Dominique Meyer’s relaxed demeanour and soft-spoken manner, it soon becomes clear, belie a steely determination and can-do attitude; what at the start of our interview might feel like Gallic superciliousness soon reveals itself instead to be a slow-burning charm. Indeed, what I expect to be a brief chat extends to nearly 90 minutes and concludes with an enthusiastic tour around the operatic artworks – some Meyer’s own, some inherited with the job – that adorn the Staatsoper Director’s office.

Dominique Meyer © Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Pöhn
Dominique Meyer
© Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Pöhn
Meyer might have a background that includes involvement with the establishment of France’s first CD factory, as well as with French film and cultural policy, but he is first and foremost an opera fan, interested less in technology per se than in how “technology and art can interact,” he says. Right from the start at the Staatsoper (he was appointed Director in 2010), he wanted to “bring more modernity to the house.”

This perhaps explains why the Staatsoper’s state-of-the-art streaming service, Live at Home, is so unusual. As Meyer explained to Bachtrack last year, it has been conceived with the opera-lover in mind, featuring a less interventionist approach in terms of camera direction ­– fewer cuts, fewer close-ups, less jumping from one singer to another as if “watching Wimbledon”.

But it also makes business sense. The opera house retains complete control, and its equipment, installed discreetly in the auditorium and managed by a small in-house team, is of a high enough specification to mean that no adjustments are necessary in the productions themselves – lighting, traditionally, was always a problem with filming opera. “The costs for normal broadcasts [with TV companies] is about €200,000,” Meyer explains, “but the technical cost when we broadcast is less than €10,000.” With some 40 shows a year, moreover, the service has accumulated an impressive archive over its three-year existence; that small in-house team has built up an enormous amount of experience: “Only the guys who do football have more.”

Wiener Staatsoper © Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Pöhn
Wiener Staatsoper
© Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Pöhn
Meyer had been plotting something along these lines, he tells me, since before his arrival at the Haus am Ring. There were initially technical hurdles, not least in the prohibitive early cost of the necessary equipment. Another major factor was one of personnel, which was solved when Meyer found Christopher Widauer, the initiative’s mastermind.

A man who radiates bright optimism, Widauer joins us to reel off some of the numbers. There are 25,000 registered users, he explains, and 6,500 people who regularly buy different kinds of products – subscriptions or individual performances. There are about 15,000 subscribers, and between 800 and 5,000 watching each show. But, as Widauer notes, the streams are rarely watched alone: “people invite their friends, they open up a good bottle of wine and they enjoy the opera together. If we get 1,000 streams, it’s a least 2,000 or 3,000 viewers – so it’s already a house.”

Wiener Staatsoper © Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Pöhn
Wiener Staatsoper
© Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Pöhn
These figures are achieved without the aid of a marketing budget, and both men seem especially proud of the fact that the system is a hit in schools, meaning that the capital’s opera house is able to reach out to young people right across the country. The number of schools regularly booking performances is around the 470 mark, equating to some 12,000, watching either on computers or larger screens or projectors in their assembly rooms. “And sometimes we also establish an interactive back connection, so that we can see them cheer,” Widauer adds with a smile.

But the Staatsoper’s innovations don’t stop there. One further recent development was the instillation of LED lighting in the auditorium, a project not without its challenges. The green glow the lights initially produced was an issue – “the ladies needed strong make-up,” Meyer jokes. You’d not notice the difference now, though, he assures me.

The new season has also seen the replacement of the house’s increasingly unreliable 15-year-old subtitle screens – an instillation project that had to be carried out in a mere five weeks in the summer break. Now mini tablets offer translations of the text in six languages – Italian, French, Russian and Japanese, as well as the standard English and German – with a couple more to be added soon.

Extra features, which are disabled just before each show starts, offer information about the performances, brief synopses and the opportunity to sign up for the Staatsoper’s newsletter, something that 1,500 people did in the first month. Filters mean that no one is disturbed by their neighbour’s screen, while the technology also allows tailored messages to be sent to the screens of any number of individual seats, as was recently done for a sponsor and their guests.

None of this, however, would be possible if the Staatsoper itself didn't continue to buck what many see as a current trend in the opera world. While other houses struggle with falling attendance figures, the Staatsoper sells over 99% of its seats, while its standing places per performance, available for well under €5, arguably mean that it remains the most accessible of the world’s great lyric stages.

Wiener Staatsoper © Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Pöhn
Wiener Staatsoper
© Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Pöhn
Meyer puts the success down to a variety of factors. He admits that his planning has, at times, to be pragmatic, not taking too many risks in the three tricky periods he identifies – September, June and during the ball season. The unparalleled variety offered by the house’s repertory system, though, means that he can feature many more major stars in any one season than Stagione houses. In a particularly canny touch, he’s also careful never to have what the house offers outstrip demand: “I play 50 operas and ten ballet programmes, but always in short series. I want people to complain that there are no tickets left, to have go to the Stehplätze.”

It’s perhaps unsurprising that Meyer is bullish about the future of opera more generally. And he does his own bit to safeguard it by a commitment to both children’s operas and the building up of a strong ensemble of young singers at the Staatsoper, a task in which his involvement in the juries for multiple singing prizes certainly helps.

And what about his own future after he leaves the Staatsoper in 2020? The answer is characteristically relaxed and philosophical. “I’m not planning anything,” he says. “I want to leave the keys to a theatre in the best possible state for my successor [current boss of Sony Classical, Bogdan Roščić]. I have a lot of experience and I’m ready for another adventure. I hope that destiny will give me another gift.” 

 

Article sponsored by the Wiener Staatsoper