stick to a good theatre tradition in Detmold.’

Conservativism, or conservation, reassures the masses that Germany is still Germany through the vitality of its operatic culture, preserving part of a social fabric comparatively lost elsewhere in Europe. According to operabase.com’s tally of performances by country, during the 2015/16 season Germany, with 6,795, far outdistanced Russia, Italy, and Austria, all with under 1,500. The UK had 989 performances in total. For opera performances per capita, the UK does not rank in the top 20, while Germany is third behind Austria and Switzerland.

Bollmann implies that enthused operagoers in out-of-the-way places such as Stralsund in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern and Annaberg-Buchholz in Saxony, are more than local boosters. Experiencing Tosca in Meiningen (in the province of Thuringia), Lohengrin in Plauen (Saxony) and Salome in Ulm (Baden-Württemberg), is not just about the music, either. Architectural finds are also part of the serendipitous delight: the Mecklenburg State Theater in Schwerin, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, is a grandiose Victorian pile; whereas the Bühnen der Stadt Gera, Thuringia, was solidly constructed with reinforced concrete in the art nouveau style.

At first Wagner-resistant, the author becomes a devotee after hearing Tannhäuser by reduced forces in Eisenach, another town in Thuringia. The less-is-more aesthetic extends to the Theater Lüneburg, Lower Saxony, where operas are staged with orchestras of only 29 musicians. Clarity may result from economic necessity, but Bollmann prefers his Walküre played by a small ensemble in Detmold, rather than the usual minimum of 88 elsewhere. In Ulm, Richard Strauss’s Salome, requiring an orchestra of 105, is allotted only 56. Even so, overall Germany employs 5,000 full-time musicians in opera houses. Lüneburg alone keeps around 140 instrumentalists on the payroll.

The sense of being rooted in a location encourages site-specific productions, as when the Theater Plauen-Zwickau, Saxony, stages Genoveva, an opera by a native son, Robert Schumann. Instead of evaluating singing, staging, and scenery encountered in these performances, Walküre in Detmold mostly focuses on contemporaneous news events, sport and governmental doings. Still, the book effectively explores a unique national obsession with an assiduity that opera-loving readers can only admire. The final message is that opera can reconcile people with their homelands; through it, Bollmann admits, ‘I have learned to love and appreciate the provinces.’

Benjamin Ivry Read the full review on Agora Classica


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