The pandemic interrupted cultural activity around the world, especially large-scale opera houses that suddenly found themselves grappling with crippling financial and logistical challenges.
The Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich, Germany, one of the world's most renowned opera houses, was no exception. Founded in 1653, it is one of the oldest and most prestigious opera houses in the world. Over the centuries, it has been home to many famous composers, conductors, and singers, and has premiered numerous operas that have gone on to become classics of the genre. In an interview with Malte Krasting, a dramaturg at the Staatsoper, he described how the theatre reacted to the pandemic, the projects they undertook, their big challenges and learning, and how they are thinking about the future.
Krasting explained that at the start of the pandemic, the Staatsoper had to cancel all their planned performances, which meant that they had to come up with new ways to engage their audience. They decided to continue focusing on live streaming and recordings, which were made available for free. The Staatsoper had first begun livestreaming their shows in 2012, inviting audiences to tune in real-time. With the pandemic, there was equal focus on maintaining the recordings and using the archive as a cultural asset, offering a video on demand model as well. Krasting also points to the fact that the Staatsoper had the infrastructure, manpower and technical know-how for digitizing the live experience for many years, which is what allowed them to move quickly. He compares this to other theatres and opera houses, who had to build everything from scratch as a direct consequence of the lockdown.
Despite the plethora of digital material available for audiences, Krasting noted that the live aspect was crucial: "If you know, this is happening right now, and other people are watching too, even if they’re not in the same room, but it’s something that cannot be repeated identically as you can with a CD or DVD. Your presence matters. Like, you are here, that’s why it matters. I honestly believe there is something to that."
The Staatsoper took this philosophy to heart and experimented with new ways of engaging their audience. They also created a new series called Montagsstücke (English: Monday Show), which focused on new performances that were streamed live for audiences at home for free. They continued offering these livestreams throughout the pandemic, complementing other in-person activities at the Opera house depending on the changing regulations.
They also expanded their online presence significantly, turning to TikTok to offer behind-the-scene happenings and news to the public, and also leveraging Spotify to put out compositions by their orchestra to an international music and opera community.
Their dedicated music label put out selected opera productions and concert recordings as CDs and DVDs for purchase. Their recordings have already won four Gramophone awards as of October 2023, including the "Recording of the Year", something unprecedented in the magazine's history and "..Quite impressive for a record label with its first three releases", adds Krasting.
They created a series called Fester Samstag, which showcased specially created shows and gave freelancers the opportunity to present their work on the Staatsoper's stage through their initiative Freier Sonntag. The focus on newly created concerts or opera productions is to be noted here, signalling a deliberate intention to continue creating in spite of the challenges.
Krasting reiterates that the Staatsoper was able to move quickly during this time, and this was one of the main lessons they learned from the pandemic. They did not necessarily need to have three or four years of preparation for a production. They were able to produce full-blown shows in a matter of three weeks as well as undertake decisions regarding programs and initiatives much quicker. This was a significant change from their usual lengthy and meticulous production processes before the pandemic, allowing more room to embrace uncertainty and new developments.
Krasting was initially sceptical about the integration of technology in the artistic direction of the work produced by the Staatsoper. While he acknowledged that there were some examples of the interaction of pre-recorded video sequences, live video, and live theater that were great, he felt that the profession was not substantially gaining from technology. Krasting felt that the live experience was essential and that the audience's presence mattered. He noted that "if travelling becomes something that you’re not supposed to do because of environmental issues, that will change our ways much more drastically than using video cameras."
He also talks about personnel and training challenges that came with this digitization drive, such as difficulty in managing and storing heavy media archives (as well as opening them up to the public). He also mentions scarcity and abundance of documentation as a special challenge. For some digital programs, the lack of paper flyers and brochures means it's tucked away in a corner of the internet, waiting to be discovered by people 10, 20 or even 50 years from now. “So much for collective memory in the digital era.”, he adds. He also mentions the new protocol to record everything by default, "Just in case something like the pandemic happens again", he adds, pointing to a growing trend among operas and cultural institutions to unlock more value with their recorded archives. "I fear they will be stored on some hard drives nobody knows what’s on them, if we’re lucky.", echoing a sentiment felt by many creative practitioners during this time.
The Bayerische Staatsoper's response to the pandemic was innovative and inspiring. They were able to adapt to a difficult situation and come up with new ways to engage their audience. While the future may be uncertain, the Staatsoper's commitment to preserving the live experience is a reassuring reminder that some things are irreplaceable.
Krasting concludes his observations by saying "Experiencing a show go well… or an audience reacting enthusiastically at the moment. I think it can’t be beaten." The Bayerische Staatsoper may have experimented with new ways of engaging its audience during the pandemic, but Krasting emphasized the importance of preserving the live experience.