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The 'prince of opera' bids Munich farewell
Nikolaus Bachler, who has run the Bavarian State Opera since 2008, backstage after a performance of “Tristan und Isolde” at the National Theatre Munich, in Munich, Germany, June 30, 2021. Bachler, who has kept the Bavarian State Opera a world capital of music theater, is stepping down. Roderick Aichinger/The New York Times.

by Joshua Barone

MUNICH (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Half an hour before the opening of Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde,” Nikolaus Bachler took a final stroll backstage.

Bachler — who has run the Bavarian State Opera here since 2008, during which time it has been the world’s opera capital for artists and audiences alike — stopped by the dressing room of his Isolde, Anja Harteros, asking whether she had slept well the night before. With a traditional “toi toi toi,” he wished her good luck.

He waited to check in on Jonas Kaufmann, who was singing Tristan, because through the door he heard conductor Kirill Petrenko — the company’s music director during much of Bachler’s tenure and a crucial ingredient of his success — giving some last-minute notes.

Then more blown kisses and “toi toi toi” wishes, and Bachler took a seat in his box alongside the proscenium. He looked out at the audience, which, though dotted with chessboardlike spaces for social distancing, was as full as possible after a year of uncertainty about capacity and closures. The lights dimmed. Petrenko stepped onto the podium; paused briefly, as if in prayer; and gestured for the first note.

With that, the end of an era began. The house that Bachler built with Petrenko — one of artistic excellence, destination programming and, during the pandemic, fearless advocacy — will soon undergo a major shift. “Tristan” is the last new production for Petrenko, who is now chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, and Bachler’s tenure concludes with this year’s Munich Opera Festival, an end-of-season marathon that has adopted the bittersweet theme “Wendende Punkte”: “Turning Points.”

In the fall, the house will be managed by Serge Dorny, most recently chief of the Lyon Opera in France, and under the baton of Vladimir Jurowski. Many of Bachler’s artistic and administrative colleagues will leave, some following him to his new post: running the Salzburg Easter Festival.

“We are now looking into a future that is maybe less, shall we say, written,” Kaufmann said in an interview. “You see the list of international stars — compared with not only the house’s history, but other houses of this rank — and Bachler somehow made it into one that everyone wished to be a part of.”

Audiences, too, were eager. Before the pandemic, the company’s ticket sales hovered around 98% capacity. Wolfgang Heubisch, Bavarian culture minister during Bachler’s early years in Munich, said that the house was an important contributor to the city’s economy and that “we as an audience were always excited about the next performance.” (The company is supported by extravagant government subsidies, in 2019 to the tune of 71.8 million euros, or $85.2 million, from Bavaria and the city of Munich — nearly two-thirds of its budget.)

“You can sum it up in a nutshell,” Heubisch added. “Nikolaus Bachler was a true stroke of luck for Munich and the State Opera.”

It is rare for the leader of an opera company to be described in these terms. In Paris and New York, for example, such managers have recently been openly criticized by colleagues and embroiled in labor disputes. Elsewhere, they may be respected but are seldom described with the loving language that singers, directors and others use for Bachler. But he is confident it’s time for change.

“You shouldn’t stay too long,” said Bachler, who is 70 but has the appearance and energy of someone much younger. “I got a lot of offers for other opera houses, but it was clear for me not to go into another big institution.”

By departing now, he can look back on his achievements without feeling like he ended stuck in routine, which he considers “against art.” He is proud of his insistence on marrying the prestige of directors and singers, with high-profile names from top to bottom on most billings and small roles taken by a superb ensemble of rising artists.

Bachler gained the respect of directors by not interfering too much in their work. (“My job is to take the consequences and learn from the failures,” he said.) And he won over the world’s most important singers with a personality that they have described as nurturing, honest and committed. For example, he made the Bavarian State Opera the home company of Kaufmann, who despite being raised and trained in Munich had only sung a handful of times in the house before Bachler joined.

When they first met, Kaufmann recalled, Bachler asked why he didn’t want to sing in Munich. “On the contrary,” Kaufmann responded, “I would love to.” He just wasn’t getting any work there under Peter Jonas — Bachler’s predecessor, whose risk-taking laid the groundwork for what followed — and Kaufmann eventually moved to Zurich.

Bachler changed that, quickly casting Kaufmann in a variety of parts, including his sensational role debut as Wagner’s “Lohengrin” alongside Harteros in 2009. Since then, Kaufmann said, “I believe we haven’t gone a year without a new opening, and Klaus has been there to help and support me.”

Baritone Christian Gerhaher described Bachler as “the prince of opera”; Dmitri Tcherniakov, who directed this season’s new production of Carl Maria von Weber’s “Der Freischütz,” called him “the king of Munich”; and soprano Marlis Petersen, onstage this summer in “Salome,” said he was “the Ariadne thread” running through each production.

Among those who believe in Bachler the most may be Petrenko, a publicity-shy conductor with a monastic style, who said in an email that Bachler “is living proof that trust is possible in our profession.”

The two met in the late 1990s, when Bachler was at the Volksoper in Vienna. Petrenko had come recommended by an agent and was brought on as an assistant conductor. Bachler was stunned by his talent, and they developed an odd-couple relationship — Bachler the charismatic public face and Petrenko happy to let his work speak for itself.

When Bachler started at the Bavarian State Opera, he prioritized bringing in Petrenko as a guest and scheduled a run of Janacek’s “Jenufa” for him. Later, when Kent Nagano’s contract was set to expire, Bachler persuaded Petrenko to become the company’s music director, even though at the time, having held a similar post at the Komische Oper in Berlin, the conductor was ready to be a freelancer.

Petrenko has routinely drawn the loudest applause after performances — even during a 2018 run of “Parsifal,” when he was bowing alongside stars like Kaufmann, Gerhaher and soprano Nina Stemme. In a news conference before his final season, he said, “My time here was and will be the highest thing that can happen to an artist.”

If Bachler appears to charm everyone in his orbit, it may come from his background as an actor. (That’s also his guess for why he has enjoyed such success as an administrator: He approaches the job from the perspective of an artist.) Born to a middle-class family in Austria and raised in a musical home, he took an early liking to theater — sometimes acting out Catholic Mass as if he were a priest.

He thought he would study medicine but on a lark applied to the Max Reinhardt Seminar for acting in Vienna and was accepted. His career as a performer took him to a troubled theater in Berlin, where he was vocal about how it could improve. So he was asked to be its artistic director.

“I said yes because for me it was like acting,” Bachler said. “My new role was ‘the artistic director.’”

More administrative work followed, including as the leader of the Vienna Festival, the Volksoper and the Vienna Burgtheater. From that distinguished playhouse, he returned to opera in Munich.

Tcherniakov said that “as a true actor, he virtuously uses different masks to communicate.” And Bachler believes that he still approaches his job from that angle.

“I feel I am the last inheritance of Molière,” he said. “I would go home and steal my mother’s chair if I needed it onstage.”

Bachler runs his house with subtle command. Observed over the first week of the festival, when his workdays can easily stretch beyond 12 hours, his meetings were conversational yet efficient and never ran more than a half-hour. He wandered through the building for check-ins because, he said, it’s best to not wait until problems arise to solve them, and while “in a meeting, people don’t ask so much, in front of the toilet, they are much more honest.”

Before the “Tristan” opening, he gave a brief address to donors, and he hosted politicians and power brokers in his box over Champagne and canapés during the first intermission. During the second act, he took a short break in his office; more socializing would come in the next intermission.

Despite the hectic schedule, Bachler’s job can be lonely. He said that he thinks often of when Germany once won the World Cup. The broadcast was full of fireworks and the players celebrating — but then the camera panned to the team’s famed coach, Franz Beckenbauer, walking alone on the field.

“This is exactly what I feel,” Bachler said. “I have a lot of closeness with people, but it’s always about work. You have to accept it.”

But that closeness became truly familial during the pandemic. Bachler never accepted closure as an option, first by continuing rehearsals for Marina Abramovic’s project “7 Deaths of Maria Callas,” even when Abramovic’s hotel closed and she was put up in Kaufmann’s apartment near the theater.

Then the company started putting on “Montagsstücke,” which amounted to weekly variety shows — chamber performances and even a reading by Bachler — broadcast from the empty theater.

“Suddenly,” he said, “there was so much energy in the house and so much value in the work.”

Eventually, orchestra, singers and staff were able to gather in large enough numbers to livestream new productions without an audience. All the while, Bachler was working with physicians and scientists on research — including a study showing that with safety measures in place, zero coronavirus cases could be traced to the house — that he took to politicians in an effort to bring back traditional programming as soon as possible.

“Bachler,” Gerhaher said, “was a wonderful defender of the arts in these horrible times.”

Bachler is already at work on fundraising for his debut season in Salzburg. He also had a hand in the succession plan for the Bavarian State Opera, initially assembling the team of Jurowski and Barrie Kosky, who is concluding his tenure at the Komische Oper. In the end, Kosky chose to go freelance.

His appointment in Salzburg caused a minor scandal in the classical world; the Easter Festival’s administrators brought Bachler on while also pushing out conductor Christian Thielemann. The two will share leadership duties for the 2022 edition, which Bachler said has not been as awkward as people might expect: “All these intrigue things, they vanish immediately when you start to work.”

His impact in Salzburg — which will coincide with a return to Vienna, where he has friends and family — won’t be fully seen until 2023. Some familiar faces will appear, like Kaufmann. But he also plans to bring a different orchestra-in-residence every year, a break from tradition, and perhaps to integrate the Felsenreitschule venue (a stalwart of the older and far larger Salzburg summer festival) and add dance to the programming.

“I like the idea of going from this huge thing to 10 days,” Bachler said. “How to make, in such a short time, an identity, and what I can do if I can concentrate only on this.”

But first, he still has to get through his final Munich Festival — including another new production, of Mozart’s “Idomeneo,” and a star-studded, livestreamed farewell concert.

And “Tristan.” After Harteros sang the closing “Liebestod” on opening night, Bachler rushed backstage, congratulating the performers between their curtain-call bows. He smiled at Petrenko, and the two hugged.

“It was quite a good finale,” Bachler whispered into the conductor’s ear.

“No,” Petrenko responded. “It was a turning point.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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