The recent opportunity to book for a performance of Die Walküre as part of the second of two Ring cycles at the Vienna State Opera conducted by Peter Schneider sent me on a road of memories to my opera-going years at Deutsche Oper am Rhein, Düsseldorf, from the mid-1970s to the late 1980s.
The artistic director was Grischa Barfuss, from 1986 Kurt Horres. Peter Schneider was Erster Kapellmeister from 1968-1978, and General Music Director in Bremen from 1978-1985. Until the end of the Barfuss-era in 1986, Schneider carried on appearing in Düsseldorf as guest conductor, for some Verdi, but mainly Mozart, Strauss and particularly Wagner, esp. since his 1981 Bayreuth debut, because general music director Wakasugi was only beginning to develop his Wagner repertory.
Tickets came on sale on the Sunday before the next month, with the box office opening at 10am. Brochures with the full schedule including cast became available about a week before those Sundays. As I always decided which performances to attend depending on the cast, in the years before mailing lists had been introduced, I would phone the opera’s general office every day from two weeks before the ticket sale started, and had a brochure sent to me in the post. For the Sundays of the ticket sale, I would turn up between 8 and 9am, depending on the likelihood of demand, and would usually be able to get the tickets I wanted (third tier, last seat on the side closest to the stage).
The house ensemble consisted of many excellent singers, such as tenors William Holley, Georgi Tscholakov, Janos B. Nagy, and a young Peter Seiffert. The major Verdi baritone was Eugene Holmes, an excellent Mozart bass-baritone was Toshimitsu Kimura and Mileva (Milica) Buljubasic was the leading lyric soprano after Cilla Zentai. For Wagner, the opera worked with members of the ensemble and guests. In the early 1980s, for example, Simon Estes made his debut as Wotan in a Düsseldorf Ring cycle, with Gwendylyn Killebrew who sang Fricka in many of the cycles. Manfred Jung sang the heroic tenor parts, Siegmund, Siegfried, Tristan, and Florestan in Beethoven’s Fidelio. Berit Lindholm was Brünhilde, Isolde, Elektra and Salome. Other singers for Wotan were Leif Roar, Norman Bailey, and Donald McIntyre. Carla Pohl and Sabine Hass were Sieglinde, an on one occasion Hildegard Behrens took over that part at very short notice from the scheduled soprano who had been taken ill. Peter Meven, Malcolm Smith and Hans Tschammer were the company’s principal bass singers, sometimes supported by Karl Ridderbusch as a guest (Rocco in Fidelio, Hunding in Walküre, Gurnemanz in Parsifal). Other conductors were Friedemann Layer, Jiri Kout, Christian Thielemann, Alberto Erede, Arnold Quennet, and Yoram David.
It was at the opening night of the first new production under the artistic directorship of Kurt Horres, in 1986, that I encountered the one and only scandal I experienced in all of my theatre- and opera-going. The audience had become accustomed to profound, beautiful and in that best sense conservative productions in the long era under Grischa Barfuss. Kurt Horres set his agenda by inviting a representative of Regietheater for his first new production, of Verdi’s Macbeth. New music director Hans Wallat conducted, and the part of Lady Macbeth was cast with Gabriele Schnaut. For the scene in which Macbeth is shown to suffer a nightmare, the curtain opened to reveal a vagina the size of the entire height of the stage, and little people specially hired for this scene crawled out of that vagina. Within seconds the audience erupted into tumultuous booing and shouting, which ended only when, some fifteen to twenty minutes into the protest, Wallat came on to the stage and pleaded with the audience to allow the performance to proceed. The director decided not to take a curtain call at the end of the performance.
With two or three ring cycles per year, those attending them regularly would recognise and acknowledge each other, sometimes also talk. One year, regulars of two cycles began to comment, towards the end of the second cycle, about one spectator who had been attending both cycles. He aroused curiosity and comments. He looked strikingly out of place in an opera house, as if it was an excruciatingly painful and boring experience for him. So why would be bother to turn up? A year or so later I was at home flicking through TV channels and suddenly saw this opera spectator on the screen. It was a report, in a popular and highly acclaimed investigative journalism programme, about male escorts. The strange opera spectator was a male escort by profession, a more mature escort (late 40s, thinning hair) for more mature female clients. In the interview on TV he said that he was keen on attracting, and did attract, female clients from the more sophisticated levels of society. He was successful, he felt, in this endeavour not only because of his physical / sexual profile but because of his engagement with culture: he read the latest novels, watched the latest films and also (he said with a slight wince) went to opera performances.
I remember a hilarious occurrence in a performance of Siegfried. Manfred Jung is about to find the piece of wood on stage from which he crafts the flute. Only he does not find it—and leaves the stage mid-scene. Peter Schneider had to stop the orchestra, just broadly shrugging his shoulders in surprise. After a few minutes, Jung returned, piece of wood in hand, and proceeded as if nothing had happened. Jung’s singing was ever-reliable, but the voice could be throaty and the higher register of the voice narrow. After he re-emerged with the flute, however, for whatever reason, until the end of the scene (unfortunately all too soon), his voice was clear, fresh, radiant and open as never before (or, sadly, after).