Castle With The Clouds: A visit to Drottningholm Theatre

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While in Sweden last week, I managed to make good on one of my teenage dreams and visited the Drottningholm Court Theatre, which celebrates its 250th anniversary this year.

Drottningholm, promoted as the world’s oldest still functioning Baroque theatre with its original stage machinery still in place (fine, they put in electricity, but that’s about it), is a little gem of a performance space on the royal summer estate.

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The Royal summer estate, Drottningholm Castle (it feels a lot like Rheinsberg, as far as lakeside idylls go) – a vacation from all conference papers with as much as a single look: sunlight on the water, a cool breeze, the rustle of an alley of linden trees, the incredible clarity of the Northern light (seriously, I have a whole new approach to Scandinavian design and architecture after this week), and the knowledge that now, you will be able to amble past the statues, and that behind the caste to the right, there’s a small Baroque theatre.

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The Drottningholm auditorium, complete with candlelight-imitating illumination and the iconic prospect featuring Queen Lovisa Ulrika (excuse the poor quality – no flashlights allowed in the house).

To understand my nostalgia about this place – both in reality and as a projection space for  my very awkward teenage self – we need to head back 25 years to 1991, when the Drottningholm Court theatre became a UNESCO world heritage site. In celebration, German TV aired some of the Drottningholm Mozart productions, most notably and first of all the Finta Giardiniera (and if you thought the choice of opera in “Stages” was only due to plot reasons… well…) of 1989. I can still count down the entire cast list (a young Richard Croft as Belfiore! A mezzo named Annika Skoglund opening up a world of trouser roles beyond Cherubino and Idamante!) even though I saw this production exactly one time.

Our household had no VCR, it was a long time before there would ever be DVDs (there was an edition in that short-lived laser disc era, equally unaccessible), yet I remembered the production vividly. I still do. Now, it is just a click away on YouTube, but I almost long for the days where it was a treasured blue flower that was at once very present, and very far away.

The production was the subject of many teenage drawings that did rival my own state of awkwardness (since I cannot draw), and turned “Drottningholm” into a shorthand for a happy place, where there was Mozart, and ‘authenticity’, and, yes, a mezzo flirting with a soprano, even though back then I did not realize why that resonated  with me. I was much more invested in Sandrina (of course) and memorized her arias first (and I’m not kidding about the awkward drawings).

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[Backstage at Drottningholm Court Theatre: about as old as Mozart himself.]

When I finally saw that “Finta Giardiniera” again, I was already a Ph.D. candidate (and I owned a computer with a DVD drive that could play the copy the library owned). It was a curious experience, much like revisiting childhood places and being astonished by how much smaller everything seems: it was not the same, and yet it was.

It was not as timeless as my mind had made it up to be, of course, although the more conservative Drottningholm approach to staging – bolstered by the actual sets to go with any idea of ‘historically informed’ – still held up quite nicely. Even after more than a decade of regietheater, it was something I watched with fondness. It still feels a lot less dusty than, say, most Schenk productions. And it really fits the place, and its little state-of-the-1700s-art slide-out prospects (they have actual tracks!) with its drawn garden designs:

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Drottningholm, backstage: Being allowed to actually walk around the sets was not just a moment of nostalgia (“I actually made it here (and I am in a so much happier place than I was at age 13)”), but also fascintating from a theatre history viewpoint.

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Being shown the ropes: backstage mechanisms at Drottningholm.

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Son qual nave agitata: the essential backdrop of opera seria with movable 3D waves.

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At the heart of it: a look into the underbelly of the stage where all the machinery is still hand-operated, much of it via wheels or ropes.

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Perhaps property of the 18th century fire brigade? -Bucket at Drottningholm, backstage.

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Drottningholm Court Theatre, front facade: still a happy place for me.

11 thoughts on “Castle With The Clouds: A visit to Drottningholm Theatre”


  1. (i can "smell" the wooden doors and "hear" the creaking on the floor! and i think a trip to really discover "la finta.." is in order for me, now that i get where everything came from.. )

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  2. Side note: the entire guide personnel is dressed up in 18th century garb. It’s mostly women, all with long hair, in white dresses with a red ribbon empire waist. But among them was one tall woman who was decked out in full rococo male costume: ponytail with a ribbon, white shirt and jabot, blue frock and breeches. At temperatures that must have been in the 90s. After a while (we had to wait for a bit for the tour to start) I asked her whether the management had assigned her the outfit or whether she chose it, and she said, a little flustered, “Oh, I already did this gig last year, in a dress, and this year I told them, ‘please, just let me be a guy!'” (which was apparently not an issue with the management. More points to Sweden! — If only 13-year-old me could have seen *that*!)

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    1. 🙂🙂🙂
      (did you have your tie?)
      (a bit (un)related (?) , a photo shared by my former hausmate (again!, i need to also befriend w/ Stray maybe to get some cool photos based on her comments here!) , somewhat also role-model related for youngsters on gender equality? they’re sort of all in trousers!)

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      1. can’t see the pic (might be some flash/Mac issue?), but do see the article! Like!

        (and no, no tie that day – but I would gladly wear one to the Oslo Forum😉 )

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  3. Thank you for the lovely photos (that lake in the second one is truly beautiful) and a fascinating look into the backstage world of a theatre with such history! And it’s great you had the opportunity to revisit your roots – it’s good, especially in trying times like these, to remember how far one has managed to get so far.

    (I’m also very glad about the management being fine with female personnel wearing male costume – hopefully she manages to inspire some of the younger visitors!)

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    1. I hope they also have tours by school classes! (but even among the group I joined for the tour, I think it was an educative sight for a few people) It would have greatly inspired 13-year-old me, or at least made her feel much more confident in her comfort zone.

      (the frontside lake is linekd to the sea, even – but there is a pond out back, too, with waterlilies and swans. My first thought was of British 18th/19th century gardening!)

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  4. Oh, I’m sorry I’ve neglected your blog for so long and missed that you were going to Sweden! I’m pretty sure I know who that tall staff in breeches was, if so she’s a dyke and a mezzo and we were in a baroque opera production aimed at children together last summer. There’s at least one more female staff in breeches there according to the tall mezzo one. I applied for a summer job there and would have preferred breeches myself but I didn’t get the job.

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    1. oh, neat! Thank you for the inside info.

      (after seeing the dresses, I’d understand everyone applying for breeches – white 18th century really is a look not everyone can pull off!)

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  5. I love the son qual nave picture🙂 thanks for the little tour, Drottningholm is such a quaint opera site and it feels even more so now having caught a glimpse of the backstage.

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