AIX-EN-PROVENCE, France — Scan the programming of Europe’s biggest opera houses, and you’ll see familiar names among the directors.
You’re likely to spot Krzysztof Warlikowski, with his cerebral relationship studies; Claus Guth and his sleek moodiness; Dmitri Tcherniakov’s preoccupation with the psychology of trauma; Romeo Castellucci’s enigmatic tableaux; Robert Carsen’s orderly intelligence; Barrie Kosky’s marriage of high and low art. To name just a few.
The problem, aside from an obvious gender imbalance, is that all of these directors are over 50. And while they are thriving, with plenty still to say, they represent a looming crisis in opera: Where are the luminaries of the next generation?
For a sign of hope look, perhaps, to Tobias Kratzer, at 42 young by opera standards and one of the smartest minds in the industry. With an approach thorough and often airtight, and a perspective fresh yet faithful to the essence of each work, he is building prestige among audiences and artists alike. Lise Davidsen, a reigning soprano who has starred in his stagings of “Tannhäuser” and “Fidelio,” said, “I could work with him for all my productions.”
Administrators seem to feel the same: Kratzer has worked his way up to commissions from Europe’s top houses. This summer alone, he has concurrent productions at the Paris Opera, where Gounod’s “Faust” opened last week, and at the Aix-en-Provence Festival here, where the Rossini rarity “Moïse et Pharaon” opens on Thursday — with preparations underway for a revival of his “Tannhäuser” at Wagner’s storied Bayreuth Festival in Germany next month.
For Pierre Audi, Aix’s general director, Kratzer is essential precisely because he’s taking over from “the older generation that is very important, but that at some point will move on.”
“The next generation needs to be deeply anchored in opera,” he added. “And Tobias has devoted his life to it.”
Not always. Kratzer grew up in Mauern, Germany, a small town near Munich, wanting to be an opera director and attending summer workshops and shows at the Salzburg Festival when it was led by Gerard Mortier. Those were “the most formative years for me,” Kratzer said in an interview, a time when he saw “the entire spectrum of things one could do with music theater.”
But he didn’t want to start directing too early. So, despite the experience of a couple of internships, he studied art history. He wrote a thesis on Arcimboldo’s unknown followers, and worked at a gallery, as well as at the Ernst Ludwig Kirchner archive in Switzerland. He didn’t return to opera until his mid-20s, when he was accepted to the Theaterakademie in Munich.
Before he finished there, he caught the attention of the opera world when, at 28, he won the renowned Ring Award in Graz, Austria, with something of a succès de scandale.
He submitted two entries, then presented them in person, to the stage direction and design competition under different aliases: a German man, and an American woman named Ginger Holiday — Kratzer in drag that, he said, “would not have won ‘RuPaul.’” He was so committed to the Ginger bit, he traveled to the United States to make a film for his competition entry that included a scene of her attending the Harvard-Yale football game. He didn’t end up using the video, just a photo of Ginger waving a Yale flag: “One of the most expensive photos of my life,” he said.
When Ginger presented to the judges, they knew exactly who she was, but she still won some of the Ring’s smaller awards. (That persona, Kratzer said, is now put away for good; these days, he’s more likely to be seen wearing a T-shirt and a baseball cap.) It was the other persona, though, that went on to take top prize, which involved staging the third act of “Rigoletto” for an audience that, Kratzer said, “included the crème de la crème of German intendants.”
Commissions came swiftly, which amused Kratzer; he had some fame without a single professional production on his résumé. But when he started, he took on large-scale repertory that tends to trip up even seasoned directors: “Die Zauberflöte,” “Der Rosenkavalier,” a trio of works by Meyerbeer, “Tannhäuser.”
He developed a working style, of brainstorming two concepts then choosing one, and settled into collaborating with a steady team. The stage and costume designer Rainer Sellmaier has been with him from the start; later came Manuel Braun, who is responsible for the tasteful, high-level video in Kratzer’s shows.
In the rehearsal room, Davidsen said, Krazter is conversational but professional. “He’s not English, like, ‘Could you maybe, excuse me, move over there,’” she added. He is known as respectful but also laser-focused on efficiency and excellence. Audi, who as artistic director of the Dutch National Opera in Amsterdam hired Kratzer for a “Contes d’Hoffmann,” described him as “extremely calm, not a neurotic figure shouting at people.”
Kratzer’s cool professionalism extends to the business side of his career: He tried, for about a year and a half, to work with an agent, “but it freaked me out,” he said. He’s quick with negotiations and prefers to book his own flights.
A staging of Wagner’s “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg” in Karlsruhe, Germany, caught the attention of Katharina Wagner, the composer’s great-granddaughter, who runs the Bayreuth Festival. She offered him “Tannhäuser,” which opened there in 2019 to virtually universal acclaim and a global audience.
That production is echt Kratzer: film and sets with the appearance of big-budget naturalism; novel storytelling that enhances rather than interferes with the work; graceful shifts between registers of humor and shattering pain. Above all, it reflects rigorous study without making a show of it (not unlike Kratzer himself, who in an interview casually quoted or referred to a dizzying array of people including Adorno, Kleist, Poe, Flaubert and Hitchcock).
This “Tannhäuser” is rooted in Wagner’s life as a revolutionary — an extra-musical inspiration that recurs in Kratzer’s stagings, like one of Zemlinsky’s “Der Zwerg” at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin, which argues for that composer’s place in history by interjecting, as a juxtaposition, music by Schoenberg, his student.
Kratzer’s “Fidelio,” which opened in 2020 at the Royal Opera House in London, also considers the score’s life beyond the stage. “It’s a turning point in which composers use the form to convey a message,” he said. “‘Fidelio’ becomes an avatar for something more philosophical.” So his production is a feint. The first act is more or less traditional, though with a glowing frame around the action as a subtle reminder of theatrical artifice. But in the second act, the period set is stripped away, and a modern-dress chorus observes the drama, not joining in until after the triumphant ending is assured — a tempering of Beethoven’s idealism.
At his most inventive, Kratzer maps new stories onto well-known classics, with exceptional attention to detail. His “Faust” in Paris, which unfolds on an immense scale and at a cinematic pace, reclaims the libretto for its female characters: drawing parallels between the title character and Dame Marthe in their obsession with youth, and amplifying Marguerite’s presence with a subplot about pregnancy and fundamentally female fears.
And for “Moïse,” Rossini’s little-known expansion of “Mosè in Egitto,” Kratzer has staged the Exodus story as a contemporary refugee drama that, in a gamble open to interpretation, keeps its Moses dressed as if he walked out of the Bible. He could be an eccentric outlier, a holy mouthpiece, a symbol or all of the above. Kratzer had considered a concept rooted in religion, he said, but felt what he ended up with was fitting for a festival held near the Mediterranean Sea.
“The absurdity that so much of France comes here and watches very high-class opera not far from where so many fates are decided — this is a dilemma which one can never solve,” Kratzer said. That’s also the reason he didn’t cut the work’s ballet: “L’art pour l’art in a piece about political struggle is almost like the piece itself.”
Watching rehearsals, Audi said, he found that Kratzer has “lived up to my dreams of renewing opera, but renewing it intelligently.” And he is becoming as much a part of the fabric of European houses as his elders. Soon, starting in 2024 at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich, he will even arrive at a summit familiar to them as a rite of passage: Wagner’s “Ring.”