‘The arts in Ireland are a luxury – in Germany they’re a necessity’
While the Irish arts sector remains largely shut down, Germany is prioritising the unlocking of culture
Padraic Rowan in Das Rheingold auf dem Parkdeck, a production of Rhinegold on the roof of the Deutsche Opera Berlin car park. Photograph: Bernd Uhlig
Outside the Staatsoper Berlin, the German capital’s state opera, a flurry of notes escape from an unseen french horn inside the building. In an instant, they escape into the warm September air like an exotic incense.
Hurrying past outside, Caroline Staunton stops in her tracks, looking stunned and then delighted.
“Lohengrin Act III Prelude,” she says, grinning at another sign of life returning to the Staatsoper after the longest performance break in nearly 280 years.
While Ireland’s cultural sector remains curtailed, Germany is prioritising its arts, with the return of opera and classical concerts. Helping with the push: a small army of restless, talented Irish creatives who have made Germany home.
Staunton, a Dundrum native and assistant director at the Staatsoper, was in charge of the opera’s first performance since March: a revival of Ariadne on Naxos by Richard Strauss. Usually her job is to rehearse revivals with a new cast. This time she was tasked with Covid-proofing the original production by director Hans Neuenfels.
Much of her rehearsal room work is invisible – reblocking the stage and planning carefully co-ordinated entrances and exits. Others modifications are clearly visible: performers wear face masks for non-singing scenes and everyone keeps well away from the orchestra in the pit below. Think: Ariadne on Naxos at 2m.
“It’s a perfect piece to be doing at this time,” says Staunton. “The work is about artists fighting for their voices to heard and the chance to perform and the right to produce our art.”
Last March that right was revoked without warning all over Europe. Theatres, operas, concert halls and clubs shut their doors; too great was the fear they offered a perfect environment to transmit Covid-19. While Berlin’s clubs remain closed, or have transformed themselves into galleries, state-funded performance venues are making a cautious return.
They are taking their lead from last month’s Austria’s Salzburg Festival. It staged a reduced festival of classical music and opera with stringent testing of performers and social-distancing measures. The experiment paid off, with no new infections among 80,000 visitors and performers.
Leading the way in Germany – last June – was an outdoor performance of Wagner’s Rhinegold on the carpark roof of Berlin’s Deutsche Oper (DOB). Tickets sold out in minutes for all six performances.
The house took elaborate health precautions: socially-distanced performers, make-up staff in full protective gear and a reduced version of the opera that opens Wagner’s Ring cycle.
Director Neil Barry Moss’s production – framing music as the real enchanted gold of the Rhine, and theatre as the real Valhalla – took on an added poignance. Performers realised theirs was first opera to be performed, anywhere, since lockdown.
For Meath native Padraic Rowan, it was a very personal moment. The 30-year-old trained in Dublin and, after four years working in Stuttgart, moved to the Deutsche Oper Berlin. His first season as a full-time ensemble member has been a strange one. At the end of the June performance, Padraic’s character, Donner, pulled open a huge metal door and, with the rest of the cast, strode into a blinding light and into the theatre again.
“It was so emotional for everyone, people were crying, audience members weren’t shouting ‘bravo’ but ‘danke’,” says Rowan. “You see how deep the need for culture is in people here, how fundamental a part of them it is. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”
Those words are echoed across town in the canteen of the Staatsoper, by Jörg Widmann. The clarinettist, composer, principal conductor of Limerick’s Irish Chamber Orchestra and honorary Irishman was, minutes before, presented with the yellow libretto to his newest work, Zeitensprünge (Time Leaps).
The work premiered earlier this month in a concert with maestro Daniel Barenboim marking the 450th birthday of the opera’s house orchestra, the Staatskapelle, one of the world’s oldest ensembles.
Walking, talking proof
Just back from the Salzburg festival, Widmann is walking, talking proof that live music and performance – organised properly – are possible in a pandemic.
“Berlin has decided it cannot afford not to have culture, because culture is how the city defines itself,” he says. Wondering aloud how Ireland views itself, he adds: “If I was Irish, I’d see the Irish Chamber Orchestra, other orchestras and the Irish National Opera just as system relevant.”
Similar to Berlin, Irish artists working around Germany in the country’s 80 opera houses are all emerging from an uncertain period of hibernation.
In Munich two weeks ago, mezzo-soprano Tara Erraught returned to the boards of the Bavarian state opera as Despina in Cossi fan Tutti – instead of a planned engagement at the Met in New York. In the auditorium, though, 1,600 out of 2,100 seats were empty.
“I am delighted to be back at work of course, even with all of the restrictions,” she says. “We are tested once a week, we have to wear face coverings at all times except when singing.”
Further north in Bremen, Killian Farrell is first kapellmeister (conductor) at the city’s opera house. He feels the German approach to culture and performance has been far more pragmatic than that in Ireland. Opera staff and ensemble were placed on kurzarbeit, state-subsidised short-time work. That 90 per cent of Bremen’s opera house budget of €32 million is a subsidy has, he said, created considerable political will to “get people back to work”.
Each of Germany’s federal states has its own rules for opera houses. In the city- state of Bremen, for instance, just 200 seats are filled in a house built for five times that. Performances last no longer than 90 minutes with no interval, while Farrell has just 12 musicians in the orchestra with him for now, instead of the usual 70.
“I feel that the rules have been generally pragmatic and sensible,” he said. “There is a great willingness in the theatre community, both from staff and from audience members, to follow the rules as closely as possible in order to facilitate a smooth reopening.”
Down the road in Hamburg, freelance soprano Aoife Gibney is delighted that Germany has expedited the return of opera, but remains fearful her upcoming contracts – including a premiere production of Massenet’s Werther in Stuttgart – will be cancelled.
“The time has actually served me very well in the end, I feel that I am now singing at my best,” she said. “I could just really do with an audience now to put it into practice.”
Back in Berlin, the city’s three operas are hard at work reworking their season calendars to honour as many contracts as possible. Even if opera is back, no one knows when anyone will be allowed to stage bigger productions with large choirs.
Belfast-born Jeremy Bines, chorus director at the Deutsche Oper (DOB) for the past three years, hopes that restriction will soon be lifted. Rehearsals are back and 80 chorus members will sing together on Monday ahead of their first performance planned for the end of October.
“We’re slightly hamstrung at DOB by the fact that our selling point – our thing – is that we do big operas with a big chorus ... so we want to do all or nothing,” he said.
“But when I look at how our colleagues in other countries are doing ... I feel incredibly lucky to be an employee in the German opera system, and well-supported by a country which values its arts and has an appreciative and engaged public.”
Back at the Staatsoper, artistic director Matthias Schulz settles into his seat in the first balcony. For him, this performance of Ariadne is a “cultural rebirth”.
Win back trust
“We were never closed this long, not even in the war, but now is the time to play again, piece by piece,” he said. “Even if we wanted to sell all seats, we couldn’t because people are cautious. At the moment it is more important to win back trust.”
He joined forces with other opera chiefs to lobby city politicians, pointing to new studies from Berlin’s Charité clinic on virus transmission that showed singing to be less dangerous than originally feared.
Still, Berlin’s current 1.5m distancing rules mean just 380 people are present in the auditorium. Scanning the 900 empty seats, as the lights dim and the music sounds for the first time since March, Schulz looks like a proud, if worried father.
Two hours zip by as the walls of the opera seem to sigh with relief alongside the audience. Some spot social-distancing jokes in the Hugo von Hofmannsthal libretto while others wipe away tears discreetly at other lines, like the put-upon composer’s proclamation that “music is the holiest among the art forms”.
After a lively two-hour performance, director Caroline Staunton is relieved that everything has gone well. That German opera audiences were allowed back even before Bundesliga fans, she says, speaks volumes about her adoptive home’s priority for the arts. That Ireland, at the same time, is preoccupied with opening pubs, she thinks, tells a tale of its own.
“It seems that in these times the arts are seen in Ireland as a luxury,” she said. “Here they’re seen as a necessity.”