Read the history of opera in Munich here – from its origins to the Kaiser era in the 17th century. You’ll learn about our aptly-named “house Gods” (the world-famous composers Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss who were working in Munich in their day) and other personalities who have significantly helped shape our institution over the last century.
How opera came to Munich
Munich's operatic history began with the courtly splendour of the Italian "dramma per musica": new and initially exclusive, it later became a form of musical theatre that was accessible to all. Elector Ferdinand Maria installed a theatre in the Herkulessaal of the Residence, where the first Italian opera performances were staged for members of the court. At the same time and following his father Maximilian I's plan, he built the first free-standing opera house in Germany by taking the old grain storehouse, the "Haberkasten", on Salvatorplatz, and reconstructing it as a baroque theatre. The operas of this period were generally based on mythology and used allegorical figures to pay homage to the sovereign and his court. Quite often the technical apparatus with its flying machines, sea battles and triumphal marches vied for primacy with the music.
The first theatre in Munich’s Royal Residence
During the reign of Elector Max II Emanuel (1679 to 1726), Italian opera continued its triumphal success in Munich. His successor, Maximilian III Joseph, then commissioned François Cuvilliés to construct the "teatro nuovo presso la residenza", the Residence Theatre – to this day the Cuvilliés Theatre is a household name for opera lovers all over the world. The "dramma per musica" had meanwhile become the "opera seria" featuring the cult of the aria, the bel canto style, the prima donnas and the castrati. Folk operas and musical entertainment gradually emerged from the middle classes. Mythological subjects and homages to rulers began yielding to more life-like subject matter drawn from everyday life.
The first “house God” Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
The "opera buffa” combined a vast array of different style elements and determined the style of La finta giardinera, the opera that Max III Joseph commissioned 19-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart to write for Munich. Six years later, on commission from Elector Karl Theodor, Mozart composed his first "opera seria". The world premiere of his Idomeneo on 29 January 1781 in the Residence Theatre, marked a major breakthrough for the 25-year-old composer.
Max IV Joseph
The artistic and political trends in the first quarter of the 19th century were determined by Max IV Joseph, who ruled as Elector from 1799. Following the elevation of Bavaria to the status of kingdom, he ruled as King Max I (1806 to 1825). In 1802, the old "Haberkasten" on Salvatorplatz was torn down. The "Hof-National-Schaubühne" ("Court National Theatrical Stage") moved into the Cuvilliés Theatre and became the "Churfürstliches Hoftheater" ("Electoral Court Theatre"). One of the last decisive acts of Bavaria's King Max was the laying of the cornerstone for the Royal Court and National Theatre on Marstallplatz in 1811. This house, built according to plans by Karl von Fischer, burned down on 14 January 1823, but thanks to the spirit of sacrifice of the Munich’s citizens, it was restored under the direction of architect Leo von Klenze and was able to reopen its doors only two years later.
A European opera
The accession of King Ludwig I, who continued his father's tradition from 1825 to 1848, and the revival of the new Nationaltheater, marked the beginning of a new era in Munich's operatic history. Measures undertaken by the King included the closing of the "Volkstheater" at Isartor and the final dissolution of the Italian opera. This paved the way for both local forces and a number of new trends emanating from all over Europe.
The second “house God” Richard Wagner
The reign of Bavaria's opera enthusiastic story-book king Ludwig II (1864 to 1886) is closely connected to the name of Richard Wagner. Shortly after his accession, enchanted by Wagner's Lohengrin two years before, the 19-year-old king brought the debt-ridden composer to Munich. The controversial friendship between monarch and musician, which ended tragically on a political level, ushered in a new heyday for opera in Munich – and indeed for opera itself. Milestones in this development are the world premières of four masterworks by Richard Wagner. On 10 June 1865, the new court conductor Hans von Bülow conducted Tristan and Isolde, and three years later Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg in the King’s presence. 22 September 1869 and 26 June 1870 saw the world premières of Das Rheingold and Die Walküre under the baton of Franz Wüllner. In 1888, Die Feen was given its world première. The Royal Court and National Theatre were in the limelight of Europe’s musical world.
The first Munich Opera Festival
The festival was started by Karl von Perfall, who was General Manager from 1867 to 1893. He put on a festival summer for the first time in 1875, featuring operas by Mozart and music dramas by Wagner. Over the course of time, the festival demanded its own playhouse – and so, under the new General Director Ernst von Possart, the Prinzregententheater was constructed one year after the turn of the 20th century, fulfilling a wish of Munich's citizens and fostered by the art-loving Prince Regent Luitpold. The grand opening on 21 August 1901 with Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg under Hermann Zumpe was a big event and inaugurated a magnificent era for the Munich Opera Festival.
The third “house God” Richard Strauss
Zumpe's successor, Felix Mottl, prepared the ground for Richard Strauss in his hometown of Munich, even if audiences may initially have been shocked by the first performances of Salome, Elektra and the revival of the satirical operatic poem, Feuersnot. Mottl's last major conducting assignment was the Munich premiere of Strauss’s Rosenkavalier on 1 February 1911, at which point Richard Strauss joined Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Richard Wagner to form the harmonious triad of the Munich Opera Festival. In addition, illustrious artists such as Enrico Caruso, Karl Erb and Maria Ivogün made the Munich Opera world famous back then.
Bruno Walter's premieres opened up new worlds of sound with major works of Franz Schreker, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Max von Schillings and with Richard Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos. In 1922, Bruno Walter's successor Hans Knappertsbusch began a continuous 14-year period that left a no less indelible imprint on the Munich Opera. Under his aegis, Munich witnessed the emergence of such conductors as Robert Heger, Karl Elmendorff, Paul Schmitz, Karl Böhm and Carl Tutein. Wilhelm Furtwängler and Hans Pfitzner were on the podium for performances in the National Theatre and the Prinzregententheater. When Hans Knappertsbusch was forced out of the theatre in 1934 along with Clemens von Franckenstein (both victims of political ostracism), the Munich theatre was orphaned for two years. Knappertsbusch's name, however, became the stuff legends are made of.
During the Third Reich, Munich was slated to get another opera house. With Clemens Krauss, who served in the joint capacity of general manager and general music director, Munich’s opera continued to flourish despite oppression and war. Clemens Krauss supplied highlights with the world premieres of three works by his friend Richard Strauss, three fantastic anachronisms, which nevertheless became artistic reality: Friedenstag in 1938, Verklungene Feste in 1941 and Capriccio in 1942. During an Allied bombardment in the night of October 2-3, 1943, the Nationaltheater was destroyed. All that was left was an eerie ruin. Further damage and destruction as well as the proclamation of "total war" in August 1944 silenced the Staatsoper for the coming months.
Hartmann times two
The arduous task of restoring the theatre to life was assumed by General Manager Georg Hartmann and his General Music Director, Georg Solti. After they had successfully introduced works by Paul Hindemith and Heinrich Sutermeister, and Werner Egk had established himself in 1948 with his Faust ballet, Abraxas, Hartmann and Solti put on the first post-war Munich Opera Festival in 1950. By doing so they created a solid foundation to pass on to their successors.
Another Hartmann, Rudolf, served as general manager for fifteen years from 1952 to 1967, working side-by-side with general music directors Rudolf Kempe, Ferenc Fricsay and Joseph Keilberth. Two significant events occurred during this second Hartmann era: the return to the restored Cuvilliés Theatre with The Marriage of Figaro in 1958 and the reopening of the National Theatre on 21 November 1963. With the aid of the "Friends of the National Theatre" and based on plans by Gerhard Graubner and Karl Fischer, it rose like a phoenix from the ashes in Neoclassicist glory.
A new era at the Munich Opera began in 1967 when Günther Rennert assumed the reins. Together with Wolfgang Sawallisch, who served as general music director from 1968, Rennert took his comprehensive concept of a well-balanced blend of avant-garde theatre and music theatre and turned it into reality in the form of world theatre with a view toward modernism. His programmes also included world-renowned guest artists, including such eminent stage directors as Boleslav Barlog, August Everding, Leopold Lindtberg, Oscar Fritz Schuh, Vaclav Kašlik, Bohumil Herlischka and Jean-Pierre Ponelle. With the 1976 festival, Günther Rennert took his leave of the Munich Opera.
After an interim year under the leadership of Wolfgang Sawallisch, August Everding became general manager until 1982. His repertoire ranged from Monteverdi to Reimann and comprised both traditional operas and contemporary music theatre works. The high point of August Everding's five-year administration, during which many international opera stars made their first appearances in Munich, was the world premiere of Aribert Reimann's Lear in a production by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, presented on 9 July 1978. In 1983, Everding assumed new responsibilities as General Manager of Bavaria's State Theatres. Serving both as State Opera Director and General Music Director, Wolfgang Sawallisch became the artistic director of the Bayerische Staatsoper.
Wolfgang Sawallisch wanted to put the extraordinary potential and efficiency of “his” house to the test by presenting large work cycles. In 1983, he offered audiences the unique opportunity to witness all 13 of Richard Wagner’s music dramas. In 1988, he presented all of Richard Strauss's works in an unprecedented full cycle of the composer's stage works. In 1987, he delivered a completely new production of Wagner's Ring der Nibelungen during the regular season in the short space of 10 days. At a time when the top productions of the major houses were increasingly interchangeable in terms of selection of works and casting, he sought individual artistic paths. In the ten years of his administration as State Opera Director he tried to stress the unique profile of the Munich Opera, among other things by placing greater weight on dramatic operas and lending special emphasis to classical modernism.
Sir Peter Jonas
Sir Peter Jonas was General Manager of the Bavarian State Opera from 1993 until the end of the 2005-2006 season. The Englishman of German descent had previously served as artistic director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the English National Opera in London. With a respect for tradition, Peter Jonas concentrated more strongly than his predecessors on the theatrical element in opera, including the visual aspect. New stage directors and designers gave the traditional house an innovative, adventurous profile, which was also communicated to the general public through a contemporary approach to PR.
Sir Peter (knighted in 1999 by Queen Elizabeth in recognition of his services to the Bayerische Staatsoper) managed, after a long period of neglect, to restore baroque opera to the repertoire and, in a joint effort with conductor Ivor Bolton and such stage directors as Richard Jones, David Alden and Martin Duncan, developed and established a new Munich baroque style. The festival programme was also expanded – the Prinzregententheater was re-established as a performance venue. Opera for All appealed to many different audiences. The cross-over, experimental Festival+ series not only enhances the festival programme, it also brings new influences from other art forms into our concept of theatre.
From 1998 to 2006, Zubin Mehta was the General Music Director of the Staatsoper. With him another major conductor guided the musical destiny of the house, paying respect to tradition, while also looking towards the future.
After Sir Peter Jonas and Zubin Mehta had decided not to extend their contracts beyond 2006, Nikolaus Bachler assumed office as the Bayerische Staatsoper’s General Manager at the beginning of the 2008-09 season. Kent Nagano had already entered office as General Music Director as the season opened in 2006-07. Together with an interim board of directors (Ronald H. Adler, Dr. Roland Felber / Dr. Roland Schwab and Dr. Ulrike Hessler) he managed the Bayerische Staatsoper until Nikolaus Bachler took over. Kirill Petrenko was appointed General Music Director when the 2013-14 season began. He debuted with Richard Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten.
With his understanding of musical theatre as live experience, as theatre “expanded and compacted by the dimension of music”, Nikolaus Bachler wanted to give weight to the dramaturgical aspect. Along with exceptional musical, theatrical and aesthetic aspirations, dramaturgy forms one of the three essential pillars of musical theatre.