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Nicholas Carter – Mein Seelenort: Das Berner Oberland - Deutsche Oper Berlin

From Libretto #9 (2023/24)

Nicholas Carter – My private place of peace: The Bernese Oberland

Nicholas Carter loves the natural landscape of his adoptive home in Switzerland. In the Bernese Oberland he picks up echoes of Wagner’s Valhalla

Probably the spot where I feel most at ease is the route I take by foot from my flat to the theatre, along the bank of the Aare river that flows through Bern and right across Switzerland. For the last two and a half years I’ve been living with my family on the southern fringe of the city, a five-minute walk from the river. It’s about three quarters of an hour on foot from the Bühnen Bern and its opera house, so if I have the time before a rehearsal, I walk – sometimes listening to music, usually without. I’m increasingly coming to appreciate peace and quiet in my life.

When your place of work is an opera house, you’re often putting in 12-hour days, wall-to-wall rehearsals with the orchestra, auditions, more rehearsals and then a performance. I get a kick out of all that, obviously. It’s what I’ve always wanted to do. As a contrast to that, walking along the river is a very meditative activity. I’m not saying I’d literally sit down and take up the lotus position, but I do dial things back and focus only on my thoughts and my breathing.

When we get the chance as a family, we like to take a trip into the Bernese Oberland. Bern is kind of the jump-off point for the Alps, and in no time you’re in Lauterbrunnen or some other town ringed by these lovely peaks. Oz is gorgeous too, but where I grew up – in a suburb of Melbourne – the mountains aren’t so intrinsic to the culture, despite being quite close by. For instance, I never learned to ski – which I regret now, being in Switzerland – and it’s probably a little late to start. Maybe the kids’ll take it up. I’m sure it’s because of that deficit that I savour our hikes more and enjoy being grounded – or »centred« - in the bosom of nature.

Carter on the bank of the Aare. The river meanders from south to north through Bern, past the Bühnen Bern and its opera house. Here he is Principal Conductor © Florian Spring 

Even then, though, my head’s never completely empty of music. Especially when I’m involved in scores that deal heavily with nature, like Richard Wagner’s RING. Naturally you can hear the river in the score of THE RHINEGOLD, and up here, with the mountains and snow-covered peaks as a majestic backdrop, I have the D flat major from Valhalla constantly in my head. I read how Wagner used to go walking in the Bernese Oberland. He lived in Switzerland as well, of course, and the Villa Tribschen is on the shores of the Vierwaldstättersee. The Bern opera house is currently in the middle of mounting a run of the RING operas. I’ve already conducted THE RHINEGOLD and THE VALKIRIE. Next up is SIEGFRIED, and I’m already immersed in the process of learning THE TWILIGHT OF THE GODS by heart.

So I’m arriving at the Deutsche Oper Berlin with a modest bank of experience, when I set about conducting the cycle. Not that I’ll be letting myself coast along with a work as grandiose as this. I love listening to old recordings of the RING, live LPs from Bayreuth from the ‘40s and ‘50s conducted by Joseph Keilberth. When it’s my turn to take the stand on one of these Wagnerian long hauls, I try to focus solely on the present moment. You can’t be thinking: ‘Uh-oh, I’m going to be here till midnight’ because that would do your head in. The main thing is to know the material like the back of your hand, so you’ve got your own intuitive angle on the evening ahead. Same goes for the orchestra, and the Deutsche Oper Berlin orchestra is the absolute business – as I realised a few years ago when I did TANNHÄUSER here. The musicians are fully aware that there’s no one single Wagner sound, neatly rounded and sombre and nice, that they’re going to be using the full range of tonal colours. It can swerve between packing a punch, as with Siegfried’s death in TWILIGHT OF THE GODS, and being hugely transparent, as with the bird of the forest in Act 2 of SIEGFRIED. That’s the kind of knowledge that the Deutsche Oper Berlin orchestra brings to the production. Which is why I look forward to the first bar of THE RHINEGOLD no less than the last bar of TWILIGHT OF THE GODS – and everything in between.

In the meantime I might find out what paths Wagner actually trod in the Bernese Oberland. And then I’ll be off walking in his footsteps.

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