Bregenz is a charming Austrian town resting on the shores of Lake Constance (Boddensee), nestled, really, between it and the Alps. Its beaches, harbors, and excellent restaurants entice tourists in summer, and its cozy cafes and cable car accessibility to ski lifts lure them in winter. From the center of town, it’s less than an hour’s stroll to either Germany or Switzerland. For decades, the presence of my grad school friend Kathy has drawn me there (and she has a lovely family I’ve grown to know and love over the decades), but once I attended an opera performance on the famous sea stage (Seebühne), that became another compelling attraction.
If attending a performance of the Bregenzer Festspiele is not on your Bucket List, it should be, opera fan or not. It is always a magical spectacle, the likes of which you will not see anywhere else. While the singing is always excellent (there are two casts, the better of which performs on weekends) and the music, superb, it’s the staging that constitutes the extraordinary element. The Festspiele occurs annually for four weeks, from late July to late August. Fervent opera enthusiasts can begin their adventure in Germanic Europewith a visit to Bayreuth’s Wagner Festival, which begins a week or so earlier, and then take a scenic train ride to Bregenz or Lindau, a lovely, neighboring, German town on Lake Constance that offers elegant hotels and boat service to and from sea stage performances.
The stage is a small island, surrounded on land by a semi-circle of seven thousand seats. Every two years a new opera is staged; stage construction is such an expensive and complex project and demand for tickets sufficiently high that organizers mount the same opera in two consecutive years. In 2022 and 2023, it is Madame Butterfly.
The sea stage offers scenographers extraordinary possibilities. They can utilize the lake, the (nearly) unlimited height of the custom-built stage, and the atmosphere of sunset (it sets stage right) and evening (performances begin at 21:15). In recent years—Carmen was performed in 2017/2018 and Rigoletto in 2019/2021 (pictured)—the scenography displayed breathtaking feats of engineering, with many movable parts that enhanced the narrative and astonished the audience. Acrobats performed, aerialists swung from ropes suspended from the several-story high backdrop and lept into the lake, boats delivered characters to the stage at key moments. One can visit the stage for free during the day, which I did for far too many years before attending my first performance.
For Madame Butterfly, organizers have adopted a different scenographic approach, one less dramatic, but still spectacular in the way it privileges the relationship of audience and performers to the magnificent natural setting. This stage isn’t much to look at without performers, but beginning thirty minutes before the performance commences and a mood-setting character appears on stage, light technicians create a subtle light show against the neutral, undulating, scenographic blanket that enhances the tones of the sky as the sun sets, one that responds to the differing nuances presented each evening. The approach complements the somber, understated mood of the opera.
If you go, be prepared for rain (bring a waterproof poncho, umbrellas are not permitted) because the audience and performers are unsheltered, and in the mountains, showers do occur. Performances continue despite the rain unless it’s a downpour, in which case, the performance is cancelled. Thus far in 2022, several performances have been cancelled due to thunder, lightning, and sheeting rain, but the evening I went, it drizzled for about thirty minutes before ceasing. Everyone sat encased in their protective, hooded plastic bags, and I wondered about performer footwear and the stage surface, since there was no slipping and sliding, as one might have feared.
Bregenz (and Lindau) are worth visiting in any event; both are beautiful, affluent towns on the banks of Europe’s largest freshwater lake and magnets for those attracted by innovative contemporary architecture and farm-to-table cuisine. Around the performance, there’s lots to do. On warm, sunny days, outdoor enthusiasts can boat, swim, or lie lazily on the beach. Alternatively, they take the cable car to the top of Pfänder, the local mountain, where hiking trails begin.
The tranquil residential Upper Town was constructed atop the original Roman settlement, traces of which lie mostly beneath well-kept medieval and renaissance buildings and their delightful gardens. (A bit of the protective Roman wall surfaces in spots.) The Chapel of Saint Martin retains traces of medieval frescoes and the Church of Saint Gallus, delicate Rococo frescoes in a more restrained style than the exuberant ones populating churches in nearby Bavaria. Inhabitants of the Upper Town fiercely defend their village-like setting, so one finds little opportunity for shopping or dining. Don’t miss the centuries-old shark carcass hanging, curiously, from the interior wooden archway of the Upper Town’s main pedestrian entrance.
For culture vultures seeking avant garde contemporary art and exhibitions that often include site-specific works, the Kunsthaus is the place to visit. A stark, cavernous space perfectly suited to the exhibition of contemporary art—including the monumental and heavy works it occasionally generates—was designed by star architect Peter Zumthor, who also designed the Hotel Schwärzler (recommended) in the preferred modern local style that utilizes local woods and steel in understated yet elegant configurations. Jenny Holzer, Richard, Serra, Asgar Jorn, and, currently, Jordan Wolfson have exhibited there.
Across the way, the Landesmuseum showcases local history and the rich folk culture of the Voralberg region. Among many other attractions, it contains an impressive collection of paintings by local stars like Angelika Kauffmann (1741-1807), the eighteenth-century painter who co-founded London’s Royal Academy of Art, and the neglected if gifted New Realist (Neue Sachlichkeit) painter Rudolf Wacker (1893-1939). With a car (and probably by bus), you can visit Kauffmann’s hometown, Schwarzenberg, which has a lovely museum dedicated to her art and to local folk culture, which remains well-preserved in this traditionally minded region. Great restaurants promoting local cheeses, meats, and regional recipes abound. If you like dining in restaurants where servers won’t look askance if you inquire about the origins of the ingredients and may well be able to share this information in unanticipated detail, the Voralberg region is the place for you!