He scheduled his tour — creating a series of three articles — to take advantage of as many operas, concerts and theatrical events at the castles as possible. Part one, in Skåne: Castle hopping, part 1: Castles of southern Sweden Part 2, across the bridge: Castle hopping, part 2: In Denmark
Part three of the tour: back in Sweden, discovering royal theater history.

The old steamboat had left the quay next to Stockholm’s City Hall and was meandering its way between the lush green islands of Lake Mälaren. Three more hours — spent either on deck or in the cozy dining room — and we would arrive at Mariefred, an idyllic little town, known for its vintage narrow-gauge railroad and, more importantly, Gripsholm, one of the most kingly and best-preserved castles in Sweden.

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Built in the 1530s by Gustav Vasa on top of an old fortress, Gripsholm still retains a military, medieval flavor. Some of the walls are 20 feet thick, and the entrance to the royal apartments is dark and rather forbidding. Not surprisingly, portions of this massive pile of brick have, through history, served as a sort of high class prison, reserved for nobility and various members of royalty. Strolling through the many rooms and passages proved fascinating. A strong sense of being in some kind of Orwellian time machine struck me as I peered into Duke Karl’s bedchamber — it was half a millennium ago and the only thing missing was the Duke.

I learned that the kitchen used to be outside, built on stilts in the moat because of fire hazard. Another little piece of information: At one time, the court required that no less than 320 pastries were baked every day. More importantly, Gripsholm houses a huge collection of paintings of Swedish kings, dating back to the dawn of the country’s history, a collection which has been expanded to include any number of prominent Swedes.

After leaving the castle we jumped onto a vintage railroad car, providing ourselves an unhurried, smooth transit back to the present.

We took an old boat on Lake Mälaren, now steaming toward Drottningholm, the pastoral residence of Sweden's royal family. Drottningholm (Queen’s Island) has long been a place favored by royalty. It began in the late 1500s, when King Johan III built a castle there for his wife Katarina Jagellonika, and continued a hundred years later when that castle was replaced by a much grander structure by Queen dowager Hedvig Eleonora. Drottningholm remained a "queen’s residence" until 1777, at which point it became one of the homes of Gustav III, Sweden’s ultimate Rococo king.

Before entering the palace we walked around it, admiring the best of what two centuries could produce in terms of landscaping: a 17th century French garden and an 18th century English park. Inside, we were greeted by a guide who entertained us with tidbits of history as she showed us around.

"Here in the Green Room," she said, "You see a portrait of Gustav III’s cousin, Catherine the Great. She hated it because the artist had made her look fat and had given her the rosy cheeks of a kitchen maid." (Ha, I thought, we’re back to the porcelain complexion.) The guide continued after we had entered yet another palatial room: "Here is a portrait from the Baroque period, when allegorical paintings were all the rage. This shows Queen Hedvig Eleonora, at age 24, clasping a portrait of her 5-year-old son Charles. Notice the cluster of angels at the upper left corner. They represent children who died in infancy ... and in the large painting over there, Charles’ guardian angel is preventing an evil force from severing the boy’s life line."

More symbolism awaited. In the largest room of the castle the four corners of the ceiling had animals representing each of the continents known at the time. A horse symbolized Europe, a lion and a camel stood for Africa and Asia respectively, and a crocodile, surprisingly, embodied the recently discovered America.

After the reign of Louis XIV, it became fashionable for European kings to invite important guests to their bedchambers for the privilege of seeing royalty getting dressed, painted and bewigged. As a result, Gustav III’s bedroom was in reality the castle’s main audience room, and one of its most spectacular. Gustav III presumably enjoyed the attention afforded him during these audiences. His mother, Queen Lovisa Ulrika, who liked to think of herself as the "Minerva of the North," had early on instilled in the young prince a love of the stage and even built him a theater.

The theater at Drottningholm opened in 1766 and soon became the center of Swedish cultural life. A major figure in its development was Gustav III himself, not merely as a high-ranking member of the audience, but as a designer, director, playwright and principal actor. Since French was then the rule in theater, his boldest move may have been to introduce Swedish to the stage, a language considered too rude and vulgar for the elevated thoughts voiced on a court stage. Thus, along with Gluck’s operas and French operas-comiques, some newly written Swedish plays were performed at Drottningholm.

For about 30 years the theater thrived. Then, following the assassination of the king in 1792, theatrical life in Sweden stagnated and the theater fell into disrepair and oblivion. Some 120 years later, it was rediscovered under meter-thick layers of dust and, gloriously, brought back to life. Everything was there, including 15 original stage decorations, complete with backdrops, flats and set pieces. All that needed to be replaced were the ropes in the stage machinery and the hundreds of candles employed for lighting. Since no one dared to use candles anymore, electric lighting was installed, but with specially designed lamps and a device that made them flutter like real candles.

"The stage is a box of tricks in which amazing things can happen," declared our guide, Helene. She had brought our attention to how the deep, dimly lit scene mirrored the shape and slant of the auditorium, and was expanded on the subject of revived 18th century stage craft: "Around 30 stage hands are deployed in the fly loft, on the stage itself and in the basement below. They can make the villain disappear into the floor or have gods descend from the heavens in special cloud wagons. They have the machinery needed for claps of thunder and flashes of lightning, for transforming a city into country or heaven into hell in a few seconds.”

As we peered behind the scenes, climbed the stairs to the fly loft and inspected the basement, I was struck by the theater’s resemblance to an old sailing ship, a comparison borne out by Helene’s assertion of how the stagehands worked: a teamwork performed with as much discipline and vigor as a ship’s crew — producing the same creaking sounds of wood and cordage. A comment on how close the air was on the fly loft triggered the story of how a soprano had recently fainted while sailing on a cloud in a tight, uncomfortable fish costume. "She had to be revived with oxygen," Helene said.

Works that could have been performed in the 18th century — operas by Mozart, Gluck, Haydn and Handel, Italian and French comic operas and ballets — are now performed to enthusiastic audiences every summer. Great acoustics, surely, are one reason for the theater’s success. Singing there is like singing in a Stradivarius, according to famed soprano Elisabeth Söderström. Or, to put it in her own words: "For music lovers, Drottningholm resonates with the same magic as that of a Stradivarius. One thinks of the aged, scented wood of musical instruments that help to meditate tones in an altogether special way that confers solace on noise-buffeted ears."

Drottningholm is now one of the two oldest theaters in the world still in use. The other is Confidencen, which, as it happens, is just north of Stockholm and next on my agenda.

Confidencen stands on the ground of Ulriksdals Castle, one of the five official residences of the Swedish royal family. Like its counterpart, it was built by Queen Lovisa Ulrika, flourished during the reign of Gustav III, was left to decay, and then resurrected. Luckily, on my visit I was able to meet with opera singer and artistic director Kjerstin Dellert, the fiery soul who almost single-handedly caused the curtains to rise after two centuries of darkness.

It all began, she told me, on a snowy November day in 1976. "My husband and I were walking in the park with our dogs, and ran into King Carl XVI Gustaf’s sister, Princess Christina, and her husband. The princess thought we looked a bit chilled so she invited us in for tea."

This led to a suggestion by the princess that they take a look at the theater next door, in the old yellow building that Kjerstin had passed many times and didn’t know anything about. So out they went, armed with flashlights. The princess opened the door with a large key. They stepped inside and were assaulted by a dank moldy smell. Everything lay in shambles. The ceiling beams had loosened, the wind howled through cracks in the windows, and the floors were covered with planks, rotten mattresses and dead pigeons. What had once been the stage was a gaping, black abyss. "I was appalled and enraged," said Kjerstin. How could this have been allowed to happen? The princess commented that many had asked the same question, even planned to have the theater restored. But there was never enough money for it.

From then on, with Princess Christina as her supporter, Kjerstin became obsessed with the rebirth of Confidencen. "I would be the cog that started and kept the machine going," she said. With some friends and an industrial-strength vacuum cleaner, she began doing some serious house cleaning. But to really get the project going, she needed money. Lots of it.
The State had contributed funds for the renewal of Drottningholm Theater but was unwilling to do the same for Confidencen. "Few politicians are visionaries," Kjerstin concluded, after she’d approached a number of cultural attaches without much success. She had read an article in an American newspaper about sponsorship and decided to write to well-established companies, celebrities, friends and acquaintances. Three hundred and fifty answered back, each one willing to contribute $1,000. Larger donations would arrive — including some from the United States — all helping to breathe new life into the old Rococo theater.

The curtain rose in 1981. Like Drottningholm Theater, Confidencen now offers a summer program of operas, concerts and ballets. After my interview with Kjerstin Dellert, I was lucky to secure one of the theater’s 200 seats for the night’s performance of a Swedish folk opera, titled The Bride of the Mountain King.

My visit to Confidencen also included a tour of the building itself, which, in addition to the theater, had an elegant suite of rooms from the 1740s. There, in the salon/dining room, stood the piece of furniture that had given the theater its name: the table of confidence. In those times of political upheaval and intrigue, the walls had ears. So, to insure privacy, the queen had a dining table built that could be lowered through the floor to the kitchen, from which it would return laden with food. Thus, at this table a confidence, no spying servant could see or hear who was dining with the king.

Wandering around in this beautiful old theater I found, next to the wall and facing the stage, a bronze bust of Kjerstin Dellert. "I won't last forever, but the theater will," Kjerstin commented. "And this way," she added, "I’ll always be able to keep an eye on what’s going on."

Text and photography: Bo Zaunders


SIDEBAR:
A Finnish Phenomenon
Of all the Scandinavian countries, only Finland can boast of an international opera festival performed in a 15th century fortress. I'm referring, of course, to the Savonlinna Opera Festival, which each year, from late June to early August, electrifies opera enthusiasts from around the world. The setting could not be more romantic.
Olavinlinna Castle, where the event takes place, stands on a small island in the middle of Finland's lake district, a gorgeously interwoven labyrinth of land and water. Originally a stronghold from which to control the region from Russian attacks, Olavinlinna Castle has since the late 19th century been among Finland's best-known tourist attractions. Its surrounding town, Savonlinna, was once a notable spa resort, with Tzar Nicholas II as a frequent guest. http://www.operafestival.fi

STOCKHOLM SWEDEN: Resources

Gripsholms Slott
SE-647 31 Mariefred_
Tel. +46 159 101 94, http://www.royalcourt.se

Drottningholms Slott
SE-178 02 Drottningholm_
Tel. +46 8 4026280, http://www.stockholmsmuseer.com

Ulriksdals Slott, Confidencen
170 79 Solna
Tel. +46 8-4026130, http://www.royalcourt.se