Tobias RichterTobias Richter – photo Meylan

Despite internal conflicts and scathing audits, the Geneva Opera has maintained its reputation as one of the world’s best opera houses. The respected but abrasive current director, Jean-Marie Blanchard, will now make way for the congenial Tobias Richter, whose first season will comprise productions programmed by the two men. Richter, who began his international career in Geneva, announces a new era packed with changes and introduces a style described as elegant, erudite and entertaining.

Setting the tone, Tobias Richner who takes over in July as Director General of the Grand Théâtre de Genève held a first press conference where he talked as much about the people who will assist him than about opera.  “Each production is like a mountain expedition, with a new summit that must be conquered each time” he said as a way to highlight the importance of a great team, whose members he then presented one at a time.

Richner is currently Director of the Deutschen Oper am Rhein in Dusseldorf and Duisberg, a German repertoire opera company that presents four times as many productions a year as Geneva, as well as the Montreux-Vevey Musical September Festival. He is the son of Karl Richter, the German organist, harpsichordist and conductor whose interpretations of Johann Sebastian Bach’s music, to which he applied unerring tempi, are considered by many to be unsurpassed.

Lorella Bertani, President of the Foundation of the Geneva Opera House, was glowing, patently relieved to present the new director, although she also paid tribute to Blanchard, who “took risks and presented a number of powerful productions.”

Since it takes years to mount an opera, Blanchard’s last offerings are still part of the up-coming season: Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra, Wagner’s Parsifal and Alban Berg’s Lulu (directed by the notoriously provocative Olivier Py who makes abundant use of nudity).

Tobias Richner’s choices may appear less flamboyant, but they have been made with a renewal of audiences clearly in mind.  L’Etoile by Chabrier is a comic opera buffo which Richner qualifies as “unique, extraordinaire, almost absurd”, Calisto, the baroque opera by Cavalli will be staged at the mythical BFM, the Bâtiment des Forces Motrices in the middle of the Rhone, while Alice in Wonderland by the contemporary Korean composer, Unsuk Chin, is “a musical language that anyone can understand and a sublime production by young artists.”

Mozart’s Don Giovanni will be a production which was first presented at the New York Met and was described as “triumphant” by the New York Times. It will be directed by the Swiss movie actress turned director, Marthe Keller, of Marathon Man and Bobby Deerfield fame.

Four ballet productions and numberous recitals, including by the American living legend, Federica Von Stade, complete the graphically revamped 2009-10 program.

Tobias Richner is also a pragmatist on a mission to charm new private partners. Forty million Swiss francs are contributed by the City of Geneva (not the canton), but that only represents 60 percent of the annual budget. Uncharacteristically for Switzerland, Richter believes in the importance of sponsorship which he describes as  a win win situation, one that allows the arts to survive, but that also creates opportunities for businesses to contribute to the public interest. Furthermore, he is convinced that “the arts can play a key role to help surmount the economic crisis” he told Swisster.

“Audiences  are equally important partners” says Richter, which is why a number of offers to attract new subscribers are being proposed, including a subscription for the premieres “to be the first to attend the successes and … failures.”  Inaugurating a new policy, subscriptions will work out more cheaply than buying individual tickets.  Students, “our main audience of tomorrow”, even those who are older than 25 years, will benefit from unbeatable conditions.

Asked what he hoped to bring to the Geneva Opera, apart from his hallmark inventiveness, Tobias Richner answered immediately “a sense of humour!”

Michèle Laird, née Haffner, was an international arts administrator (visual arts and theatre), successively in Paris, New York and London, before moving to Switzerland and becoming an arts journalist.

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