In summer, Europe's Lake Constance is transformed into a stage, and the Austrian city of Bregenz is its attentive audience, writes Catherine Marshall.
A giant pair of hands is arising from the depths of Lake Constance, juggling a half-smoked cigarette and a deck of loose cards. But I can barely make them out from my hotel on the opposite bank, where I've thrown open the window to a perfect summer's day.
Three hot air balloons are obscuring the flailing limbs. They rise in slow formation, cushioned by mist burning off the slate-blue lake before me. Two swimmers slice through the water in exaggerated strokes and three kayakers jostle for pole position. Something buzzes offstage, to my right, and from behind the froth of trees races a speedboat into view, pulling behind it a water-skier performing extravagant tricks in its wake.
All of Lake Constance is a stage, it seems, and the people on it are merely players.
This is the province of Vorarlberg, tucked into a far-west pocket of Austria where it converges with Germany and Switzerland. Each country has a front-row seat to the beautiful Lake Constance (also known as Bodensee), and though Austria has the tiniest claim to its shoreline – just 11 per cent – it is said to offer more public use of it than do its neighbours.
In summer, this modest waterfront spills over with audiences for the Bregenzer Festspiel (Bregenz Festival), a month-long celebration of al fresco opera, theatre and art. It was on these waters that the festival began in 1946, during the French occupation of Vorarlberg, with a performance on a pleasure boat moored in the harbour. A second boat accommodated the orchestra; the audience sat on beer barrels on the shore.
Today the annual festival has grown into something monumental, swelling the 30,000-strong city to seven times its size between July and August. The boat-turned-stage has been replaced with a real, floating stage (the largest of its kind in the world), those gigantic hands – and red-lacquered fingernails, I now see – fumbling with the deck of cards in a lavish arc above it.
"The task is to create something very impressive, but not too heavy for the stage," guide Walter Gohli says.
Renowned stage designer Es Devlin has struck just the balance: for the second year running her card-shuffling set will form the backdrop to a production of Carmen. (The stage is also the inspiration behind Sydney's Handa Opera, performed annually on Sydney Harbour; contemporary artists such as Elton John and Supertramp have performed here.) The stage is affixed to the lakebed with steel pylons; a staircase curls around one of the raised arms and emerges on a balcony high above the water.
"Do you have vertigo? Can you swim? And are you scared of spiders?" says Gohli, listing the three questions asked of performers before they're cast in the festival's operas. The first two are self-explanatory – the set towers above the lake, the lake forms a moat around the stage – but spiders? You'd be surprised how fond they are of the nooks and crannies on set, Gohli shrugs.
There are no creepy-crawlies inside the Festspielhaus (festival house), which abuts the lake. The sleek, modern facility (renovated in 2006 and accentuated with contemporary public artworks) hosts numerous indoor events during the festival and throughout the year. The state-of-the-art concert hall, Gohli says, "plays all the tricks the director could wish for". It is fitted with a revolving stage and iron curtains with which to reconfigure the space.
"Once we had the Russian Ballet dancing Swan Lake over here, and over there" – he points beyond a metal partition – "we had a disco."
But it's summer and our attention is drawn back outside, to that sparkling lake and the amphitheatre curling around it in anticipation of this year's festival.
"In August, if you're lucky, you've had a thunderstorm," Gohli says, conjuring the scene just before the curtain rises.
"You have the mountain in the background. The sun sets with a red fireball into the lake. It's like a big, closed theatre."
Seehotel am Kaiserstrand is located on the banks of Lake Constance in Lochau, a short distance from Bregenz. See en.seehotel-kaiserstrand.com
The Bregenz Festival runs from July 18-August 19, 2018. See bregenzerfestspiele.com
Catherine Marshall was a guest of the Austrian National Tourist Office.