I'm writing this in the foyer of a theatre in Berlin's Charlottenberg district, on the first of several days dedicated to technical preparation, lighting and stage rehearsals for my 11-year-old production of Puccini's La bohème for the Staatsoper, which opens this Sunday. The production was created in 2001 for the much larger theatre (1500 seats) on Unter Den Linden. It's currently under renovation so the entire Staatsoper enterprise - administration, production, wardrobe, orchestra, chorus, principal artists and yes, Daniel Barenboim - has moved from its elegant home in Stadtmitte to the 900-seat Schiller Theatre in Bismarkstrasse, built in the 1950s. They've had three seasons here so far, and it seems they'll be here for a few Christmases yet, and because Christmas time is bohème time in Berlin, there are three productions, including mine, running at the same time.
The first technical day is usually fraught with the teams running the scenery, lighting and video areas competing for precious time in a ridiculously tight schedule, and it's better all-round if the director and designer (the brilliant Dan Potra, who will also design our Cinderella next year) just keep out of the technicians' way and wait patiently until they're finished. So, I thought I'd use this time to reflect on my last few weeks in Berlin, truly one of the world's great cities. I'm especially fond of Berlin at this time of year as Christmas approaches. Apart from the twinkly lights and markets, there's crispness in the air outside, contrasting with a lovely cosiness when you walk into a restaurant or café. And you can wear those warm coats, gloves and scarves you don't need when you live in Brisbane.
The last two weeks have been a daily shuttle between my apartment and the Staatsoper's temporary rehearsal venue in a decommissioned railway storage space in one of Berlin's less charismatic suburbs, surrounded by the rubble of demolished buildings. The rehearsal room has no windows, it's dusty and the coffee is disgusting. But the very international cast I'm working with is so excellent that none of that matters. My Mimì is the extraordinary Latvian soprano Kristina Opolais, currently enjoying phenomenal success in Europe and about to make her Met debut in La rondine. The excellent American tenor Stephen Costello is my Rodolfo and I have my original Marcello back - the wonderful Berlin baritone Roman Trekel. The other Bohemians are Russian, Finnish, Czech, Australian and German. They all sound great, look great, they're terrific actors and lovely people - what more could a girl want? I meet conductor Andris Nelsons, also Latvian, tomorrow at our first piano stage rehearsal.
Apart from my own rehearsals, I'm making the most of Berlin's rich musical life. In my first week of being here I attended a fabulous Staatsoper production of Don Carlos with René Pape in magnificent form as King Phillip in a gut-wrenchingly powerful staging, and had great seats in the Philharmonie for Daniel Barenboim's 70th birthday concert with his Berlin orchestra, the Staatskapelle, conducted by Zubin Mehta, no less. He played Beethoven's 3rd and Tchaikovsky's 1st piano concerti like a demon, and received, as you can imagine, a rapturous reception from an audience of his fans and stars alike (when I got up to leave I realised Rolando Villazon was sitting behind me). And last night Dan and I went to Barrie Kosky's fantastic and completely adorable new production of The Magic Flute at the Komische Oper, where he is now Director and from the looks of it, really shaking things up. Barrie worked with the UK-based company 1927 that came to Australia a few years ago with a gem of a show called The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea. 1927 create animation sequences and storyboards with a quirky silent-film era aesthetic that was perfect for The Magic Flute, and judging from the boisterous cheering on Opening Night, I think he has a popular hit on his hands. Good on him!
So it's our turn next. We have a week, most of it spent in a darkened theatre, to turn a few truckloads of scenery into the magic of Paris on Christmas Eve in Puccini's super-romantic opera. Sometimes it's hard to imagine the transformation is possible but we're working with a hugely experienced team in one of the world's great opera houses, so we have faith! I'll be back in Brisbane mid-December. In the meantime, Tschuss!