With our Zoom call set up in advance, Nikolaus Bachler positively bounces onto camera. Where other arts leaders seem ground down by eleven months of pandemic, the Intendant of Bayerische Staatsoper (Bavarian State Opera) says he loves the opportunities that crisis brings: “We made so many inventions in this one year. The energy is so positive in the house because everyone notices that what we do is not for granted, we have to fight for it.” That energy is higher than at any time in recent years, he says, and he prefers to discuss that rather than problems or limitations.

Nikolaus Bachler
© Markus Jans

Like everyone else, the Staatsoper has been forced to cancel or postpone many productions, or play them to a reduced audience or even an empty house. But Bachler is proud that they have been able to work through the whole pandemic, not closing for a single day, shuffling holidays and working behind the scenes when it wasn’t possible to perform (at times, he admits, it was like being in a monastery). Some fancy footwork has been required: performances of some sort have happened in every corner of the building, including a horn concert to an audience of 10 in the cellar underneath the main stage. Lehár’s operetta Schön ist die Welt, which Bachtrack reviewed in glowing terms, was rehearsed from scratch in four days.

That’s been possible because of high levels of support from the Bavarian government. “We are a real State theatre, really connected to the finance ministers and the administrators, and that gave us a safety net in everything we did.” As an example, early in the pandemic, they became part of a university study which tested 50 people in the company every day. There was a lot of development of hygiene concepts and the house remained open to (reduced) audiences until second lockdown struck in November.

Schön ist die Welt, January 2021: Sebastian Kohlhepp, Julia Kleiter
© Wilfried Hoesl

This is Bachler’s thirteenth and last season at the Staatsoper and I’m keen to discuss his tenure. His view of his goals is succinct:  “What we have in the big opera houses is high musical standards. Very good productions, music-wise, and a very conventional and conservative way of doing opera. Then we have the avant-garde houses from Brussels to Frankfurt: they have an average musical situation, but interesting music theatre interpretations. What we did is to try to bring these together: to see an interesting interpretation with Kaufmann and Harteros, as an example, and with Petrenko conducting.” He reels off a list of directors: Warlikowski, Tcherniakov, Bieito, Castellucci. “They all worked here. But they worked at the highest musical level.”

Der Freischütz, February 2021: Anna Prohaska
© Wilfried Hoesl

He emphasises how different opera staging has been in Germany compared to houses like Covent Garden or the Met. “The Munich audience had already seen a lot. Thirty years ago, they had Konwitschny and Hans Neuenfels. There was a slow process of going together in a certain direction. And that’s why it is somehow very difficult, let’s say for a London audience, when they suddenly see a very shocking production and everyone is irritated. Because it’s like learning a new language. And of course, the development of music theatre was basically in Germany in the last  fifty years, with Ruth Berghaus, Herz, Neuenfels, Felsenstein and all these people. So I think there was a natural way of moving on and not going in the direction of a museum.”

When I probe at some of the features of German direction with which UK-based opera-goers have struggled – for example, the deluge of under-explained ideas in Frank Castorf’s Bayreuth Ring – Bachler is uncompromising. “That’s basically what art is about, in general, with visual art or even with new architecture. The artist gives the rules. And it will not be understood in the moment, probably, and probably there are wrong ideas that don’t lead anywhere. But it’s always a question of years. When they asked Mao Zedong what are the consequences of the French Revolution, he said ‘it’s too early to judge’: I think it’s the same in the arts. The only thing that is necessary and that there is no way around is that you have to move on, because it’s an alive art form and a contemporary art form, even if we have a piece from the Baroque time.”

“If you say ‘we want to do Mozart like Mozart, like in Mozart’s time’, it’s not possible, because we are not in Mozart’s time. So it’s always a transformation or a transmission. How intelligent or how profound: this is a question. And this is to be discussed in every production. Of course, we also have failures. But it has to move. In so many theatres still today, we have what I call ‘a concert performance in sets and costumes’”.

Der Freischütz, February 2021: Pavel Černoch, Golda Schultz, Kyle Ketelsen
© Wilfried Hoesl

The Munich audience was already very advanced when he arrived, Bachler says, but with 40% of the Staatsoper’s revenues coming from ticket sales, he can’t afford to lose them by an excessively radical agenda and he keeps a steady eye on his audience figures. So far, there isn’t a problem: “The best thing is that we don’t try to make a populistic or popular programme, we only look at what we find artistically interesting and profound. And we are almost sold out every day.”

I comment that while radical new stagings are plentiful at the Staatsoper, newly written operas are not. “We try to do one a year. The problem – and I see this in the big houses, Paris, London, Vienna – is that the composers of today are not necessarily writing for this big form that we need. There are so many interesting composers for chamber operas and for smaller concerts.” Munich lacks a smaller second stage that would suit these works and Bachler feels no particular desire to create one – “I’m quite against the ‘everyone has to do everything’. Of course, we commission a new opera like South Pole, but it’s not the daily situation.” 

Bachler saw his first opera at six, taken by his violinist mother to Parsifal (“can you imagine?”) – he expresses wryly that she clearly thought this was a suitable story for children. That said, since he’s still in the opera business, it’s clear that no long term damage ensued. “I grew up in Austria in a house full of music. I think my mother was very disappointed that I became an actor and not a musician.” 

Eight Songs for a Mad King, January 2021: Holger Falk
© Wilfried Hoesl

He became Artistic Director of the Berlin Schiller Theater in 1987 and since then, his career has remained in management. Directorship of the Vienna Volksoper ensued in 1996, but he has never personally directed an opera, believing firmly that people should stick to their own jobs. “To be a theatre manager is a profession. I’m not very fond of singers that run a theatre and I’m not very fond of conductors that direct. And the directors that I’m most interested in are the ones who are artists with a strong vision.”

And how does he choose those directors? “That’s a very difficult question because it comes from my stomach. I personally come from the stage, and as an actor, you have an intuition.” But he makes two clear statements: he tries to ensure that he chooses directors from a wide range of nationalities (he mentions Russia, Poland, New Zealand, Australia) and he tries to ensure continuity, so that his relationships with artists can develop over time.

Bachler will leave Bayerische Staatsoper at the end of this season, handing over to Opéra de Lyon’s Serge Dorny. Does he have any expectations as to what kind of Intendant Dorny will be? “He stands for music theatre and this is what this house is about. People are not going back now to do concerts in old costumes, because this would be a pity for the city and for the house. The rest, I cannot say. He comes from a little yacht and now he has the big tanker – hopefully not the Titanic! You do 40-45 operas every year here and you have to get a lot of money on the box office, so you are condemned to success.”

Having originally decided not to take another major institutional job, Bachler succumbed to temptation and allowed himself to be persuaded back to his native Austria and the leadership of the Salzburg Easter Festival. It’s the prospect of shaking things up that attracts him: “It seems like it’s still in the Karajan era. I started to think about how we could do a reformation there in the next few years.” There will be a tricky handover period from Christian Thielemann (who remains Artistic Director until 2023) and coronavirus has played havoc with the planning for this year’s festival, but Bachler remains stubbornly upbeat: “I always like difficult situations, because this is what makes you awake in this life. As long as we are playing both in our lives and on stage, I think we are alive.”

Bayerische Staatsoper's Der Freischütz (pictured) premiered on 13th February. See the listing here.