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Opera pulls into Zurich railway station

SF/Markus Bertschi

Commuters passing through Zurich's main station will find more than trains on Tuesday when the cafes, kiosks and platforms will be the stage for a live opera.

Daily life and high art should mix when Swiss television presents Giuseppe Verdis’s La Traviata amid hundreds of thousands of travellers.

The performance will be broadcast live at 8.05pm on German-language channels including the Franco-German culture network, ARTE.

swissinfo will take part by streaming the opera online.

The opera, with singers Vittorio Grigolo and Eva Mei, will take place at different locations throughout the railway station. Some scenes will unfold in the main hall, while others will take place in cafes or on the platforms.

Station to stage

The idea for taking one of the most beloved operas into the railway station came about after a meeting between Ingrid Deltenre, director of Swiss television, and Andreas Meyer, head of the Swiss Federal Railways, Willi Bühler, a real estate official with the Railways, told swissinfo.

“The station will become an opera stage and a television set simultaneously, while still remaining a railway station, of course,” said producer Christian Eggenberger. “The television audience at home will have front-row seats.”

The idea for such a performance isn’t new. Indeed, Andrian Marthaler, director of the Zurich railway station performance and former culture director at Swiss television, got the idea from the BBC, which broadcast the same opera from London’s Paddington Station.

Federal Railways, for its part, wanted to show its clientele that such an event could unfold in the country’s biggest station without hindering traffic. More than 300,000 commuters pass through the station daily.

“People here and at home can experience something beautiful,” Bühler added.

Split opinions

And that raises a question: Is a railway station the right backdrop for Verdis’s Traviata?

Bühler believes so. “There’s no better place than the Zurich station,” he emphasises.

“A magnificent idea,” a young commuter told swissinfo. “Although I’m not an opera fan I still find it great. I’ll tune in for a while.”

Another young person felt the same way. “I’ll either be here in the station on Tuesday or certainly at home in front of the television – a great event. I’m excited!”

An older man thought differently. “A stupid idea,” he said. “The crowd in the station already makes it hectic enough and now an opera performance!”

An older lady also wasn’t convinced. “And so opera goes to the dogs,” she said. “Traviata doesn’t belong in a railway station but in an opera house.”

“People here are sick of events,” another commuter said, since Zurich has so many of them.

“Events like this make Zurich even more attractive,” countered an adolescent.

Meanwhile, a schoolteacher debated whether to watch it with his class.

Wide appeal

Thomas Beck, leader of the Culture division at Swiss television, would like the enormous project to appeal to a wide television audience.

“The railway station will become a vocal, poetic place – a blending of art and everyday life,” he said in an interview with

“The main railway station isn’t just the centre of Switzerland’s biggest city but also the main traffic artery, the heart of the entire country,” Beck said.

“The opera will strike the middle of this urban Swiss heart like a meteor and leave an imprint.”

“The challenge for us was to find a television format that could transport opera, a form that could only be possible on television,” Beck said.

At any rate, he is pleased that opera can appeal to so many people. After all, opera already is sensationalist, “be it in Baroque theatre or in a Richard Wagner stage festival”.

Beck has the impression that opera is more popular than it has been for a long time. “And that certainly has something to do with this community experience.”

swissinfo, based on an article in German by Jean-Michel Berthoud in Zurich

La Traviata by Giuseppe Verdi is one of the most well received operas of all time. Verdi composed the piece in 1853 based on a book by Alexandre Dumas called, The Lady of the Camellias. It is set to an Italian libretto by Francesco Maria Piave.

The story centres on a high-class courtesan named Violetta Valéry who discovers true love only to be forced to renounce it under pressure from her lover’s father. Jealousy and vengeance ensue before the two lovers are reunited. But it is too late. Valéry has tuberculosis and dies.

Numerous modern stories have been based on the plot, including Pretty Woman with Richard Gere and Julia Roberts, and Moulin Rouge! with Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman.

The score in the railway station brings together the orchestra and choir of the Zurich Opera House under the direction of Paolo Carignani.

Carignani, who is Italian, has been the general music director for the Frankfurt Opera since 1999. He has also worked for the Vienna, Munich and Berlin operas among others, as well as the Royal Opera House Covent Garden in London.

Eva Mei sings as Violetta. Vittorio Grigolo sings as Alfredo. Angelo Veccia sings as Giorgio Germont.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR