Louwrens Langevoort (65) has a dream job. Not only because every day he can hear a concert at the Philharmonie in Cologne, where he is intendant (artistic and business manager). On a Monday, when it is closed to the public, he can also just walk into the adjacent Museum Ludwig. ‘Want a photo in the Duomo? A little cliché perhaps. You definitely have the best view from the roof terrace at Ludwig.’ And then we pass by highlights of modern art without seeing a companion.
‘We’ means: Langevoort, the photographer, the journalist and Hein Mulders (59), who points out his new apartment in the center from the roof terrace. Because after the Philharmonic, the Cologne Opera also came into the hands of a Dutchman. Until this summer, Mulders was intendant of the Aalto Theater in Essen, where he was responsible for the opera, the concert hall and the orchestra. On Saturday he opens his first Cologne season with the magnificent and grandiose opera Les Troyens by Hector Berlioz.
‘I programmed and conceived everything myself, except for two titles: they were already more or less fixed, without anything else being organized or cast,’ says Mulders proudly. “While I also had to finish my work in Essen. I really worked myself to death’.
With two compatriots at the head of the largest music institutes, Cologne seems like a Dutch cultural colony. But does the Dutch music lover know what the city has to offer? It could be better. So Langevoort and Mulders are happy to update us.
‘In a normal year there are 450 concerts in the Philharmonie, and that in one hall,’ says Langevoort as we sit in his study in the Philharmonie. A TV screen shows how the Gürzenich Orchester, also the opera’s regular partner, is working on a recording (Bruckner’s Third Symphony). The orchestra is led by François-Xavier Roth, one of the most interesting and sought-after conductors of the moment. Although the museum is closed on Mondays, there is a concert in the Philharmonic in the evening – of course.
Opened in 1986, this building is considered one of the most successful ’round’ concert halls. Langevoort: ‘It is both a concert hall and a recording studio. The best quality is what you don’t see. The acoustics are really perfect. Although built for the two symphony orchestras – WDR (Westdeutscher Rundfunk, red.) Symphony Orchestra and Gürzenich – here you can perform almost any kind of music. You can clearly see the stage from all 2100 seats and 100 standing places, so that the contact between audience and performer is optimal. The audience embraces the musicians, so to speak’.
There is also plenty of opera in the city. In a year without corona lockdowns, there are around 130 performances. Alone, sore spot, not yet in the Cologne Opera itself. The building on Offenbachplatz, which opened in 1957, has now only been open to visitors with a safety helmet for over ten years. In the week before the interview, WDR released a documentary (“a tragedy in several acts”) with the telling title Das Trauerspiel der Kölner Opera: A Sanierungs-Desaster. The story is about hidden faults (concrete, electricity), questionable funding and a lack of direction.
An estimate of the joint costs of the renovation and the temporary accommodation: more than one billion euros.
Hein Mulders (glasses, beard, Bussum origin) can’t help it. He has only just arrived – appointed by the city council, for a five-year term, that’s how it goes here. ‘The performances now take place in the Staatenhaus, on the east side of the Rhine,’ says Mulders. ‘The difference with a real theater is that you have to build up and break down all the technology there. You can’t just play and rehearse different operas in a week, which is very typical for German opera houses. It’s hugely limiting. By working with different halls, one wide and one deep and another for children’s performances, we can ape that system a bit.’
Langevoort (Groninger, short tie, funny eyes): ‘Because it was on the other side of the river, at first there was a kind of aversion to it among the population. Everyone thought it was far, but it’s just over the bridge’.
Mulders: ‘But we’ve been playing here since 2015, now people know. In the past they also played in a suburb that was quite far away, and in the tent near the Hauptbahnhof where they now do musicals.’
Langevoort: ‘You could hear the cars passing there. The biggest drama was that Hein’s predecessor wanted to play all over the city, but hadn’t thought about the fact that if you play in another place, you need new spotlights, a whole infrastructure’.
Mulders: ‘The opera is a monument to reconstruction. Beautiful is not the word I would use for it, but it is impressive.’
Langevoort, who also worked for three seasons at the Kölner Oper in the 1990s: ‘I think the hall itself is very beautiful with all the hanging balconies. At the time it was state of the art. But just before the opening they had cut a few million at the expense of Untermaschinerie: Everything that had to move on stage didn’t work before.’
Mulders: ‘When the opera opens again, many of the visitors will say: You don’t see much new. The stage technology and the electrics are new, the orchestra pit has been expanded. In retrospect, new construction would have been much easier. Many cities with a reconstruction theater now face such a huge operation. They are sensible in Düsseldorf, there they must build a new theater elsewhere, and they will continue to play in the old one until then.’
The plan is still to open the opera in September 2024. Mulders laughs like a farmer with a toothache. “The plan is there. I’m preparing for everything, but I can’t control the renovation. I’m the two bears making sandwiches, and I’m watching it.’
Of course there is a lot of criticism, but one thing is not in doubt: that Cologne needs opera – and culture in general. Mulder’s:Art is education here: there is the awareness that you are developing through art. In Germany every hole has an orchestra and the city is willing to pay for it.’
Langevoort: ‘In the Netherlands, culture is somewhere in a crazy corner, the lost corner. Culture also takes place a lot in Randstaden. I find the political support in the Netherlands for the beasts. You are the richest country in the world and only busy merging orchestras. You cultivate critical citizens with culture. You can now see what you get when you take it away. Culture is disappearing, populism is growing.
‘Cologne spends 290 million annually on culture, and then there is also money from Düsseldorf (the state capital, red.). The state of North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) and the Netherlands are roughly the same size, with both almost 18 million inhabitants. Here in NRW we have 32 orchestras and ten opera houses. When you look at what’s left in the Netherlands, it’s absurd.’
Mulders: ‘Correction: sixteen opera houses. As if we wanted an opera in Assen and Leeuwarden. I have not counted them, but in the whole of Germany there are more than eighty, some of them work together’.
Langevoort goes to the cupboard and takes out a book from Deutsche Bühnenverein, year 2022. Excitement. They’re all in here. Over 1,200 pages.
But even in Cologne, with more than a million inhabitants, the fourth largest city in Germany, politics must remain on the agenda, especially in times of corona, energy crisis and war. Langevoort, who has been ‘Geschäftsführer’ of music in Cologne since 2005, has previously worked in Brussels (Munt), Salzburg (Festspiele), Hamburg (Staatsoper), Enschede (Travel Opera), Leipzig and Berlin. According to recorder virtuoso Erik Bosgraaf, who lives in Cologne, Langevoort is a master at getting politics interested in music. Is that right? ‘Yes, you have to show people what you do. New politicians every four years, it’s a lot of work, but I also like it. There are also good politicians.’
Mulders: ‘That’s nice too, haha.’
How do the two Dutch interact with each other?
Langevoort: ‘Very friendly, collegial.’
Mulders: ‘Louwrens is a fantastic adviser, he knows exactly who you need for what in politics.’
Langevoort: ‘The who is who question. What do they stand for, what do they think they are doing and what do they actually do’.
In addition to the major institutions, Cologne also has a lavish ‘freie Szene’. The city has a reputation for baroque music, with the still active Concerto Köln as the largest ensemble, and many contemporary music groups such as Ensemble Musikfabrik, Ensemble Garage and Ensemble Handwerk. It is partly a legacy of post-war musical life, when Cologne became one of the capitals of the musical avant-garde, which wanted to get rid of its tainted past.
It was the city where the composer Karlheinz Stockhausen and many other newcomers wandered. Visitors to the Funkhaus café are reminded of that heyday with ever-changing images of greats such as Bruno Maderna, John Cage and other music pioneers on a screen.
Langevoort: ‘You still notice that there is a tradition that comes from that time. It’s a bit of a souvenir. I am very proud of the new music festival Acht Brücken, which I started in 2011, with concerts all over the city. There is great appreciation for the new music. This does not mean that you will always fill the halls with it, on the contrary.’
Mulders: ‘Wasn’t it the same in the past?’
Langevoort: ‘There were even fewer people there then! But there is plenty of energy, that’s what matters’.
One of the biggest differences with the Netherlands is the power an intendant has in Germany. For example, a new director of a theater affiliated to the Bühnenverein has the right to take his ‘own’ people with him – and to fire everyone who belongs to the artistic staff, unless someone has been employed for more than 15 years. Hein Mulders, on the other hand, is not allowed to whitewash the opera’s walls according to a special provision in his contract. A predecessor had done that. The paint was barely dry, or it had to be repaired by order of the monument conservation.