Why Munich keeps winning the opera race

Why Munich keeps winning the opera race


norman lebrecht

February 03, 2016

When we reported yesterday that Bavarian State Opera had sold out the entire run of a new opera two weeks before its world premiere, there were grunts and shrugs of couldn’t-happen-here from most other opera capitals around the world. So what makes Munich audiences so loyal?

Richard Hartmann has some answers for us:


Munich has an opera tradition of over four centuries.

The Nationaltheater, which was one of the first grand opera houses in the world (first construction 1811-1818, reconstructed after burning down between 1823-1825), has seen many world premieres.

“Tristan und Isolde”, “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg”, “Das Rheingold”, “Die Walküre” by Richard Wagner or “Capriccio” and “Der Friedenstag” by Richard Strauss had their première in Munich.

Great conductors – named “Bavaria General Directors of Music”ensured and ensure ongoing highest quality: Joseph Keilbert, Bruno Walter, Carlos Kleiber, Wolfgang Sawallisch, Zubin Metha, Kent Nagano and Kyrill Petrenko are the names in the Hall of Fame of our Theatre.

The Names of the Managing Directors are equally glamorous: Rudolph Hartmann, Wolfgang Sawallisch, August Everding, Sir Peter Jonas and now Nikolaus Bachler have ensured that the Munich Opera ranks amongst the top 5 Opera houses in the world.

However all of that would not help, if there wasn’t an audience willing to fill the 2.103 seats per performance with an average of 280 performances per year! There are alone 25,000 subscribers who attend 6 performances per year and the waiting list is sometimes up to 5 years.

The Bavarian Education System includes teaching of Music from 1st class. Tradition of making Music at home is still very common. The Hochschule für Musik und Theater and the “August-Everding Theatre Academy” ensure a high quality in education of musicians, singers and artists. In addition to the opera house we have two more opera houses, two orchestras of world reputation (Symphony Orchestra of the Bavarian Radio and Munich Philharmonic), in addition 8 large orchestras of high quality and more than 50 Choir-Associations who regularly perform in other concert halls or churches during high-mass. The international ARD-Musikwettbewerb ranks amongst the highest competitions worldwide amongst young musicians ensuring that young artist have a challenge to perform.

My lengthy explanation just should show the reader that an continuous education can lead to a high level of art supporters on either side: spectators who listen (being gourmets and gourmands) and artists who perform to an well educated audience. The State of Bavaria invests a lot of money to ensure this highest quality of supporting fine arts as part of the Bavarian Constitution.

This is the key to the success of our Opera House and a sold out World Premiere – not only recently, but surely since decades.


  • Halldor says:

    Interesting that he seems to think the presence of 10 large orchestras in the area helps build a large audience – the assumption of many in London is that 4 orchestras is too many.

    • Olassus@live.com says:

      Well, he is slightly wrong. There are not ten orchestras. And CK was not GMD.

    • Olassus says:

      Well, there are not ten large orchestras, and Kleiber was not GMD.

      • Michael Schaffer says:

        He probably means amateur orchestras, as he mentions them separately from the professional orchestras but together with the choral societies. That means there are a lot of people there who don’t just go to concerts but they also actively play and sing in ensembles.

    • Anne63 says:

      Yorkshire having been happy with 0 for most of my life there.

      • Frederick West says:

        Indeed! I suppose we could count the Opera North band though, not a bad lot.

      • Peter Freeman says:

        But you do have your visiting orchestras series in Leeds and Bradford. Do they prove demand? After all, the Leeds Triennial Festival shut up shop years ago.

        • Anne63 says:

          Frederick, Peter:

          Opera North is certainly a success, thanks to Lord Harewood and ENO, but its orchestra can’t be in two places at once.

          Yorkshire, largest county in the country, had no professional orchestra capable of playing the symphonic repertoire between 1955 and 1978, depending as you say on help from the other side of the Pennines. Must have been a time consuming journey before the M62.

          The worst aspect of this is that I recall very little concern about this lack of home grown provision in Yorkshire. Like Thomas Beecham, also from the Other Side, I’m not a big fan of brass bands.

          • Frederick West says:

            I’m guessing here that 1955 was the year when the Yorkshire Symphony Orchestra folded, a very fine enterprise for its time. There’s always been something of a dividing line between the ‘ridings’ which has not been that productive. The brass band movement has had to face a lot of change, mostly caused by its own obsession with contesting which I never understood. It had the net effect of driving players out , certainly the case with me. It was a crazy system creating a premier league of a select few who have dominated the higher echelons for a considerable time now. Having said that it did a pretty good job in providing brass players for many orchestras.
            Leeds and Bradford do have a decent concert season and let’s not forget Huddersfield.

  • Olassus says:


  • Helene Kamioner says:

    I had the privillege of serving as Director of North American PR for the Bayerische Staatsoper under Sir Peter Jonas and Ulrike Hessler, and can honestly say the house is a pure love fest. I am very proud of my relationship with this highly exemplary insitution and take the liberty of posting a quote about my participation from Ulrike Hessler:

    Dear Helen,

    Thank you very much for that excellent coverage of the Munich Opernfestspiele you made possible. I think the regular visits of the major critics really help. I had an especially nice lunch with Alex Ross last Saturday. I think Munich is now seen as a champion’s league player in the American media. Many thanks again!

    Dr. Ulrike Hessler
    Bayerische Staatsoper
    Leitendes Direktorium

  • Eddie Mars says:

    I can only agree with everything written in the article – and add that the long-term commitment of corporate sponsors is an invaluable part of the success. These are not just firms buying ‘a taste of the success’ to polish their corporate image – they are firmly committed to supporting the arts. They make free webcasts available worldwide, they support infrastructure and the ‘unglamorous’ aspects of the theatre’s work too. They deserve our thanks and gratitude.

  • Robin Worth says:

    Yes, it’s a great house.

    But it’s not perfect. Seats are twice the price of the Berlin houses. Reserving a seat is much less easy than in Berlin (you send in a request months ahead/they tell you the allocation is sold out/you go online the day general booking opens)

    And the audience is no better behaved than elsewhere. Last November we had a corporate foursome in row 2 of the stalls in front of us. The elderly male guest, talking in a broad Bavarian accent, said he had never been in the theatre before and his behaviour proved it. The time before that a group of some German middle-aged ladies felt the urge to chat whenever they felt like it and I had to interpret for the Japanese enthusiast whose fury they provoked

    What makes it such a joy to visit is that the location is perfect : easy to get to and close to some good restaurants. Only Vienna is better.

    • Frederick West says:

      Vienna might be better but I found Munich cheaper for sustenance! And easier to get round. I’d go along with all you say hear, the locals (Bavarians) can be a little provincial at times!

    • Eddie Mars says:

      But you will never find The South Pole, or Prokofiev’s Fiery Angel in the stodgy repertoire of the VSO (to mention two Munich sell-out successes of the last 2-3 months) Nor will you find conductors of the calibre or Jurowsky and Petrenko there.

      There is a reason that Munich costs more, and that it’s harder to get tickets.

      It’s better.

      • Bogda says:

        What a strange comment. This season Vienna already had a new production of Vec Makropulos, and will stage Eotvos’s Tri Sestri and a world premier of new opera for kids! And one would argue that Thielemann is a conductor of quite a high caliber

      • RW2013 says:

        Is another production of South Pole planned?
        Having watched it on Arte, I suspect and hope not.
        Such contrived old hat, and to use the eprimo-clown as Robert Scott with so many English tenors floating around…
        Another world premiere for the archives.

  • Mox says:

    Kleiber was living in Munich and the State Opera was one of the four opera houses where he conducted his last 10 years. Solti was after the war one of the first conductors there.
    Peter Jonas had built the fundament for the success of Bachler, because he changed the audience from a listening in a watching and listening one. No Park and Bark anymore.

    • Petros LInardos says:

      I used to watch and listen to opera, until the advent of Regietheater. Then I stopped watching and, eventually, I stopped going. Thankfully there are quite a few DVDs and youtube clips from older days. And there are always the exceptions to the Eurotrash rule.

      Here are a couple of links to pre-Regietheater Munich performances. What is wrong with them?

      Strauss, Die schweigsame Frau – Günther Rennert 1972

      Mozart, Magic Flute – August Everding, 1983

      I had the great luck of attending the Everding Magic Flute in Munich in 2004 and, as far as I could tell, the audience was both listening and watching.

  • Mox says:

    To compare the three cities makes so much sense as to compare Bayern Munich with Hertha Berlin or Rapid Wien. The same difference is between the opera houses. Vienna has a enormous living quality and I am always happy to be there. Opera happens in the Theater an der Wien, the State Opera is perfect for Asian tourists.

  • Mox says:

    It is ofcourse disturbing when people talk during a performance, but again this is the difference to Berlin and London, in Munich go middle class people in the opera and they speak sometimes bavarian. A tip for the time next,just say to them: Seits stad. It will work.

  • christy says:

    “Couldn’t happen here?”

    The new production of Bel Canto sold out its entire run in Chicago.

  • Peter Freeman says:

    Olassus, what about it?

  • M_von_Kolinahr says:

    Lovely and beautiful city that knows its great Bavarian (and musical) traditions and how to look after them! – a great place to have ended up living for some 15 years – sometimes I really wonder why on earth I ever left it. But whenever I miss it, I can still also reach for my trusty “Tristan und Isolde” DVD (1998) with the great Waltraud Meier as Isolde (and Jon Fredric West as Tristan), conducted by Zubin Mehta, and luxuriate in the sounds and images of the Nationaltheater where the work was premiered. Yes, I know, Peter Konwitschny’s staging is completely nutty to say the very least, but somehow I can’t help loving it all anyway, and I was surprised to learn that it was still being produced there even as late as last year, when Meier decided to finally say farewell to the role of Isolde altogether, after over 20 years. (… And together with Robert Dean Smith as Tristan, whom I originally saw in the National Theatre back in 2001, singing the role of Herman in Tchaikovsky’s “Pique Dame”… wonderful.)

    [In Bavarian] Oiso dann, Minga, pfia’ Di’ nachad! -> OK then, Munich, see you round! – do kannst fei Gift drauf nehma, gäi?? Prost!!! 😉

  • Peter says:

    What “RACE” is Lebrecht talking about? There is no race.
    Only in a critique’s dream, him being the referee.