For a decade Bregenz Festival artistic director David Pountney has created a unique event with an edge. As his tenure draws to a close, he discusses creativity, tradition and being a rebel
Famed for its lavish sets and exquisite backdrop, Bregenz Festival’s humble beginnings saw Mozart’s Bastien et Bastienne take place on two barges, moored on Austria’s Lake Constance, at the end of WWII – when the city didn’t even boast a theatre. Since then performances on the lake have remained a defining feature at Bregenz, drawing visitors from Germany, Switzerland, France and the UK. Bregenz has consistently cultivated a reputation for its risk-taking collaborations and populist approach. It’s also known for its enormous sets – and even an appearance in James Bond.
Bregenz aims to appeal to a broad audience. Do you think opera is a spectacle, work of art or quite simply a form of entertainment?
We call our production on the lake in Bregenz an ‘intelligent spectacle’, and it’s clear that spectacle is one ingredient in the very wide portfolio that opera encompasses. But fundamentally, opera is nothing more or less than a story told through music. This story can equally be told in a small black studio in front of 150 people, or in the baths of Caracalla in front of 5,000. And even in the little studio, there can be a moment of spectacle, because in minimalist surroundings, the striking of a match can be spectacular.
Art is a combination of ideas, content and communication. And entertaining, beguiling and delighting your audience are all successful ways to communicate. A bored audience will not get your message; that’s why all artists understand the need to encapsulate their message in a form which is in some sense attractive, and why the blunt separation of ‘art’ from ‘entertainment’ is false and irrelevant.
What have been your creative influences across literature, art and music – what are the tones that define your style of work and have these changed over time?
My parents were talented and keen amateur musicians. I felt that through the circumstances in which they had been raised, and then the war, that they had never had the chance to develop their talents as far as they possibly could. They gave me many opportunities and I have always felt honour-bound to seize them to the full. I think I am still, subconsciously, driven by that motivation today.
I think my education as an historian [Pountney was born in Oxford and educated at Cambridge, where he read English and History] has always steered me to be aware of the political and social implications of art – and opera is, of course, the arena where politics and art most obviously combine. I had a privileged upbringing, but it was paid for by music, as my parents were not privileged. So I think I have always been aware of myself as an outsider/insider. This has made me sceptical of authority, and given me an instinct to challenge orthodoxy.
Opera comes with a kind of privileged and established aura, and I have always had the instinct to subvert that – show me a line and I immediately want to cross it. Everything changes over time, and everything stays the same. When I get on my bicycle to go to the Festspielhaus and experience the sense of freedom riding beside the lake, I often remember the same sense of freedom I experienced as a 10-year-old as I cycled across Cambridge for my trumpet lessons.
‘The blunt separation of ‘art’ from ‘entertainment’ is false and irrelevant’
You are famed for your imaginative and eccentric productions. How do you continue to top-up your creativity?
The question about ‘topping up your creativity’ is an interesting one – there is a very long and important dialogue about that between Hans Sachs and Walter in the last act of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Sachs argues that when inspiration runs dry, the rules will help show you what to do.Walter’s argument is that inspiration is the King. The answer is creating a balance between the two. But the real knack is to always leave a little empty corner where instinct can pop up and take you by surprise.
As your final Bregenz Festival draws closer, has anything unexpected and challenging happened?
The biggest blip happened quite some time ago now – this being opera and lead times being long – when our scheduled world premiere composer asked for another year to finish his opera. Luckily, we were able to come up with another world premiere to replace it – and at the same time launch a major retrospective of a wholly forgotten composer, André Tchaikowsky. But that is what artistic directors do: they make plans, and when those plans come off the rails for whatever reason, they make new ones. There is something else interesting about the substitution of André Tchaikowsky’s The Merchant of Venice at the last moment: what I call ‘the beacon factor’.
Over the past years the Bregenz Festival has established itself as a place where discoveries and innovations take place. The result has been that projects now come to us – we don’t need to go looking that hard. In this case,although André has been dead for some 30 years, he just walked up to me and tapped me on the shoulder, and now here we are giving the world premiere of his opera.
The strand Art of Our Times is a prominent feature. What’s behind the concept?
The Kunst aus der Zeit – KAZ for short – segment of the festival is, as you might suppose, devoted to contemporary work. KAZ has a more experimental and cutting edge aspect than our work in the main indoor theatre, where we have nonetheless presented five world premieres in five years. Art of Our Times is an important part of the ‘Bregenz Rainbow’ which spans an enormous arch from populist but intelligent spectacle on the lake, to these more experimental works, for which we also have a very beautiful and evocative space, the ‘Werkstattbühne’ – a vast black box space ideally suited to contemporary work.
All of these events, whether popular or experimental, come under our overall heading of ‘special events in a special location’. This might be understood as a definition of what a festival should be (though rarely is).
For the 2013 festival’s premiere of The Wasp Factory, you’re taking a risk in staging the directorial debut of Ben Frost, an Australian composer known for his experimental music. What appealed to you about his work?
Ben Frost was a special project of Laura Berman, who was the artistic director of our KAZ programme, and who is overseeing the mounting of this world premiere. Ben is a really fascinating artist – one of a whole generation of people loosely described as ‘crossover’ – ie working at the experimental end of both classical and popular genres – distinctions which are, in any case, increasingly irrelevant.
Whereas the world premiere of Tchaikowsky’s The Merchant of Venice will showcase a real opera, albeit one with a highly developed and complex modern musical idiom, Ben’s work cannot be so easily summarised. The Wasp Factory exists at the point where theatre, imagery and music meet in a world which has as much to do with Brian Eno or Pink Floyd as any classical model.This is just the kind of experimental work for which KAZ exists.
How does new work American Lulu tie-in with the festival theme, Towards the sun (Dem Licht entgegen)?
The opera American Lulu does not particularly fit in with this theme, but then we never give our themes a straightjacket. The themes are a way of giving the festival a particular character, a flavour, a visual and conceptual direction, and to help the audience find its way around our wide programme. But, of course, there are limits because what may happen is that disparate works of art are forced to conform to one idea, and so we don’t attempt to do that.
American Lulu’s Olga Neuwirth is one of Austria’s most brilliant younger generation composers, and we have been talking with her off and on about American Lulu for many years. We are really delighted it has come to fruition, and feel that it will enrich this year’s programme.
Overall, including the concert programming, there’s a strong British contingency present: is this a statement or arbitrary?
Actually, Bregenz has had this British link for over 20 years now. One reason for that is that the Lake productions have built up a tradition of innovation and popular appeal,which is a combination that British directors are much more comfortable to explore than their German counterparts. In the German-speaking cultural world, there is still considerable embarrassment about admitting that you are setting out to entertain the populace. There is a guilt about this that actually goes back to a revulsion for the Nazi’s demagogic appeal. Being popular is always suspected of being in bad taste.
But actually, Bregenz has proved – and continues to prove – the opposite. That is our special identity. We appeal to a mass public without dumbing down or compromising, but we do gladly accept the discipline that is required when communicating with a mass audience: clarity, brevity and no intellectual games. That’s the fancy explanation but the appeal of working at Bregenz can also be applied more simply: it is a matter of friendship and trust. If you have known and worked with artists as significant and as talented as Sir Mark Elder and Keith Warner, why wouldn’t you employ them again?
Can you give us a little insight into this year’s staging of the operas on the lake?
The fantasy world in which The Magic Flute takes place should have an element of scariness; after all this is a charming and much-loved fairy tale or quest opera in which two people try to commit suicide. A mother tries to instigate her daughter to murder a rival, there is an attempted rape, and the rapist is sentenced by a priest to have the soles of his feet beaten 77 times. With the set we were thinking of one of those ancient maps of the then unknown world where there were drawings of strange creatures, and little rubrics which said: ‘There be dragons!’ There is indeed a sort of dragon in The Magic Flute [see the online webcam for live developments], as well as many other wondrous things.
‘Show me a line and I immediately want to cross it’
What are the differing professional constraints and freedoms between your new job at Welsh National Opera [as chief executive and artist director]and your role at Bregenz?
A festival and a year-round opera company are two completely different animals. A festival is, or should be, as I have said, a special event in a special location. Its whole purpose is to be something outside the daily diet of culture that each and every city should be attempting to provide for its citizens. Since the ancient Greeks’ time there has existed this idea that you leave the city, go out to a special location, drink, dance, and forget yourself and your daily concerns and immerse yourself in an experience of cultural revelation.
A company like WNO is trying to cater for the daily cultural needs of the cities it serves, so precisely where a festival must be very focussed on a narrow idea for that summer, a year-round company must offer a balanced diet of work that gives something for all tastes. A year-round company is also structurally very different. A festival like Bregenz works for 10 months a year with a small core of people, and then suddenly expands by a factor of 10 for the brief weeks of its performances. A permanent company, by contrast,will be dominated by its performing collectives – orchestra, chorus, stage staff – and naturally this gives it a radically different financial profile, since its continual battle will be to sustain this large expert labour force.
This is your last year at Bregenz.Who will take over as artistic director – and what do you think the new person in the job will be tasked with tackling?
My successor is a very able and charming woman, Elisabeth Sobotka, who is moving here from being a very successful intendant in Graz. Her biggest headache will undoubtedly be the ever-widening gap between the frozen investment from the government – which has not gone up since 1997 – and represents a cut of €1m in real terms, and the fact that the same government regulates, for example, wage increases for particular categories of people which have an impact on our expenses.
This ever-widening gap has to be brought under control, either by a significant uplift in government investment, or by a rigorous clamp down by the government on indexed salary rises – which won’t happen – or a very large pot of outside money will have to be found. Perhaps this is the moment for the tourist industry to step up to the plate and acknowledge that they are deriving massive financial input from the people that the festival attracts, and they should be prepared to invest in its continuing prosperity. As will be obvious, none of these options will be easy to achieve.