Case Study Bregenz

Big stage set against Alpine panorama

A huge torso rears out of Lake Constance, with 161 steps leading over its chest to its face. Under this spectacular stage set for the opera André Chénier, the three-country congress of the German, Austrian and Swiss societies of nuclear medicine was held mid-April in Bregenz.

Essentially it is the extraordinary beauty of the setting for which the Bregenz Festival has garnered its international renown. Set right on the banks of Lake Constance, the world’s largest lakeside stage captivates audiences from all over the world with its incomparable acoustics. Each summer an opera (and more seldom a musical or operetta) is performed on a players’ podium firmly anchored in the lake. The Festspielhaus provides “a unique and pleasantly unusual setting for a scientific congress of this kind”, says Götz Jonas, managing director of the congress organiser Vokativ, looking back on the annual convention of the German, Austrian and Swiss societies of nuclear medicine that took place there from April 13 to 16 (interview p. 57). With 2,185 delegates from 18 nations and 73 exhibitors from seven countries, the event was the biggest ever to be staged in the Festspielhaus Bregenz. “The previous congresses were held in Switzerland and Germany, so it was Austria’s turn,” congress president Dr. Alexander Becherer explains as one of the reasons for the choice of host city. What is more, “The company Vokativ from Göttingen, which organises and handles the congress, inspected different places and conference centres and then concluded that Bregenz was the most attractive, given its Festspielhaus, the city’s appeal, its accessibility and prices.”

The three-country congress takes place roughly every five years; in 2000 it was in Munich and in 2005 in Basel. “Geographically we lie on the perimeter of Austria, Switzerland and Germany, but for a congress sourced from the three countries the location is central,” Gerhard Stübe reasons. Last year the Festspielhaus grew its revenues by 24 percent to EUR 2.8 million, the managing director of the Bregenzer Festspiel und Kongresshaus recalls. “The exceptional year 2008 aside, when we had the filming for James Bond and the UEFA European Football Championship, that was the highest turnover in our history.” A total of 402 events took place there last year, attracting an audience of 383,000. The number of congress and meeting delegates climbed to around 36,000.

“This success is the culmination of years of consistently hard work by our entire team,” is managing director’s Gerhard Stübe’s satisfied review. “Today Bregenz Festspielhaus enjoys a good reputation – both in the Lake Constance region and internationally – as an event venue.” Last year the International Association of Congress Centres, AIPC, named the Festival House as one of the three best convention centres in the world – the second time it had been thus distinguished, after 2004. The APEX Award presented annually by the association is based on client ratings. Among the competitors for the 2010 award were the convention centres in Sydney and Vancouver, the Vienna Hofburg, Congress und Messe Innsbruck and the Congress Center Rosengarten Mannheim. Bregenz captured second place.

For the accolade presented by the Association Internationale des Palais de Congres (to give the AIPC its French name) more than 30 nationally and internationally operative clients of the respective event venues are surveyed. The criteria applied include technical equipment, organisational service, project management, catering and the fringe programmes offered. The capital of the Austrian state Vorarlberg also performed well in the rankings compiled by the European Association of Event Centres (EVVC), being recognised last year as one of the three best venues in the category of event centres seating up to 4,000 people. Yet the core competence of the Festspielhaus is actually more in congresses for up to 2,000 delegates, Gerhard Stübe states. The broad spectrum of events ranging from congresses through operas and musicals down to balls was of advantage in the crisis year 2009, when bookings by corporate planners plummeted 50 percent. Not only did demand for tickets to concerts, festivals, musicals and galas hold steady, it even increased. Periods of crisis traditionally boost demand for entertainment and cultural programmes.

Europe’s biggest festival stage holds audiences of seven thousand. From the grandstand you look over Lindau, which appears to be floating in the lake, and the 1,064-metre Pfänder, Bregenz’s ‘local’ mountain. With its unique view of Bregenz and the 240 surrounding Alpine peaks it is the most famous viewpoint in the region. “Umberto Giordano’s opera André Chénier is a perfect fit for the lakeside stage,” festival director David Pountney says. He gave preference to the relatively little known work about a French poet during the French Revolution over Mozart’s Magic Flute. The opera revolves around the poet André Chénier. In 1793 he celebrated the deed by Girondin supporter Marie- Anne Charlotte Corday, who stabbed to death the tyrant Jean Paul Marat. In the name of the Revolution Marat had already sent many people to their executions. Likewise, Corday’s path subsequently led straight to the guillotine. And shortly before the Jacobin reign of terror came to an end the deadly blade also descended upon the poet Chénier.

This makes the opera an ideal piece for the lakeside stage in the festival city. Even so, it is a risk, because reliant as the open-air performances on Lake Constance may be on spectacular works, departures from the core repertoire of evergreens that year for year attract the 200,000 visitors the Festival needs to achieve its 75 percent internal financing ratio are inevitably tricky. Buoyed by unfailingly full houses for Aida in the last two summers and the announcement that in 2013 and 2014 Mozart’s Magic Flute is to be performed, Intendant David Pountney embarked on the venture – and emerged victorious. André Chénier proved to be an absolutely wind- and weatherproof open-air piece. DM