From the meteoric rise of Russian soprano Anna Netrebko to performance-packed festivals that sell out months in advance, opera is having its 21st century moment. There’s the growing popularity of live opera broadcasts in movie theaters, too. But with all due respect to the Metropolitan Opera’s marketing savvy, sometimes it pays to not just think outside the box, but to rip the roof right off.
That’s because, as any true opera aficionado will tell you, there’s no better way to indulge the habit than by scoring a seat at one of the great outdoor music festivals. Sure, no one can deny the drama of attending an opera at, say, "La Scala," even when a famous tenor like Roberto Alagna doesn’t storm off the stage in the middle of a performance (as he did in 2006), or trembling in anticipation as soprano Renee Fleming infuses "La Traviata" with her singular velvet touch at the Paris Opera. But there’s a world of sublime sounds out there, and it pays to plan ahead.
If supersized egos and a cultural reference bar raised high can make the opera world daunting for novices (yes, there are industry insiders who cringe at the mere mention of The Three Tenors), that’s no reason not to jump right in. We selected these festivals using the following criteria: They are in, or very close by, destinations that are worthy in their own right; they present a variety of high-quality works and not just those by a single composer; and, they boast venues that are at least partially outside (with the exception of Wexford, but hey, it’s Ireland).
“These festivals are not just about opera, but about the locale, too,” says Guy Barzilay, a leading New York-based agent who represents lyric artists. “And we love sending our singers to perform at festivals, because that means we get to go, too!” One of Barzilay’s favorite festivals is also one that’s relatively (pardon the pun) unsung: Savonlinna in, of all places, Finland.
“It’s a gorgeous location, a castle from 1475 on an island in a lake that you have to take a boat to get to,” he says, “and they use the castle as the backdrop to the operas.” Savonlinna has gained a reputation as a secret gem festival; one of the soloists performing next summer will be none other than Roberto Alagna.
As for ticket prices at festivals, they can vary widely. At the Santa Fe Opera, individual tickets range from $26 to $180, but subscribers can save 25 percent compared to single ticket prices. At Glyndebourne, they range from $20 for a restricted view standing ticket to $373 for an orchestra-level stall. Tickets to a Baroque concert at the Lucerne Festival with William Christie of Les Florissants conducting and mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter singing range from $19 to $82. Availability is more often an issue than price; the more prestigious the festival, the faster tickets will go.
One of Barzilay’s artists, the bass-baritone Wayne Tigges, played the role of Basilio in "The Barber of Seville" at the popular Santa Fe Opera in 2005, and has this to say about one of the world’s most acclaimed summer opera houses: “The opera house has an impressive roof on it, with an otherwise outside venue. The stage is very open, and allows an audience to see the hillside and beautiful scenery of Santa Fe behind it. I remember watching Peter Grimes there one summer during a storm. The opera actually has a storm scene in it, and when I was watching it onstage and seeing nature's storm directly behind—it was thrilling.”
Moreover, for the Chicago-based Tigges, the quietness of Santa Fe and generosity of the people helped make the rehearsal process “an absolute joy.” And when the performers are having a good time, it builds up the atmosphere—no matter the continent.
“When you are in a certain place where you can meet locals and they ask you, ‘Do you work for the festival?’ and you answer yes, then you’re like a god,” says Matthieu Lécroart, a French baritone who has sung with Les Arts Florissants and performed at Ireland’s Wexford Festival Opera. “On opening night all the town’s shops were decorated and you could tell it was the biggest event of the year.”
With some notable exceptions—like Santa Fe and Tanglewood—the best festivals are located on the continent where the art form started: Europe. If traditional opera with grandiose sets sounds appealing, Salzburg's festival is the place to be. But for bolder programs and a more gorgeous setting, the top prize may go to the Lucerne Festival, which was founded in 1938 by Arturo Toscanini after the Nazi annexation of Austria. While concert versions of operas have been staged at Lucerne, the festival is best-known for its lineup of world-class orchestras, conductors and soloists. Among the latter is America's leading soprano, Renée Fleming, who gave a characteristically breathless performance of Strauss's "Four Last Songs" in 2004.
"At the Lucerne Festival, you find the highest quality music in the most exquisite setting,” says Fleming. “The calmness of the lake and mountains enhances the musical experience in the best possible way.” She adds that the Lucerne Festival “is also a place where the best ensembles and performers in the world love to come each summer.”
In Lucerne, music-lovers will meet not just star sopranos but also boldfaced designers; Jean Nouvel designed the Culture and Convention Center, where the performances take place, at the edge of Lake Lucerne in 2000. American acoustician Russell Johnson worked his magic in the interior while Nouvel's spectacular cantilevered roof allows sweeping views of the lake and medieval Lucerne during intermissions. On the schedule for 2008: orchestras-in-residence that include the New York Philharmonic and Cleveland Orchestra in addition to the powerhouse Lucerne Festival Orchestra, and performances by Anne Sofie von Otter and Cecilia Bartoli.
As far as logistics are concerned, Mary Lou Falcone, the festival’s U.S. spokesperson, says, "It's as easy as flying non-stop to Zurich, boarding a train right in the airport, and finding yourself in Lucerne in less than one hour.” Once there, she adds, “the beauty of the setting takes your breath away.”
England’s Glyndebourne Festival is considered by many to be hands-down the world’s top summer opera festival. It is certainly the most elegant: “The atmosphere is incredible,” says Marisol Montalvo, the American soprano who has the leading role in a world premiere, "Love and Other Demons" (based on the novella by Gabriel Garcia Marquez).
“You go to the opera dressed to the nines, in tuxedos and long gowns, and then you go watch the first half of the opera, then you break for dinner, you go out to the green, where the sheep and the cows are, you lay your picnic blanket down and you eat dinner for an hour or so, then you pack it all up and go back into the theater for the rest of the show.”
Glyndebourne is about an hour outside of London and 10 minutes from Brighton. “Hotels are booked up and tickets sell out fast because the quality is so high,” says Montalvo. “It’s so first-class, everything they [the festival organizers] touch and do, and they do it with a sense of humility, out of a love for music.”
And then there is France. The main event at the Chorégies d'Orange, France’s oldest festival (Bastille Day notwithstanding) is a series of opera performances with the best international talent in a ravishing, perfectly preserved Roman theater that holds 9,000 spectators. Just remember to buy a cushion before sitting down to your three-hour extravaganza; those ancient seats are hewn from solid rock. At the justly renowned Festival d'Aix-en-Provence, music spills out of Baroque buildings such as the Theatre de l'Archeveche, Chateau de Saint-Jean-de-la-Salle, and Theatre du Jeu de Paume (Louis XIV' s former tennis court).
The more established opera festivals may have the highest glamour quotient and pull the biggest names, but don’t overlook some of the smaller festivals around the world. Oftentimes lesser known works are performed—in fact, that’s a hallmark of Wexford. Lécroart, the French baritone, sang there in Auber’s version of Manon Lescaut, not the better-known one by Puccini. And even if a festival like Wexford’s isn’t strictly speaking outdoors, there are often charming quirks: “The theater we sang in was like an old Parisian movie house, with a parterre and a balcony—the kind that doesn’t exist in Paris anymore,” Lécroart recalls.
In Bregenz, Austria, elaborate staging on an artificial island moored in Lake Constance means each production has a two-year run, and the Seepromenade, Bregenz’s little lakeside shoreline, is always hopping as a result. Montalvo, the soprano, played Maria in "West Side Story" at Bregenz in 2003 and 2004, singing on what she describes as a sort of rotating railroad track. “Bregenz is one of those experiences you can never forget in your life,” she says. “It’s one of those special places. It’s just amazing how people build that stuff.”
And though Montalvo, who is already gearing up for the world premiere of "Love and Other Demons" on August 10, says she has “lots of high notes” in the eagerly anticipated opera, the highest note of all may be one she reserves for the Glyndebourne Festival: “It’s something everyone should experience,” she says. “There’s nothing like it.”