Of all the charges levelled against opera – the melodrama, the fantastic expense, the improbable characters and the nonsensical plots – it is perhaps the charge of ‘inaccessibility’ that is hardest to shake.
But when acclaimed British architect Terry Pawson entered an international competition in 2006 to design a new opera house in the Austrian town of Linz, he found the age-old charge assuming a more literal meaning. The municipal area that had long been earmarked for a new music theatre was bounded “by a railway on one hand, and on the other by a main road, a huge dual carriageway”, he tells me over coffee on a brisk April morning in London, just weeks before the brand new Linz Opera would finally open its doors to the world.
“An opera house is always an innately complex thing, but Linz had this specific challenge. In the brief, they were looking for an inventive way of how you could approach and enter the building,” Pawson recalls. “Almost immediately, we decided we wouldn’t actually try and answer the question we were being asked – we would change the question.”
He pauses. “So we moved the road.”
The refreshingly humble and unpretentious architect, who admits he listens to everything from “rock to country, reggae to folk” but is not a frequent opera-goer, looks a little bemused. “It was a bit like saying, ‘we’re just going to shift Marylebone Road down a block’,” he admits, motioning towards the thunderous dual-carriageway just north of the cafe in which we are sitting.
“It was a big thing. You wouldn’t normally expect them to do that. But they did. Before, no matter what we’d have done, whether you wanted to go to the opera or not in Linz, it was so impenetrable. Then we took the road away and its front door became the Volksgarten, the people’s park. And it went from being extraordinarily difficult to access to being easier to approach than a normal building.”
Access all areas
As a comment on that endlessly circular, vexed debate about the accessibility of opera, Pawson’s futuristic, light-suffused structure represents an opening up that goes gloriously beyond metaphor. And in an era in which we are far more likely to witness the construction of a new shopping centre than an opera house, the latter event is especially to be cheered. The building in question is not only one of dazzling architectural vision and environmental innovation, but a space that inventively presents opera and its relationship to the urban and social environment in a new light.
No wonder the world’s best-known contemporary classical composer wanted to write the work that would inaugurate it.
“It is much more than just a beautiful building,” Philip Glass enthuses from his home in Manhattan’s East Village. “It actually embraces the idea that the opera house is part of the social context.” Glass, who has lately worked with the likes of David Bowie, Leonard Cohen and Woody Allen, spent a year searching for the right work with which to open the house, finally settling upon an adaptation of an Austrian play by Peter Handke, which he has called The Lost.
“Handke’s play is about everything, really,” Glass explains. “When I came across it I was struck by its theatricality. There is a protagonist and a chorus, and there are people that function as actors also, which is very important. One of the challenges we had was how to include in the opening piece artists from all the disciplines that would be at the new opera house, which will also house theatre and ballet companies.”
The extraordinarily prolific Glass, who has recently celebrated his 76th birthday, is hardly cowed by such challenges. “In my 70s, I’m working from a different place,” he confides with a chuckle. “When I began I was basically learning on the job. You don’t study opera composing at the conservatory, you get yourself in to the theatre and you get working. I’ve done a few operas now,” – The Lost is his twenty-ninth – “and I have quite a lot of experience with orchestration and singers.”
A big statement
For The Lost, which will play in repertory until July, and then again in the 2014-15 season, Glass says he has employed the orchestra and chorus “in different ways. Sometimes there are a people in the pit, sometimes they’re on the stage; they move back and forth. From a theatrical point of view probably the only place you could do this piece is the opera house, where you have that range of instrumentation and vocalization and expression. Opera lends itself to that, to big statements with a lot of variety.”
Variety certainly seems to be a Linz watchword. Shortly before opening night, Dennis Russell Davies, Glass’ long-time collaborator and music director at the new house, tells me with pride that “operatically, all eyes will be in this direction for a while.” But he is equally quick to point out that, in addition to the Glass premiere – which would be a huge event for any opera house, anywhere – the first four days of the opening season also encompass a musical version of The Witches of Eastwick, a ballet, and Richard Strauss’s opera Der Rosenkavalier.
I ask Pawson if he felt constrained by the acoustic considerations of having to cater to such omnivorous fare. After all, acoustics are always the bugbear of architects designing concert halls and music theatres – consider the Berlin Philharmonie or London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall, which have had to undergo acoustic retrofits over the years.
But he politely corrects me. “Constrained is the wrong word. We saw those as great opportunities, to have to build a 1,000-seat auditorium where they could play something quite intimate one night and start a Wagner Ring Cycle the next and you’d have all these different acoustic experiences, each one working just as well.”
After the fanfare of opening night, the town of Linz seems to agree. Who needs a ring road when you can have a Ring Cycle anyway?