If you visited the Oper am Rhein on five separate evenings, chances are you would see five separate shows. Unlike many opera houses, the Oper am Rhein changes productions each day. This means that from the final curtain one day, until curtain up the next, the theatre is a flurry of activity. On the 24th of February we were incredibly lucky to have the chance to go behind the scenes and see how the incredible productions that grace this stage are created and watch their hardworking crews in action.
Our tour was guided by the wonderful Wilfried Schmerbach, who has been leading guests into the depths of the Oper am Rhein for almost 20 years. We started our tour in the seats to get an audience member’s perspective. On stage the set for Die Zauberflöte was under construction, and the orchestra pit was raised to stage level. Later from a different perspective we would see the pit being lowered beneath the stage. In it’s performance position it is a compact space that can house up to 100 (tightly-packed) musicians.
The Opera House was first built in this location in 1875 and was at the heart of the city’s cultural scene until it was severely damaged by air raids in 1943. By the 1950s the building had been remodeled in the current form and the theatre was once again operating at full capacity. At a sell out performance that means 1288 visitors over four levels plus boxes.
From the stalls we went backstage, where stage crew were constructing the die Zauberflöte set. It is here that you begin to appreciate how little the audience really sees. While the stage itself extends back almost 15 metres, behind that is another huge space housing sets for all of the shows in production. For complicated sets like Madame Butterfly, stage crews will work through into the early hours of the morning clearing the set so that it is ready for the next one to be constructed.
As above, so below – our tour went from backstage to beneath the boards to spaces where five separate platforms on elevators can raise and lower the stage over a 3 metre range, and a coded system of lights gives the performers and crew their instructions. Here too we were able to explore the booth of the prompt who effectively performs entire operas a beat before everyone else, keeping them on script and ensuring nothing is missed from the performance.
And then we went further down in the depths of the Opera House to the costume storage where around 50,000 costumes are stored, dating back to the 1950s. This was one of the highlights of the tour – racks upon racks of costumes, rooms full of shoes, crates full of hats and wigs and armour. Here the temperature had dropped considerably to a brisk 18 degrees; the climate control environment guarding this treasure trove from bugs and mould. With costumes as far as the eye can see, we discovered that we were in fact no longer under the Opera House, but in a basement excavated beneath the road.
From this subterranean space it was back into the daylight and the real world. This excellent tour offered an incredible opportunity to really see what goes into making the magic of every performance, and all of the tour participants came away with a new found respect for the cast, crew and musicians. If you missed this tour but would like to take part with friends or colleagues, drop us a message and we will be happy to organize it for you.