STUTTGART, Germany — Midway through “We Are Such Stuff as Dreams Are Made On,” a theatrical walkabout through the Stuttgart State Theaters, I had one of the most intense experiences of my theatergoing life.
Standing in front of a two-way mirror, I stared in fascination, and a little discomfort, as the actress Therese Dörr locked eyes with me from the other side and recited a monologue that conjured up an apartment — and a life — gone to ruin, “like in Pompeii,” she kept repeating. The world around me faded away, too. I seemed to fall into her eyes and into her speech.
It lasted no more than five minutes, but that was enough time for the hypnosis to take effect. Such theatrical intimacy came about because of, not despite, the social distancing requirements that have made conventional live performance — onstage before a packed house — impossible so far during the pandemic.
All over Germany, cultural life is sputtering back to life, with new distancing and hygiene protocols. In Stuttgart, in the south of the country, the State Theaters, which administer a playhouse, opera company and ballet troupe, have flung their doors open for a one-of-a-kind backstage tour curated by Burkhard C. Kominski, who leads the drama division. Rather than trying to merely work around the new rules, Mr. Kominski has taken these regulations as a set of formal constraints and created a new kind of aesthetic experience.
Along the 12 stations on this packed, 75-minute route, dance, theater and music are performed with a rare level of intimacy and immediacy, coalescing into a kind of Gesamtkunstwerk. The audience is led through in groups of up to four. The carefully plotted and executed journey at times brings to mind a haunted house or carnival ride.
The production unfolds across the State Theaters’ building complex, and my group began in the theater’s foyer, where I waited wearing a face covering along with two other people. When summoned by our guide, we were allowed to remove our masks as we wended our way backstage, maintaining a five-foot distance from one another.
Sometimes, our calm and deliberate chaperone seemed to be leading us through a theatrical underworld. Parts of the opera house looked abandoned, with dried leaves littering the floors and blown into the stairwells, and toppled chairs and upturned and overgrown plants in the lobby. But these gothic elements were kept to a minimum, and things never got hammy. In hallways and on landings, we regularly passed ushers in face masks, their eyes downcast and their arms outstretched, pointing the way like human signposts.
Along with the monologue in the mirror (taken from a novel by the Swiss writer Max Frisch), the production’s other dramatic scenes all touched on themes of existential dislocation and unfulfillment.
On the theater’s lower stage, we watched a scene from “Waiting for Godot,” starring Gabriele Hintermaier and Felix Strobel as Beckett’s haplessly expectant heroes. (All the segments have alternating casts.) The sharp focus that the actors brought to the excerpt, simply staged with a ladder and stark lighting, made it feel surprisingly substantial despite its brevity.
On the side stage of the opera house, we sat down to a dialogue from a play by Thomas Bernhard, sometimes called the Austrian Beckett. Seated at opposite ends of a long white table, Matthias Leja and Sven Prietz played two cantankerous siblings reminiscing joylessly about their former careers as an artist and an actor. In its droll, laconic humor, the scene was a fitting companion piece to the “Godot” extract, although Bernhard’s dialogue has a bitter, scornful edge the Irish playwright’s doesn’t. (A fourth and final dramatic excerpt, from a play by the 19th-century German writer Georg Büchner, was staged in a cloakroom.)
On this journey, the segues were often as important as the episodes themselves. Without a doubt, the most dazzling transition was a gently tilting ride on the theater’s main stage, immediately after the Beckett scene. It took a few seconds for me to realize that we were in motion, riding a rotating disk that slowly ascended to the auditorium as it swiveled us around. We emerged to find the theater festooned with stars for a music-and-light installation with otherworldly music.
The presentations by the State Theaters’ opera and ballet divisions were given equal footing with the dramatic offerings. But it was all theater — and immersive theater at that.
From a violin solo performed in a freight elevator to a vocal quartet sung by members of the chorus in the parterre seats of the opera house, there was a heightened sense of dramatic ritual, focus and flair to the musical selections, which ranged from Monteverdi to Wagner.
The dance was up close and personal. In a backstage corridor, members of the corps de ballet danced to a modified passage from Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet.” Later, back in the empty opera house, we peered down from a side balcony to watch Friedemann Vogel, a principal dancer from the company, perform a furious new solo by Shaked Heller.
Enjoying these intimate presentations felt like an enormous privilege and luxury; sadly, this production will be experienced only by a lucky few. The first set of performances was reserved for the theater’s subscribers, and this week’s run, on sale to the general public, sold out rapidly.
Broadway theaters will stay dark until at least the end of summer, and the Metropolitan Opera recently announced that it would remain shuttered until 2021. Performing arts organizations in New York and elsewhere could learn a lesson from Stuttgart about the creative flexibility and ingenuity that will be required to responsibly lift cultural lockdowns worldwide. “We Are Such Stuff as Dreams Are Made On” shows how, even in the midst of a pandemic, our little life can be rounded with music, dance and drama.
We Are Such Stuff as Dreams Are Made On
Through June 15 at the Stuttgart State Theaters; staatsoper-stuttgart.de.