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Culture

Germany's Opera Houses Defy Economic Crisis

When it comes to opera, the German landscape is like a voluptuous leading lady with a rich repertoire and the power to woo. But how, when the nation is feeling the pinch of austerity, can its opera houses stay alive?

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Germany has an ongoing love affair with the opera

For those brought up on the belief that opera is an elite form of entertainment accessible only to society grande dames and their aristocratic entourages, it might come as something of a surprise to learn that Germany is home to some 90 opera houses. And many are in eastern Germany, which is more frequently equated with economic crisis and unemployment than high-brow culture.

Indeed a trip around Germany's most eastern reaches reveals that parts of the country are as bleak and depressed as the economic pundits would have us believe. But by the same token, many towns and cities are also home to spectacular opera houses, which appear untouched by the tumultuous events of the past decades.

Sachsen - Opernhaus in Chemnitz

Chemnitz's opera feels the pinch of fewer inhabitants

Bernhard Helmich, who is poised to become the new director general of the opera in the town of Chemnitz, says that ultimately local unemployment rates have little bearing on the fate of an opera house.

"The problems in towns like Chemnitz are no different to those in richer German towns, because at the end of the day, those who go to the opera are generally not those who are affected by poverty," Helmich said, adding that pricing scales in most opera houses cater to all purses. "What is a problem for us is the fact that towns are getting smaller."

Shrinking populations, local competition

Of that, Chemnitz -- the last town of any significance before the Czech border -- is a prime example. Since emerging from behind the Iron Curtain, it has shrunk by almost 50 percent and is now home to just over 200,000 inhabitants. The fact that there are fewer people to fill the same number of seats coupled with the constant threat of public spending cuts has the power to influence which performances the different houses are prepared to put their names to.

Opernhaus in Erfurt Eröffnung Treppe

The eastern city of Erfurt invested in a modern opera house

A recent study conducted by the German Association of Theater and Orchestras found that "more and more opera houses see no alternative but to cut back their programs and avoid any commercial risks in repertoire planning." Another competitive factor is that there are simply so many opera houses in spitting distance of each other.

Helmich said that although there is definite competition between the houses, people tend to identify closely with their local ensembles. "People come to hear the singers of their town. They want to see their tenors, their bass, their dancers," he said. "They don't want to hear outsiders, even if they are better."

The director for the Association of Theater and Orchestras, Rolf Bolwin, believes the traditional notion behind opera in Germany was to be able to offer culture to the locals. "Opera should be for the townspeople. An opera house in Leipzig is of no use to the inhabitants of Chemnitz."

Steeped in tradition

And although there is evidence to suggest that the number of people taking advantage of the local and national palette of performances has fallen over the past 15 years, some 8 million viewers turned out to watch operas, operettas, musicals and ballets in Germany last season. Bolwin says there is no escaping the fact that "music theater plays a big role for Germans."

The tradition, which grew up in the 17th century in the small princedoms of Germany, has partly been so successful at surviving because it has played a role in the social discourse of the German nation. Helmich says it is astonishing that there are still so many people who remain true to opera. "The fact that closure plans always meet with such hefty protests proves that Germans respect educational and historical theater."

Der Rosenkavalier

A taste of the past in Richard Strauss' "Rosenkavalier"

Since it became an accessible source of entertainment, opera has had to stave off ever more competition from the world of modern media, but as Bolwin points out, the likes of television, film and even the Internet have not rendered it redundant. "Opera has survived all kinds of competition because unlike a screen, it is based on direct communication between people," he said.

Bolwin is determined to see the tradition of that communication live on to fight the next generations of electronica.

"Changes will continue, but we must aim to mobilize all our energies to keep one of the greatest opera landscapes of the world alive."

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