Opera in Dresden and Leipzig is on the up and up

Opera in Dresden and Leipzig is on the up and up


norman lebrecht

July 11, 2014

The Semper Oper in Dresden (prop. C. Thielemann) has just turned in a 91.9 percent season, up 1.2% on last year. It can hardly get much better, even in a Strauss anniversary year.

Leipzig Opera (boss man: Ulf Schirmer), which has gone through a hard time, announced a 6 percent increase to reach 70 percent capacity. Way to go, but it’s heading in the right direction.

Someone, please flash these figures at hangdog Peter Gelb.



  • Petros Linardos says:

    Yes, the MET opera is trending down while many other major opera houses, even in the US, are trending up.

    A few more numbers though will help us keep things in perspective:

    – The Leipzig Opera house filled on average 891 of its 1,273 seats.

    – The Semper Oper filled on average 1,1351 of its 1,360 seats.

    – The Met filled on average 2,850 of its 3,800 seats.

    I am not a Peter Gelb fan by any stretch of imagination.

    I turn to Slipped Disc for informed criticism and find plenty of it, but do not understand the blog’s attitude towards certain people, including Peter Gelb.

    • Petros Linardos says:

      PS: – The Semper Oper filled on average 1,251 of its 1,360 seats. Sorry for the typo.

      • Nick says:

        Yes, the figures are interesting, but I believe it is quite unfair to look at average sales percentages in isolation. Far more important, surely, than just comparing seating capacities and actual seats sold are the historical percentages of seats sold in each house. I don’t have these statistics but we know that the Met did better in pre-Gelb years.

        You also have to compare population density. New York has about 8.4 million residents. Dresden and Leipzig have just 530,000 or so each. Then look at in-bound tourism figures. According to the latest information I can access, Leipzig recently had around 1.2 million visitors and Dresden around 1.9 million. New York had well over 50 million.

        Add these and other statistics in to the mix and the Met’s downward trend is not only more obvious, it is even more alarming!

  • Simon S. says:

    @Nick: Things are even worse: If you don’t count NY City only, but the whole metropolitan area, the 8.4 m figure is by far too small – by contrast, neither Dresden nor Leipzig have much of a metropolitan area. (OK, there’s Halle near Leipzig with 230k inhabitants and Chemnitz near Dresden with 240k, but both with an own opera company.) Furthermore, the whole region is not too far from Berlin with 3 opera companies. And how many other opera companies are based in the New York metropolitan area?

  • urania says:

    If Germany would switch to the US financing system for Opera houses I wonder how many institutions might survive!

  • Petros Linardos says:

    @Nick & @Simon: Thank you for your informed comments.

  • william osborne says:

    This issue of larger vs. smaller houses is very important. Smaller houses allow for a better geographic distribution of opera. There are 9 full time, year-round opera houses within two hours of where I live in Southwestern Germany: Stuttgart, Freiburg, Karlsruhe, Ulm, Pforzheim, Basel, Zurich, St. Gallen, and Lucerne. In several of these cities, the houses only seat 500 people, but they are full time, fully dedicated opera houses.

    See this interesting map of Germany’s opera house landscape. Note how in the densely populated Ruhrgebiet of Germany, there are 11 fulltime opera houses within a 35 mile radius:


    If America’s Northeastern seaboard had the same sort of opera landscape, there would be full-time, year-round professional houses in Long Island, Newark, Jersey City, Trenton, Camden, Philadelphia, Wilmington, Baltimore, New Haven, Hartford, Springfield, Providence, and Boston.

    This sort of distribution would allow opera in America to reach a much wider demographic. One house like the Met can’t serve a metro area of 18 million people. We need at least half a dozen smaller houses spread throughout the area to do the job.

    In terms of historical authenticity, opera is best presented in houses that range from 500 to 1000 seats. This allows for an intimate connection with the performance. And it allows the singers more flexibility in how they use their voices which greatly enhances their ability to act. This concept applies to even to late romantic works. Wagner’s operas are the largest in the repertoire, and yet he limited Bayreuth to 1800 seats. NYC would be far better served by three or four smaller opera houses than the stadium-like Met.

    German houses also sell better because even in the best houses the tickets are a third or half the price of the Mets. And in the smaller houses, the tickets are often even cheaper.
    I provide below a comparison between the Freiburg and Dallas Opera houses since they define fairly typical norms between Europe and America.

    PRICES: In Freiburg, the average ticket price is about 22 Euros ($30). The most expensive seats, front row center, are 50 Euros ($70.) The average price in Dallas, even at subscription rates, appears to be over $100. The best seats are $240. As is often the case in the States, subscriptions in Dallas go on sale long before single tickets, so wealthier people get first shot at the best seats. Dallas has not yet posted its single price tickets. Single price tickets are probably much higher. We are looking at prices three to four times higher than in Freiburg.

    PEFROMANCES PER YEAR AND POPULATION: Last year Freiburg completed 85 performances in a city of 200,000, and Dallas 23 in a city of 1.2 million. Little Freiburg thus ranks 70th in the world for opera performances per year, which puts it 187 positions ahead of huge Dallas which comes in at 257th. (The stats are from Operabase.) It should be noted that having four times as many performances at one quarter the ticket price and in a smaller house where there is much more direct connection with the performance, makes opera affordable, available, and enjoyable to a much wider demographic than in Dallas.

    VARIETY OF HALLS: In addition to its opera stage, Freiburg has two smaller theaters that program more modern forms of music theater. Dallas, like the few American Opera companies that exist, often premieres new operas, but they seldom present forms of chamber music theater. The premieres are often used to add profile to very limited seasons and budgets. None of America’s most established houses, have small alternative venues. Pamela Rosenberg tried to establish one in San Francisco before she was driven away by the parochialism and plutocracy of the American opera world.

    ENSEMBLE VS. STAR SYTEMS: Dallas focuses on using star singes for a small number of productions and with small number of performances of each at expensive ticket prices. Freiburg uses a fulltime ensemble cast that is more economical. This allows for about 4 times as many performances per year, tickets at about 1/4th the price, and over twice as many productions in each season.

    The programming in Freiburg is often interesting. This month, for example, long after Dallas has closed for the year, Freiburg is doing a double bill of Bartok’s “Blue Beard’s Castle” and Puccini’s rarely performed “Il Tabarro.”

    I mention these facts, because I believe Americans can learn from a closer study of how Europeans approach opera and its funding. Unfortunately, my posts about these issues are being increasingly blocked in various U.S. forums. The truth is sometimes unpleasant, but facing it is often the only way to solve problems.

    William Osborne

    • Nick says:

      With all respect to the alleged ‘facts’ presented by Mr. Osborne, for the most part he is absolutely not comparing like with like. His first comments about geographical distribution may make eminent sense on paper. Economically, they would be a disaster, for they fail to take into account two key factors: demand and cost. His area of Germany has that demand to fill opera houses. Its local, state and national governments are historically prepared to subsidise them heavily. If there were rich patrons in Trenton, Hartford etc. and sufficient demand locally, no doubt they would also have had opera houses and regular performances for some time. The fact is neither demand nor finance has been in any way evident.

      I also take issue with his comments on historical authenticity. Where does that figure of 500 – 1,000 being the most ideal for opera come from? Seating capacity matters far less than the space within which the voices and the orchestra can resonate and project. Accordingly, reverberation time and an even spread of sound are a great deal more important than a specific size. By the mid 18th century, opera houses were traditionally designed using the horse-shoe shape. The distance from the front of the stage to the back of the auditorium was therefore very considerable and hardly intimate. Seating capacity was also relatively high. At that time, the capacity of the Palais Garnier was close to 2,000. The new opera house in Vienna, the Hofopera later renamed the Staatsoper, equally had just over 2,000. And the reconstructed Royal Opera had around 2,200. It is not only far-fetched but totally illogical to suggest that Wagner limited Bayreuth’s seating capacity even though he composed some of the longest operas requiring large forces.

      Similarly his suggestion that “having four times as many performances at one quarter the ticket price and in a smaller house where there is much more direct connection with the performance, makes opera affordable, available, and enjoyable to a much wider demographic than in Dallas” is filled with several huge potholes, not the least of which is cost. I fear Mr. Osborne’s knowledge of opera financing must be somewhat lacking in specifics.

      His comments about the Ensemble system vs. the Star system on paper make sense BUT – and it is a big BUT – only where a company is working and performing for a substantial period of each year, if not the whole year. Freiberg can do it. Dallas absolutely can not. It is as simple as that!

      I have no doubt that most American opera administrators look longingly at the European approach to opera funding. But they can do no more than look – unless and until the US government, the states and the city authorities all decide they are going to spend as much on promoting opera and opera companies as Germany does. And that – as everyone in the music business knows only too well – will only happen when it turns out the moon is made of cheese.

      • william osborne says:

        The usual denial. Try to put that ten gallon hat back on Dallas’ pint-size opera.

        True, there’s no public for opera in Trenton, et al. And so the American mindset demands that such a public just appear, quick and fast, like a Big Mac. It’s nothing to be built over decades. And of course, we see that the same mindset has destroyed cities like Trenton on many other levels as well – to the point that they are virtually unlivable and represent social conditions found only in Third World countries. The American way.

        In the remote chance a big hall had a decent acoustic, critical theatrical issues of sight lines and distance remain. The opera repertoire is vastly larger than the later romantic era when halls began to reach the 2000 seat size. Name some late Renaissance or baroque halls that seat 2000. And that’s still only half the size of the Met! Wagner considered every aspect of the construction of Bayreuth, including its number of seats (1800.)

        It’s true, a rinky-dink season like Dallas has can’t support an ensemble system for the singers, much less have anything but a pickup orchestra. It’s pathetic.

        I think it possible that the USA will develop a public funding system sometime before the moon turns to cheese – even if a host of right wing nut jobs tell us it will never happen. It wasn’t so long ago people would have laughed, if not beaten one up, if anyone would have suggested we would have a black President. Americans are capable of change, even if it might be a slow process.

        On the other hand, we know that the American funding system will never work well for opera. Not even at the Met. And as is evident, not even in huge rich cities like Dallas. We won’t even talk about Atlanta, Tulsa, Columbus, Detroit, Cleveland, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, and on and on. Green cheese indeed! But let’s stop those pinko ideas about public arts funding.

        • william osborne says:

          New York is the only major city in the world parochial enough to put a Mozart Opera in a 3800 seat hall and not know something is wrong.

          • Nick says:

            So Mr. Osborne has issues with size!

            FACT. Opera came into existence at the very end of the 16th century, the first opera house not built till 1637 in Venice. Art forms take awhile to become accepted and financed. Most of the early repertoire was created in socio-economic conditions of abundant and relatively cheap supply of musicians and singers. The Royal Courts and wealthy patrons who constructed the first houses in the late renaissance and baroque periods generally used them only for private entertainment. That, as you failed to point out, is what determined seating capacity – economics and audience numbers. Even by the mid-18th century, opera theatres like Bayreuth’s Margrave Opera House were still being constructed with just 500 seats or so seats.

            You forget, though, that along with the development of the commercial impresario size was changing. La Scala opened in Milan in 1778 with 3,200 seats, now reduced to 2,800. I saw Mozart in that house before the recent renovations. I enjoyed the performance and found the acoustic splendid. You, no doubt, consider this “wrong”! San Carlo in Naples preceded La Scala and has even more seats. These and the other houses I listed in my earlier post were not constructed in the late romantic period. That came more than a century later, you’ll recall!

            You have a strange line of argument. You compare Dallas to Freiburg in your earlier post, the implication being that if Dallas just copied Freiburg’s example it would be more successful in many ways. Now you agree that Dallas “can’t support an ensemble system”, adding “It’s pathetic.” So why mention it in the first place?

            And then to imply that the relatively rapid changes in American society that led the election of President Obama might also lead to a wholly revolutionary change in attitudes to the funding of opera is just downright ridiculous, with respect – a point you yourself confirm in the very next sentence!

            What you write all boils down to your own wholly impractical views on opera performance in America and how massive changes should be made to accommodate them. Fine. You’ve now stated that quite clearly. Those who disagree – and from your own words it seems that is quite a large number – are not met with rational argument but with somewhat childish put-downs.

          • william osborne says:

            Yes, Nick, the size of opera houses is a very important issue. La Scala and San Carlo are very large, but they are very much exceptions to the rule, especially in their historical context. As famous as they are, they do not define norms. Mozart and the large majority of other composers conceived and premiered their operas with very different theaters in mind.

            I did not say Dallas should copy Freiburg. (Your misreading is intentional and made in poor faith.) My point is that Dallas couldn’t imitate Freiburg even if it wanted to, exactly because our funding system is too dysfunctional to support year-round opera houses. And we should note the fraudulent façade when companies with paltry seasons and budgets claim greatness simply because they’ve hired a few star singers for a short run. Or when they build big new opera houses but only do 24 opera performances a year. (How frustrating those hard numbers must be for you.)

            The changes that led to Obama being President evolved over 200 years – especially as evidenced by the 80 year history of the 20th century civil rights movement. Substantive change, like the development of an effective system of publicly funding the arts, will require a long struggle. The political agendas of those opposed to public arts funding are obvious. Ironically, they usually come from the same people who see the American civil rights movement as just some short-lived phenomenon. The move toward public funding will be long, but it must be undertaken.

          • william osborne says:

            A good model for a Mozart theater would be the Estates Theater in Prague where two of his operas were premiered. I’m not sure exactly how many seats it has. The floor plan is here, looks to be around 750 or 800 at a guess:


            One should distinguish between the big halls created by impresarios and the halls composers actually wrote for. The motive for one is money, the other art.

  • I enjoy your comments William – always an interesting perspective. My one comment regarding resident ensemble vs. invited guest singers is this…having recently experienced opera in a couple of European cities where ticket prices were indeed extremely reasonable compared to North America, I was struck by this: although the singing was certainly professional and acceptable, it was no where near the standard I think we’re used to hearing in most of North America’s large and medium-sized companies. I think the quality of the performers and productions also dictates ticket prices to a large degree and so, you kind of get what you pay for. This in no way negates the sad state of support for opera companies in NA – there really is no comparison with Europe, especially Germany, Austria and Switzerland.

    • william osborne says:

      It’s true, Gianmarco, that we now accept the voices of a few stars as the norm in opera. This probably comes even more from recordings than live performance. About 90% of the US population has no access to opera. For most, the nearest professional production in a genuine opera house would be hundreds of miles away – leaps like from LA to Santa Fe to Houston covering thousands of miles. To the high ticket prices would be added plane flights and hotel costs, and the loss of at least a couple days getting to the house and back.

      In addition to noting the need for variation in hall sizes, we need to learn that there are many kinds of bel canto voices and embrace these variations as an enriching part of the art. There can be a lot more to bel canto than the big-house-star-singers whose horsey, warbling, egoistic physicality often subsumes all the other elements of theater. And they have little choice. In big houses they have to bellow so loud that acting and vocal nuance become very difficult. That’s why Europe’s small houses, which present a wider range of voices, and with ensemble casts who really know how to work with each other, and who have time to learn complex and metaphorically rich stagings, are a delight Americans rarely experience.

      These ensemble houses also do much better productions because the performers have time to learn stagings richer in theatrical detail and metaphorical meanings. American houses, by contrast, bring in star singers who have tight schedules and who barely rehearse – hence the propensity of rather dimensionless park-and-bark productions in the USA. And worse, in spite of paltry budgets, short runs, limited repertoire, flat stagings, and the use of pick up orchestras, they claim greatness simply because they bought some star singers for three or four nights.

  • anonymus says:

    The US doesn’t have a financing system. The US has alimony for culture.

  • Nick says:

    “La Scala and San Carlo are very large, but they are very much exceptions to the rule”

    Again this is inaccurate. I have in an earlier post listed Paris, Vienna and London with over 2,000 seats. Palermo opened with 3,200 seats. In 1826 the old Hamburg Stadt-Theater, predecessor of the present house, had seating for 2,800. I could go on!

    Yes, of course Mozart and his predecessors were used to smaller theatres – for the very specific reasons I outlined. If you take your argument to its logical conclusion, though, then virtually nothing from the early 19th century onwards apart from chamber opera might exist today. Let’s recall that it was largely thanks to commercial impresarios like Domenico Barbaja that La Scala and the San Carlo commissioned and premiered many of the major bel canto works, early Verdi and others, the vast majority of which would have been wholly uneconomical in smaller houses.

    Thereafter, both the scale of opera, its public appeal, its far larger orchestras and the economics of opera in general had totally changed from Mozart’s time. To suggest otherwise flies in the face of history.

    I do not advocate any particular system. I have seen superb productions in the US and in Germany. Equally, I have seen lousy, badly directed, badly sung productions in both countries. But nothing changes the fact that houses like Freiburg can only exist because of public subsidy. Like most German houses, its singers, musicians and staff have a status similar to civil servants and receive generous salaries, pensions and annual holidays. You are clearly welcome to spend your years preparing for the day when the US will have a similar funding system. The history and cultures are totally different. It will never happen.

    • william osborne says:

      You mention about five large opera houses on a continent that has several thousand houses and claim they define a norm for European opera. They do not. The large majority of houses in Europe are far smaller. The smaller houses mentioned above in Dresden and Leipzig are more the norm.

      You are also either unaware or ignoring that many if not most European cities like Vienna, Munich, Paris, Berlin, etc. have a variety of halls and when possible they put Mozart in smaller spaces, like the Gaertnerplatz Theater in Munich or the Volksoper in Vienna. Sadly, Americans do not have this option. In the off chance a city has an opera house at all, it is usually the only one they have. And in the larger cities, they are generally larger than what is ideal for Mozart and many other operas.

      A recent and well-known example of this was the problems the NYCO faced. It left Koch Hall, which was too big, expensive, and low quality even among big halls, and tried various venues around town, but by that time the company was already collapsing — in a city of 8 million.

      As usual, the American opera world can’t face the realities of its limitations…

      • william osborne says:

        Germany has 83 full time opera houses. In the densely population Ruhrgebiet there are 11 within a 35 mile radius. Most houses are in cities with a population under 500,000. It would be absurd to think they are all hosting 2500 seat halls. I don’t know of any official stats, but I would guess the average seating capacity of these 83 opera houses is about 1000.

        BTW, to judge the reliability of “Nick’s” comments, it would be essential to know who he actually is.

  • Nick says:

    “One should distinguish between the big halls created by impresarios and the halls composers actually wrote for.”

    Precisely! But again you drive a knife through your own argument. The vast majority of opera composers currently performed lived after Mozart and wrote for houses way larger than 1,000 seats – Donizetti, Bellini, Rossini, Ponchielli, Verdi, Puccini, Strauss, Berlioz, some Wagner – I need not go on.

    • william osborne says:

      Mozart is the 3rd most performed opera composer, and Handel the 8th. Gluck and Purcell are also fairly common. Huge halls harm their performance. They also tilt the repertoire toward the large works that suit them. This repertoire shapes the perspectives of singers and directors and thus even influences the programming in the many smaller European halls where rep could be more flexible. Excessively large halls thus limit the development of opera, both in terms of past and future repertoire. It is absurd, for example, that so few works out of a large quantity of great operas are performed. As I have noted, they truncate music history. Large halls have helped to stick the opera world in a rut.

      Moderately sized halls even enhance the audience performer/relationship with the Romantics – hence their preferability. 3800 seat stadiums like the Met are ridiculous. Sooner or later it will bring the Met down. I’m very happy I can regularly attend opera in halls that seat from 500 to 1000. The experience is entirely different. Even Wagner is generally better in a smaller hall.

  • Nick says:

    We agree on one point. The operabase site has the list of the top 100 opera composers whose works were performed worldwide in 2012/13. Mozart certainly comes in at #3 and Handel at #8. Gluck is there at #23 and Purcell #25. But you’ll then be hard pressed to find more than 10 pre-Mozart composers, 7 of whom fall in the bottom 50. Virtually all the others were written for considerably larger theatres.

    Your argument about theatre size fails even more spectacularly when you look at the list of the top 100 operas performed worldwide that year. 4 are by Mozart. Only 2 are pre-Mozart – Giulio Cesare and L’incoronazione di Poppea, although I concede that another 3 on the post-Mozart list use chamber opera forces and were written for smaller houses (Britten and Weill).

    Interestingly given your comments about German houses and their greater suitability for Mozart and pre-Mozart, I have found another site providing details of the 30 most frequently performed operas in Germany. The season is 2006/07. In that list of 30, 4 are by Mozart. Gluck’s Orfeo is also there, but no other pre-Mozart operas (perhaps you can provide later statistics). The rest were written for all written for considerably larger houses.


    You state that larger seating capacities have limited the development of opera and helped “stick the opera world in a rut.” Not true. There have been plenty of works commissioned in Europe for the smaller second houses you mention earlier as well as the regional companies in the UK and elsewhere. Perhaps you mean only in the USA? You also totally omit any mention of shifting currents of musical taste. Most of Handel’s 42 operas virtually disappeared soon after his death. It is only in the last 60 or so years that many have been rediscovered as masterpieces.

    I will agree to a certain extent with your claim that “huge halls harm their performance. . .” Personally I would not wish to see Mozart at the Met. But much depends on the house itself. Some years ago I saw David McVicar’s wonderful Giulio Cesare in Chicago’s 3,500 seat Lyric Theatre. It was a superb evening.

    • william osborne says:

      Again, you are purposely misreading my posts for the sake of argument and thus spinning your wheels. My point is that the dominance of the big houses in opera creates a bias toward romantic opera even in Europe’s smaller houses where programming could be more flexible.

      As a result, about 500 years’ worth of good compositions are reduced to a main rep of about 15 operas.

      Fortunately, as you note, Europe’s access to smaller venues still allows them to do quite a few smaller, contemporary productions. And they often place pre-romantic productions in their smaller venues as well, even if the bias toward big opera remains. Americans do not have this option, because our few genuine companies only have one, large main stage – and they can’t really support even that. Pamela Rosenberg tried to create a second, smaller stage in SF before she was driven away.

      The American opera scene has trouble growing because it fails to truly look at its short-comings – almost to the point of being fraudulent. A notable responsibility for this lies with journals like Opera News, blogs like Parterre Box, and service organizations like Opera America. In addition to being cheerleaders and gossipers, they should be truth-tellers. Their ideas for improvements should go beyond re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic and look that the systemic problems opera in America faces.

  • Nick says:

    This discussion has run its course. You have put forward your views; I mine. We will never agree. Before someone writes to say it has become boring, the time has come to end by agreeing to differ.