Sound recovery: how live music is returning to Munich

Led, masked and alone, to an underground lair below the Bavarian State Opera house, our writer joined a tiny handful of others for a thrilling chamber concert. Now the company is reclaiming its stage

It was at the end of May that I heard live music for the first time in almost three months. Not over Zoom or YouTube. There were no cameras or wireless technology. It was old-fashioned and analogue, a group of musicians performing for an audience present in the same room. The concert marked the Bavarian State Opera’s first cautious steps at reopening. The Munich-based company, Germany’s largest opera house, was the first in the country to shut down in mid-March to help prevent the spread of Covid-19. In addition to losing a big chunk of its season, the company was also forced to cancel its summer opera festival.

But the music making never completely stopped. A series of weekly concerts featuring small groups of performers or soloists were livestreamed from the Staatsoper stage, attracting hundreds of thousands of viewers around the world, and, in the wake of the first easing of restrictions on movement and social distancing in Bavaria, these Monday concerts have just been opened to 100 spectators. The final of the season at the end of the month will feature chamber works by Stravinsky, Strauss and Schoenberg conducted by Kirill Petrenko, and Jonas Kaufmann singing Mahler lieder.

But their first public concerts, at the end of May, were a series of weekly chamber music concerts, that were called Streifzüge am Mittwoch (“Wednesday Strolls”, or forays) held in unusual locations in the Nationaltheater. “We want to make the best of the current situation, and invite our audiences to spaces which during regular operations wouldn’t be accessible, let alone somewhere we might perform,” said general manager Nikolaus Bachler.

Tickets for the Wednesday concerts cost €15 and audience attendance is capped at 20. (The main auditorium has 2,101 seats.) The first week, there were 350 requests for tickets which are allocated by raffle, and, in what is now standard procedure in reopened restaurants throughout the region, ticket buyers needed to provide personal information in advance for tracing purposes.

Leg room … the audience for Wednesday Strolls is capped at 20 – in stark contrast with the Staatsoper’s 2,000-plus capacity.
Leg room … the audience for Wednesday Strolls is capped at 20 – in stark contrast with the Staatsoper’s 2,000-plus capacity. Photograph: Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images

As a music critic, I can’t remember ever having gone this long without setting foot in an opera house or concert hall. My first pandemic-era concert was bound to feel significant no matter what, but the carefully observed hygiene and distancing protocol added a ritualistic and even theatrical aspect to the occasion.

Half an hour before the concert, the masked music lovers and I lined up in front of the box office, maintaining proper distance. Inside were numbered chairs on which lay our programmes and where we could deposit personal items (in lieu of the usual complimentary cloakroom.

We were summoned one by one. What followed was an extensive tour – it sure felt like a “stroll” - through the administrative building to the opera house, which are connected via a skyway. Masked ushers were stationed at every turn to direct me left or right and up or down staircases.

Our eventual destination was an underground room ringed by a metal walkway and illuminated by fluorescent lights. We were two storeys beneath the stage, amid the machinery that raises and lower it. A final usher showed me to my position, marked by a fluorescent beam. Then, and only then, was I finally allowed to remove my mask.

Bass-baritone Milan Siljanov and pianist Nino Chokhonelidze look on as ballet dancer Margarita Grechanaia warms up.
Bass-baritone Milan Siljanov and pianist Nino Chokhonelidze, left, look on as ballet dancer Margarita Grechanaia warms up. Photograph: Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images

Looking around at the other attendees spread out of the four sides of the walkway I spotted T-shirts, jeans and loose-fitting skirts. It wasn’t your typical Munich audience. It seems the lockdown has allowed the city to relax its usual elegant fashion.

The unusual setting called for an unusual musical programme. The nine horn players of the Staatsorchester entered wearing black masks emblazoned with the company insignia in red. They descended to the machine floor below us and spread out to their music stands. Removing their masks, they bowed to the spectators and launched into a hunting fanfare. At the first burnished tones, I found myself gripping the railing. The Bavarian State Opera has one of the best Wagner orchestras in the world. Had it not been for Covid-19, its top brass would have been performing the composer’s stormy Flying Dutchman about now.

At the end of the half-hour, the applause was generous, yet no encore was forthcoming. Perhaps protocol required that every component of the performance be announced in advance. The musicians gathered small garbage bags into which they emptied their spit valves and left.

On again went the masks. One by one, we filed out of the machine room, passing the myriad ushers on the route back to retrieve our coats and bags before we stepped out into twilight.

The whole thing hadn’t taken an hour from start to finish, but it had felt momentous, even crucial, as we feel our way back to normal life. I was grateful both for the performance itself and for having felt, however briefly, the powerful communal bond that music creates between performers and audiences. But that gratitude was also tempered by the knowledge that it was something that only a handful can experience right now.

Chilling … Eight Songs for a Mad King.
Chilling … Eight Songs for a Mad King. Photograph: Wilfried Hösl

This past weekend, I returned to the Nationaltheater to watch a production of Peter Maxwell Davies’s chilling Eight Songs for A Mad King, sung by the German baritone Holger Falk accompanied by six musicians and a conductor. It was part of a new weekend series of performances held on rather than under the main stage. Davies’s 1969 work, a feverish setting of utterances by King George III, was the second monodrama of this Saturday series, the programming for the Sunday performances, which gives a stage to local artists, is even less predictable. After a mindbending revue-style homage to David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, the next Sunday concert features a potpourri of musical-comedy hits. There is however some standard repertoire in the concerts to come: the final Wednesday Stroll this week will feature string quartets by Beethoven and Haydn.

A stellar job … the Bayerische Staatsoper.
A stellar job … the Bayerische Staatsoper. Photograph: Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images

Being one of a handful of spectators allowed into these intimate concerts feels special. Their unusual format also has a way of sharpening your senses and focusing your attention. And I suspect that concertgoers whose minds might be prone to wander during a “difficult” piece like Eight Songs for a Mad King found themselves focused on the music in a different, perhaps more intense, way.

With its pioneering and creative approach, Munich’s pioneering programming may offer a model for how Germany’s hundreds of opera houses, concert halls and theatres can slowly come back to life after months of inactivity and hundreds of cancelled concerts, productions and festivals. Perhaps there’s even a lesson for arts organisations abroad. If live performance is to survive these uncertain times, organisations and ensembles will need to learn to adapt and to innovate, wherever they can. With its admittedly elaborate resources, Munich has done a stellar job. Now it’s time for everyone else to step up to the plate.

AJ Goldmann

The GuardianTramp

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