Our return to the world of theatre can’t come soon enough, but there is one stage in particular that should be right up there on your bucket list. The Bregenz Festival is home to the world’s largest floating stage, built in epic proportions since 1946 on Lake Constance in Austria. If you’re not a fan of opera, this show might just change your tune…
Government: “So, before you build that stage over the water, we’re going to need you to fill out some health and safety forms.”
Producer: “This year it’s going to be a giant book that’s being opened up by a skeleton.”
Government: “You know what? Let’s just do this.”
And that’s pretty much how we imagine how things go down at Bregenz.
The imagination of the festival’s set designers has no limits. They’re arguably the secret stars in this annual operatic performance. They seem to outdo themselves with every new set, each more surreal than the last, taking on average 215 days to construct every two years on wooden stakes positioned around a concrete core. The concrete core anchored to the lakeshore houses the necessary infrastructure for the festival; dressing rooms, the orchestra pit and the machine rooms where the technical wizardry is conducted much like the orchestra itself. To go beyond the spectacular, Brégence’s sets require cutting-edge technology. The basic structure is supported by immense pillars anchored in the bottom of the lake and the decorations built upon the stage can reach up to thirty meters in height.
Getting cast in a performance comes with a few prerequisites: you must be able to swim and you mustn’t be afraid of heights. It’s not impossible for actors to end up in the water. In 2013’s The Magic Flute, three singers and an extra accidentally fell in the lake, including Kathryn Lewek (The Queen of the Night). Performers must sing in the open air despite the frequent meteorological hazards of the region, prancing about on sets that are not only toweing above the water, but are also moving beneath their feet and constantly evolving between scenes. The stage is two thirds larger than normal theatre sets in order to make sure that the open-air construction isn’t dwarfed by the natural backdrop of Constance Lake (which often seems to compete for the audience’s attention with its incredible sunsets).
In August of 1946, only one year after the end of World War II, the first Bregenz Festival took place with an evening of Mozart on a lavishly decorated barge – a comparatively modest stage by today’s standards. The town of Bregenz was lacking a theatre at that time, so its greatest asset (Lake Constance) was chosen as a stage. Initially only a temporary solution, the choice of venue turned out to be decisive for its success. The Bregenz Festival Community was founded in 1950, becoming a permanent body of organisers who continue to develop the festival today.
Everything from West Side Story to Tosca has been staged at the floating festival, and it even featured in the 2008 James Bond film, Quantum of Solace.
For the first time in its 74 year run, the show was called off during the Covid-19 outbreak, but they left the stage up – a giant clown for Verdi’s Rigoletto – and moved all the show dates to 2021 (July 21- August 22). There are 7,000 seats in the audience, here’s to one of them being yours in the not too distant future.
In the meantime, take a backstage tour for the upcoming show…