Adolf Hitler dreamed of a gleaming new opera house for his home town of Linz in Austria. World War II put an end to his fantasies.
It took another 70 years, a lot of political battles, a referendum and the rerouting of a highway before a theater could be built. The state-of-the-art Musik Theater am Volksgarten is marking its opening with 10 weeks of festivities.
Highlights so far are the April 12 premiere of an opera, “The Lost,” by Philip Glass, and an abridged version of Wagner’s “Parsifal” performed in front of the house with fireworks, a flying horse, a giant puppet perched on the roof, and a net full of trapeze artists suspended from a crane over the forecourt.
The house cost 180 million euros ($236 million) to build and will be home to the city’s Bruckner Orchestra. The British architect, Terry Pawson, said he was amazed when his proposal to move the dual-carriageway Blumauerstrasse and integrate the building into a park was accepted. With London’s South Bank Centre in mind, he said he wants a “vibrant place to be.”
“My approach to architecture is to produce something that is in itself quiet but has presence,” Pawson, 56, said in an interview at the new opera house. “It’s less about making a sculpture than about creating living space.
“This was not a good end of town,” he said. “The park was not hospitable. There were a lot of low bushes and unsavory characters. The new opera house changes the park completely. Over time it will change the whole structure of the city.”
The steel, glass and stone facade reflects the park by day and glows with the lights of the spacious foyer by night. The new auditorium has 1,000 roomy red seats, gold balconies arranged in a horseshoe, individual displays for surtitles and a simple, striking oval chandelier.
The orchestra pit, the largest in Austria, can be raised to stage level. “The Lost,” an adaptation of an abstract play by the Austrian writer Peter Handke, showed off the stage, which has two revolving platforms.
The leg-room will be new to Linz theater-goers. The city’s 1803 Landestheater was deemed too small almost as soon as it opened. Plans for a new opera house were shelved with the outbreak of World War I.
The teenage Hitler heard his first “Lohengrin” at the old theater and it was in Linz, his home town, that he developed a lifelong passion for Wagner.
With his annexation of Austria in 1938, the Nazi leader hatched big plans for his home town -- among them a cavernous cultural center whose manifold amenities included an opera house and a museum. His ideas, too, were foiled by war.
The initiative wasn’t taken up again until 1983. Two other locations for an opera house were then debated -- one overlooking the Danube, one by the castle. Yet the anti- immigrant Freedom Party turned the plans into a campaign issue and forced a referendum in 2000.
Voters rejected the opera house by 60 percent to 40 percent. Still, as Dennis Russell Davies, the American conductor of the Bruckner Orchestra points out, 200,000 people voted in favor -- evidence of a potential audience.
The subject reemerged when Linz was chosen to be a European Capital of Culture. This time, the planned location was the Volksgarten -- where Hitler wanted to put his vast cultural complex. Pawson said he had no idea of the history of the site when he submitted his proposal.
“I suppose it’s ironic,” he smiled.
The irony isn’t lost on the Linz theater world. The original Landestheater -- which will now offer spoken theater only -- is showing “Land der Laemmer” (Land of Lambs), a collection of skits and readings about the annexation of Austria and decades of denying complicity with Nazi Germany. The 75th anniversary of “Anschluss” took place in March, the month before the new theater opened.
Josef Puehringer, the governor of Upper Austria and a champion of the opera house, preferred to look to the future at the opening ceremony. The investment will help Linz cement its reputation as a cultural center and overcome its industrial, pollution-ridden image, he said.
“We are no longer the region of foul air and dirty water,” Puehringer told journalists. “We want to remain a region of industry and employment, but we also want to be a land of knowledge, art and culture. This is a good use of our money. I can look the tax payer and the next generation in the eye.”
(Catherine Hickley writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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