Sausages, trains and Old Spice

22 May 2012 in Robert Livingston Blog

We’ve been to the lands where everyone eats sausages and drinks beer, where the trains run on time and are spacious and clean, and where culture still seems to be funded—and supported—to a remarkable degree. We’ve been to Germany and Austria.

The sausage and beer thing is interesting. Here, that would be very much a class divide—opera goers nipping into a local ‘greasy spoon’ before visiting ‘The Garden’ would definitely be slumming. Before a visit to the Vienna Volksoper, we dined in the Volksoper Café opposite, and were fascinated to see members of the Viennese establishment, dressed to the nines, tucking into their wursts and their long glasses of local beer.

Don’t get me started on the trains. In the course of 18 days we made ten separate train journeys across Bavaria and Austria, including connections, and all were on time, left from the platform noted on the ticket and, although mostly very busy, were never over-crowded. And they’re cheaper, too. And the stations are clean, bright, and full of great food outlets. Our hotel in Vienna, being very green, offered a ten per cent discount to those, like us, who arrived and left by train. Of course: it’s the only way to travel.

If the trains were cheap, so were the concerts, operas and ballets. In the city of Regensburg, which with a population of about 150,000 is roughly the size of Dundee, but has over 1500 listed buildings (the RAF never got round to bombing it) we went to see the local opera company. For just 25 euros each we had great seats in the stalls, in a gem of a mid-19th century theatre, beautifully restored, to see a production of Richard Strauss’s Elektra, an opera that requires such lavish orchestral forces, and such star singers, that Scottish Opera has never mounted it, and probably never will. It was superb—great singing and playing, and an intelligent and powerful staging with a brilliant set. Scottish Opera’s Tosca, at Eden Court last week, cost £40 each for equivalent seats.

Even the Vienna Volksoper was still cheaper than Scottish Opera for a ballet version of Carl Orff’s warhorse ‘Carmina Burana’ that involved an on-stage chorus of 70 (plus at times a children’s chorus of 30), a corps de ballet of 25, three operatic soloists, and a symphony orchestra in the pit. I’d booked for the show thinking it might be a bit of a romp. It turned out to be an overwhelming artistic and emotional experience, and I don’t mind admitting I was in tears by the end. The production redeemed a great musical masterpiece from the degradation of Old Spice adverts, horror movies and Classic FM.

One interesting factor is that companies like the Volksoper, and indeed the equivalent companies in Regensburg and Salzburg, stage operas and musicals together in the same season, with the same company. In Britain, musicals tend to be the preserve of theatres, like the RSC or Dundee Rep. Linking operas and musicals is clearly to the benefit of each. The ‘musicals’ sensibility brought a tremendous ‘oomph’ to the production of ‘Carmina Burana’, while I’m sure those operatic voices will sound wonderful in the forthcoming 50th anniversary production of ‘The Sound of Music’.

Of course, there is the opposite end of the scale. We also stayed with an old friend in Salzburg, where the annual festival has some of the highest ticket prices in Europe. But what we’ve seen of those Festival audiences, on past visits and on films, suggests that those attending are doing so as much for social (or even business) reasons as for artistic purposes. Some of the men, in particular, looked as if they’d rather be somewhere else—the golf course, perhaps. At the events we attended—in Bamberg, as well as Regensburg and Vienna, the large (often sold out) audiences were emphatically there for the music—listened with massive attention, and responded with rapturous applause.

And sometimes a great experience can be free (apart, that is, from a small offering). In Salzburg the Dom (Cathedral) and the neighbouring Franziskaner Church, have live music as part of mass every Sunday. In the Franziskaner that means a Mozart mass and Church Sonata, with orchestra, organist, soloists and choir, beautifully integrated into the liturgical service. I first enjoyed this uplifting Salzburg Sunday morning experience as a student, 37 years ago—it was great to see the tradition continuing.

One aspect of price that is, of course, very different in Germany and Austria is the admission charges for galleries and museums. We’re spoilt here in the UK by our free admission, and I couldn’t help feeling again that we’re missing a trick. Once you’ve got to somewhere like Regensburg or Vienna, the cost of admission to a gallery is one of the smallest costs of your trip—less probably than you’ll pay for lunch. Few people are going to be put off, especially as most major cities have offers like the ‘Vienna Card’ which combines free public transport with discounted admission to dozens of venues. Now, technology should make it easy for galleries here to offer free admission to UK (or even just local) residents, through some kind of smart card, while charging a reasonable admission price to tourists. As public funding shrinks, this is surely an issue that needs to be revisited.

And using such technology could deliver tremendous visitor data, whether the card was being swiped for free admission or as part of a paid package. A decade ago we had a holiday in Amsterdam and bought the annual Netherlands Gallery card which, for a modest price, gave free admission to some 400 museums and galleries throughout the Netherlands. That meant that the specific visits—where, when, and how often—of every card holder could be tracked and accumulated. So much more robust than visitor surveys, and so much simpler for the visitor. By the way, we managed a neat trick by going back to Amsterdam the following year a week earlier and getting even more value out of our cards. Of course, as my colleague Sian pointed out, first we’d have to overcome the very healthy British dislike of being electronically tracked!

And there is also the question of value for money. Admission to the V&A’s current piece of Olympics propaganda, British Design 1948-2012, costs £12 full whack. In Vienna, we paid 12 euros for admission to the Albertina, a lesser-known treasure of the city which specialises in works on paper, but that ticket price covered no less than three major exhibitions.  2012 is the 150th anniversary of the quintessential Viennese artist, Gustav Klimt, and every major gallery has its own exhibition about him. The Albertina’s contribution explores his life and work through his drawings—over 200 of them. It was an utterly engrossing exhibition, which changed forever our perceptions of an artist too readily dismissed as kitsch. But after that demanding and inspiring experience, we were then faced with ‘Impressionismus’, another 200 works on paper by Impressionist artists from Boudin to Redon and Manet to Cezanne. This was by any standards a world class exhibition—the substantial section on Degas alone would have been an impressive exhibition in most contexts. After nearly three hours, mentally and physically exhausted, we couldn’t begin to contemplate the third exhibition, ‘From Monet to Picasso’. But we’d certainly got full value from the ticket price!

And that poses a question I’ve asked once or twice before? Can we have too much art? Of course, a resident of Vienna wouldn’t need to cram those three blockbuster exhibitions into one visit, as we did with only three days in the city, but I think they’d still have had to buy a ticket for each visit. So, did the exhibitions need to be so huge? Could we have understood Klimt’s remarkable qualities as a draughtsman by seeing only half as many works? Would we have felt we’d got value for money, and had an enriching experience, if we’d only seen that Degas section, and not the whole comprehensive survey. I suspect the answer to both questions is ‘yes’.

So why the epic quality of these, and indeed of several other exhibitions we saw on our travels, not to mention several which Judith has seen in London recently? I suspect there are three factors: the ambition (and obsession) of curators, the expectations of sponsors, and the need to create a media ‘buzz’. The trouble is that none of these factors take much account of the needs of the footsore, eye-strained, brain dead visitor.

Fortunately, not every celebration of Klimt had to be on this scale. Early in his career Klimt painted some of the murals for the great stair hall of the then new Kunsthistorisches Museumin Vienna. Usually you’d need opera glasses to study them. But for this anniversary year the museum authorities have constructed a scaffolding gantry that allows visitors to get up close and personal to these beautiful paintings, made on the cusp of Klimt’s maturity. Of course, they couldn’t leave it at that—there’s also an enormous, comprehensively documented, exhibition about how these works came about. But that’s in another room, you don’t have to go there, you can just enjoy the exhibition experience at its purest: getting to spend some time, at your own pace, in the company of great art.


© Robert Livingston