Culture in NRW: Festival of the Arts in the Ruhr Metropolis
Just as unconventional as its industrial heritage venues, this emerging festival, which is held in the Ruhr Area every three years, is not to be missed
The red carpet of Bayreuth is not rolled out to festival attendees here, nor is there the ‘see and be seen’, high-society atmosphere found in Vienna and Salzburg. However, the artistic quality of Ruhrtriennale productions and the boldness of the musical theatre programme, from dance and performance arts to plays and concerts, is what really makes the unconventional festival newcomer stand out from the European festival crowd.
Whether it is the Landscape Park Duisburg Nord, the site of the Zollverein Coal Mine Industrial Complex or the unofficial festival house, the Jahrhunderthalle Bochum, the Ruhrtriennale venues are more than just locations; they play a crucial role in helping to shape the artistic works themselves. Dubbed “creations” by founding artistic director Gerard Mortier, these often spectacular multi-disciplinary works are shaped by the industrial past of these extraordinary spaces, both by the breadth of their workshop-like versatility and their unique atmospheres. The first Ruhrtriennale took place from 2002 - 2004 and its unique atmosphere continues to permeate the fledgling festival to this day.
Sensational premieres and new productions dominate this fledgling festival
The festival's three year cycle provides the opportunity to use this cultural festival, which is the largest in North Rhine-Westphalia, as a way of going back to the beginning. Every three years there is a new programme, a new aesthetic and a new artistic director. This regular interval allows the festival to reinvent itself, while at the same time enabling each artistic director to properly develop their own programme over the course of three seasons. And, so far, every artistic director has succeeded. Gerard Mortier, the festival’s visionary founder, Jürgen Flimm, Willy Decker, Heiner Goebbels, and last but not least Johan Simons came to great praise among critics with their programmes and were playing in sold-out venues. Stefanie Carp followed her male colleagues, making the headlines not only with her cultural programme. Since 2021, Barbara Frey has been the festival’s new artistic director. The theatre and opera director is planning to target part of the programme explicitly at people who are not the conventional cultural audience. One thing is clear: Any Ruhrtriennale event is a risk, and a journey for both the artists and the audience on site.
The Ruhrtriennale can best be compared with the Festival d'Avignon or the Edinburgh International Festival: apart from the repertoires of the large theatre companies, this Ruhr Area festival is primarily one of production. With 30 major productions each year, the ambitious programme is dominated by premieres and revivals. Christoph Schlingensief staged his provocative Church of Fear at the Ruhrtriennale; video artist Bill Viola had five angels ascend the inner walls of the Oberhausen Gasometer and, as a young director, Nurkan Erpulat staged a sensation here with Mad Blood.
Opera and musical theatre productions inspire even international audiences
Above all, it is the broad range of opera and musical theatre productions that attract an international audience to the Ruhr Area: Messiaen's Saint Francois d'Assise (2003), Zimmermann's Die Soldaten (2006), Schoenberg's Moses und Aron (2009) and Wagner's Tristan und Isolde (2011) have each celebrated their acclaimed premieres at the Jahrhunderthalle Bochum, which is specially set up for each production.
Whilst cultural festivals elsewhere have been suspected of only playing host to large-scale productions, the Ruhrtriennale consistently focuses on unique artistic experiences that, because they are so closely bound to their location, could only ever be held in North Rhine-Westphalia.