A spectacular new theatre in Linz
Oliver Condy reports from the Austrian city of Linz where a new opera house has just been opened.
Linz is this morning deservedly basking in the glow of its shiny new opera house, opened last night in spectacular, if slightly baffling fashion. The work chosen to open the Austrian city's 1,000-seater house was Philip Glass's new opera, The Lost, a two-hour Beckett-esque exploration of the grotesqueness of human life culminating in the soul-searching question: 'Where are we?' Singers, players and dancers (there was a good deal of dance last night, much of it impressive) acquitted themselves well, and the spectacle provided us all with an eye-popping glimpse at the new opera house's colossal stage area even if the music didn't always quite live up to the grandness and madness of the libretto's message or the view from Row C. But I couldn't help thinking that the second half's post-apocalyptic scenes and Camus-style navel-gazing jarred a little with the whole 'welcome to Linz's operatic and cultural future' message that the after-party and jazz band did so well at spreading.
Still, the work, as they say, has legs, and it was an engaging showcase for Linz's spectacular new venue – one of which it should be justly proud. Designed by British architect Terry Pawson, the steel, stone and glass-fronted Landestheater Linz seems to have achieved several things at once. Built on the site of an old disused hospital, the former slightly-grubby downtown Linz has been given something of an instant facelift – or at least a very good reason to smarten up. Since the house's completion, Linz's residents have apparently felt safer walking through the Volkspark into which the new building spills (much like Copenhagen's new opera house spills into the sea). And by throwing open its doors during the day, it provides a peaceful haven for Linz's residents and visitors to escape the busy shopping centre of Landstrasse and admire the foyer's clean-lined interior of wood and natural stone.
But its most brilliant achievement is its very existence. There are two reasons for this. For decades, various bodies and groups had campaigned for a new theatre to be built - the nearby Landestheater is not, so the well-worn phrase goes, fit for purpose. Its orchestra pit is cramped and the sight-lines from many of the seats extremely poor. Political wranglings and changing ruling parties stopped any progress being made, until seven years ago when the go-ahead was given thanks to a successful campaign by the particularly tenacious 'Friends of the Landestheater'. Being 95 per cent publically-funded, the budget for a brand spanking new 45,000m2 opera house was, back in 2007, set at just €143 million, rising with inflation to just over €180 million. In contrast, the 41,000m2 opera house in Copenhagen – the one mentioned earlier in this blog – came in at roughly twice the cost.
So – cheap(ish). But Terry Pawson Architects Ltd have done something rather alchemic. The building stands proudly and rather organically on the verge of the Volksgarten ('people's park'), only possible once the main road had been shifted from alongside the park to the back of the opera house, next to the railway. Inside, the orchestra pit is now the biggest in Austria, with the sound compared with the old Landestheater being like 'night and day' according to the Bruckner Orchestra Linz's chief conductor, Dennis Russell Davies. The sight-lines in the spectacular gold and red horse-shoe shaped auditorium ensure, according to Terry Pawson, an almost 100 per cent view of the stage from every seat. And the seats have, praise be, a generous 105cm legroom (in the stalls) falling to 95cm or so in the cheap seats. The stage area, as I mentioned earlier, is gigantic and exceptionally sophisticated, and the orchestra's rehearsal room and various backstage areas are all handsome and, crucially, appear pretty practical.
The foyers, clad beautifully in rich, dark wood, can comfortably accommodate a 1,000-strong crowd with the added bonus that everyone can hear themselves speak. And the bars are plentiful. Which is a happy turn-up for the books.
So far, the citizens of Linz have turned out in their droves to see their new toy. Now it's up to Dennis Russell Davies to keep them coming in...