outdoor theatre stage
Carmen, 1991 © Karl Forster for Bregenz Festival

Today we’re armchair travelling to Austria, to the shores of Lake Constance in the little-known town of Bregenz. It’s a balmy mid-summer evening, the sun has just dipped into the glittering water turning the sky a chalky orange-mauve, 7000 spectators eagerly anticipate the start of an extravagant opera show like no other, on the world’s largest floating stage. I’ll admit, I’m not a huge opera fan. I’ve also gone over my 2022 entertainment budget. However, I’m seriously considering relaxing the rules and booking tickets to The Bregenz Festival, which hosts dramatic floating operas every year since 1946.

floating opera stage
La Boheme, 2002 © Karl Forster, Bregenz Festival

It all started one month after the end of the Second World War, with an evening of Mozart performed on a lavishly decorated barge – modest compared with today’s set design.  The town of Bregenz was lacking a theatre at that time, so it was decide that its greatest asset -Lake Constance -would become the temporary setting for the stage. From this moment The Bregenz Festival Community was born, to become home to the world’s largest and greatest open-air show.

The Bird Dealer, 1952 © Bregenz Festival

Each set is used for two years – across two festivals and nowadays they take around 200 days to design and construct. They’re created on a platform set on concrete pillars anchored to the bottom of the lake and house the costume and dressing rooms, the machine rooms and the orchestra pit for the Vienna Symphony Orchestra – performers and props arrive  from backstage by boat! Sets must be built out of durable materials to survive extreme weather conditions, be easy to move around in between acts, and must be two thirds larger than a regular theatre set so they aren’t dwarfed by their potentially distracting setting of the Lake.

Carmen, 2017 © Karl Forster for Bregenz Festival
floating stage
Tosca, 2007-2008 © Bregenz Festival

These outdoor stages are so incredible that during the 2007 performance of Tosca, the producer and director for the James Bond film Quantum of Solace were so impressed, they filmed a 10-day scene in Bregenz where Bond meets his adversary for the first time during a performance of Tosca.

floating opera stage
Aida by Giuseppe Verdi, 2009-2010 © Bregenz Festival
West Side Story, 1981 © Bregenz Festival
Rigoletto, 2021 © Bregenz Festival

It goes without saying that to work at Bregenz, you need to meet a few requirements. Namely, you have to be OK with performing on a floating stage which moves slightly, in various weather conditions and be prepared for the chance you might fall into the water. In fact, four performers are said to have accidentally fallen in the lake, during the 2013 performance of The Magic Flute. No one was hurt though. 

Over the years there have been some magnificent sets – each one special in its own way. For the first time in its 74 year run in 2019, the show was called off during the Covid-19 outbreak, but they left the stage up – a giant clown for Verdi’s Rigoletto – and moved all the show dates to the following year.

giant floating stage

Book your ticket to the Bregenz Festival here.

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