An Intelligent Spectacle

Henrietta Bredin talks to David Pountney about running the Bregenz Festival

The Spectator, 22 August 2009

Back in the days when David Pountney was Director of Productions at English National Opera, his so-called office was a tiny broom cupboard of a space carved out of a backstage cranny of the London Coliseum, with a single grubby window overlooking a narrow passageway known as Piss Alley for obvious and strongly-smelling reasons. He now, as Artistic Director of the Bregenz Festival in Austria, occupies a sort of lavishly appointed control tower, with floor-to-ceiling windows looking out across Lake Constance and giving a direct hawk's eye view of the stage built out into the lake which is the Festival's major attraction. He has a remote control device on his desk with which he can stop the boat heading towards Lindau on the opposite shore and send it on to Wasserburg instead, change the points on the railway track running along the lake shore and manoeuvre the two giant cranes lifting parts of the set into place. His massive black leather swivel-chair creaks very slightly as he leans back and strokes the white Persian cat that has settled on his lap.

Oh alright, not every detail of that is true but it certainly comes as no surprise that Pountney struck a lucrative and exceptionally PR-rich deal with the James Bond franchise last year so that they could film a sequence of A Quantum of Solace on the set for Tosca, complete with fake audience members in drop-dead chic monochrome designer kit. Real audiences at Bregenz tend to wear waterproofs, fleece layers and liberal applications of Deet. Neither rain nor mosquitoes are permitted to stop play here (plentiful supplies of both are usually assured). There are seats for 7,000 and once you've got that many people in place, they're there for the duration. Operas start late and run straight through, with no interval.

'It's all a juggling act,' says Pountney. 'It's an exceptionally independent festival because we're 80% self-financed, and 94% of our income comes from the performances on the lake. So as long as they continue to sell as well as they have been, that basically means that we don't have to rely on ticket sales for the other events. Altogether that means that I have extraordinary artistic freedom.'

One could say that the freedom comes at a price. The performances on the lake stage are on such an insanely enormous, brashly blockbusting scale that they can't really be defined as opera. Singers are a very long way away indeed and they all have microphones strapped to their faces to relay their voices via a complex sound system. The orchestra and chorus aren't anywhere near the stage; they're safely under cover in the indoor theatre, led by a conductor with an earpiece looking at a video screen divided into four so that he can keep track of the widely separated areas from which the singers are performing. Graham Vick, directing Aida this year, took on the challenge with characteristic flair by taking full advantage of the lake itself - 'Well, there's no point pretending it isn't there'. Singers and dancers splashed in and out of it, Radamès went off to war astride what looked weirdly like the Ark of the Covenant and came back on top of a floating elephant, he and Aida met their end in a boat which sailed into view and was then hoist dizzyingly upwards, well over 100 feet into the night sky.

'It's no accident that the directors who work on those productions are mostly Anglo-Saxons,' says Pountney. 'In the American and British tradition there is a free flow between commercial and so-called high-art theatre. That's absolutely not the case in Germany or France. The sort of interplay that occurs between the National Theatre and the West End doesn't exist here but most British directors understand immediately what's required and they're not afraid to put on a show. I call it intelligent spectacle.'

Certainly it's had a greatly beneficial effect for the Bregenz tourist industry and has had a considerable financial impact in terms of increased trade for local restaurants and hotels. Three years ago, the Festspielhaus and the surrounding area underwent an extensive refurbishment. As a result of that, not only did they attract the attention of the Bond movie location scouts but German television last year broadcast all the major European Cup games from a studio built on the lake stage. The publicity that this generated was colossal, with 40 million viewers switching on for each game to be greeted with the words 'Welcome to the stage of the Bregenz Festival'.

Pountney considers the imaginative putting together of an integrated festival programme to be paramount, with concerts, plays and operas reflecting a single theme. This year the banner headline has been Sinn und Sinnlichkeit (Sense and Sensuality), with the lushly eclectic score of Szymanowski's King Roger complementing the Verdi in performances which have brought Pountney back together with his erstwhile creative partner Mark Elder for the first time in nearly 20 years. Under Elder's leadership the Vienna Symphony Orchestra produced a dazzling tissue of sound all the more alluring for being so delicately, tautly controlled. An exceptionally fine cast of singing actors battled gallantly with the original Polish. 'We could have done it in German,' said Pountney, 'but I think the detail of the libretto is of very minor significance. It's in wildly overwrought poetic language and you'd probably end up not understanding much of the German anyway. So you might as well in this case work with a text that at least has the right sound for the music.'

Always interested in new work, he's directing the world premiere of a hitherto undiscovered opera next year and has commissioned a series of operas from Judith Weir (emphatically cause for celebration), Detlev Glanert and HK Gruber for 2011, 2012 and 2013 (the year in which his contract expires). Next summer it's The Passenger by Miecyslaw Weinberg which will see the light of day 42 years after it was written and 14 years after the composer's death. 'He was a Polish Jew who fled into the Soviet Union in 1939 and lived out the rest of his life there. He was a close friend of Shostakovich and wrote a vast array of music - 22 symphonies, 17 string quartets, 6 operas - of which hardly any is known today. This is probably his most important opera, about two women who meet years after encountering one another in Auschwitz.'

So a festival that began as a local initiative has become a major international event under Pountney's auspices. 'There is some mad statistic - I think that every night in Bregenz, adding together the lake stage, all the theatres and the concert hall, there are a potential 10,000 seats available. And that's in a town of 28,000 people. I don't know any other festival where the host city is quite so small compared to the number of visitors it attracts.' World domination can only be a step away.