Copenhagen Opera House is best approached by boat. A bustling little yellow workhorse that noses into Nyhaven quay every 30 minutes. Boarding takes thirty seconds. One limping, old Danish sea dog supervises the dropping and raising of a ramp. Twenty-four Kroner change hands – £2.87 for the short four minute hop across the water. A bargain. Just one stop on route 103 for the water bus.
Straddling a building site on the island of Holmen, slap bang in the middle of Copenhagen, the city’s stunning new opera house, dominates the skyline of Denmark’s capital as imperiously as Sydney’s multi-scalloped icon does its harbour. Yet to achieve matching iconic status, the building was completed in 2005, taking only four years from foundation stone to topping out.
The misery guts City Fathers didn’t want it. It was a gift from Arnold Peter Møller, co-founder of Maersk shipping. The problem for some ungrateful politicians was the gift attracted a massive tax break and the mean-spirited preferred a no opera house, no tax deduction option. They also resented “wealth” dictating the design.
In America, hands of donors have been bitten off for smaller acts of charity. The name of the newly renovated David Geffen Hall in New York’s Lincoln Center, home to the New York Philharmonic, was enshrined in perpetuity for a measly $100m. In Copenhagen, Møller’s eye watering 2.5 billion Kroner ($370m) – yes, you read that correctly – generosity goes largely unremarked. It’s not the “done thing” in Denmark to acknowledge charitable donations. Very Scandi-discreet.
After all, in other opera houses around the world everything is named, to encourage self-aggrandising donors to cough up. The Jim Blogs memorial seat, a Family McSquackle painting, The Hon Abraham C. Reagan III disposable coffee cup. Frankly, it was rather refreshing to turn up in Copenhagen and not be confronted in the foyer with the usual marble War Memorial list of the great and the good who had chipped in.
The building of the opera house became a tortuous Wagnerian plot all of its own. Møller commissioned renowned architect Hanning Larsen to fashion his building. As in Wagner’s Ring Cycle, where Wotan and his giant builders of Valhalla, Fasolt and Fafner, were soon at loggerheads over the quality of grouting in the bathroom , commissioner and architect fell out big time. Larsen did not, however, hold Møller’s daughter hostage.
The benefactor was hands on, insisting on changing the plans, notably supporting the vast, glass curved ground to roof frontage of the building with metal, to ensure longevity. It looks a bit like the radiator grille of a 1950’s Pontiac. All teeth.
Then, hanging three, massive, identical glass chandeliers designed by Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson in the foyer. He uses “the beaming power of dichrotic filters, pronounced by a special style: 1,500 triangles in 75 dimensions form the surface.” Wow! So, a far cry from a 60 watt dimmable candle bulb fitting from a local LEGO set. Larsen thought them crass. They are wonderfully bling.
The interior is nothing short of miraculous. Acres of treated Maple form a richly glowing semi circular Pumpkin, a.k.a. the auditorium, the exterior of which intrudes into and dominates the atrium. Opera-goers quaff interval wine with a musical Tokamak for company.
Four floors of public space with bars, cafés and a restaurant stretch to the roof. Materials, marble, slate limestone are only the best. Watching the sun go down over Copenhagen from the almost deserted first floor café at 5 o’clock on a February afternoon was cathartic.
Step inside the auditorium and the splendour goes on. 1,700 seats, a massive orchestra pit which does not extend under the usually muffling stage improving sound quality, and a proscenium arch to match that of the Met in New York in scale. Acoustics are perfect. Wood cladding is sculpted, the better to reflect sound waves. The sight line of every seat in the house is unobstructed.
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Quibble. The surtitle system was rubbish. Far too high to be of much use. But, as it was in Danish anyway, that didn’t matter. The ceiling is 100 carat gold leaf – 105,000 sheets, apparently. Behind the scenes technology is state of the art. There are five rehearsal stages. Hence, the astronomical cost. Welcome to the most expensive opera house on the planet.
In the end, Larsen’s rage spilled – unusually – into a book; They Should Say “Thank You”! Cultural historical testament about the Opera House. Clearly not a master of the catchy title, Larsen castigated Møller for interfering, and turning the opera house into “the biggest disaster of my career.”
It isn’t. It’s a triumph. The building’s four floor frontage gazes steadily from beneath the massive, slightly angled, overhanging roof, like a cyclops, towards the Amalienborg Palace, residence of the Royal family, on the island beyond. “I’m here!”, it shouts. Like it or not, Larsen, with Møller’s cash, has made his enduring mark on Copenhagen’s skyline.
And what happens onstage there, courtesy of Royal Danish Opera, (RDO) is spectacular, too. Verdi’s La traviata was playing. Czech stage director, David Radok, is familiar with the house, so it was no surprise that his La traviata exploited its dimensions to the full. The plot will be familiar, but for those few readers who don’t know the heroine snuffs it, a synopsis is here.
The set consisted of a single space bounded by marble walls and tall, floor to ceiling French windows, which reflected flashes of light as they opened and closed to enable entrances and exits.
It all seemed a bit gloomy for a Parisian salon – the Eiffel Tower was visible in a back stage projection. The set ran deep, which meant that occasionally there was a problem with voices carrying when singers were rear stage. Minimal changes represented the ballroom scene, or Violetta’s country house in turn. At the death scene the random chairs that had dotted the ballroom were stacked neatly. Café Violetta was clearly soon to be closed for business. The spare setting worked. Just.
Anush Hovhannisyan, the Armenian lyric soprano, described in a 2020 edition of Opera News as “the future of opera” sang Violetta. Spool on two years and 2022 is that future. Hovhannisyan has fulfilled the prophecy. It is easy to milk the role of the tragic courtesan for all its worth. Hovhannisyan’s Violetta avoided the trap. She was dignity itself throughout, especially in those tragic last moments.
At one point she sang reflectively, facing away from the audience – a device to emphasise the privacy of her thoughts – and I was sure the voice would be lost. But it wasn’t. And, boy, could she deliver soaring passages, just when you thought there was nothing left in the tank. She made the trip to freezing Copenhagen “worth the journey”.
This season RDO is performing Mozart’s Così fan tutte, Verdi’s Aida, Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte and, for me a must see, Jonathan Dove’s The Enchanted Pig. No kidding.
Apparently a young woman is looking for the love of her life. In her search for someone to love, she meets a man who takes the shape of a pig by day and a human by night. I know the feeling.
They fall in love, but others stand in the way of their happiness, and she looks to the supernatural for help so that they can have a future together. What they are smoking at the time is never revealed.
“The Enchanted Pig is a humorous fable about longing for closeness and love’s many different faces.” The musical fairy tale, which premiered in 2006, has its roots in Romanian and Norwegian folk tales, and is a mixture of opera, musical theatre and vaudeville. Clearly unmissable. I understand Boris Johnson has booked seats under the impression it’s about Peppa, but that may also be a folk tale.
Elisabeth Linton, until 2019 director of Malmö Opera in Sweden, was appointed head of RDO in June 2021. She leads not only an opera house with an excellent chorus and orchestra, but a vibrant opera school, bringing on the next generation of Danish stars.
Møller’s intention was to give Denmark’s capital an attraction to woo international audiences, along the lines of Bilbao’s Guggenheim museum, which has ramped up the city’s tourist trade.
Frankly, the house needs a more ambitious repertoire if that intention is to be fulfilled. Linton will have to take more risks to bring opera lovers flocking. Goldie Oldie favourites and an unusual pig won’t cut it. The wonderful Copenhagen opera house is brooding there, waiting to be used. I hope Linton is shaping radical plans.
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