Dominique Meyer © Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Poehn
Dominique Meyer
© Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Poehn

In charmingly soft Gallic tones, Dominique Meyer, the Frenchman who has just launched his last season as Director of the Vienna State Opera, sings a quiet hymn of praise down the phone to his adopted city. Vienna, he says, has “an extraordinary relationship between its people and the opera. Music is the soul of the city and opera is at its very centre. The fire burns here; they love it.”

He has a simple wish: that his legacy after ten years at the top will be a continuation of that fine relationship. That special civic passion has kept the audiences coming, but Meyer knows it can’t be totally relied upon. He is acutely aware that an opera house has to keep questing, finding new repertoire and appealing to each new generation of music lovers. In his time in Vienna he has overseen 3,000 performances of more than 110 operas, introduced Baroque works on period instruments, played an entire Janáček cycle, presented five or six new productions every year and given the Viennese several works of startling originality by contemporary composers.

It’s a policy that seems to have worked. Last season, the Vienna State Opera sold 99% of its tickets, with sales totalling 37.7 million euros.

Olga Neuwirth © Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Poehn
Olga Neuwirth
© Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Poehn

Now, in his final season before he moves on to head La Scala, Milan, he is particularly proud of the 21st-century material that will appear among a massive season of 54 operas. Chief among those are two world premieres by Austrian composers – Orlando, by Olga Neuwirth, and Persinette, by Albin Fries.

“Olga is a major composer, and I’m happy that we have a piece from someone with roots in the city,” he said. “Though we have yet to start rehearsals, I already think this will be a milestone in the history of the house. We are very excited about it.”

Meyer explained that it was Neuwirth’s choice to adapt Virginia Woolf’s 1928 novel, Orlando, which tells of a poet who changes sex.“You can’t open a newspaper today without reading about such things. It’s complicated and I think this an elegant way to speak about this topic. This is art reflecting a modern reality.”

Kate Lindsey will sing Orlando in a cast that will include Constance Hauman and Leigh Melrose, with Matthias Pintscher conducting. The Irish actress and director Fiona Shaw is billed to play the Narrator when the opera opens in December, but Meyer said that this is now in doubt, as Shaw may have accepted a new film role. Such are the everyday headaches of an opera house director, even one as experienced as Meyer, who before arriving in Vienna ran the Théâtre des Champs Elysées in Paris, the Opéra de Paris and the Opéra de Lausanne in Switzerland.

Design plan for <i>Persinette</i> by Albin Fries © Marc Jungreithmeier
Design plan for Persinette by Albin Fries
© Marc Jungreithmeier

Persinette joins a long list of operas for children that have become a special feature of every season at the State Opera. Persinette is the original French title of the fairy tale that most of us know as Rapunzel. Albin Fries and librettist Miriam Mollard have created a piece that retells the tale of the girl with the long hair imprisoned in a tower. Fries won the Bartók Opera Composition Competition last year with his opera entitled Nora. Guillermo García Calvo will conduct Bryony Dwyer as Persinette, Jinxu Xiahou as the Prince, and the members of the Opera School of the State Opera. Direction is by Matthias von Stegmann.

“We always speak about the audience of the future but here we make this a reality,” said Meyer. “Children have a very sensitive approach. Unlike adults, they have no problems with contemporary music. They do not know it can be difficult! I always give composers rules. A piece should never be more than one hour in duration; that’s the limit of attention for children. And I like to have roles for children in the production because I think it gives the audience the idea that they could be doing this, too.”

In addition to the main house, the State Opera has a smaller 280-seat venue close by, which they use more than 60 times a year for children’s operas, but also for concerts, lectures and other events. Among revivals there this year is British-born Alma Deutscher’s Cinderella, which was given its premiere in Vienna in 2016, when Alma was just 11 years old. This phenomenal composer, violinist and pianist had to be persuaded to cut her two-hour-15-minute opera to the statutory hour. “I said to Alma: ‘This is far too long for children’. She replied that she thought children could listen to music for far longer than an hour. I said: ‘But you have a brain of a 20-year-old. Not all children are like you!’ We are so pleased to have her back. She’s so gifted.”

Johannes Maria Staud’s <i>Die Weiden</i> © Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Poehn
Johannes Maria Staud’s Die Weiden
© Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Poehn

Back in the main house, this season will see the revival of Johannes Maria Staud’s Die Weiden, an opera with a directly political message, reflecting on the general shift to the Right in Europe. Graeme Jenkins will conduct a cast that includes Rachel Frenkel and Tomasz Konieczny as the young lovers who set off on a journey down a river to the very heart of Europe. When I suggest to Meyer that a Brexit opera needs to be written too, he replies, “Yes, but we don’t know the ending yet!”

Two other 21st-century revivals are Manfred Trojahn’s Orest, an 80-minute piece based on Euripides’s drama of the same name, and Peter Eötvös’ Tri Sestri (Three Sisters), drawn from the Chekhov play.

Peter Eötvös’s <i>Tri Sestri</i> © Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Poehn
Peter Eötvös’s Tri Sestri
© Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Poehn

Meyer explains that he loves to work with contemporary composers, as they can often come up with practical solutions to difficult problems. So when he wanted to know what sort of tenor to cast in Orest, he could call Trojahn and discuss it. “You can’t call a dead composer,” he laughed. Similarly, Tri Sestri was originally written for three counter-tenors. “I knew there was another version for soprano, mezzo and contralto. We have no counter-tenors in our ensemble here so I would have had to hire six – three to sing and three to cover. Eötvös, who was conducting, agreed to use his other version. The piece is sung in Russian and we have some wonderful Russian singers here who helped Eötvös, who is Hungarian, correct his text. He now calls our version his Viennese version. I like this practical working with today’s composers.”

So how do supposedly conservative Viennese audiences take this contemporary music? “Of course the forecast for tickets can’t be the same as for, say, Il trovatore, but we still manage to achieve more than 95% capacity for these works,” said Meyer.

He revels in the hothouse atmosphere of the State Opera. “Last week we began rehearsals for this season and in one room we had Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in another Tales of Hoffman, in another Traviata and another Don Carlos. Such creativity: it’s wonderful.”

A Midsummer Night's Dream has not been seen in Vienna for decades and its revival is a particular pleasure for Meyer. “It’s being run by a female team – Simone Young will conduct and Irina Brook will direct. Irina is daughter of Peter Brook, so I think she has Shakespeare in her blood. We also have the charming Erin Morley as Tytania, Lawrence Zazzo as Oberon and the wonderful Peter Rose as Bottom.”

Paul Hindemith’s <i>Cardillac</i> © Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Poehn
Paul Hindemith’s Cardillac
© Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Poehn

And things will come full circle for Meyer with the revival of Hindemith’s Cardillac – his first new production for the house when he arrived ten years ago. “I love the piece. It is so full of fantasy,” he said.

Will he try to emulate the State Opera at La Scala? “No, La Scala and the State Opera are very different institutions. Here we are a repertory house, La Scala is stagione; their traditions are very different. Of course you can make changes but you shouldn’t change an identity and La Scala has a very particular Italian identity. I see they do Handel now. When I was at Champs Elysées I did 38 Handel operas but I don’t think I’ll do Handel there. We should play Cavalli and Porpora; we should be reviving the works of great Italian Baroque composers.”

Riccardo Muti, Zubin Mehta and Valery Gergiev are among top conductors returning to Vienna to mark his last season and when he finally leaves, the house would like to give him a gala night featuring many starry names, but he has decided he would prefer an evening that featured the new singers he has encouraged there. “They are like children to me and I want to say goodbye with my ‘family’.”

Click here to see all the upcoming events at the Vienna State Opera.

This article was sponsored by Wiener Staatsoper.